Omar Rodriguez Lopez is no pussyfooter. In the past seven years alone the 35 year-old guitarist and composer generated enough music to fill six albums by his band, the Mars Volta, and twice that many solo albums, as well as numerous collaborative projects with artists as diverse as Damo Suzuki, John Frusciante, and Lydia Lunch. During that same period, he also produced more than 20 albums and made numerous guest appearances, and that’s not to mention the dozen or so albums he made with various bands previous to 2003. Rodriguez Lopez is also a skilled vocalist and plays drums, bass, and keyboards; writes, scores, and directs films; and is reportedly a badass chef.
The Puerto Rican-born maestro began his career in 1990, singing for El Paso, Texas-based punk rockers Startled Calf. After taking a year off to dharma bum around the States, he returned to Texas to join his friend vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala in the band At the Drive-In. Originally the band’s bassist, Rodriguez Lopez soon switched to guitar, earning a reputation for conjuring cosmic sounds from—and brutalizing—his instrument throughout the band’s often orgiastic sets. Rodriguez Lopez and Bixler Zavala also helmed a dub-reggae side project called De Facto, the members of which solidified into the core of the Mars Volta in 2001.
The Mars Volta retained much of the pugnacious attitude and hard rock energy of ATDI, while evolving a broader musical aesthetic embracing ’60s psychedelia, ’70s art rock, and ’90s electronica, with traces of free jazz, musique concrete, Latin, and myriad other idioms providing additional color. Frequently categorized as a “progressive rock” band by less-than-imaginative critics, the Mars Volta is one of the few contemporary groups thus pigeonholed that actually do progress, as illustrated by their latest album.
While Octahedron [Warner Bros.] is still replete with the rapid-fire angular riffs, tricky time signatures, disturbingly warped tonalities, torrid solos, and brilliantly effected tones that characterize the Mars Volta trip, those elements occur within more concise and tightly scripted structures, and pieces such as “Since We’ve Been Wrong,” “With Twilight As My Guide,” and “Copernicus” are downright halcyon compared with the sublimely chaotic din of 2008’s aptly named The Bedlam in Goliath (containing the song “Wax Simulacra,” which scored a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance). The differences embody Rodriguez Lopez’s newfound desire to play fewer notes with greater finesse, and the influence of more acoustically based artists such as Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and solo-era Syd Barrett.
But as fans are still wrapping their minds around Octahedron, the creatively restless Rodriguez Lopez has already journeyed parsecs down the line. In addition to releasing a magnificent solo album titled Xenophanes (featuring members of the Mars Volta with Spanish lyrics penned and sung by himself), he was already at work on a new band album when he his creative soul searching lead him to rethink the way he produces records—an approach calculated to deliberately introduce discomfort by not allowing players to hear the music before a session, yet expecting them to quickly grasp and execute their parts anyway, often without listening to other key tracks while recording.
“I made a record right after Octahedron that I thought would be the follow-up, and it was nearly finished when I realized that it really wasn’t—so I shelved it and started from scratch,” he explains. “I’ve gotten comfortable with my way of dealing with musicians and the compositions. So I’m struggling to discover something new to make me uncomfortable.” Any wagers he’ll have found it by the time this goes to print?
You once said that you hate the guitar but were warming up to it. How’s that relationship going?
It’s going well. What I meant was that after 17 years of playing, I had accepted that the guitar is the instrument that I can communicate my ideas on most quickly. I just always wanted to be a piano player because my brothers and uncles are all really good at piano, and it seemed like an easier instrument to compose on. But I enjoy playing the guitar very much. Part of my discomfort also stems from the fact that I consider myself to be a very brute player. I’m not a guitarist with a lot of finesse or warmth, and I’m always awed when I hear those qualities in the playing of others. Most of the time I’m so much of a brute that I pull the strings out of tune. My mixing engineer [Rich Costey] always says that he can tell when he’s hearing a Mars Volta record because the guitars are slightly out of tune.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of subtler guitar playing on Octahedron.
