Omar Rodriguez Lopez: Everything Sparks

By: Dennis Cook

The Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group is currently on tour. The band plays this evening, April 1, at the Grog Shop in Cleveland, OH and full tour dates can be found here.

new anthology
Telesterion is a heavy title for an album. A place of mystery, prophecy and insight to the Ancient Greeks, Telesterion is also the title of the first comprehensive anthology of the voluminous solo work of Omar Rodriguez Lopez outside of the official Mars Volta catalogue. It’s cheeky yet oddly fitting that a place closely tied to the Eleusinian Mysteries serves as the jumping off point for a carefully assembled, lovingly herky-jerky expedition through some of the most blessedly gnarly, wild ass music made in the past decade. Telesterion, the anthology, arrives on April 16 (Record Store Day), and serves as a concise place for people to begin exploring Lopez Rodriguez’s genre obliterating, rock infused muse. Rodriguez Lopez Productions creative director Sonny Kay picked the songs and sequence because, as Rodriguez Lopez says, “I have no perspective on how to give someone insight on me having fun.”

We pulled up a chair with Omar and dug into God, creativity, the music industry, Afros and more in anticipation of this killer-diller compilation (full track details here) in a conversation that highlights that Rodriguez Lopez is one of the most fearless, open-minded and downright enlightened cats making music right now.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez by Jake Krolick

JamBase: The overriding impression your solo material gives is that you’re having a blast just seeing what you can get into and seeing what interesting sounds and musical byways you can explore. As much as I love The Mars Volta, there’s an immediacy to your solo work where the ideas feel like they’re being born in real time.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez: That’s really what it is, my ideas unrefined. I’m just going through my ideas and putting thoughts together. It all started not because I wanted to do solo records but because my contract with Universal bought my Mars Volta name. I’m only allowed by contract to put out one record a year under The Mars Volta name. For someone that composes 300-400 songs per year, it’s pretty brutal to be allowed twelve songs per year. And that’s them compromising! So, I got a [clause] put in that allows me to put out music as a solo artist under my name. But really for me, there’s nothing inside or outside Mars Volta. Mars Volta is my heart and soul. It’s my baby.

So, I have a lot of ideas, and out of those I choose twelve to expand upon [in the official Mars Volta capacity] and the rest I can put out on solo records, where I don’t really go in and scrutinize or judge these ideas as much. For some people, it’s like, “Well, these are just leftovers [laughs].” I don’t see it that way. People will always make judgments. Even other musicians have judged me because they think I put out too many records. They think it’s me being arrogant. I think, “Don’t you play music? Isn’t that what you do in your life?” They say they edit themselves, but I don’t have that in me. I was raised in a much different way. I was raised to speak my mind. I have two loving, forward thinking parents. I’m from Puerto Rico, Latin culture, where there’s a set way to do things. So, raising a kid on meditation and vegetarianism makes you the village freaks. That’s very, very different from what was happening in the First World in the 60s & 70s, especially in England and the United States.

JamBase: I find your perspective, as an artist in general, is a few degrees left or right (or wherever you want to put the angle) from industry norms. The fact that anyone, especially other musicians, would give you grief for putting out more than one album in a year means they’ve internalized that bullshit thinking. A band like The Beatles put out three albums plus singles in a year, and that was the norm!

Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group by Jake Krolick
Omar Rodriguez Lopez: Creative people have bought into the rules that business people set, business people who say this is how a song should sound and this is how long it should be, etc. And that dynamic just keeps getting more refined, if you can call it that [laughs].

In your process, how do you decide which ideas are going to be Mars Volta pieces and which are going to end up on solo albums or even the cutting room floor?

In Spanish there’s an expression that means “whatever you crave.” It’s like one day you wake up and think, “Mmmm, Indian food for dinner tonight!” and other days it’s a dilemma. It’s as simple as that. I’m not going to block the sun with my finger and pretend there’s not a part of me, having made a living off of just playing music, that doesn’t listen when someone says, “That part is really catchy. You might want to use that for Mars Volta.” But for the most part, it’s just answering that craving. The mind narrows it down for you. Sometimes during the process, I realize I’m wrong or the craving changes and I’ll put this one in that pile and move that one back into this pile and use that one to fill in a gap. It’s like I have a storage place full of stuff and I’m constantly putting it into piles and moving it around [laughs]. People have this idea of what a traditional process is and that’s just not what I do.

