Julio Venegas was nothing if not unpredictable. Coming of age in El Paso, Texas, he wrote, painted, recorded songs, played his bass guitar and — before he attempted suicide, before he became a cripple, before he shot rat poison up his arm, before he jumped off a freeway overpass into 5:30 p.m. traffic and to his death in 1996 — won the friendship of two young misfits equally immersed in the local music scene, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala. The latter two went on to form the nucleus of the progressive punk collective At the Drive-In, which dissolved in the late ’90s, leaving them to regroup as The Mars Volta in 2001.
Under the new banner, Rodriguez and Bixler set out to record an epitaph to Venegas. “Julio was an artist in every sense of the word,” says Rodriguez. “He was an extreme person. He lived every day getting himself into situations and always getting lost, so he had scars all over his body that let you know the places where he had been. When his mother died, he tried to kill himself. He shot up a bunch of morphine, but he didn’t succeed; he went into a coma. And when he came out of it, he had lost the ability to use the right side of his body. He had to learn to walk again, and once he did, he walked very awkwardly. One time he just combined different chemicals together and shot them up, and it shriveled up his arm.”
Venegas’ life and death have now been immortalized in The Mars Volta’s debut album, De-loused in the Comatorium, a meta-narrative in 10 movements in which songs combust as the sacred rhythms of the guaguancó and the merengue and the simple melodies of the guajira are distilled with pissed-off punk intensity, and tremors and explosions make room for guitar solos that stretch gracefully into the classic-rock territory of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Recognizant of the talent behind the Mars Volta concept, mighty forces have aligned to bring it forth: Rick Rubin produced, Red Hot Chili Peppers Flea and John Frusciante pitched in, and Storm Thorgerson (noted for the trippy covers he designed for the likes of Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath) oversaw the art direction.
Though the band — which features Rodriguez on guitar, Bixler in charge of lyrics/vocals/stage witchcraft, Ikey Owens on keys and Jon Theodore on drums — had released just a three-song EP last year, they’ve already picked up a cabala of followers who have been humming online about their incendiary performances at the Coachella festival the past two years, about Bixler’s Joycean proclivity for assembling beautiful imagery from nonexistent words, and Rodriguez’s skill at building up a hot groove only to destroy it, perversely and excitingly, in a frenzy of guitar-detuning mania. And thus for hipsters and critics sharpening their claws at the promise of something so pretentious as a “concept” album, and for the band itself, le jour de gloire est arrivé.
But in place of laurels, a cloud of melancholy rests on Rodriguez’s brow during a recent interview. Only a week prior, he and Bixler were back in El Paso burying another old, close friend: Mars Volta behind-the-scenes operator Jeremy Ward, dead at 27 from an apparent drug overdose. Entrusted with manipulating the pedals for vocal effects and triggering samples during live performances, Ward also contributed song titles and some of the characters rounding out the De-loused cast. “His death was a huge blow to the morale of the band,” says Rodriguez. “But something beautiful has to come out of it; there’s nothing else in the universe that doesn’t work that way.”
The De-loused story, which will be set forth in detail only on the LP version of the record (“To us, CD is an inferior format, and it was a way of making what we feel is the true art form a little more special,” says Rodriguez), revolves around an artist’s descent into a coma and the subsequent journey his subconscious undertakes to the different underworlds, galaxies and dimensions inhabited by his paintings. When he wakes up, he decides to take his own life — an act of unusual narrative cruelty for a protagonist who’s just come home from a hero’s journey. “To me, it’s like a really depressing movie,” says Rodriguez. “Did you ever see Chinatown? The ending is horrible. It’s not the ending that we want, but it’s that ending that makes the whole film so powerful and timeless.”
Ranging from the 90-second instrumentals “Son et Lumière” and “tira me a las arañas” to the nine-minute coda “take the veil cerpin taxt,” the song/poems on De-loused don’t start as much as they ignite; they fade periodically into jamming and sometimes come to breaks that would appear technically impossible to execute. Bixler’s sensual tenor tugs at you as if in a dream, most likely filtered through some of the reportedly 100 effects pedals used during the making of the record. “Inertiatic esp” contains stretches of melodic verse so beautiful as to simply make your heart stop, “cicatriz esp” is sliced in half by eerie rhythmic interludes suggesting a space walk or intrauterine retreat; “this apparatus must be unearthed” flows sweetly as a lullaby then crashes into a dense operatic chorus and culminates with a hair-raising finale in which the drums are played backward.
Backward, indeed, reels the mind, quagmired in pandemonium one moment, thrust upon Elysian soundscapes the next: This is progressive music not as in the oft-derided term “prog rock,” but as in a unified field of sound, lyric, emotion and intellect; “one big piece of literature,” as Rodriguez calls it, in which the listener is propelled forward into territories not yet imagined.
Nourished by the work of such notable mindfuckers as the German future-rock band Can and Euro film artists Werner Herzog and Federico Fellini, The Mars Volta say they write songs “egotistically,” on a plane of consciousness that depends on available enlightenment.
“Most of us in the band are dropouts who never finished high school,” says Rodriguez. “Our knowledge of the world or words or music or anything else doesn’t come from classrooms. It comes from an unending interest in everything that surrounds us — dialects that people have made through the centuries to communicate with each other, or musical movements that have happened, or artifacts found in weird places, or pollution in rivers . . . It comes from being really in love with how fascinating and violent and unexplainable the world is.”
Since finding each other in El Paso’s music scene as teens, Rodriguez and Bixler have almost merged into a modular unit that currently even shares the same Studio City address. “We’ve known each other since we were 13,” says Rodriguez. “We’ve toured in two different bands together, we’re around each other all the time. We’ve always pushed each other forward through space and through time.”
In their hometown, a dusty bowl on the cusp of the U.S.-Mexican border notorious for its drug traffic, sweltering heat, a population of a million and the mentality of a small town, the two young lads with big curly hair roused dismay and horror among local rednecks. “We definitely got fucked with a lot, beaten up a lot,” says Rodriguez. “I guess we look odd to some. We look homosexual, or we look like a lot of different things that upset people.”
Are The Mars Volta concerned that their young audience might be freaked out by the strangeness of the band’s new imaginary worlds?
“I hope people are challenged,” says Rodriguez. “I hope the kids read the interviews and wonder, ‘Who’s Fellini? Who’s Herzog?’ And I hope there’s some kid out there who’s only known about three-minute love songs on the radio and who’s never heard the rhythms of clave, listening to this in his room and realizing that he just can’t sit still and that he has to learn how to dance to it.”
The Mars Volta play at the Henry Fonda Theater, Tuesday, July 1.