Yeah, that’s what I’ve been focusing on. I want to figure out how to play less, and more subtly. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m most interested in my weaknesses— another one of which is that I don’t compose in major keys. I don’t know why, because I don’t really understand theory. Writing in major keys just isn’t something that comes naturally to me, or that my ear finds appealing, and I want to figure out why.
Octahedron also features a lot of acoustic guitar.
There is a lot of acoustic guitar, though some people were expecting it to be an all-acoustic record because early on I said that it was going to be “acoustic-inspired,” and people interpreted that one-dimensionally. They thought that because I said I had been listening to Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen and Syd Barrett that my record was going to sound like those artists or even be just acoustic guitar and vocals. But what I meant was that everything about those artists and their records influenced me.
You have released many solo albums in addition to albums by the Mars Volta. How do you decide which songs go where?
I don’t make a distinction between a solo song and a Mars Volta song when I’m composing—it’s all my music and it’s my band. I’m just writing and trying things constantly in the studio, and then at some point I get a big check from the record company, which means that I can get more time, assistance, and other resources that will enable me to up the production. At that point I look at everything I’ve written or experimented with and select the best of the best. Then I refine it, which mostly just means that I get to butcher it more and say, “Okay, I’m going to take this little snippet out, and that one, and let’s get in some of these so we can put them over here,” etc.
Do you take that same approach once you have the songs recorded, or do you try to record them pretty much the way you want them from the beginning?
I do both. I try to get the form I like from the start, but I’m never opposed to altering my way of seeing things. It’s very much like working on a film. You can have things scripted one way and then you realize when you’re in the cutting room that it’s not working. At that point you can decide to take scenes out or add scenes or put things out of sequence because it makes a stronger picture. I’m not precious about anything. I’m very much in favor of creating in order to destroy in order to create again.
When crafting guitar sounds using effects, do you start with a sound in your head and try to find the right pedals to achieve that sound, or just experiment until you find sounds that are useful?
Usually I have a clear idea of what I think something should sound like, and the process of finding that sound is fairly quick because I have a good understanding of what the pedals do. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but as far as my own little bubble and what it is that I like, I know exactly how to get a sound I’m imagining. Then, I apply that sound and the record either accepts it or rejects it, and if it rejects it I have to keep looking.
Do you swap out the pedals on your pedalboard depending on what you’re doing?
In the studio I do, but I also definitely have staples. Like, I can’t ever seem to let go of the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man and Frequency Analyzer pedals, or the early Boss Vibrato. But when I’m beginning any new project it’s like, “Yeah, let’s get these new toys and see where we can apply them,” and that becomes an inspiration for recording.
What are a few of your other essentials?
There’s a Moogerfooger Ring Modulator, a Boss DD-5 Digital Delay, an MXR Phase 90, an Ernie Ball Wah, and a Russian pedal that somebody gave me when I played there. Everything on it is written in Russian so I had no idea what it was until I got it home. It turned out to be the most amazing delay pedal I’ve heard in a long time, so I’ve been using that quite a lot.
Speaking of delays, would it be fair to say that you have a particular fondness for tape delays?
That would be quite fair [laughs]. I have about five Echoplexes, all of which have unique qualities—but my favorites are the Roland RE- 101, RE-201, and RE-301 Space Echoes. I own eight RE-201s and people ask, “Why eight?” But each unit has something different about it. I also buy “broken” ones that I’ll never fix, because to me they each do something that none of the others will do. Somebody will be like, “I can get that crackle fixed for you,” and I’ll say, “Are you kidding? When I need a little crackle, that’s the one I go to!” I also used a Pigtronix Echolution on one song on the album and that thing is really great.
Wah is an effect that you also use a lot, and you mentioned the Ernie Ball. Is that your favorite?
That’s a great wah, and the one that I mainly use live. The other one I like is the Ibanez WF10 Fuzz Wah that they made back in the ’80s.
Are you mostly playing your Ibanez ORM-1 signature guitar?
Yeah. I have a lot of other guitars, though, and every once in a while a record will reject what I’m doing with the Ibanez and I’ll try something else. But I’m not really picky about guitars, because I mostly change the tone with pedals or by adjusting my amp.
What amps do you use?
