The Mars Volta
El Paso, TX
Julio Venegas, an artist from El Paso, Texas, committed suicide in 1996. A free spirit and noted provocateur, "He was definitely someone who lived life to the fullest," remembers his friend, Cedric Bixler Zavala. "Toward the end, he acquired a really bad limp from being in a coma. He had tons of scars all over his body and some of his closer friends used to call him Frankenstein. He had big cut marks on his throat, welts and bruises and bumps, and his arm had been shriveled up from shooting up rat poison. He acquired so many scars it was like a walking map."
When Cedric sang for At The Drive-In, he wrote a lyric--‘Embroglio’ on 1996’s Acrobatic Tenement--about Venegas, who had killed himself while that band were rehearsing. "I didn’t feel it really did him justice," he continues, "I felt like a whole record should be dedicated to him."
That record is De-Loused In The Comatorium, the astonishing first album by The Mars Volta. De-Loused In The Comatorium is an iridescent, fearless, brain-busting hour of music, a fictionalized celebration of Julio Venegas’ life. Based on a story written by Cedric, it is a concept album in which the hero tries to commit suicide by overdosing on morphine. Instead of dying, he falls into a coma for a week, and experiences fantastic adventures in his dreams, elemental battles between the good and bad aspects of his conscience. At the end, he emerges from the coma, but chooses to die.
Ambitious stuff, plainly, but we’ve learned to expect as much from Cedric and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. As Omar says, "We do have a really solid ideology, and part of that is to always grow and not have your ideas be the same as they were last year." In At The Drive-In, Cedric’s linguistic somersaults were rooted by straightforwardly anthemic post-hardcore. Now, the music is as imaginative and uncompromising as the words: De-Loused In The Comatorium consists of eight continually shifting tracks which variously recall Led Zeppelin, Fugazi, Jane’s Addiction, Can, Santana, Spirit, ‘70s Miles Davis, ambient Dub… and even At The Drive-In, very occasionally. It’s unapologetically progressive music: unencumbered by genre, unafraid of seriousness, reverberating with new ideas at every turn.
"I guess the concept of prog music is always frowned upon," says Cedric. "It was the dinosaur that the new kids wanted to take down. But I just hope people don’t picture some keyboard player in a cape trying to present this music as Mars Volta On Ice. We have our feet a little bit more planted in the ground, there is a lot more punk aesthetic involved in what we do." For Cedric and Omar, The Mars Volta also represents an escape, a way of freeing themselves from rigorous but limited music.
At the turn of the millennium, At The Drive-In’s kinetic updating of punk had made them one of the most dynamic bands on the planet. Returning from a European tour in early 2001, however, Omar was unhappy; though not with corporate politics and expectations, as often assumed. "I was bored with the music we were playing," he recalls. "We were just going to keep making the same records. It was nice to finally get the attention with At The Drive-In after six years, but it left us musically bankrupt, spiritually bankrupt."
Omar believes that "It’s always important to throw a monkeywrench in your own system, start from scratch and not be afraid to expose yourself." To that end, he told Cedric, his foil since childhood in bands like experimental dub unit De Facto as well as ATDI, his new plan. "The idea was to have a band that was free of boxes, free of conceptual limitations. We both knew that would mean a lot of sacrifice, a lot of broken hearts and a lot of change in our life. But we were both willing to accept that so that the music would not suffer."
They took the other members of ATDI to the park where they had begun, and formally split up the band. Omar then began recruiting the dextrous, expansive musicians they’d need for The Mars Volta:
keyboardist Ikey, Owens from The Long Beach Dub All-Stars, and Jon Theodore, a drummer who’d played with Golden, as well as Jeremy Ward, their friend from De Facto, who would become the band’s secret member, triggering samples and effects from offstage. "It was great to play with people who understood the vision," he continues, "though these influences have always been there with ATDI."
An EP Tremulant, on their own Gold Standard Laboratories label, and a series of extraordinary shows brought more allies: Rick Rubin signed on as producer; Flea helped out on bass; old friend John Frusciante, another of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, added guitar to the outstanding ‘Cicatriz’;. And at the end of last year, The Mars Volta decamped to Rubin’s place in Laurel Canyon, a haunted house with a "strong presence", according to Omar, and began to record De-Loused In The Comatorium. The result is this passionate, elaborate, relentlessly inventive and utterly rewarding album, one of those rare records where musical innovation is matched, move for move, by a profound emotional pull. "I think it’ll take a couple of spins," admits Cedric, "but all my favorite records are like that."
The Mars Volta, it seems, demand more from music, and not unreasonably suspect they aren’t alone. "Our music is completely selfish, but we’re not above-average human beings," reckons Omar, modestly. "So if we’re getting it, there’s got to be other people who will too."