Omar Rodriguez Lopez: Genius Set Free

By: Kayceman

Omar Rodriguez Lopez
There will come a time, many many years from now, long after the dust has settled, when we look back at this point in music’s vast history, and Omar Rodriguez Lopez will be left standing. There will be others for sure – luminaries like Jack White, Prince, Trent Reznor, Eddie Vedder, OutKast, obviously Radiohead, probably Trey, Jim James, Jeff Tweedy, perhaps Patterson Hood and certainly many more, but none are as prolific as Omar. Consider this, as of July 2 – almost exactly the halfway mark of the year – Omar has released four solo albums (with a fifth already done and scheduled for September) and one Mars Volta record (Octahedron – released June 23 on Warner Bros.). At this clip he’s looking at about ten albums for 2009, and that actually puts him right on schedule.

“I do like nine or ten records in between Mars Volta records; and that being a Mars Volta record every year,” says Omar over the phone from his new home/recording compound in Zapopan, Mexico. You caught that, right? Ten records a year. What the fuck?

But you know what’s even crazier, earlier in our more than two hour talk, as I tried to comprehend how he’s able to produce so much high-quality music in such a short period of time, Omar admits that he has “way more material that’s unreleased than I actually do have released.” So how the hell does one man write, record and produce so much music (not to mention the films and photography)? Like all the really big questions in life, there’s no easy answer or ingredient list that explains genius of this kind, but it definitely has something to do with kicking junk.

Cedric & Omar by Ross Halfin
Omar and his musical life partner, vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler Zavala (the two have been making music together since they were kids growing up around El Paso, TX) had major drug habits about which much has been written. Hard core junkie shit, mostly heroin and crack, but you know how junkies get. They shot bags and made music, primarily as the force behind post-hardcore heroes At The Drive-In (1994-2001). Shit got real nasty and people started dying, most notably close friend and Volta (as well as dub side project De Facto) bandmate Jeremy Ward, who overdosed in 2003. It scared Omar and Cedric straight – so straight in fact they are now hyper-healthy, yoga practicing vegans who don’t even drink coffee – and since then the flood gates have burst open.

“It’s like a faucet. Things are just coming out all the time and I have nothing else to do except put them down and document them,” says Omar. “I’m putting buckets under the sink and it’s leaking everywhere and I catch what I can.”

Contrary to the popular belief that once rock stars sober up their music sucks, it took getting clean for things to really take off for Omar. “I bought into the great lie of drugs which is, ‘You need me in order to be creative. You need me in order to be yourself’,'” he says. “And once I saw the other side and said, ‘Oh, well, not really, actually all that’s doing is magnifying things that are already inside of me. So, why can’t I be the magnifying glass? Why do I need something?’ Once I sort of grabbed onto that thread it’s been hard to let go ever since.”

Omar Rodriguez Lopez
Omar has pretty much seen it all – and gotten it out of his system – and at 33 he has no interest in any of the rock star bullshit or even the pedantic “normal” socializing of most young men. “I don’t really have a life,” he says. “I don’t do what someone my age normally does, like go out and drink and socialize and those types of things.” And if you don’t believe him, well, that’s a big part of why he recently moved from Los Angeles to Zapopan. Let’s just say the L.A. scene wasn’t his thing. Mainland Mexico is much more his speed nowadays.

Wise beyond his years and working without the haze of drugs, Omar has transferred the all encompassing time and energy it takes to be a full-time junkie into creating art, and this delicate combination of timing, place, talent and experience has given us one of the most prolific and, as history will likely prove, important artists of our time.

And you’ll notice I didn’t simply say “important guitarists of our time,” because to call Omar a Guitar God is limiting, nay, insulting. Although true, his rapid fire bunches of notes, alien-channeling effects and sonic storms certainly make him one of the most gifted guitar players alive (Rolling Stone lists him in their current “Top Greatest Guitarists of All Time”), but he is so much more. He’s a brilliant composer (he writes every single note you hear on a Volta album as well as his solo work), bandleader, producer (he’s produced every solo and Volta album since their 2001 debut, which he co-produced with Rick Rubin), label/production company owner of the newly formed Omar Rodriguez Lopez Productions (which grew out of GSL Records when it closed in 2007) and perhaps most important, a visionary.

