Omar Rodriguez Lopez keeps his creative throttle
set to interstellar overdrive. He doesn’t bask in the achievements
of his previous band, At the Drive-In, his ten-years-and-counting
blockbuster the Mars Volta, his production company, or any of his
myriad film scores or solo releases. Rodriguez Lopez is always fully
engaged, generating off-balance riffs, cosmically effected tones,
and mind-bending song arrangements.
This year saw the release of Telesterion [Rodriguez Lopez Productions],
a sprawling collection of all things Omar outside of the
Mars Volta. Its seemingly boundless range spans everything from
ear-melting monolithic rock to what sounds like salsa music on acid to intergalactic battle scene soundtracks.
Subtlety is scarce. You might think that such
a dedicated artist would have mountains of
information about the material he creates
and produces at his fingertips, but the Puerto
Rican native and current Mexico City resident
has difficulty detailing past tracks. He
uses everything around him as inspiration
for the day’s music. The next day, he clears
his internal Etch A Sketch, and begins anew.
This interview took place in the wake
of a GP Presents event with the Omar
Rodriguez Lopez Band at San Francisco’s
Great American Music Hall—and another
show when the Mars Volta opened up for
The lineup for your “solo” show was exactly the
same as for the Mars Volta show—including vocalist
Cedric Bixler Zavala.
Right. I’m the bandleader regardless of
what name goes on the marquee or what music we play. That concept is difficult for
American rock fans to understand, but it’s
common in Latin music. Héctor Lavoe is the
greatest singer in salsa music history, but
he’s best known for his singing on Willie
Colón’s records. You go to see Willie Colón
knowing that he’s a great bandleader who
always has the best singer around. There’s
a reason it’s called a “frontman.” The singer
is out front, but doesn’t actually run the
band in most cases. Robert Plant didn’t run
Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page did.
You take the second half of that concept—
“what music we play”—to the extreme. It was
altogether unfamiliar. Was that Mars Volta or
It was all new Mars Volta material. I
don’t really differentiate between the two
other than I try to place the most accessible
material with the Mars Volta. I hand a
finished recording of the music to Cedric,
he creates his parts, and the CD is finished
when we record them. I expect the band to
learn the songs as we create them.
That sounds challenging. Do you make charts?
No. I’m worthless at creating charts. I
have far less formal knowledge than most
real guitar players because I’m self-taught.
I play my ideas for the band, and I expect
them to remember the parts because that’s
what I have to do. When you’re passionate
about something—you memorize it. If I fall
in love with a girl, I memorize everything
from her phone number, to her birthday,
to where she likes to eat.
How do you memorize so many guitar parts?
I memorize shapes using simple things
such as fretboard markers. Being unschooled
doesn’t give you a license to be lazy. A lot
of untrained artists have an attitude like,
“I just play from the heart, man. I don’t
know any of that music stuff.” Well, I’ve
been playing music for 20 years now, and
I know how to play an A chord because I
memorized where to put my fingers.
What runs through your head and your fingers
as you create new music on guitar?
From a fretboard perspective, I work
with shapes rather than patterns. I’m useless
at running through scales, but I’m good
at arranging my thoughts into geometric
shapes and creating chords and melodies
out of them.
When you feel a certain way, you see a geometric
Thoughts have shapes just like tones—they
have waveforms. You can translate the shapes of
thoughts and emotions through your hands onto
the fretboard. With experience, you start relating
the shape of your hand on the fretboard to
certain geometric shapes that enter your mind
when you’re hearing those sounds or having
those feelings. You hear people use shapes to
describe things all the time such as, “That guy
is a square,” or “This sound is really round.”
Your shapes tend to be more angular than
round, and your playing seems to flow backwards—
and not just because you are left-handed.
It’s true. My playing flows from my pinky
towards my index finger rather than the other
way around like most players.
How’d you settle on the shape and size of
your ORM1 signature Ibanez?
The first guitar I designed with Ibanez was
based on a bass guitar I really love from one
of my favorite bass players, Bobby Valentín.
For this one, I wanted a more traditional
shape. It’s very similar to the Jet King series.
We altered that shape a bit, and made it a
little thinner and smaller. I’m a small person,
so I wanted it to be lighter on my shoulder.
With one pickup and one knob, would you say
it’s pretty much built to throw on and go?
