Going Deep with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez

This month’s feature on Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is a primer for uninitiated listeners as well as a pertinent check-in for long-time fans. Space constraints and limited attention spans require a streamlined approach in conveying Rodriguez-Lopez’s musings to the masses, but as fans of his music know, he is not a man of brevity. In our 30-minute phone conversation we covered an array of topics spanning his entire career, so much so that there was simply no way to touch on most of it in the article. Rodriguez-Lopez, who plays the Triple Door tonight as part of City Arts Fest, was frank, honest and had a lot to say. Here’s all of it. -Jeff Kirby

You’re in Stockholm right now. How’s the European tour going so far?

It’s going really well. And thanks to global warming there’s some nice weather.

Any particular surprises, other than the nice weather?

That’s the main thing. I think this is the first time in 19 years of touring that I’ve experienced such a…well, I guess it’s not winter over here, but usually by this time of the year, and especially when you’re this far north, it’s already really cold, so it really is something different for me. It’s pretty nice.

Always good to find the silver lining, I guess. So this tour with Teri [Gender Bender] and Deantoni [Parks] has been double billed as Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group and Bosnian Rainbows. Is there a difference between the two?

Oh yeah, definitely. Bosnian Rainbows is the name of the group. The tour was booked five months before it happened, and it was going to be another solo tour, and then at some point, I decided to start a new group and have a team effort. So it got booked one way, but I try to make it clear every night that this is a new group, and these are the names of the players, and “thank you.”

So it’s going to be mostly new material then? Or is it going to be stuff off of Octopus Kool-Aid?

Oh, it’s all new material. You know, I have a problem with getting bored easily, and those records anyway—I’ve tried to clarify in other interviews—all the records that are coming out are old records, that I’m putting out for some reason or another, because they’re nice, or I have some nostalgia for them, but in the last year or so I’ve been working only in a collaborative effort. I’ve been working on my collaborative skills and playing well with others, and being part of the team, not the center.

You had said in an interview earlier this year that you were stepping down as “dictator” of the Mars Volta, and that the band wasn’t calling it quits but something had to drastically change. Is the dynamic in this new band significantly different than it has been before?

Yeah, definitely. It’s something that I haven’t had since At the Drive-In. It’s a true group in the most essential form. And that’s something funny in the way life works, because obviously doing films has taught me to be a collaborator, since it’s such a large medium, you couldn’t do it on your own if you tried, you know? And also hanging out with all my friends, Jim and Tony and Paul, the At the Drive-In guys, and being in that headspace again, life puts you exactly where you need to be. You can try and pull away from it, but it will always remind you where your path is. So yeah, this past year has been a really illuminating experience for me. 

Does this group give you a different fulfillment than the Mars Volta did?

Um, yeah, but every project does, you know? Just in the same way a film does, or when we made the Cryptonesia record or something like this, everything is a different color…What I try to stress always is, for me, there’s no difference. The separation is more for the outsiders. It’s for the benefit of people, because people like to separate: “This is an acoustic thing, this stuff is harder, oh this stuff is more what he writes for Mars Volta.” You know, people put all these labels on it, so they can see if they want to come over and check it out and experience what’s happening. For me, it’s all one big project. It’s one big long record, and that includes the films, essays, anything that I’m doing. That includes this conversation, and all the interviews that I do, because for me and the people I have around me, the only point of doing any of this stuff is to answer life’s deeper questions, and answer all those things that we’ve been asking ourselves. It’s a form of therapy; it’s a way to better yourself.

That’s what I think the function of art is: It creates a mirror and you’re supposed to better yourself and you move and you grow, in the same way that personal relationships do or romantic relationships do. When you look at it that way, then everything you’re doing, as long as it’s helping you, prepares yourself for death, which means becoming a better person, and letting go of all the ego trips. Then it’s easy to understand how this conversation for example is part of the project, you know? Because I do a lot of interviews, and a lot of the time it’s because someone is seeing it from the outside. You and I don’t know each other, and we talk on the phone, and you have a different perspective obviously than I do, because you’re you and I’m me, and you can ask me a question in the interview that would throw me completely for a loop because I’ve never thought of something that way, and so therefore it makes me start to question myself. Particularly when I have bad interviews. Those are my favorites, when someone’s really grinding you, you know what I mean?

I can start tanking this thing if you want.