When he and Cedric broke free of At The Drive-In and formed The Mars Volta in 2001, Omar knew what he wanted. He had a vision and he was finally able to seize his destiny. He would control every aspect of the music, Cedric would handle all lyrics/vocals and he would rule the music with an iron fist.

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I didn’t grow up with rock music. I don’t come from that rock sort of mentality… rock music is very limited in its format. It’s limited in its music, it’s limited in its approach, and it’s limited in the way people perceive it. People go to see a rock band, they perceive the singer. He’s up front. He must be the leader. He must be the person who does everything. They forget the frontman is there for a reason. He fronts the group. There’s someone else, you know, behind the curtain, there’s the Wizard of Oz somewhere.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez

“During the time of At The Drive-In, I was still a drug addict, so I was very much under the spell of not liking yourself and not believing in yourself, hating yourself and trying to destroy yourself at all costs. So, what that did was hinder my true self, to hinder what it is I’m capable of. I was constantly putting myself down and limiting my role,” explains Omar. “I think a lot of that came out of fear, out of saying, ‘I’m not good enough to… I’m not smart enough to… I couldn’t possibly… So I’m just…,’ and once I quit doing drugs and once I started The Mars Volta it started flipping and it became the opposite, it became, ‘Wait a minute, I can do anything I feel like doing. I’m only limited by my imagination.’ And all of a sudden there was this big realization that, ‘Wow, that applies to everything in life.’ So, if I want to grab control of our business and if I want to grab control and have it be my band and not have it be this fake democracy we had in At The Drive-In then I can do that, too.”

Omar Rodriguez Lopez
And that’s exactly what he’s done. Omar has taken control of everything and it’s not just The Mars Volta and all that goes along with it (the producing, writing, touring, etc), he records and tours under a dizzying array of monikers making it difficult for even the dedicated fan to keep track. In addition to The Mars Volta, there’s the simple solo recording name Omar Rodriguez Lopez, the Omar Rodriguez Group, Omar Rodriguez Lopez Quintet (which can shift from a quartet to a sextet) and the latest addition, El Grupo Nuevo De Omar Rodriguez Lopez.

Certainly this seems a bit excessive – aren’t these all really just Omar side-projects? Well, not so much side-projects but extensions, and like any gifted artist blazing at the peak of his creativity, it’s always changing, shifting, pouring over the rim, busting out of the faucet. And when a new project is formed with new musicians playing new/original material, Omar gives them a new name.

“People have to remember, too, I didn’t grow up with rock music. I don’t come from that rock sort of mentality, like you’re in Kiss and that’s it. I grew up with salsa music and my heroes were Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe. And it’s just this whole different thing. These are records like jazz music. These are records where the bandleader, for all you know, is the guy playing the two sticks, you know? Not the singer,” he says. “And rock music is very limited in its format. It’s limited in its music, it’s limited in its approach, and it’s limited in the way people perceive it. People go to see a rock band, they perceive the singer. He’s up front. He must be the leader. He must be the person who does everything. They forget the frontman is there for a reason. He fronts the group. There’s someone else, you know, behind the curtain, there’s the Wizard of Oz somewhere.”

But this Wizard isn’t smoke and mirrors; Omar is the real deal. And this is it, folks, this is perhaps the single defining kernel of what makes Omar’s music so “important” – and if you aren’t yet willing to go that far, then at least compelling, entertaining and original. He ain’t from this part of town, and he didn’t grow up on American rock radio. Born September 1, 1975 in Bayomón, Puerto Rico, Omar came from a house where – like most Latin families – salsa music was a cornerstone of everyday life. He isn’t limited by four chords and power moves. Omar is definitely operating on the rock landscape, utilizing such visceral, psychedelic brutality that at times it’s often too heavy for new ears, but instead of being rooted in the blues it has grown out of Latin soil, and that changes everything. The rhythms are different, the tempos, the way it flexes, the heart and the soul. By taking all that and plugging deep into heavy psych, post-punk and experimental waters Omar is truly adding pages to the modern rock history book – scratch that – he’s adding chapters.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez by Market Felice
The latest additions, the 2009 Chapters if you will, thus far include the Volta album and four solo ones with the majority of the non-Volta work being recorded around 2006 while Omar lived in Amsterdam. It may seem odd that we are just now hearing the stuff recorded in 2006, but this is how the man works. He loves the process. It’s about creating music, not creating product. And because of the velocity with which he operates, he’s always moving forward, only stopping to actually release albums when the “craving” strikes him.