On Octahedron I mostly used a Vox AC30 and the Orange reissue amp that I use live. I’ve been using the AC30 since we recorded Bedlam, and before that I mostly stuck to my Harmony 2x12 and Supro Thunderbolt and 1606 combos. I don’t know much about guitars and the equipment. I just go into a store and if something sounds good I’ll take it home. I’m not a snob, or one of those people that say, “No, these pedals are better because they’re analog” or whatever. I love the Roland Space Echo but I also love, say, the Guyatone Micro Digital Delay because it can do something that the Roland can’t.
Do you track with effects?
Always, because I like being stuck with what I’ve done—no turning back!
What did you use to get that ’60s-style distortion sound on “Since We’ve Been Wrong”?
I don’t recall, probably because I wrote and recorded that song so quickly. I had just moved to Brooklyn and was setting up my studio, and I came up with that song while we were testing gear, just playing parts to make sure that everything was working. The whole song from beginning to end other than the drums and bass—all the acoustic and electric guitars and the Mellotron—I did in just a few minutes. It was one of those things that just came out naturally.
On that song there is a cycling chord progression with a long pause between each cycle, and it is difficult toidentify the time signature. What is the count?
I forget. Because I’m not versed in theory, at first everything comes down to how I count it. Then when I show it to my band they laugh and say, “No, this is the way that we would count it traditionally.” I may have been playing in four with a three feel, or three with a four feel, but I know that after I played the last note I counted to five before starting again. I wasn’t trying to be tricky, and I don’t even know why five rather than some other number. That’s just what felt right at the time.
There’s also a very synth-like sound. Is that an Electro-Harmonix HOG or POG?
I definitely use both the HOG and the POG, though I’m not certain about that particular sound, as I also use filter pedals for those types of effects. I have loved those sorts of tones since early on; anything that would make my guitar not sound like it was a guitar. For example, people think there are a lot of synths on our first album [De-Loused in the Comatorium], but all of those sounds were generated using guitars.
How did you get that pixilated modulation sound on “Teflon”?
That’s a Menatone Pleasure Trem 5000 with the Depth control turned all the way up, and probably some other effect like a phaser or a filter to give it a different feel. I can’t always remember the specifics of how I got particular sounds because I have so much fun doing what I do that I’m usually just rolling through relying on my instincts and not being cerebral at all. It’s like, “I’m looking for this— there, I found it—okay, problem solved.”
There are also some intense echo effects on that song that sound like you are just soloing the echo returns. Is that a tape echo?
Yes. And I very rarely blend the sound. Usually a guitarist or other person will blend the echo sound with the dry sound—but my setting is “10”! Like I said, I’m a very brute player. There’s very little finesse or sophistication in my approach.
There are lots of interesting textural things going on at the beginning of “Halo of Nembutals.” Can you recall how that section came about?
Yeah, there is a sequence happening there, along with some guitar swells run through backwards reverb and other stuff. A couple of those sounds are also made with synths.
Are you using a volume pedal to get the swells?
No, I always use my finger for volume swells. I don’t ever use volume pedals. I can’t wrap my head around them.
On “With Twilight as My Guide” there are what sound like modulated, swelling, reversed, slide, and half-speed guitar parts. Do any of those ring any bells?
Yeah, all those things ring bells. That song is a good example of my trying to do less, because for the first time I mixed those sounds into the background where they are just sort of swimming around. Normally when I was mixing a record I would put all of those sounds out front really loud.
To get those reversed-reverb sounds are you just playing into a reverse reverb with a long predelay so that it is repeating afterward, or are you actually flipping the recording around?
I do often record and then flip it around, but another thing I like to do is just the opposite: I record it, flip it around, add reverb, then print that, then flip the whole thing back around. That way you get the reversed reverb up front before the dry sound.
The half-speed parts sound like the same lines that are being played alongside them at full speed, creating halftime, octave-down harmony parts.
Yeah, I love doing that!
How are you getting the super-heavy guitar tone on “Cotopaxi”?
That’s the Orange. My preference is to get distortion from an amp rather than pedals, particularly on rhythm parts, and I prefer smaller amps when recording. I mostly just use fuzz or octave-fuzz if I really want to push something over the top.