(Laughs) Yeah, it doesn’t matter to me—I don’t have an end result in mind. I think that’s the only problem with interviewers or interviewees is that they have an end result in mind. For the interviewee, most commonly the end result is, “I want to sell records, I want to push something.” It has something to do with business, so they have to say a lot of bullshit that isn’t necessarily true. I don’t have that hang-up so I can say whatever I feel like, you know?

On this last run of Mars Volta interviews they were asking about the new record, so I am supposed to be a salesman and go, “Oh it’s great.” But I couldn’t answer like that because it’s not my truth. So I said what my truth was: “This record is three years old for me. I don’t relate to it. I’m in a completely different space.” I am not a good salesman. You see my point? I don’t have that end result in mind. I just have only my mother’s teachings, which is what most people are taught, I hope, which is, “Honesty is the best policy.” So, we have a conversation and I’ll answer the questions.

The same can be said for the interviewer. A lot of times the interviewer goes into it and already he or she has a story they want to write in mind, and they’re only interviewing a person to get the tidbits that will prove their thesis. I think if both parties could let go of any kind of end result we’d have some really amazing insights with both minds at work, the person being interviewed and the interviewer. Because, an interview, when given his or her craft, is still doing a piece of art. They’re still writing, it’s still literature, they’re still expressing an opinion, they’re comparing it to their own knowledge of history and art, their own cultural background, how they relate to it whether they’re a man or a woman, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The problem is, as you and I both know, is that commerce is the way of the future, meaning that business is what’s at hand for most people…There’s a story to be written that the editor wants and they’ll go at any lengths to make that happen and the interviewee usually wants to sell those records so he’ll go at any lengths not to offend anyone and to make sure everyone’s happy. That’s usually how it goes down.

Was there ever a point, especially throughout the Mars Volta, where you set out to purposefully alienate audiences? Like, you said, “I don’t care if this isn’t what people want, this is what I want, and this is what this crowd is going to get”?

That’s one way of looking at it, definitely. For me—and I said this at the beginning of Mars Volta—I had embarked on a very selfish endeavor. Maybe now with more time people have more of a perspective about it, but I always said since the beginning of Mars Volta, “I just came from eight years of doing a democracy. I’m sick of it.” Eight years we were in a band where we had to have a meeting about the shade of yellow on the fucking poster, so everything took weeks. And so I was very clear without any sort of apologies that I was burnt out on that and now I am doing a thing that is just me and my friend Cedric and I’m just going to go for it and I don’t care what anyone thinks. People say “self-indulgence” and I always said, “Yes, I am indulging in the self. I feel I deserve it, I am very happy to do it, and it’s a phase I am going through, please allow me to go through it, I’m sure one day I’ll come out of it.” That’s pretty much what’s been happening.

And so when you go into the realm of self-indulgence, most people see it as, “Well they’re saying fuck off, fuck me, he’s being antagonistic.” The point I always try to make is, no, I’m not being antagonistic. You don’t even factor into the equation. I’m not thinking about you. I would have to think about you to be antagonistic towards you. I’m making a record the way I would want to hear it.

When you make a record, you’re the one listening back to it a hundred times. You hear most artists talk about this when you interview them. I’m sure most of them say by the time that damn thing is mastered they don’t ever want to hear it again because you’ve heard it hundreds and hundreds of times. If you’re the one hearing, you better make sure it’s something that you yourself are enjoying, because at the end of the day no one is singular. Which means that if I am enjoying it then there are going to be other people who enjoy it too, because I’m not unique in that way, no one is that unique where you’re the only fucking person in the world who is going to like it.

We have a string attached through all of us, and all of us have similar traumas and backgrounds and sicknesses and overbearing mothers,  etcetera, etcetera, etcetera that’s going to draw us in to one color or the other. I repeat: That’s the beauty of expression, that’s the beauty of art, since the first man or woman made a painting on the wall that said, “I have to go out and kill a bear today” or whatever. People relate to expression because no matter what country you come from, no matter what culture, or upbringing, we all have the same questions: Love, death, sex, taxes…I don’t know. (Laughs)

You said you’re the one who has to listen to the record over and over again – is that why there was so much improvisation in the Mars Volta? Just to keep things fresh? I have seen you guys play whole sets where you just play two songs, but each song was like a half an hour long.

