The Mars Volta - Chillin' it with OmarI recently reviewd Mars Volta's latest record (http://www.metalrage.com/reviews/1958) and saw them at 013 Tilburg (http://www.metalrage.com/articles/769). Just before that, I had a little talk with Omar. A great guy that makes a whole lot of sense if you ask me!
How long did you work on the latest album?
'The production took three months. It should’ve only taken three weeks, but because of technical problems, life problems and spiritual problems it took three and a half months. Writing? I can’t tell you how long it took, because I write all the time. I constantly write…if you could imagine a room that’s a big mess and then you make piles; here’s a record…and here’s a record, so writing is impossible to decipher, because it’s just a constant motion. I just go into my computer and say: “Oh, these are the 11 songs I am most interested right now, so they will make the next Mars Volta record.” But in terms of just production and getting it documented, it took three and a half months.'
When do you decide whether it’s a Mars Volta record or a solo record?
'It’s all the same to me. For me it’s just an expressive endeavor and a creative endeavor and because of my legal obligations with Universal, we can only put out one Mars Volta record a year. So I just put other records out as a solo record, but it’s still the exact same thing. I write all the music for this band, I direct and record in the same way…everything is the same, just the name is different. On a Mars Volta record off course, I have to make sure that Cedric sings everything and the stuff that becomes a solo record he maybe sings on one or two songs. It’s hard for him to keep up with the material. So we just sort of pick things to focus on and then he writes for those.'
What gear do you use live and recording, any rarities or favorites?
'I use whatever comes my way, really. I use what everybody uses as far as recording. Rock musicians use all the same things, you know. Like for compressors 1176’s, microphones have all been used throughout history like U76, C12’s I use all that stuff, but...ehhhm…I’m by no means a purist. I hate the idea of purism and I like the idea of adventure and surprises.'
'I did a lot of recording here in Amsterdam when I was living here and because I could find a commercial space to “koop” (Dutch for “buy”), is that right?, it was all “te huur” (Dutch for “for rent”) I couldn’t bring my studio, so I spent a lot of time at “the Jam” where I took a lot of my gear and just record there, or just outside of Amsterdam there’s a studio called Wiseloort I think.'
'For me, I like the sense of adventure; I like the sense of just taking a few pieces of the jam and just working with what I have there. It forces you to be creative. Sometimes in the past I have found that when you have everything at your disposal and have all types of gear the ideas don’t come as easily, because you’re like: “Oh man, where do I begin?!” When you have less, you’re forced to be creative and deal with those problems. I don’t think of myself as having anything in particular or special, I’ll use anything whether it’s an old analog blablabla or it’s a new digital whatever, if it makes me excited I’ll use it.'
'In terms of production I think the one thing that I do that is different from how most people record is that I record out of sequence. I don’t record a song from beginning to end. I’ll just record maybe the middle of one song and maybe just the ending of another song and then just the intro to the last song on the record on a certain day. Much in the way that we make films, you know. We make films out of order and in little pieces. I like doing this and keeping my musicians in the dark and where normally you would rehearse in a room and the musicians learn their part and then you go into the studio and make everything perfect, I like to put the musicians in the studio when they have no idea what they will be doing and then they have 5 minutes to learn the material and then I record it. I like uncomfortable and unsophisticated musicians.'
Uncomfortable musicians, can you define that?!
'I just force them to speak completely from their core, completely from their inside. Because when you take away everything else that’s all that’s left. When you take away experience, years of musicianship, sophistication, intellectualization…all these boring things, when you strip them away, all that’s left is the human being. It causes a lot of friction sometimes, because my musicians are wonderful, they’re the best, they’re way better than I’ll ever be. And then they say: “If you could give me one week with this, I can play this so good!”, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in: ”Here. Here’s you’re part, learn it now and I’ll record it.” This makes a musician uncomfortable, because a musician is used to being able to rehearse his parts and then he goes in and he’s very comfortable and confident and then it’s a different kind of playing. When you put a musician and he’s angry with you and he doesn’t understand and he’s like: “Fine! I’ll learn it!” and he plays it then and there, it’s a completely different frantic energy that I’m interested in. And it’s a pure energy, it’s the energy of the spirit you know, the energy of what is the essence of that person. Again; take away experience, because experience makes a musician very comfortable and routine-like and he’s not relying on his pure emotional instinct. I want pure emotional instinct, it’s the only reason I make music. I make music to express myself.'
