June 21, 2009 / 3:19 AM / in 10 years

Rock duo Mars Volta unveiling disappearing act

NEW YORK (Billboard) - When guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala left At the Drive-In to form the Mars Volta, the duo burst out of the confines of post-punk into a kind of sprawling, Latin-infused prog that has been called everything from utterly brilliant to completely inscrutable.

Despite this, the band also managed to sell albums; 2005’s “Frances the Mute” sold more than half a million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while its most recent, “The Bedlam in Goliath,” sold 153,000.

The Mars Volta’s new album, “Octahedron,” due in stores Tuesday, significantly scales back the complexity of previous work. Billboard spoke with Rodriguez-Lopez about making a record that meditates on disappearances and, for the first time in a while, simplicity.

1. YOUR ALBUMS GENERALLY HAVE A CONCEPT. IS THERE ONE HERE?

The concept we were throwing around was that of disappearances. When we were in high school, there was this lake the kids used to go out to and two of our close friends went out there and never came back. We started talking about how impactful that is. At least death you can assign to your own personal beliefs. You can say, “Oh, he’s with God and the angels,” or whatever you believe in. But when you don’t have answers, it’s the most aggravating. And then the fact that emotions disappear — you can be in love with someone for 20-30 years and then wake up one day and say, “Honey, I don’t love you anymore. What are we going to do?”

2. YOU’VE SAID THAT THIS IS YOUR ACOUSTIC ALBUM, BUT THAT SHOULDN’T BE TAKEN LITERALLY, RIGHT?

Well, that’s one of those things that gets misinterpreted. I only ever said this would be acoustic-inspired. I was asked what I was listening to and I said, “A lot of Nick Drake and Syd Barrett and Leonard Cohen. That’ll be the starting point.” I always maintained I didn’t think it’d end up there. That’s the springboard.

3. DID THINKING ABOUT DRAKE AND COHEN — WHO SING A LOT ABOUT FALLING OUT OF LOVE AND ROMANTIC ALIENATION — FEED YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE DISAPPEARANCE CONCEPT?

I never even thought about it until this moment, but that’s a really good point. At the time my love for heavy music or rock music or whatever had just completely gone away — and I think I’m still in that — so I think I was also just searching for anything else to listen to.

4. YOU’VE SAID THAT ALL YOUR SONGS ARE POP SONGS AT HEART. DOES THAT COME THROUGH HERE?

It was a need to just do something different. At the core of every song I write, it’s just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus and you’re done. Then I get bored and start playing with the edit. With this record I said, “That’s the first thing I’m not going to do. I’m not going to f—- with it. I’m going to stick with the original intention.”

5. YOU SAID YOU WANTED “THE BEDLAM IN GOLIATH” TO BE YOUR LAST MAJOR-LABEL RECORD, BUT THEN YOU ENDED UP JUST JUMPING FROM UNIVERSAL TO WARNER BROS. WHAT HAPPENED?

Wait — Warner isn’t an indie? Again, this is the problem with just saying what you’re feeling at the time. Especially when you act completely out of instinct, the way I do. As with a record, it’s so different what you have in your head and what comes out when you start writing the f—-ing thing. I felt that way and felt that way and then ran into (Warner Bros. Chairman/CEO) Tom Whalley. I’d known Tom in the past and liked his attitude. It just felt like, “OK, let’s give this relationship a try.” And it’s like any relationship you’d have. You say, “OK, I’m going to trust you, but you got to trust me also.”

6. YOU’VE BEEN DESCRIBED AS A CONTROL FREAK WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING MUSIC, AND YET CEDRIC BIXLER-ZAVALA HAS COMPLETE CONTROL OVER THE LYRICS. DO YOU CLASH MUCH BECAUSE OF THIS?

We’ve had three arguments in the 18 years we’ve known each other and two of them have been over food. It’s unspoken. He hears my record and goes, “Ah, OK, of course.” It’s one of those things we can’t really explain or even understand.

Editing by Dean Gooodman at Reuters

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