By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
See Also: More from our interview over at West Coast Sound, "Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Is One Meandering Interview."
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez wears the same thing every day: teal-colored jeans and a fitted canvas jacket. His eyes are intent behind his glasses; his focus is acute. For the bulk of his 35 years he's been consumed with expressing his creative vision. Relentless in the pursuit of his own voice, he has alienated friends and collaborators. By his own admission, he's behaved like a dictator.
The brain behind Grammy-winning progressive rock group the Mars Volta, Rodriguez-Lopez has written all the band's music, mixed the recordings by himself and fired musicians at will — sometimes without so much as an email to let them know.
"I've been a real bastard over the years," he admits, perched on a couch in the top-floor sun room of his Echo Park production offices, looking out over L.A.'s sun-soaked Eastside hills. "All in the name of following my vision."
Wiry thin, he has an Einstein-style wild mess of dark hair and big, round, smudgy spectacles. He's the kind of guy who forgets to eat, shower or brush his teeth when he gets on a roll writing music.
He certainly has his admirers; devoted Mars Volta fans liken the band's members to gods. They obsess over their innovative, genre-shattering, long-winded compositions, full of changing time signatures, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala's high-pitched howling vocals and Rodriguez-Lopez's experimental guitar riffs.
But he senses that something's coming to an end. The Mars Volta's sixth album, Noctourniquet, goes on sale this week, and Rodriguez-Lopez is calling it his swan song with them. The band isn't necessarily calling it quits, he clarifies. "But something has to change drastically in it. I have to step down as a dictator."
He has decided to actually start collaborating with the folks he makes music with. What a concept.
First up on Rodriguez-Lopez's new agenda is getting back together with seminal post-hardcore outfit At the Drive-In for Coachella this year.
At the Drive-In formed in 1993 in El Paso, where Rodriguez-Lopez spent much of his youth. He was hitchhiking around the country when longtime friend Bixler-Zavala urged him to come home and join the group as its bassist. He later switched over to guitar.
At the Drive-In amassed a large underground audience during the mid- to late '90s, but Rodriguez-Lopez says he eventually got tired of "having a meeting about every single detail, every single note."
One day he blew up, he says, and he and Bixler-Zavala set out on their own.
But about four years ago, while living in Guadalajara, Mexico, Rodriguez-Lopez called up his old bandmates and invited them for a visit. They hung out and talked about old times, and he says he apologized for how he had behaved. "I knew that was my duty — to me as a person, first and foremost, not even to them," he says. "To admit it to myself and to say it out loud."
Born in Puerto Rico, he says his upbringing has a lot to do with why he's been focused on personal expression for so long.
The second of five boys, Rodriguez-Lopez was raised by hippie parents who ate vegetarian, fasted every Sunday and read ancient religious texts as a family. At a very young age, he says, he was taught to "examine the deeper meaning in things."
But the family's home was also one where salsa and bolero music played constantly. Having never been classically trained as a musician — or trained at all, really — he calls this part of his life his true musical education. Though largely it was just plain noisy. "The loudest person in the room was the one who got to speak, because everyone was speaking at the same time."
He now realizes that this affected how he's wired, and he believes that coming to terms with it helped him make amends with At the Drive-In. Since January, when the band members announced their Coachella reunion, they've also added summer shows in Spain, the United Kingdom and Japan.
In fact, it was the last time Rodriguez-Lopez played in Japan (with the Mars Volta last summer) that push came to shove with that group. It was there that Bixler-Zavala said he was tired of Rodriguez-Lopez running everything. "He was, like, 'Listen, you've had your way for 10 years. It's been your band, your project, we do everything you want ... that isn't a collaboration,' " Rodriguez-Lopez recalls. "And he's right, it hasn't been."
How it usually worked was this: Rodriguez-Lopez would record each musician's parts separately, and only when he was finished with the mix would Bixler-Zavala hear the music. Then Bixler-Zavala would write and record his vocals in isolation before handing it back to Rodriguez-Lopez, who'd finish it.
But for the recording of Noctourniquet — which actually was started more than three years ago — Rodriguez-Lopez took things even further, playing most of the individual parts himself. After he turned the record over to Bixler-Zavala, momentum stalled. It wasn't until late last year that the vocalist tackled his part, and only after the assurance from Rodriguez-Lopez that this would be the last record they made together with Rodriguez-Lopez driving the creative process.
saw Mars live at The Forum in '06? opening for the Chili Peppers...wish he and John would make more music together...
Ohhh, I didn't know that him and Ximena broke up! I'm not one of those fans that is nosey in anything outside of the music but it seemed like a great, talented couple. erm... Omar is amazing
Really good article. Everything i want to know about, and none of the same crap. Good job LA weekly.