'I know two languages; I know my native language and English, obviously, and still I don’t feel confident in expressing myself, I don’t think I can truly get to the root of what I’m saying, so I use music as an outlet and I want the same thing to happen for my musicians when their playing my music. I love the fact that they want to play my music, but I want to hear their first reaction to my music, I want to see their first reaction to a situation they’re not normally put in. There is nothing worse than a sophisticated musician, because…if we feel that we know everything, than there is nowhere new to go. But if we feel uncomfortable and like we don’t know anything, the entire universe is ours to invent. Routine, sophistication, intellectualization will kill a musician.'
'Musicians have this horrible thing; they LOVE to talk about music! I can’t stand it! I’m lucky enough not to be a musician. I’m lucky enough to be sort of self taught and play from an expressive place, so I couldn’t articulate myself through words if I wanted to! But these musicians are so great that when I just show them something, they’re like: “oh yeah, that’s in seventh” and “Oh, I see what you’re doing! You’re placing a harmonic fifth over a blabla…” I don’t want to know this!! And I don’t want my musicians to think about that, that stuff is so boring to me. I want them to think about how a part makes them feel when they play it, you know. Does it excite you? Does it make you angry? Does it make you bored? That’s what I’m looking for.'
Where did you dig up the new drummer, Thomas Pridgen?
'He’s the most amazing musician I have played with to date, Next to John Frusciante. He started out playing in church! He’s been playing since he was three years old. He is THE youngest drummer ever to be admitted to the Berkeley School Of Music, They lowered the admittance age so that he could come in and then he dropped out! He said: “This is too much nonsense and talking about music, I want to play!” and when he dropped out, they put the age back up!'
'I met him through our bass player, his bass teacher suggested him even when we had our old drummer. He said: “I’m not trying to make things difficult or anything, I’m not trying to make you fire somebody, but I know this drummer, he’s a young kid (he was 19 at the time), he’s the most incredible thing I have ever seen, I think he fits perfectly in the band and when you hear him, you’re going to want to keep him, because he’s the Tony Williams of our era”. Then when I fired John and I was looking for people and I finally got a hold of Thomas, I heard him play for 2 minutes and saw that this guy is way beyond the Tony Williams of our era! This guy is something new, and even if I only make 1 record with him, at least I can say I made his first rock record. '
'So now I knew from his playing that he could fit in the band, the only thing left to understand was his attitude, because to me a big part if it is the attitude. I interviewed lots of musicians and they could play up and down, but it’s not about being technically proficient, but it’s about what’s in your heart and between your ears. So I called Thomas and we spoke for two hours and we liked the same things and had a good thing going and I invited him to come to Ohio to meet the band. He thought he was only coming to meet the band when we we’re playing in arenas with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So he came out and met everybody and we took him to a small room with a drum kit set up. He sat behind it and beatboxed a beat to him to memorize and we started playing and I said: ”Cool, have you got that?” and he said “yeah!”. “Good, now that’s where we begin and that’s where we end and in between we’re going to have an hour long conversation and we’re going to do that in front of 10.000 people.” And he looks at me and goes: “Tss. You’re kidding!” and I go “No, I’m very serious.” And then he goes” “Ok! Let’s do it!”. At this moment I knew he was perfect for the band, that’s the attitude, to gamble everything and to give everything simple because of the spirit of music and making human connections.'
Why did you choose “Wax Simulacra” as the first single?
'That’s business decisions, that was the label. Actually no, if I remember correctly, the label wanted “Goliath” and then they did an absolutely horrible edit of it. Normally I don’t mind edits, because they’re like movie trailers. I made my movie, so go make you’re stupid trailer so people can come and see my movie. But this edit was so horrible that I suggested “Wax Simulacra”, it’s a short song and I think it’s a nice song and they loved the idea. Normally I stay out of these decisions, these are just pure business decisions that I don’t want to have anything to do with.'
Does the “business part” interfere with the music?
