Omar Rodriguez Lopez

February 13, 2012

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 Soundgarden.

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 solo material?
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 shape?
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 “Coma Pony.”
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.

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