GP’S INTERVIEW WITH OMAR RODRIGUEZ LOPEZ for the February 2010 cover story was quite extensive, and there was a lot of additional material that we were not able to include. These lightly edited interview outtakes are presented in no particular order.
The Mars Volta is often described as a progressive rock band. Are you comfortable with that or would you prefer to be pigeonholed in some other way?
It doesn’t matter to me. As long as I don’t try to define my music I’ll be fine. People will always try to pigeonhole music because it’s a natural human instinct to look around and try to make sense out of everything by putting it into some sort of order. But to me, the moment you can define something it’s lost its charm. From the moment you say “I am …” then it’s past and you’re dead because you’ve arrived somewhere. You are something and you’re stuck in that.
Do you feel any kinship with the progressive rock bands from the ’70s?
I like a lot of those groups, particularly King Crimson and early Genesis, because progressive rock was one of the many genres I grew up listening to as a kid—but that music isn’t what I primarily listen to anymore. All those genres have blended together because that’s what we are as people—we are the sum of all our experiences. So, when I hear my music I might think, “Oh yeah, there’s that sort of Black Flag Greg Ginn thing there, there’s a little influence from when I used to listen to King Crimson a lot, there’s that Fellini influence, and there’s a little bit of Robert De Nero, and some Salvador Dali.”
What would be an example of a Fellini influence?
There was a lot of Fellini and Ennio Morricone on the Frances the Mute album. I really like that grandiose and very stylized storytelling.
So you mean the actual soundtracks to the Fellini films?
When I said Morricone I was thinking of that, but no I mostly mean the characters in the films. For example, I thought a lot about the main character in Satyricon while I was making Frances. But I was also thinking of the polar opposite of that film’s heavily stylized and art-driven scenery, namely, the neo-realism of the Pasolini film Accattone. So it’s all these blends, and they definitely contradict each other—and contradiction is a major thing for me. I have to exist in contradiction. I think every human being does. People don’t admit it to themselves, but we exist in contradiction and without that you can’t have a whole truth—you only have half a truth.
Rich Costey is credited as mixing Octahedron, but you were also deeply involved in the mixing, right?
Yes, of course. My input plays a huge part, especially because I’m coming from a conceptual place and not a technical place, but the role is his. I spent a lot of hours in there with him, but he’s the real genius. That’s his craft. I go in there and I butcher his craft [laughs]. I’ll listen to his great mix and say things like, “Turn that up and take that out and change the EQ on that, and in this part we should bury the drums, and in this part the drums should bury everything else.” In my role as the producer I provide the conceptual approach to what makes something sound the way it does, just like the director of a film does. But if you’re not cutting the film yourself then you’re not the editor, and you’re not going to take or try to share the credit with the person whose craft it is to do that.
To what extent are you involved in technical matters such as mic selection and placement while you are recording?
When I feel it calls for it I’ll mess with things like that—but for the most part I have a very factory approach to the recording process. For example, I like to use Neumann U-67s as overheads, I like AKG C-12s as room mics, and I like to put Shure SM57s on snares and guitar amps. And when I’m just trying to get a song down I not only don’t take the time to get involved, my engineers complain that I don’t give them enough time. I’ll just say, “Get the mics up—okay good, close enough. I’m very impatient, and that’s one of my biggest flaws. And of course that’s also why I like musicians that can get parts right away, and when they can’t I put a lot of pressure on them, which obviously makes things worse. Your creative process and emotional outlet—what people call art—is not separate from your personality and your life. So in my life with my family and with others, this is something that I have to work on. That said, I’ve also gotten used to the fact that I tend to pervert sounds so much that I’ll often take a really pristine and beautiful sound the engineer has labored over and mess with it so much that you can’t even hear the original sound anymore.
Given how quickly you work I’m guessing serendipity and happy accidents play a big role in your creative process.
Definitely. Most people try to avoid accidents, but I welcome them. They make me excited. So, sometimes we’ll do something wrong technically and I’ll say, “No, it sounds cool. Leave that.” And the engineer will object that is out of phase or something and I’ll say, “Yeah I know. I like it.”
How important is it to recreate studio sounds when you’re playing live?
It’s not so much a matter of re-creating them as it is having a live interpretation of them, and it’s the same with the compositions. My philosophy is that they are two completely different mediums and I just try to do what is best for each one. It’s like the difference between a play and a film: One’s happening right there in the moment, and the other you get to do over and over and change the lighting and whatnot until it’s perfect.
Do you practice?
Yeah. At least I think I practice. I used to practice a lot more.
It sounds like you’re playing all the time, which is a form of practicing.
I do play a lot. I have guitars all over the house, not just in the studio. My problem—or my strength, depending on your perspective—is that I don’t assign the guitar that much importance. It’s strange because I think people perceive me as some kid who’s in his bedroom all the time rehearsing, and because a lot of people think I know theory they imagine that I’m intentionally writing difficult music and guitar parts. But I’m just writing what sounds appealing and then later I might realize, “Oh yeah, that’s some f**ked up time signature.” For the most part I’ll just be in my room having a conversation or reading a book or watching TV and the guitar’s in my hand because it’s fun and that’s what I’m doing and it’s not that important to me. In that particular sense it’s part of me.
Do you ever think, “I’m going to learn how to play these Brent Mason country licks,” or “Boy, I wish I could play like Django Reinhardt,” or something?
I do sometimes. But when I realize it’s taking this much work to barely become a rock guitarist. But, yeah, Django Reinhardt or Segovia, those are my true heroes. My biggest hero as far as a guitar-like instrument is Yomo Toro, who is a cuatro player. But with any of the other players, it’s like, again, that takes everything I don’t have—finesse, sophistication, and an understanding of how music works and why it works.
You did some film soundtracks and you’re actually making a film too. Is that right?
Yeah. I made four films to date and I’ve done three soundtracks.
Is that something you want to explore more deeply in the future?
Oh yeah, definitely. I like exploring anything that’s challenging. Going back to Segovia and Django Reinhardt and all this stuff—I have classical guitars at home, and I have friends who play like that. I try to have them teach me things because I’m always learning. I just never developed like a guitar player—like a bona fide guitar player—which is why it’s been really interesting to get recognition as a guitarist. It’s a really interesting contradiction.
How do you make the transition from the hotel room to being “on” for performing?
The main thing is that I like to spend an hour together with the whole band. Everybody can be doing whatever it is that they are doing, but I always arrange for us to be in the dressing room together warming up. The main thing is just being together and having that day-to-day exchange.