Your work always keeps the conversation with the listener interesting. You don’t dumb down that conversation for anyone, too. One sees that right in the title of this upcoming anthology, which is the kind of word that sends folks scrambling to Google. I love that you raise the level of discourse with your work.

The Mars Volta at Big Day Out in Australia 2010 by Alex Anastas
I have to point out that I only do it because it’s fun. I’m not trying to please or challenge anyone but myself. I love history and literature. My senses go off and I start imagining things, all the great things that are out there in books. Making music takes on a whole new dimension when you’re interested in EVERYTHING. I’ll be walking down the street and I see a funny phrase or see a sentence or catch a word as someone passes by, and I record it in my mind. It sticks in my mind even if I don’t know what it means. If it sparks off an image, then it’s worth using. That’s all being creative is – pulling from yourself and others and what’s happening in life.

The best art is that which overlaps in multiple places with other disciplines. Film is a more obvious example of this because it’s clear you have writers, cinematographers, sound design people, actors, etc. pooling their creativity for a shared goal. Music isn’t as obvious in this way.

People perceive that things are separate but they’re not. Anything and everything can inspire notes and those notes become songs. It’s all out there happening all the time. My only craft, if I have one, is being able to translate what the antenna is receiving. My antenna is always on, and I’m able to receive and translate that into music. But we’ve all been dumbed down and conditioned by society to not listen to that antenna. We’re conditioned by society, some of us are conditioned by our parents, and then we’re conditioned by school, relationships, etc. I’ve been VERY fortunate to have parents who from the start said, “Listen to that antenna. Always listen to the inner voice.”

Omar Rodriguez Lopez
By Jake Krolick
My concept of God is much different than someone who was raised to see God as someone to fear and obey. From a very early age, it was made clear to me that the inner voice is God and I am God. God only means – after being raised by my mother – what you shape it to be in your mind. Whatever shape you give it in your mind, that’s what it is. It’s knowing that you pertain to something, that you are part of something and it’s not just the “I” – there’s something bigger you’re connected to. By experiencing the love between my mother and I, the day I realized I came from her and that she bled to have me, that day I found God. I found God in the violence it took for her to give birth to me. When you think of the world in those terms, the world becomes beautiful and everything becomes inspirational, everything becomes great.

Sadly, that’s not how many, many people see the world and one another. Many are raised in a way that nurtures an appetite for fear and distrust and judgment on others. An organization like Fox News just stokes all the darkest parts of human interaction. That’s not the world I see when I wake up each day, but it is the landscape inside a lot of people’s heads. I think what you’re talking about gets to a much older notion of God. In the Gnostic gospels for Christianity, for example, the depiction of Jesus’ Last Supper is very different than the hierarchical depictions by the church. In the Gnostic telling, Jesus says, “He who drinks from my mouth will be me and I shall be him.” The apostles then drink wine directly from his lips, and the understanding of the God-Man relationship is more Buddhist in nature. It’s a direct answer to sky gods and authoritarian religions. But I digress [laughs].

I do think there’s a spiritual element to what you do. From the first time I heard your music, it was obvious that you are seeking to create something more than product.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez by Jake Krolick

Definitely, without a doubt! The end result is not even an issue. That’s why it doesn’t matter whether someone likes or dislikes what I do. The end result is not the thing. The thing is the process, what you have to do to create what you’re discovering. That’s just a superficial metaphor for life and spirituality, but the thing is not where you end up, it’s what you learn during the process, it’s how you look inward and how you find yourself through everything you’re doing.