You get some gorgeous modulated clean sounds at the beginning and end of “Desperate Graves.”
That’s a good example of where I actually used a different guitar because the album rejected everything else. That was a ’64 Fender Mustang through the Harmony amp. I had hoped to use my Dunlop Rotovibe on both sections, but it broke after I’d recorded one of them—I can’t remember which—so I used a Boss Vibrato pedal for the other section. The guitars are layered, which produces a 12-string-type effect.
There’s another nice clean sound on “Copernicus.”
I recorded that in Australia while we were on tour there, and just used whatever amp they had at the studio. On tour I don’t really have days off—I just check into a studio and work when we aren’t playing. I also have a special hotel laptop rig for working while touring. I used to bring everything with me, including a Neve 8301 Kelso Sidecar, AKG C12 microphones, and a little amp that I would put in the bathroom. Needless to say my gear took a beating, and I also got lots of complaints from different hotels, so I joined the digital age.
There’s a little slide playing on Octahedron.
I used to play a lot of slide back when we were making the first record, but I haven’t done it in a while, and it felt really nice to get back into it. The slide thing is part of the Barrett influence.
Have you experimented with non-standard tunings?
Not yet. I get asked that question frequently because people think particular songs must be in some special tuning—but I can barely handle standard tuning. Maybe that’s another weakness that I need to work on.
You play with a pick and your fingers. Do you do those things individually or using a hybrid approach?
For some of the quieter parts I slide the pick to my pinky and use my thumb and first two fingers.
What picks and strings do you use?
I like the orange Dunlop Tortex picks and I use Ernie Ball strings gauged .013 to .056 with a wound third.
Wow, is that why you don’t use a lot of vibrato?
Maybe. I never realized my strings were so heavy until other guitar players were like, “What the f**k are you doing?” When John Frusciante realized I had them he was amazed and kept asking me if I was really doing all those bends using those strings. But if I use lighter strings I really pull them out of tune, because as I said I don’t have a gentle touch— and that also affects my vibrato. Someone like John plays with a lot of finesse, so you can hear all those little things that he does with the vibrato and everything, whereas my playing is sort of bulldozer-esque.
Speaking of Frusciante, what were his contributions to Octahedron?
Besides being a very close friend of mine who understands what I’m trying to do, John is another musician that I utilize to execute my compositions. What I look for in a musician is the ability to learn and memorize horribly fast, because I’m impatient. And they have to be able to do it without fear or reservations, and to play with all their heart and soul so that their personality comes through. In filmmaking terms, I’m the writer and director and the musicians are actors. They learn their lines and say them, and then we share the bigger story together.
In what ways has he influenced your playing?
He’s the reason I don’t have the affinity for the guitar that I should: because I know that I’m a phony. John’s one of those people that I’ve always wanted to be. He picks up the thing and there’s no separation between him and the guitar. Every single thing that he plays has finesse and beauty to it. He’s a natural, whereas for me it has come through a lot of playing and stubbornness, and thinking that the guitar and I are stuck with each other so we’d better make the best of it.
You’re a pretty good guitar player.
Thank you. I’m not feigning humility, I’m just facing reality. Some people need a reality check. I play rock music, which is like the lowest common denominator [laughs]. There are lots of truly extraordinary guitarists all over the world and the music can get really deep. To be hiding behind distortion and loud drums, and delay pedals has its charm and you can definitely do cool things that are interesting and exciting, but if you take all of those things away and put me in a room with an acoustic guitar and ask me play for a few people I will be terrified and clam up every time. I’m very flattered and proud to be perceived as a good or interesting guitar player, but it doesn’t define me.
How do you get into the right headspace when working?
For me “working” is really playing. And it’s all part of living, because I don’t really have a life outside of it. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke pot, and I don’t smoke cigarettes. I like to be up early, I like to meditate in the morning, I like to eat a great breakfast, and I enjoy food and watching movies and recording my music and making my films—it’s all tied together. If I’m doing those things then I’m doing what I need to be doing to make music.