'It can if you get to caught up in it. What happens is; when you start out in music, you make it for the pure essence of music and for yourself. We start off with the very punk rock attitude saying, “I don’t want to have anything to do with business, I just want to make my art” and you make your art and you avoid all business. Now what happens when you grow up, you become more successful, like “At The Drive Inn” at the time, you realize that other people ‘handle’ you’re business and make money off you and they treat you like a ‘spic’ you know, like a product and you’re like a slave. So at one point you grow up and you say “Well, I’m going to have to pay attention, because if I don’t; someone else will and I won’t see the full picture.” And so you start paying attention.'
'Some artists though, they start paying attention and then they become obsessed. I’ve seen it, they become obsessed with the business part of it and the money and how much money is being made and where does it go and blablabla…and they slowly start to detach themselves of what was the original current of what got them there. So for me it’s a constant balance. Because I am the leader of the band and I have to be aware of the business decisions it’s a constant balance to know I have to pay attention to these things, but to also leave them where they’re at. I make decisions on my instinct and my feelings and not just because of money. I mean; I lose money all the time because of business decisions that I made, because of spiritual reasons. My business manager hates me for it and my manager hates me for it, but I’m happy! And that’s why we're able to continue, this is our seventh year of being a band and we’re at the happiest point we’ve been at. That’s why we’re able to continue, because we don’t let that become the overwhelming factor, I probably loose money every time I make a record, but I’m OK with that. You know, I get to see the world, I get to live OK, I get to eat OK, and I have my place in New York where I live. If I can buy food and some great records, I’m fine!'
How did you end up with John Frusciante?
'We met long ago, before the beginning of the band. Our connection with John I made when I was still in “At The Drive Inn” and Cedric and I had a dub band called “Defacto” and we opened for John and we just had a life connection. It wasn’t so much about music, when we met he said: “When I hear you’re music I hear…Ehh…do you like Luis Bunuel films?” This was something special. Anyone can come in and say “Oh well, it sounds like you like, oh I don’t know, King Crimson.” But this was different. We connected right away. And even though we spend most our time playing together, we also talk and think a lot about life and watching films and learning about new artists we didn’t know about. He’s always been sort of a member of the band and through him we met Flea (Flea was the bass player on the first record and also played on the second record) they’re both big fans of the music and supported us and asked us on tour. My house is your house, you know. We are of the same blood.'
How did you end up in Amsterdam at the time?
'I lived there for two years. The first time we came to Europe I knew I was going to live there someday. When we landed I kissed the ground and said, “This is the place I want to be”. Off course people think about the surface level things and think of my music and they think it’s because of drugs or something stupid like this. It’s so much deeper than that. Like the culture here, even though it’s different from my own. My culture is very hot and the culture here is very cold, the culture is still so inviting and friendly. Living in Europe is the highest form of living I’ve experienced, the highest quality of living. Everything America is trying to destroy is still here in Europe, even though it’s slowly being chiseled away. At the time seeing simple things that Dutch people are accustomed to like bicycles everywhere and being able to do everything on a bike. In America we have to fight for the right to ride a bicycle! We have to have protests and communities that ride together every Sunday, it’s called critical mass in the Bay Area, and 20 years later they put bike lanes. Just some paint on the road! When I came here and saw you had like; Car lane – Sidewalk – Bike lane I said “This is it! I’m moving here!” and when I saw that the bikes go and the train and the people and nobody gets hurt, I said “This is a country that accepts and takes responsibility for the freedom they’ve been given”.'
'In America people want freedom, but they don’t want responsibility. This would never work in America and I’m surprised there aren’t more deaths from tourists coming over from America. Just like the crossings in Japan where all the people cross at the same time and no one gets into a fight or bumps into each other; this would never work in America because the people are so stupid. They’ve been made stupid. It’s not their fault. They’ve been made stupid by capitalism and a lot of other things that would take us forever to discuss. And when I came here and saw that people ride bikes and that the lower, middle and upper class were all together and when you go to the grocery store you don’t get a plastic bag, but you bring one or pay to get one I knew this was where it’s at, this was the quality of living that I wanted to experience.'
What can we expect from The Mars Volta in the future?
'A lot! I’m now working on the next two records and I’ve shot a concert film in Australia that will come out later this year. And there’s the ongoing Mars Volta documentary I’ve been shooting ever since we broke up “At The Drive Inn”, but that’s a long-term project. I keep editing that and once the band ends that will probably come out, but besides that just music. I’m always recording, I have 17 solo records we’ll call it, that are done and mixed, that just sit in my cabinet. I’m also working on 2 films.'