Mission to Mars

Just when you thought Mars Volta couldn’t get more strange, more alien, they let long-dead spirits write the lyrics for their new album The Bedlam in Goliath. And not just any long-dead spirits. Evil long-dead spirits. Ask anyone who knows (Art Bell, Ray Parker Jr.). They’re the worst kind.

The story goes like this: Mars Volta guitarist and master of the blow-out comb Omar Rodriguez-Lopez was bumping around Israel when he came across a Ouija board. He bought it as a gift for frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who started messing around with it once it made its way back Stateside.

“The more I played [the Ouija] the more it played into my compulsive nature, and the more I started getting head-over-heels involved in it,” says Bixler-Zavala, over the phone from the road in Connecticut.

And then the weird stuff started. Their studio flooded, a studio engineer had a nervous breakdown, and the spirits went Bernie Taupin on Bixler-Zavala’s ass.

“I got messages and wrote them down,” Bixler-Zavala recalls. “I started reading them over and thought they’d make great lyrics, better than anything I could’ve written.”

The “lyrics” the evil spirits were writing had to do with an old-fashioned honor killing, “the kind that happens in Muslim societies,” says Bixler-Zavala. They also sent messages about the abhorrent treatment of women by organized religion as a whole.

“It’s a love story of people whose spirits were trapped in this board in solitary confinement for years and years, unable to speak to anyone until they contacted us,” Bixler-Zavala says without a wink before adding, “I’m sure people don’t believe it. And I expect people not to. I need to have that kind of energy being thrown at us. Some cultures are so stale and boring that they’ve never experienced anything remotely like that. The only mention of anything evil in their lives is when they go stand up and down a million times in church. But you talk to some Latin cultures, it’s a very real thing.”

Also very real: the wealth of credibility capital Bixler-Zavala’s accumulated over the years; the kind that keeps people from abandoning ship when he takes a left turn into deep, deep space–by, for instance, talking about long-dead evil spirits writing his lyrics with the assistance of a Ouija board bought in Israel.

Throughout the ’90s he and his Ouija-board-buying buddy Rodriguez-Lopez were the driving force behind At the Drive-In, the El Paso, Texas, band that defined emo before its definition was destroyed by becoming the world’s new mall punk. The ATDI version of emo was potent stuff done in a similar vein to Guy Piccoto’s the Rites of Spring and other bands of their ilk spilling out of D.C. in the late ’80s.

Live ATDI were a spectacle to behold, each member whirling himself around the stage as though caught in a tornado with no regard for personal injury. Between sweaty bursts of energy, Bixler-Zavala would rant and rave about immigration reform and fascism and the ills of capitalism and the perils of Big Brother and the politics of war and loads of other things a good 90 percent of their tween audience didn’t know or care about, but remained too awestruck to roll their eyes at.

ATDI’s seminal album Relationship of Command exposed them to bigger audiences. The nation took notice just as it all ended. The band fizzled, its members copping that all-too-familiar breakup excuse: “musical differences.”

Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala took their differences (and what differences they were) and formed Mars Volta, quickly getting snatched up in the jaws of a major label still high on Command‘s magic.

But Mars Volta was a tougher animal to digest. The only thing they shared in common with ATDI was Bixler-Zavala’s high-pitched squeal.

Their debut De-Loused in the Comatorium turned off some fans and confused others–saddened perhaps that their emo heroes of yesteryear formed a new space-prog band that sounded like King Crimson on speed being finger-banged by Rush.

Over time, the group’s sound has gotten more odd, and the narratives of their records more difficult to comprehend. Says Bixler-Zavala happily, “We don’t do concept records the way Green Day or the Who do them. We don’t hold your hand and give you training wheels. Our narratives aren’t linear, like, ‘He sure plays some mean pinball.'”

It’s a wonder they haven’t been dropped from their label. Only “wonder” isn’t the right word exactly.

“It’s an anomaly,” Bixler-Zavala chuckles. “Most major labels think whatever band they’ve picked up is in on some secret. I think if you have a relationship with them where you keep them guessing and every once in a while throw them a bone, you’ll be all right. Hopefully this is our last album on a major.

“You kind of get into bed with people who don’t really view music the way you do,” Bixler-Zavala says. “Not everyone can be Fugazi and have this socialist control over their art. Some of us have to flirt with the big guys in order to take all the cash to get our names out there. Once your name is established, you can start doing your own thing and just borrow the parts of the system that you need–like distributors. I definitely come from the school that thought all that shit was evil. More and more I realize money isn’t such a bad thing–just another device to help you make stuff.”

What kind of stuff Mars Volta might make without feeling the need to throw a label an occasional bone is anyone’s guess. Best consult the Ouija.

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