This process of constantly making music borders on obsessive and you might say it’s his new drug, with guitars and sheet music replacing needles and balloons, but there’s more to it, a very tangible goal to the proceedings. “Think of it as if I’ve been running,” he says. “I’ve done enough jogging and running that I’m very fast, or I’ve been lifting enough weights to where I’m really strong by the time I get to the Mars Volta record.”

However, it’s not that the solo work is a disposable exercise or the songs are all that different than what eventually makes it onto a Mars Volta album. “When it’s actually happening, when the material is being written, there is no separation; I don’t ever sit down and go, ‘Now I’m writing a Mars Volta song. Now I’m writing a solo song’,” he explains. “But that having been said, definitely anything that I do – whether it becomes a solo record or what not – anything I do ends up being an exercise for when I do get to quote-unquote focus on a Mars Volta record.”

The material is always broken up after the fact as Omar looks it over and finds groups that work together, the core idea being that he’s always refining ideas leading up to his yearly Mars Volta masterpiece. The five to ten solo albums he’ll release in a year on his own label are ways of fleshing out ideas so that when the major label (read: big money) production (and we must always remember Omar is the producer as well as guitarist and bandleader) arrives he’s 100-percent ready with laser-lock vision.

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This is my band. You’ll be playing my music. If you’re not okay with a dictatorship then this is not the place for you.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez on The Mars Volta

Photo by: Hadas

But before we can get to The Mars Volta main event, we have to do our training. This year’s regimen began with the release of the Rodriguez Lopez Production’s Megaritual on January 26.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez
Megaritual was a really fun one,” says Omar. “I was living in Amsterdam at the time, and my brother [Marcel Rodriguez Lopez] came to visit me. That one started as just an exercise to be closer to my brother. Because of our age difference I didn’t really get to know him because I left home at a very young age. We’re eight years apart and I dropped out of school and left home when I was seventeen, so he was very small. When I finally came back to the family structure and made amends then I was always on tour. And so I got to discover my brother by inviting him into the band. It was sort of always the idea that I would bring him into the factory eventually. When I did that’s how I got to know him – through being on the road and being on tour. Then when I moved to Holland, I would invite him there to come visit me, so it could be just me and him. And that’s what this record was; it was an exercise in just me and him. I went to the studio and I showed him the songs and he played drums, and between me and him we played all the instruments. There was nobody else, so it was just a really nice moment for us.”

Next there was Despair, also released on Rodriguez Lopez Productions on January 26.

Despair was just when I went back to Amsterdam from Israel, and it was sort of my meditation on Israel, Palestine and Syria, and sort of what the experiences I had had there and the things I had brought back with me.” Which include the infamous Ouija board purchased from an Israeli flea market which became the catalyst behind the band’s “cursed” 2008 release, The Bedlam in Goliath (read more about this from Kayceman’s 2008 talk with Omar and Cedric here).

Then there was the January 31 release of Old Money, which was a “meditation” on American corporations and yup, you guessed it, their dirty, stinky, old money. Most recently, the May 5 release of El Grupo Nuevo De Omar Rodriguez Lopez’ Cryptomnesia, which in addition to Cedric and bassist Juan Alderete (who is involved in almost everything Omar does – including the Volta), features Hella drummer Zach Hill.

Cryptomnesia was a meditation on bad manners,” sighs Omar. “This drummer that I had for a minute in The Mars Volta was such a bum-out and just had such bad manners in general that this was sort of my little vacation. And I called up Zack Hill, who’s an amazing individual and very conscientious and very wonderful to be around and really, really great to work with. I say it’s a meditation on bad manners because the conclusion I came to was that it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be a struggle. It doesn’t have to be like pulling teeth.”

