Words by Evan La Ruffa, Images by Brent Murray
“Definitions of what I’m doing exist in other people’s minds, but not in mine. In my mind, I’m chasing what it is, and my tastes are constantly changing…Music. Art. Whatever you’re doing, it should mirror your life.” – ORL
For all the hyperbole surrounding The Mars Volta, there’s something beautifully affirmative about people who are unwaveringly devoted to making their mental projections a reality. Thus, the size-able niche Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has carved around his various projects is entirely based on his vision. He adds and subtracts pieces, instruments, and people, who come together creatively in shifting proportions, based on the tone of Rodriguez-Lopez’s next artistic revolt. In a years’ time, he releases more music than most artists release over 5 years. His impetus for pushing the boundaries of his own creative output is the same driving factor that has framed all great art that has ever existed in the world; a desire to grow and evolve through creative expression. Despite the formulaic nature of the music industry, Omar has been able to stay busy by working ahead of himself in an attempt to chart unexplored soundscapes.
IPaintMyMind was able to photograph and meet up with Omar before his show at The Congress Theatre in Chicago, IL (9.18.10), where he was finishing up a tour with the Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group, one of of his many musical endeavors. This was a rare occasion since Omar hasn’t tended to bring his lesser known projects on tour, opting for an array of studio releases instead. On this night, it was clear that the devoted fan base was excited to see his latest incarnation, despite a lighter crowd than can be expected when The Mars Volta rolls into town. The groups’ set-up for the show was apropos – drummer Deantoni Parks was sideways, front and center, with Omar behind him, and the band playing in a circular shape, as if huddled around the main power source in a one-room jam space.
Before the gig, we sat down with Omar as Le Butcherrettes blasted behind us. As the crowd livened, so did Omar, and we’re glad he let us engage his synapses despite a crazy night of travel before arriving in Chicago. Topics of conversation? The latest Omar release, Tychozorente, what’s next for The Mars Volta, fake democracies, and how Omar and I both want to apprentice under Madlib.
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EVAN: Lets start with whats been going on lately..I know I’m gonna butcher the name of the album you just released this week…
OMAR: …You can pronounce it however you want, it’s a made up word…
EVAN: I thought it had to be…(Laughs)
OMAR: Yea yea…Three different pieces of words I had seen somewhere and written in my journal at different points, and then they just sorta came together and I just thought it looked like an interesting word.
EVAN: And you made that album with DJ Nobody?
OMAR: Yea, actually, it was done awhile ago. It was just sort of sitting in the vaults, and I had done all this electronic music and had Ximena sing to it, and then there were some areas where some beats were missing, so Nobody just placed the beats in there….and then I was hanging out with Elvin (DJ Nobody) when I was in LA a couple months ago and he asked me what ever happened to it, and then so, I put it out.
EVAN: I was gonna say, cuz I hadn’t heard about it coming out, and then I was like, oh shit, new Omar album…
OMAR: Yea, I just kinda pulled it out and posted it.
EVAN: Nice man, and you don’t play any guitar on the album…
OMAR: Yea, that was during an era when I made several albums with no guitar on it…and then I started doing a blend with very little guitar…it was just where I was at, probably where I’ll be going again.
EVAN: Awesome…and as far as the Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group, this is one of the first time’s you’ve done a tour in the United States.
OMAR: Yea, I’ve usually done Japan, Europe, Russia, anywhere but the U.S. (laughs)…
EVAN: (Laughs) Why exactly?
OMAR: It’s hard to explain, it’s just a different mentality in the U.S. than in Europe or anywhere else, as far as what’s happening behind the scenes. You have to understand, when you’re an unknown band for example, when At The Drive In was first touring…when you tour in the US in a van and are unknown, everywhere you show up you’re treated as a nuisance. So you get there, and they don’t open til late, and then you ask them for water, and they’re like “argggh, hold on, well, I don’t know, you’re gonna have to talk to the promoter,” and blah blah blah. You get to Europe and they’re happy to receive you, they work out a place for you to stay, they cook food for you, it’s just a different mentality. Even on the level of being a person who’s known and who’s bringing people into their venue, and selling out the venue for them, it’s still a little weird…
EVAN: …It’s like shit man, am I imposing?