(Laughs) Yeah…yeah. That was definitely the purpose of it live, because on the recording there was no improvisation, and so it got stuck to a very specific thing. On the records there’s people taking solos, but that’s instant composition, but you’re doing it over a set architecture, and a set number of bars, in key, with a certain rhythm. That is exactly right: In order to keep yourself interested you do things to change it up.

You know, Mars Volta faced the problems that our songs just on record were about 7-8 minutes long, and so then we would go and play the festivals, which is where what you described would happen a lot. We would play the festivals and they would be like, “Okay, you got 40 minutes.” And so it became this odd thing of like, “Well what six songs…oh forget it. Let’s just play two of them. The two best.” (Laughs) “Let’s play the two best ones and see what happens and have fun up there.”

Overall, the situation of a festival is a double-sided sword. You get to go to these amazing places, you get to see these other bands and interact. Yes, it’s a lot of fun, but you go up there with no sound check, you have no idea what you’re walking in to. It’s a very unique situation playing a festival, it’s like the McDonalds of music, you know. It’s like, “Now you, go! Get off!” and everybody’s yelling at you from behind the scenes and it’s a real tense thing. But with any type of bureaucracy, you have two choices: You can be upset about it or you can find a way of getting joy out of it.

We went to the airport today. You go and you have excess baggage. The most logical thing would be that you pay at the counter, but some places you got to go down the hall, to the left, to the other building, and then you pay there, and then you bring it back and show the receipt. Either you can be mad about that and go, “What the fuck, why is this so…?” or you can find joy in it, and go, “Okay, that’s an adventure. I get to meet some new people down the hall, and maybe I’ll pass some…water.” (Laughs) You know what I mean? It’s all in the way you start viewing things. You can either complain about the situation at the festivals, or you can do something creative. That’s the great thing about limited budgets, limited time, limited anything. That’s the great thing about constrictions. That’s why artists should have constrictions—it forces you to be creative. Everyone says that from Cassavettes to Zappa: Limitations force you to be creative. So that’s how that all came about. I remember we did a whole summer of just playing two songs.

How much improvisation is in your new sets?

There’s some parts that can be stretched out, but if everybody could only see things in the way their own lives work, where you go through phases, where you eat healthy and then you’re eating junk food, and then you go back to eating healthy. Everything is a phase, and so you want the opposite of what you just had.

These are very much shorter, more to-the-point songs. They still have spaces that stretch out, but what I mean to say is that it’s all the same influences that have been in most of my writing and all the people in my bands’ writing. Can is there, Siouxsie and the Banshees is there, Gang of Four is there, all the Led Zeppelin, whatever…all those things are there, it’s just different elements of those things. You make it shorter. It’s stripped down, it’s starker. The very melodic side of Can; the very textural side of Siouxsie. You take all those elements, and you take elements that maybe you weren’t exploring as much before.

I guess my favorite reference in terms of just keeping it linear and simple and just talking about music would be Pink Floyd. They are one of my biggest influences in English-speaking music. Mars Volta borrowed from that left and right, because it’s always been a big influence. So here, instead of longer passages like “One of These Days I’m Going to Cut You into Little Pieces,” or some of the Atom Heart Mother stuff, now I’m exploring my favorite record by Pink Floyd, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Short pop songs. They still had areas where they improvised, and live they stretched it out a bit, but they were all very short, well-crafted, minimalist pop songs. That’s just one example. I’m trying to make it really tangible.

I appreciate that. The whole time that you were writing Mars Volta songs you were also putting out a lot of solo records, about 25 them over the last ten years. Do you feel that as you go on with Bosnian Rainbows you’re still going to have this excess creative output that you will keep releasing as Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group?

No. I’m slowing all that down. I just want to focus on the matter at hand. I’m putting all my energy into Bosnian Rainbows. If At the Drive-In decides to do something again they can count on my creative efforts, whenever we get back to the Mars Volta…I just want to focus on the matter at hand. And all that…what’s the word you used? “Excessive,” that’s a good word. All the excessive energy that’s there, I have learned—I am learning, I am learning—over the past years how to transmutate that, how to turn that into something else.