The obvious question now is, which of the two previous Mars Volta drummers is Omar refereeing to: Jon Theodore or Blake Fleming?

Thomas Pridgen & Cedric Bixler Zavala by Scavo
“Both of them,” he says without hesitation. “Jon was in the band for a while and he just…I still don’t understand why he was in the band. He didn’t seem to like my music. He didn’t like me directing him. He didn’t like certain people in the band but yet he was in the band, and it was such a strange marriage because I just kept going, ‘Ah well, after the next record I’ll fire him.’ And that turned into two or three records. This is very unlike me. Usually I’m a person who moves on very quickly, and so finally I moved on. Then I made the mistake of giving Blake another chance because I’m a strong believer that people can change.”

After the experiment with Fleming blew up Omar started to question himself. “What is a bad attitude? Can I blame the other person or is there a part of me, too?” he asks. What he learned was that “it’s just a matter of personality. It’s like the progress reports when you’re a kid – ‘Does not get along well with others.’ It’s like some people enjoy misery… From this idea was where [Cryptomnesia] was born.”

This totally pleasant experience working with Zach Hill provoked Omar to start his search for a new Mars Volta drummer. Hill was and is deeply involved with Hella and Omar had no intention of poaching, so he just manifested a new drummer. “When you meditate on something, when you pray for something, when you give yourself over to something I think the universe or God or whatever it is you believe in always makes room for you,” says Omar. “And so the universe delivered Thomas Pridgen to me.”

“The addition of Thomas was the missing piece,” continues Omar. “Like I said before, I had two really negative drummers and all of us were trying to be on this high, on this wave and believe in what we’re doing and believe in my music and believe in Cedric’s storytelling, and even if you have seven [bandmates] that are like that, if you have one that is holding you back that’s like a ship that’s docked with a rope holding it back. Thomas believes wholeheartedly and he’s very involved in the band and he always has positive energy, always, even when things get a little weird. He has such a great attitude that I just can’t help but think that last piece was in place. All of that at the same time has carried us into this insane wave of energy that’s been 2008 and now into 2009.”

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This record is definitely a mellow record. It’s a melancholy record. It is not aggressive; it is the opposite of Bedlam. If Bedlam was asphyxiation and claustrophobia and fire and darkness, this is space, water, there’s this calmness to it. It’s definitely a new chapter, and that for me [is the most important thing] because my biggest fear is repeating myself, having one record sound just like the next one.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez

Photo by: Julio Muñoz

This brings us to last week’s release of The Mars Volta’s fifth full-length, Octahedron. Clipping the lineup from eight to six people, Omar asked “sound manipulator” Paul Hinojos and horn player/multi instrumentalist Adrian Terrazas to leave (which they did amicably) and coincidentally or not, the band has created their most restrained, easily accessible and flat-out different album yet. If they hadn’t already won a Grammy (“Best Hard Rock Performance” for 2008’s “Wax Simulacra”) and weren’t already on their way to being one of the biggest bands on the planet, you might say this is their attempt to reach the masses. But, they’ve already done that, and if we’ve learned anything about Omar it’s that he bends for no one (as he said earlier, “This is my band. You’ll be playing my music. If you’re not okay with a dictatorship then this is not the place for you”) and he certainly isn’t catering to any sort of radio play or MTV presence.

Omar & Cedric – The Mars Volta
“This record is definitely a mellow record. It’s a melancholy record,” says Omar. “It is not aggressive; it is the opposite of Bedlam. If Bedlam was asphyxiation and claustrophobia and fire and darkness, this is space, water, there’s this calmness to it. It’s definitely a new chapter, and that for me [is the most important thing] because my biggest fear is repeating myself, having one record sound just like the next one.”

While Octahedron is receiving high marks precisely because of this change in course many longtime fans of the heavy, never-ending onslaught of their prog past may feel a bit letdown.