Yeah, it’s about as dumb as they come. Anything
else is probably too much for me. A real
guitar player can probably handle three different
pickups, but I like being limited to one.
How is the action set?
I generally like the action set high because I
want it to be difficult to play. I like the fight. In
general, I like the opposite of what real guitar
players like. Real guitar players like low action,
more pickups and knobs for more tones, and
light strings that they change every night. I like
thick, heavy, old strings with a wound third.
I want to feel like I just grabbed a beat-up old
guitar from my dad’s closet, and I’m just starting
to play. I feel like I’m just learning to play
every day. If it’s not a challenge, it’s not worth
it. My playing is very primal. I beat the guitar
like a caveman with a club. I like it that way.
You are aggressive with your guitar for such
a seemingly gentle person.
I try to be pleasant and polite to other
people, just as I would have them act towards
me. But there are a lot of things I see going on
in the world and lots of things I read about that
make me very angry. I try to channel that anger
into creative energy rather than pound my fist
against the wall or another human being’s head.
You get pretty brutal tonally. What is it about
the sound of an Orange amp that turns you on?
It just speaks to me. It sounds round and
full, and it has frequencies that Marshalls are
missing to my ears. Maybe I don’t know what
I’m doing with those types of amps, but every
time I try a Marshall, it sounds like a toy—like
when you’re a kid who is not playing with the
real thing yet. It’s like the difference between
playing with little Fisher-Price cars and when
you get your first Tonka truck. One’s made of
plastic, and the Tonka truck is made of metal.
You can hurt yourself with it if you’re not careful.
Several songs on Telesterion, such as “Locomocion
Capillar” and “Population Council’s Wet
Dream” would be killer for car chase scenes.
Where does that aspect of you style come from?
It’s probably just anxiety. We’re all being
chased by something.
Some of the stylistic curveballs on Telesterion
are enjoyable, such as your salsa-flavored
playing on “Dues Ex Machina.” Who inspired you
in that realm?
My father is a Spanish-style, nylon-string
player. He’s a doctor—but he always had
a band that played celebrations. He never
taught me guitar directly, but I learned by
attending his rehearsals.
What acoustic guitars do you prefer?
I can’t be picky because I’m left-handed.
Lefties are stuck with whatever brand happens
to make left-handed guitars. I like the
extremes. I like either a really hard-to-play
steel-string acoustic with horrible action that
takes a lot of work to play, or a nylon-string,
flamenco-style guitar that plays like butter.
What are your general thoughts on playing
acoustic guitar versus playing electric?
For most of my life I have not been very
comfortable on acoustic guitar because you
can’t hide behind volume or effects the way
you can with an electric rig. Your playing is
exposed. It’s kind of like looking at oneself
naked in the mirror. These days I’m feeling
a little more comfortable on acoustic. You
can’t hide forever. You have to grow up at
some point. To keep the metaphor going—
you have to start accepting your body. My
brutish playing is even more accentuated
on acoustic. You hear how rough it really is,
but that’s okay—for now anyway. That’s me
until it changes and I awaken to gracefulness.
You play some pretty graceful, jazzy stuff on
That’s another style of music my father
passed on to me. Miles Davis and Herbie
Hancock were big in our house. I heard them
and the Beatles before making my own discoveries
in music, starting with punk rock. I
actually don’t know anything about playing
jazz—those are real musicians. That’s why I
would never dare call myself a musician. That
would be like calling myself a chef because
I like cooking.
When the Mars Volta opened up for Soundgarden,
your music sounded like jazz by comparison.
You were improvising more, and the sounds
and songs were far more foreign to my ears even
though I’m familiar with your playing.
We played all new material except the
very last song. It was basically the opposite
of what an opening band should do.
You weren’t worried about winning over the
Soundgarden crowd with some familiar tunes?
I figure the real way of winning over the
crowd—any crowd—is by being oneself. For
me, that means putting across where I’m at
right now. I don’t understand the mentality
of a band that builds its live show around
the fact that they had a hit on the radio once.
Why do that? Who cares! I prefer to adopt
the same mentality as an unknown band
that’s just starting out. We’re going to do
our thing, and afterwards you can make your
decision about whether we stuck in your
head or not. If so, you’ll be interested. If we
never cross your mind again, then you’re
not. Either way is okay with me. It all goes
back to being comfortable with yourself.