The soothing songs of the Mars Volta
The soothing songs of the Mars Volta
After a lull that lasted three years, the prog-rockers of the Mars Volta are back with a new concept album. On Noctourniquet, singer and lyrics-writer Cedric Bixler-Zavala takes as his starting point a nursery rhyme before emerging from behind some complex rhythms with a philosophical case for education.
It was a difficult birth, the new album from the Mars Volta. The quintet from El Paso, Texas, which rose a decade ago from the ashes of the cult band At the Drive-In, has emerged from a chastening period. Fans just had to get used to it. The group had always had a healthy work ethic and used to bring a new album out just about every year. Guitarist-producer Omar Rodríguez-López already had the foundations of their sixth album laid when Cedric Bixler-Zavala (second from right in the photo) coolly informed him that he needed more time to get everything sorted out. That was back in 2009. He explained to us what had happened since then.
What was the problem?
Cedric Bixler-Zavala: The fans have known for a long time what to expect from me. I’m a great fan of science-fiction literature, have been since I was a child. Omar asked me again and again to break out of that familiar way of thinking and write something the listener could identify with better. But I couldn’t manage it. I needed to take a break to figure out whether I still had anything to say.
You spent some time in a rehab programme to get over your addiction to weed. Did that help you to clear your mind?
Bixler-Zavala: Yeah, although I wouldn’t call it rehab myself. But yes, it did work. It brought a part of me back to the surface that I recognised from my childhood. That actually happened in a very natural way. After a while I was better able to face the everyday hassles too. All those new impulses made me a friendlier person. Maybe that is my naïve way of looking at the situation, but I really am convinced that the band is benefiting from it now. And with that new me new ideas came to the surface too.
If my information is right, Noctourniquet is about how parents influence their children, in a negative way. Correct?
Bixler-Zavala: Yeah, and I found the inspiration for it in the children’s song “Solomon Grundy”. It goes like this: “Solomon Grundy, Born on a Monday, Christened on Tuesday, Married on Wednesday, Took ill on Thursday, Grew worse on Friday, Died on Saturday, Buried on Sunday, That was the end of Solomon Grundy.” Actually, that story tells children from a very early age how life works. You are born, go to school and then out to work, and die. The underlying message is: if you deviate from that, you’ll regret it. But I believe exactly the opposite: that you should teach children to think differently. I am convinced that all children are potential artists who could transform the world, that somewhere, in other words, there is a little Salvador Dalí walking around, and a little Bukowski, and so on. If your child loves music, then let him go to music classes. Let him express himself. We can’t all be footballers or lawyers.
It seems to go deep. Is there an autobiographical side to it, maybe? Did your parents let you do what you were born to do, make music?
Bixler-Zavala: Mmm, yes and no. All parents are afraid that you will take decisions that will bring in nothing later, mine too. But loving your child also means being able to let it go. And yes, my parents too often said during my youth: “You’re crazy. You should just keep music as a hobby.” It was only at the annual family reunion in my parents’ place that you occasionally got to perform. But the rest of the time the message was too often: above all, don’t be yourself. My message is: be yourself, stamp, shout, sing, and dance, as those are all the things that create the buildings that we call life. What I’m really doing on the new album is making an impassioned plea for everyone to follow his or her heart.
On one of the new tracks you present the bogeyman as a metaphor. How does that mythical figure that terrifies children fit into the concept?
Bixler-Zavala: My most important character is called Sol, after Solomon Grundy, but he has become his own bogeyman, if you get me. At the end of the children’s version he is buried, as he really just admits that he has given up pursuing his own dreams. Again and again, in the mirror he sees the monster that prevents him being who he really is.
The closing track on the new album, “ZED and Two Naughts”, is a tribute to the director Peter Greenaway.
Bixler-Zavala: I’m crazy about The Cook the Thief the Wife and Her Lover. Even as a kid I thought films like that were great. The “ZED” in the title stands for the letter Z, the “two naughts” for two “o”s. That gives you: Zoo. What I mean by that is that life is a zoo. When are you going to break out and live in the wilderness again? That is the key question that everyone has to ask themselves.
So the artists and creative people are the ones who visit the zoo now and then and the others are behind bars?
Bixler-Zavala: Yeah, and they think that’s great, as it is really comfortable there. They get fresh food and an occasional visit and can lie around on their lazy butts in the sun all day. [laughs]
For the first time in a long time, John Frusciante didn’t play on a The Mars Volta record. How come?
Bixler-Zavala: Omar always wants to try out new things. At past recording sessions he wanted above all to produce and to set out the musical lines. John is still a brilliant musician and was the obvious man to replace him on guitar then. But this time Omar felt like playing guitar again himself. And John is involved in completely different stuff these days, and he’s right. You have to keep on imposing new challenges on yourself; otherwise you will freeze up and you will finish up in some monkey house or other yourself some day.
Is that also the reason why you have picked up the thread with At the Drive-In again?
Bixler-Zavala: Yeah, could well be: everything has been smoothed out by now. We offered our apologies to the guys, because we didn’t always treat them fairly after the band stopped. We were young and immature and we sometimes had a go in the press. And hey: during the reunion concert at the Coachella festival I was going around all the time with a big smile on my face. What that means for the future? Well, we’ll see, but anything is possible when people are friends again.
The Mars Volta
26/6 • 20.00, €28/31
Ancienne Belgique boulevard Anspachlaan 110, Brussel/Bruxelles,
02-548.24.24, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.abconcerts.be
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