“Unfortunately for a certain type of fan that’s [inevitably going to happen] – they want to relive whatever record, the second record, the third record, whatever record it was when they fell in love with their girlfriend, whatever record it was when they fell out of love or when they went through this traumatic experience. Whatever it was they latched onto they want to relive that feeling, but from the complete other side, from the creative point of view, it’s the exact opposite – you want to have a brand new feeling, you don’t want to relive feelings. You want to feel like you’ve moved on.”

Clearly Omar has moved on from the weight of Bedlam, placing more emphasis on eerie, tension-filled ballads over psychedelic cliff hangers (although there are plenty of head-shredding moments), but Octahedron is still very Mars Volta and if you really have been following the band’s career it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Omar by KJGuch
“I’ve been talking about making [this kind of record] for years with the people in my group. I’ve been saying I want to make a record that’s just like the mellower sounding stuff like ‘Televators’ on the first record or ‘Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holly Anymore’ on the second record, things like that, the really moody stuff that we do. I want a record like that,” enthuses Omar. “And I just love it so much. It sounds so fresh and exciting to me, and it’s a record I can listen to right now! Normally when I finish a Mars Volta record that’s it, I can’t hear it again.”

But, that’s really only half the story. After the writing and recording comes touring, and considering the Volta put on one of the most technically impressive, wildly chaotic, critically acclaimed, fan-worshiped hard rock shows around, the live thing actually supersedes the album.

“The record can never compare, not even close. As much as someone might enjoy the record, it can never come close to what it is we do live,” remarks Omar. “Another thing I’m getting into is I want to be able play more songs when I go on tour. We’ve been playing theses same songs and some of them just go on forever. I love the fact that we’ll be able to have mellower stuff in the setlist and mix them in. If you saw us this last year, seeing a Mars Volta show was sort of like being punched in the face the whole time [laughs]. It will be really nice after a year of touring like that, of just fucking boxing every single night, it will be really cool to present a film with dynamics.”

Yet as much as Omar is driven by his artistic desires, he’s only human and, like all of us, he wants to be liked. There is a distant concern about how longtime fans (who are viewed almost like friends) are going to swallow this mellower stage of the Volta’s career. It’s a classic scenario for bands, but the great ones never stop pursuing their muse – Screw expectations! Who cares what already works?!? – and Omar knows this. But a little confirmation never hurts, and when I tell him that any real fan of the band as a whole (not one album or one song or one moment in time) will embrace this, and in fact doesn’t care what songs the band plays they just want to experience whatever the artist wants to present – Omar is overcome with joy.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez
“Man, you just made my day!” he shouts. “I say that same thing so many times when I’m doing interviews and sometimes they [the interviewer] just has a blank look on their face. I often bring in this point that I’m a fan of music myself. I also like bands. And when I like someone, if I like Blonde Redhead or if I like Radiohead or whoever it is I like, I’m not going because I want to see what I think they should play. I always say exactly what you just finished saying – I want to see where their heads at. I want to see what their experiencing, what they’re feeling, because I’m a fan.”

And like Radiohead or Blond Redhead, heck, like all of us, Omar is getting older. He’s no longer the angry, drugged out young punk, nor is he the 20-something scratching for his piece of meat. He’s changing, growing, and just as any person striving to fulfill their potential must constantly evolve, it’s critical that artists do the same. The problem is marketing schemes are built on re-packaging hits. They don’t count on fans following a band into new terrain. But, it’s the artists who flip-off the suits and do whatever the fuck they want as they constantly careen forward that become legends.

“It goes back again to a lot of people who are taught by society to try to relive moments, and then there are those of us who are looking for the next moment,” says Omar with a dramatic pause. “Unfortunately, that’s the sad the truth – people can’t let go of the past, ‘Oh remember the summer when… Remember this… Remember when I was young,’ and it’s why people have a midlife crisis and they end up piercing their ear and getting a Corvette. For me, I’m embracing getting older. I like that there’s something new coming. I enjoyed the shit out of when I was younger, and I enjoy the shit out of every single era, but I definitely don’t want relive it again. I already went through it. I want to go somewhere new.”

The Mars Volta is on tour in Europe now. Dates available here.

For more on The Mars Volta see our 2006 exclusive feature/interview with Cedric here.

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