OMAR: Yea yea! There’s still just red tape…although I have to say, like The Troubador is a cool place cuz I have a good history with them, and they’re always really great… Highline Ballroom is really cool too…..but here’s an example, at another place, the promoter was great but the people who run the place…I brought cameras with me cuz I just wanted to film the shows and edit them for the fans, instead of all those shitty camera phones, and the promoter wanted to charge me $5000 per camera. They just wouldn’t let me film. But at the same time, people have HD cameras in the balcony, but they’re busting my guys’ balls. It’s just kinda ridiculous in this day and age…
EVAN: Not being able to film your own show seems nuts. As far as your music, I wanted to talk to you about seeing music visually, as shapes and concepts, as opposed to thinking of it musically all the time. One of the things that has always interested me about your stuff, was the thought of, did he really think of this ahead of time? Ya know, do you conceive it in smaller parts and then realize what the overall piece is as you organize it, or are you always focusing on the mental image you’ve had of the whole?
OMAR: It’s generally about the album and what the album’s missing, and so I think of it as a whole. Now that means that at times you have to micromanage things and think about certain individual parts once you realize what’s missing from the whole. Like when I wrote Frances (The Mute), when I first showed it to Cedric, I showed it to him as a drawing before I showed him any of the music.
EVAN: What was the drawing?
OMAR: It was just shapes. There was a triangle-looking thing at the beginning and at the end, and when I showed him the acoustic part that happens in the beginning and the end, he understood that…the pieces that grow and get bigger, like a film. Cedric, also being a non-musician thinks very much in those terms also, so he saw it and he got it right away.
EVAN: As far as the way you seem to change your focus from album to album, and go in a different direction. Do you look back at the previous album and say, as far as Volta, Octahedron, it was that, it was missing this, I want to make sure the next album contains what that was missing….
OMAR: In general, I definitely look at the previous album and try to revolt against it. Bedlam was a very heavy album, that’s why Octahedron sounded the way it did, and ya know, Octahedron for me was a failure, and so now I’m trying to do what I couldn’t do then, and see how I can do it differently… eliminate elements that I thought were right on at that time, and maybe bring in elements that I was afraid to do at the time.
EVAN: So why is Octahedron a failure? Just because it’s the last record? Sounds harsh…
OMAR: But that’s for me ya know? The difficult thing about creating something that other people get to hear is that everyone has their own perception of it and they get really tied to something. If you fell in love or had a breakup during a certain album, it represents something totally different for you than it does for me. And the same goes for me…people can get stuck on one thing, and it’s easier when you’re on the other side of it, when you didn’t make it, when you didn’t live with it for months, it’s easy to get stuck on it and say, “This is their best moment,” or “This is The Mars Volta.” So, definitions of what I’m doing exist in other people’s minds, but not in mine. In my mind, I’m chasing what it is, and my tastes are constantly changing. I have to chase that…
For instance, the album that neither of us can pronounce, that just came out (Laughs), it has some of my favorite stuff on it. I think this is amazing for me because it’s the first time I’ve written in a major key. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do, because it’s not natural for me. I have to work at it. And a lot of people have already come up to me and don’t get that. Like, “Why does it sound happy” or “Why does it sound like this”?
The easiest way I can explain it to them is, when you first get into a relationship, and you first start having sex, do you just settle on the first position for the rest of your life? (Laughs) You know what I mean? I hate to bring it to such a crude level but you have to think about it in its simplest form…No, you don’t (settle on the first position). Why? Because you want to try different things, the body just craves it. The mind craves it. It’s no different when making music. It’s the same type of high that is achieved during an orgasm or a religious experience, so this means that you want to explore, and see what’s out there. I’m constantly gonna be chasing the next thing because it’s what interests me.
EVAN: It’s funny because I’ve heard you make comments along those lines before, in different settings, and I end up thinking, of course it makes sense to push forward into new territory, just the way one should generally in life, whether you make music or not…
EVAN: …And I think sometimes the reality is that people fall into habit and a narrow script becomes their life…
OMAR: Most people do…most people are afraid of change. In marriages there are a lot of people who are unhappy, who can’t deal with the fact that they’re not in love with each other. Or just getting into what’s safe and what’s comfortable, I just don’t think it’s a healthy way to live. I think the only purpose for a human being to be here, is to evolve to the point where you’re closer to God, whatever God is to you. The only way you can do that, is by evolving and changing and growing, and getting rid of all the layers that cover God, that cover the inside. Whether that’s society or your parents, and their sickness. So you can talk about it in spiritual terms, you can talk about Jung and Freud, or talk about ridding yourself of that neurosis that belongs to your parents, and their parents, and your parents parents parents. Stripping those layers is important, we crave to be better, we all want to live healthy and happy lives….but we keep ourselves from doing it because we fall into what is safe for us and we make the same mistakes.
