James Mills

16:04 2nd October 2006

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The Mars Volta

There must be a moment between the back flips and tango gesticulations when Mars Volta vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala - on their current US tour - stares out at an arena packed with middle-aged Red Hot Chili Peppers fans and wonders whether the aforementioned gymnastics, the 20-minute jams of salsa punk abstraction and percussive onslaughts are really going to be worth the effort.

‘Amputechture’ is the band's most challenging album to date, and it's oddly ironic that it is currently being premiered across the US to seated audiences of gawping "soccer moms."  Speaking to Gigwise from somewhere between Toronto and Montreal, Bixler-Zavala sounds like he's very nearly had enough.  Pinning down what's making the ‘Amputechture’ tour unique, he says, "Trying to look like you're having a good time when nobody else looks like they're having a good time." 

It's a sense of alienation that seems very much at the forefront of what it's like to be involved in the Mars Volta - whether as a band member onstage, or as part of the crowd trying to make sense of the formidably harsh sound of zero compromise that makes their latest album so powerful, if not immediately likeable.  

The feeling of an entire arena struggling to make sense of what the hell you're up to is palpable to Bixler-Zavala, who has little interest in holding anyone's hand.   "We'll play something like ‘The Widow’ [single off ‘Frances the Mute’]," he says, "and then you kinda have this sigh of relief like, 'Oh, it's this band!'  At that point they're kind of like, 'Ok, we're supposed to like this, I guess?'  and then we launch into more ‘Amputechture’ material." 

The image of Bixler-Zavala as the stern prophet mercilessly sifting the true fans from the confused dilettantes is a hard one to shake, and his elitist tendencies very nearly become distasteful as he chuckles at the Chili Peppers fans who "don't even own a p-funk album."  But he does care about the people who come to see the Mars Volta, or at least is more aware of them than the band's relentlessly self-indulgent urge for exploration would lead you to believe. 

AmuptechtureIt's not the only sign of the Mars Volta beginning to engage with the wider world, and ‘Amputechture’ deals with issues from religion, cultural differences between Europe and South American to the pro-immigrant marches that took place in the US this spring.  It's also telling that the songs on the album evoke a sense of time and place for Bixler-Zavala, reminding him of specific locations during the ‘Frances the Mute’ tour, where ideas flowered and songs were created -- Poland for ‘Tetragrammaton’, Belgium for ‘Asilos Magdalena’.  In general, he says, "When I think of ‘Amputechture’ now and the way it sounds it reminds me of our stint at ATP.  Our jams there had a lot of the ideas that ended up on ‘Amputechture’.  Plus the weather was just miserable, and that was the perfect setting for the kind of things we're talking about on the album."      
 
If Bixler-Zavala freely imposes judgement on his audience, one can only guess at the kind of scrutiny the rest of the Mars Volta go through.  As well as that seems to be working, it has resulted in drummer Jon Theodore's expulsion from the band for "laziness" and lack of commitment.  Says Bixler-Zavala, "you can't be in a band, or a relationship with someone, if you're constantly asking, 'Do you really like me?'  And they don't really like you, they just like the benefits of [the relationship].  We come to a city, and we play one album live, but we're making another album during the day and then [that night] after we play.

"And Jon just wasn't having that.  Jon likes his women, Jon likes his surfing,  Jon likes his drinking...  You can ask any fan that was in Hamburg when we played for Frances the Mute.  We were set to play the last thirty minutes of the set and Jon took off, because the night before he partied too much."  So Theodore out, and Blake Fleming in.  According to Bixler-Zavala the difference in work ethic between the two is like night and day.  "If I were to walk over to [Blake] now and say 'we need to record some ideas,' he would drop what he was doing.  He understands the music comes first." 


The Mars Volta

Fleming's history with the Mars Volta actually goes back further than Theodore's, the former having been replaced by the latter during the embryonic stages of the band.  Fleming had moved to LA to live with Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez for five months as the Mars Volta's first drummer, before leaving on unfriendly terms.  Bixler-Zavala recalls Fleming's initial stint in the Mars Volta:  "Apart from the fact that there was a lot of drug intake, we were just not getting along.  There was a lot of miscommunication.  At the time he was involved with a woman who was very controlling.  Some of her ideas were a little off kilter, and it just wasn't working.  She wasn't in the band, and she was trying to be in the band.  We just couldn't have her around.  She was always trying to put her two cents in and she had no idea what the music was about.  That's where we [Blake and the Mars Volta] butted heads.  He was into the girl and we weren't into the girl.  And so we said, 'Well, we're going to find somebody else who's into being in the band without having the crutch of needing a woman with him all the time.’ 

"For all the stereotypes and all the myths behind Yoko Ono... there was a moment when I used to buy into that thinking yeah she's the fucked up one, and she fucked everything up for the Beatles.  But the girl [Fleming] was with at the time was very much the embodiment of that.  It's like the Spinal Tap movie when the wife comes in and goes, 'Ok I have these sketches for you guys, you're going to be the bug and you're going to be the lion...'  She was totally like that.  We said we don't want her and he said well I want her and I can't be without her and so we said, 'sorry.'"  Needless to say, Fleming is no longer with "Yoko" and so is, in Bixler-Zavala's eyes, the perfect drummer for the Mars Volta. 
 
Religion comes closest to being ‘Amputechture's overarching theme, and Catholicism especially bears the brunt of Bixler-Zavala's vitriolic resentment.  "I grew up being forced to embrace it.  I was the kid in school who argued with my religion teacher.  I was doing so bad in public school they thought it would be great to put me in catholic school.  It gave me some distance between me and all the kids who were really into God.   I just think in general that Catholicism reminds me of people who think the earth is flat.  There's so much more to what is really out there.  And with Catholicism, there's so much unnecessary ritual -- sit down, eat this bread, give us money -- and if you're not careful you might end up with one of the priests."

He describes the song ‘Tetragrammaton’ as a "jab in the ribs of organised religion" in the sense that it refers to the name of God which, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is taboo and should never be pronounced.  In fact, Bixler-Zavala had to reassure keyboardist Ikey, a practicing Jehovah's Witness, that the song wasn't entirely blasphemous since it focuses mainly on the story of a Romanian nun who was brutally murdered last year because she was thought to have been possessed. 

As cynical as Bixler-Zavala is about organised religion, he's remarkably accepting of the wackier end of spirituality and has no problem relating the oddly mystical to his daily life in the Mars Volta.  "When we have most of our problems technically on stage, it's some of our friends fucking with us, our friends that aren't alive anymore.  Other than that, there's just moments where I just feel something else in the room.  I would like to hope that there is a spirituality involved in what we do when we play live - maybe not so much when we do these Chili Peppers dates - but when we do our own shows there are these gates that are opened.  It's not the skill, it's the fact that you have to open up everything about your head in order to make the music happen.  Paying attention to the antennas - they control you, you don't control them.  You have to give yourself up."

Whether these are the symptoms of borderline schizophrenia, or the merest glimpse at the level of commitment that hopefully won't culminate in poisoned kool aid, is anyone's guess.  What's undeniable though, is that if the end result of so much strangeness is an electrifying jolt of maverick creativity from a band that sounds like no one else, maybe being barking mad isn't so bad after all. 

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