The first principle of the Bhagavad Gita – which my father and I read at a very early age – is think of the work and not of its fruits. That is the lesson. So, if someone’s thinking, “I want to be enlightened, I want to be enlightened,” they’re thinking of the wrong thing. The work, the process, what you’re doing is the thing. The little micro IS the macro. For me, music has never been a means to have a record and then a record deal and so on. That’s never been the point. Yes, those things happen along the way, and these superficial things, I might add, were manifested by the intent and the process. The process is what got us there. We wanted to play music and express ourselves and reach deep inside and push out all the sickness and things we reject of society and ourselves. And we love music, so we used that to push these things out. And we love travel and we get to do this healing thing, and we get to do it everywhere, all the time. I feel blessed that I get to do this for a living. I can’t be upset about anything [laughs].

There’s something powerful about recognizing the gift of your existence.

It’s become a trend for bands to complain all the time. I think, “Man, have a sense of humor! Think about the fact that you get paid to travel around the world and play your music.” The concept [of complaining] is just silly in that situation. I work, I don’t have a job – there’s a big difference.

I like that you bring up humor because you often get labeled as a serious artist. I think your music is very playful and flecked with humor. Maybe a bunch of people just don’t get your sense of humor.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez
That’s the best compliment I can receive. I’m really glad when that comes through, but it usually only happens with people who know me; when you’re talking to a much broader audience around the world, that doesn’t always come through. If you’re open to it, you can receive. I have a very dark sense of humor, and I have a very sarcastic sense of humor. A lot of the time I’m making fun of myself, or even someone else or a phrase I’ve heard. It’s all very lighthearted but I guess it doesn’t come off that way. I don’t know why [laughs].

I think a lot of it is unfortunate, but it’s part of the program of what you have to be to be blessed enough to play music for your living. It’s part of what we’re doing now – media – but at least we’re actually talking so I’m able to impart some of my character. Then that has to be filtered through you, then you have to filter it through an editor, and then your words are on a piece of paper, and then someone interprets them…

When I speak to a musician, I want to get past the latest album, the new tour, etc. and get down to operating principles, the stuff that drives them to make music, what fires them up to do this in the first place. I want to collaborate with artists to communicate something revelatory and fun and pleasurable about what they do.

The thing that’s wrong with media is that what you’re talking about isn’t usually the goal. That word you use – collaborate – doesn’t come up a lot with most media. The new record, etc. is just surface stuff, but do you have a philosophy? What is the point? That’s what we should be talking about, if anything.

The Mars Volta at Monolith Fest 2009
By Lewis Cooper
The other side of media I’m trying to appreciate more is when they take an image. Image is – at least from my experience – is created by other people. I know a lot of artists want to project a certain image, but image, from my experience, is something people put on you. You can’t really control that. Coming from At The Drive-In, this thing that’s just normal for me – having my hair be natural like anyone from where I come from – gets made a big deal of. When I was younger and used to shave my head and color my hair all different colors, and my mother would say, “You have such beautiful hair, why do you do this to it?” So finally, I did it for my mother and for myself, truly. Then, all of the sudden, people are writing about the Afros and not our music, and what it has to do with style and how it relates to the MC5. No, man, it’s just that my mom likes it when I grow my hair out natural [laughs].

So, for a while, I was standoffish for a while because there was a lot of unhappiness there. Through the years, I’ve tried to relax in front of the camera. I like being behind the camera though, and I realized that photographers are generally trying to get at something that’s just superficial and they go for that. Photographers are either too shy or too nice or too superficial to get anything real out of you.

It’s the rare photographer than goes further than skin deep.

This creates a situation where we just want to get a [photo shoot] over with. And then everyone just uses the serious pictures, even when we have a session where we’re laughing and having a good time. For some reason, the editors don’t choose those pictures.

That observation cuts to the heart of a problem with the perception of you and your music. People come in with preconceptions and they’re looking for confirmation of their them, which bars them from seeing what actually is.

Without a doubt. I find most writers have their story written before they speak with you. Normally, when I do interviews I feel the writer is trying to get to some point in their head, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it speaks to that idea of having a preconception and trying to prove it. That’s not a great tactic with me.

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