Every time you fail a test that life puts in front of you, it’ll put it there again. A year down the road, three years down the road. I have a friend that can’t be faithful to his woman… and I always tell him that if he can’t be faithful then he shouldn’t have a woman. Just live honestly with yourself. But each time he gets himself into a really great situation or finds a really great person, where he’s right there and can evolve, and the second that situation gets put in front of him, it falls apart. Ya know, that will never work. I think it was Einstein who said, “the true definition of insanity is to go through the same motions and expect a different result.” Music. Art. Whatever you’re doing, should mirror your life.
EVAN: I also wanted to ask you about the album “Old Money” that you released on Stonesthrow. They’re a label IPMM follows closely, basically because nearly everything they put out is quality. How’d you come to release it with them? You’re buddies with Wolf, right?
OMAR: It was mainly that (I know Peanut Butter Wolf) and love the label, and respect their artists, and PBW, and it felt right. Egon over there was giving me these great mixes from Brazil…
EVAN: Yea, Now Again’s re-issues are always on point…
OMAR: Yea, they find great old recordings and put ‘em out. We just got to talking about it and it seemed like a cool thing to do.
EVAN: I was going to tie that question into Madlib. He’s another guy who releases about as many recording as you do each year…
OMAR: Madlib is amazing. He’s a big inspiration. For me, Madlib, he’s the real deal. I’m just a person looking for answers, you know what I mean? I tried to climb my way out of something…I don’t know his thoughts on his work…I would like to be an apprentice to him, he’s definitely someone to learn from.
EVAN: I agree completely. I read an interview with Erykah Badu in Wax Poetics recently, where she spoke about times for creative input and times for creative output (there are times to take things in, and times to create ourselves), and that writers block/creative block doesn’t really exist, that we psych ourselves out by thinking that way… I relate to the sense of feeling like a sponge at one moment, and a faucet at others….
OMAR: I was about to say, writer’s block doesn’t really exist. It’s a myth created by individual neurosis, which can become collective neurosis. Ya know, it’s like, I heard this guy had writer’s block, do I have writer’s block? Am I gonna get writer’s block? I think I have writer’s block! (Laughs)
EVAN: (Laughs) Ahhh, I can’t think of anything!
OMAR: That’s how ridiculous that is. To me, that’s like saying that there are no thoughts in my head. I mean, people work their whole lives to attain that type of… Buddhists work their whole life to silence their mind. We all wake up and we’re thinking things. You wake up and you go… Did I charge the battery on the camera? I gotta go down there… What time do I have to be there? I should call my girlfriend. Did I ever pick up that thing? Your mind’s constantly wandering. Writer’s block is just a neurosis.
EVAN: You’ve mentioned different musicians and filmmakers who’ve influenced you and I wanted to ask you about writers. You mention Jodorowsky within the film context, not as much as a writer, but I also wondered if you had gotten into Carlos Castaneda’s work?
OMAR: Oh definitely. Castaneda’s amazing, and Jodorowsky as a writer is amazing, no one ever asks me about him as a writer. I think outside of Latin cultures it’s not really known….I think one of his books has now been translated to English. People don’t talk about it but he’s a wonderful writer.
EVAN: His writing is definitely harder to find…
OMAR: Since I was young, I really loved Fromm and Jung. My father is a psychologist, so I’ve always had an affinity towards exploration of the mind and the root of neurosis. Jodorowsky’s books are way more important than his films, and then there’s his work with the Tarot. My mind is drawing a blank, but Octavio Paz is definitely a great writer. Some of my favorite stuff comes from the Sufi poets. They have such great metaphors for love, and God, and have a really great way of communicating big concepts in simple ways.
I think that’s one of my favorite things about expression, and one of the things that I lack that I’m trying to attain… There are those people who take really big ideas and make them very simple. Someone like John Lennon, someone like Jodorowsky. He takes big ideas and makes them into very simple images. I think this is an incredible form of expression.