So maybe I’m learning how to turn those notes into images, for example. And maybe I’ll make more film. Or to turn those notes into more cooking recipes, for example. Maybe I’ll turn those notes into better conversations with people. Because all that energy is all coming from the same place. I’ve had the problem all my life that I am a shy person, a private person, even though it may not seem that way on stage—that’s a whole different fantasy on stage—but in my real life, in my waking life, I’m a shy person. I get around people and I don’t talk much. I want to talk more now, because I’ve learned over the last year or so that the more you open up and the more you talk, and more importantly the more you ask questions and allow other people to talk—because shyness works like that also, where you forget to ask questions and then you just sit there awkwardly with someone when you could be getting to know them. That’s what I mean about taking all that excessive energy and letting it flow and letting it be regulated throughout different channels instead of all coming out through one channel. Instead of all coming out through music, I can turn all that expression into all sort of different things, but most importantly, relationships with others.

You said that you are open still to doing more with the Mars Volta and At the Drive-In. People on the internet are very afraid that the Mars Volta is done. Are you on a hiatus, or are you on one of those “indefinite hiatuses” like Fugazi where you never actually break up but you also never get back together? Or is that something that you just don’t know?

I don’t know, and I’m not…insecure enough to have to ask myself that. It’s like, we’ve done that for 10 years, 11 years. Now we’re all doing different things, and everything that we’re doing informs how we express ourselves, and so if that happens then it happens and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. It’s not something to be worried about. It shouldn’t occupy a space in the mind. There’s way too many things that are much too important to occupy space in the mind. That’s first and foremost on my agenda: Who’s paying rent in my mind? If you’re a bad tenant, get out.

I was at the first week of Coachella this year, so I saw At the Drive-In’s first set, and you seemed, I would say, fairly unenthused about what was going on up there. Would you say that reunion was worthwhile or was it something more of a chore?

That’s a complicated question, for many reasons, so I’ll be brief on this one. Number one, the most important person in my life had just passed away, my mother, and so…

I’m very sorry, I didn’t know that.

That’s okay, I’m a very private person. I know most people didn’t know that. I had absolutely no desire to be around anyone else besides my father and my four brothers and my aunts and uncles, and I was pulled away from that out of yes, a duty to a compromise I had already agreed to. So, that’s first and foremost what you have to understand.

Second to that…I get asked this all the time, but I’m normally not as straightforward about it as I am right now for whatever reason, but the point I try to make is that it doesn’t matter what people’s perceptions are of what happens on stage. It’s just a band and we’re just playing music. Behind that is five people who have to live very real lives. And so I had that going on, Tony has his two kids and his business going on, Cedric has his life, Paul has his life, Jim has his life.

I think the main thing that I’m trying to say is that people, for whatever reason, tend to forget that a band is not just a product, that there are people behind it. If someone could always remember that then it would be much easier to understand what it is an artist is trying to say. People, they mystify the arts way too much. There’s nothing special about it. There’s nothing special about it at all. It’s just expression. We all go through it. We all cry, we all laugh, we all want to have sex, we all want to be loved. We all share that, no matter what corner of the globe you’re on. Your mother passes, and then you pass, and then your children pass, and their children pass, and so do theirs, etcetera, etcetera. That’s what I think about all of that.

Third to that, I will just add quickly because it directly relates to what I’m saying: At the Drive-In as it was is of no interest to me. I am interested in the five people in the group, because the chemistry between the people…that’s the music. What ends up on a record or on a stage is a result of that chemistry. That’s the thing. I’m interested in being around those guys. I have absolutely no interest or emotional connection to playing songs that I wrote when I was 18 to 23 or whatever. The only emotional connection I have is that I see that it makes people happy when I look out there, people who were way too young to have seen us live when we were actually around. That’s an amazing thing in and of itself, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the amazing situation I’m in that people care about something we did 11 years later, but I have no emotional connection to it, because the person I was then has died about three or four times since then.

When you think about the science of it, we shed our skin, we change our skin completely from top to bottom every seven years. And then you go inwards from that to what’s happening in the mind, and so many things have happened since then. I’ve played lots of these shows with At the Drive-In and the people in the front are like, “Come on! Throw your guitar! Do a backflip!” but I have no interest in entertainment, you know? “Dance, monkey, dance!” I have no interest in entertainment, I have interest in self-expression. If something is moving me then it’s going to move me, if it isn’t it isn’t, and if I’m having a bad night… I can’t feel bad about those things. No one should be made to feel bad about what they’re going through, but that’s just something that people do because of the mystification of expression.