EVAN: I’ve always felt like you took a more realistic approach in the way you run your bands. As far as, this is my ship….I want you to play and record this. Ya know, bands employ this faux-democracy…
OMAR: Oh yea, I constantly refer to it as a fake democracy. I learned that from all my bands before this band. On one hand, there’s people who will say it’s negative, that it’s a dictatorship. On the other hand, I agree with you, I come from the school of thought that it’s just realistic. I existed in a fake democracy, we did At The Drive In and those guys resented me and Cedric because we were outvoted but had our way. Our songs made it on to the record, it was what we wanted to do. And so, my original idea was that instead of having all that frustration was to from the beginning make it very clear how things are. But even then, when you tell them it’s like this, I think they come in feeling like they can change you…and it’s not a matter of letting someone in, we can all relate to it in relationships…
EVAN: I was gonna say, I think it happens in other aspects of life also…
OMAR: And sooner or later it creates tension, and then you split up for the reasons that you told them about in the beginning. Either way, it’s kinda what ends up happening, but at least you know you were honest.
EVAN: I mean, I like the ATDI stuff, but it’s definitely not my favorite of the stuff you’ve done, and in my own mind, that level of compromise that people throw into the creative process is what derails the creative vision. Ya know, what if this whole time since ATDI you were listening to what someone else wanted, and the vision you wanted to see happen didn’t happen?
OMAR: Right, right.
EVAN: So that makes me think of other creative people who compromise, and ya know, fuck man! Tell them you want it a certain way and do it!
OMAR: My favorite recordings from the artists’ that I love, are the ones where they just start being honest with themselves, and let go of any of the other pretensions, and they say what they want, and say it clear. And it’s usually backwards as far as artists, and scenesters, and really hip people, ya know…the whole joke is that the first record is amazing, but after that… I couldn’t agree less. I love the first Pink Floyd record. Yes, I understand what’s so amazing about it. But I think the most honest things are what Syd Barret does afterwards, where he lets go of all the bullshit, and it’s just his heart and soul. I think what Floyd do without him afterwards gets more and more interesting. I love The Beatles. The Beatles are amazing. I love John Lennon lyrics during The Beatles, but there’s nothing more potent than when he does Plastic Ono Band and he says, “My mother’s dead and I can’t get over it.” There’s nothing more potent than that.
EVAN: Tell us a bit about your partnership with Jeff Jordan – Jeff is a great dude, I’ve always felt it was a natural aesthetic fit… What about his art made you think it would serve as an apt visual equivalent/reference point for your music?
OMAR: It’s unexplainable. The same way you’d say, why are we friends? Ya know, what did we see in each other? I remember at the time we had just fired Storm (Thorgeson), it just didn’t work out. So we were searching for stuff and Cedric brought me a bunch of stuff from a bunch of different artists. Jeff’s stuff was just one thumbnail amongst many, and I was just like, that’s Amputechture, right there. I don’t know what the name of the painting is but I’m calling it Amputechture. So, it just happened…and then people give their own meaning to it. It’s so much more instinctual and random than that.
EVAN: For me, the fact that a random intersection point like that comes up makes it more perfect to me. Just the way any one thing can lead you to any other thing…
OMAR: Definitely… Obviously, there is a reason I went to it, not knowing it, it was my subconscious speaking. And the subconscious is way more in tune with what’s happening in here than the conscious mind. It sometimes takes the conscious mind years to catch up to the subconscious.
EVAN: So what’s up next? When can we expect the next TMV record?
OMAR: This is the last show of the tour and then we have a few shows in Russia soon. I’m just waiting for Cedric to finish his lyrics, and I’ll finish recording him and that will end the next The Mars Volta record…. The music has been there for 11 months now, Cedric has sorta just been doing his thing. I’m to the point now where I’m not pressuring him to get it done. Just because that can lead to the type of writer’s block we were just talking about… I think when we got to Octahedron, it just sort of surfaced that it might be better to put it in park and let him do his thing and take his time….I hope to be done with the record by the end of this year, but it depends on label politics…could be March, June, who knows…
EVAN: Is there any place in time and history, as far as creative things that were going on, that you wish you could have been in the middle of?
OMAR: Oh, yea…Rome…I love Roman history, from Octavius Cesar to Caligula. That’s one period in history that utterly fascinates me. I’d like to be there, but I’d like to be invisible. I wouldn’t want to get stabbed, or fed to the lions (Laughs)…I’m really amazed by the ability of man to document things, especially in that era. It’s that life-affirming necessity to write things down.
EVAN: Thanks for making the time Omar…I think we’ve got more than enough to do something cool…
OMAR: Ok, great…
**Check out IPaintMyMind’s entire 2nd batch of photos from Omar’s show at The Congress Theatre in Chicago on 9.18.10, as well as all the interview pics on IPMM’s Facebook Photo Page.**
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