The Mars Volta: “The most revolutionary thing we could do was make a pop record” | pop and rock
Ohen Cedric Bixler-Zavala joined the Church of Scientology in 2009, he thought of it as lightly as “joining a yoga class or a self-help group.” After being introduced by his new wife (TV star Chrissie Carnell) and friends, the frontman of acclaimed American rock band The Mars Volta underwent an induction process designed to tackle his A bad habit of $1,000 a week (essentially a month of rigorous day-long sauna sessions). He found it useful until he realized it had a price. “Scientology is becoming habitual, [a] crutch,” he says. “What the involvement has really done is take me away from a lot of close friends.”
At the top of that list was Omar Rodríguez-López, his friend since childhood in El Paso, Texas, and the only other constant member of Mars Volta. As Rodríguez-López puts it bluntly, “Cedric joining the Church of Scientology helped break up Mars Volta. [because of] the kinds of absolutist ideas he began to believe in.
Bixler-Zavala admits that religion put him “on cloud nine” from which he despised everyone around him, whom he saw as “stuck” without religion. He decided to try to steer them towards Scientology knowing that the answer would probably be negative.
Fans were stunned when the band broke up in 2013. Since forming Mars Volta in 2001 from the ashes of punk band At the Drive-In, the duo had recorded six devilishly complex concept albums, bringing together jazz, metal, Latin music and prog. It wasn’t a total breakup – during the hiatus the duo toured extensively with the reunited At the Drive-In and formed a supergroup, Antemasque. It took until this summer for the band to announce their reunion. A new self-titled album, which the duo have been working on in secret since 2019, is out next month
Nonetheless, we speak on separate calls: Rodríguez-López is affable and insightful, despite struggling with Covid; Bixler-Zavala is friendly and generous. But my repeated requests to interview them together, to get a sense of their rejuvenated relationship, came to nothing.
The two bristle at the mention of Scientology. Not only is this one of the reasons for their separation, but it also gives its theme to their new album. In 2016 and 2017, four women, including Carnell, accused Danny Masterson, a member of the Church of Scientology and star of the American sitcom That ’70s Show, of raping them in the early 2000s. Carnell – then co-star and girlfriend of Masterson – alleges she was unconscious during one of those assaults. The criminal trial begins later this month in California and Masterson faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted. He denies all charges. The women are also suing Masterson and the Church of Scientology for alleged conspiracy to obstruct justice. The women claim they were followed, harassed and watched by church officers, while Carnell also claims two of her dogs were killed by people acting on their behalf. The lawsuit alleges that, in Scientology’s eyes, the women are “fair game” for violating sanctions the church imposed on its members by implicating the police. Masterson and the church strongly deny all allegations.
Bixler-Zavala is also a plaintiff in the civil case, so he chooses his words carefully. “What I’m writing on this album is watching my wife and her [spiritual] sisters go through a lot. For me, it’s an act of listening, observing the emotional balance and saying, “You are not alone”. There is a view of [the Mars Volta] as mad, warlike people, but these emotions come from a violent part of the human heart, and here I am just acting in a capacity for emotional support.
Heavy subject matter is nothing new for a group whose founding mission was “to honor our roots, to honor our dead.” Previously, however, these stories were abstracted or converted into fantasy narratives. Bixler-Zavala’s new lyrics, he says, “take the air out of the room” and are, for him at least, unusually clear and precise. “I will shine the blackest light on the four-legged culprit”, he sings on the single Blacklight Shine.
This time, the lightness is in the sound. When the Mars Volta reunited, the real shock for fans was that they came back with – relatively speaking – pop songs without their heavy, labyrinthine characteristics: Blacklight Shine has a languorous funk groove that speaks of David Bowie at the mid-70s in Stay mode, or Steely Dan at his Latin-inspired best. It’s a long-standing about-face — and another contributing factor to their split. Bixler-Zavala wasn’t receptive to the idea when his bandmate mentioned experimenting with pop in 2007, he says.
“I’m not limited by gender,” says Rodríguez-López. “The only thing that matters is if the music makes you feel something.”
Nonetheless, the two anticipated a negative reaction to their new style. The comments under the videos for Black light shine and graveyard love are overwhelmingly positive, but Bixler-Zavala eliminated the few negative responses. “Some people might see it as a betrayal.” He laughs defensively: “I’ve seen people call it yacht rock. But yacht rock hits so hard that hip-hop producers taste it all the time.
“Losing ‘fans’ is an integral part of what we do,” says Rodríguez-López. “I don’t know any greater happiness than losing ‘fans’. A real fan is someone who cares about what’s happening now, and then there’s everyone trying to control what you do or project on it. I have a dislike for it. It looks like school. It looks like government. It looks like police. And sadly, that’s what a lot of people who think they’re fans end up thinking. .
Perhaps the lack of any real recoil is a sign of how the music has changed while they were gone. Pop was the battleground of the avant-garde during the decade that Mars Volta was on ice. Their most prominent fan of recent years is Lizzo, who clearly doesn’t care about gender partisanship, and neither does her Zoomer audience. “The most revolutionary thing we could do would be to make a pop record, really,” says Bixler Zavala. I want to believe them, but on paper, there’s not much that separates this idea from most bands’ story arc: just softening with age.
The only argument against it being an exercise in commercial survival is the quality of the new hardware. Their single Vigil is the catchiest thing they’ve written, landing between Hall & Oates, mid-’80s Peter Gabriel and early Talk Talk; Shore Story is pristine R&B that feels like they’ve been playing this music their whole lives. Bixler-Zavala, who was born in Texas to Mexican parents, appreciates the description: “R&B is not foreign to our DNA. It’s cholo music. That’s what my parents listened to when I was a kid. After my skate session was over, I would go home and there were a lot of Sunnys and Sunliners, a lot of Penguins being played.
If Bixler-Zavala’s direct response to his wife’s alleged trauma speaks to a newfound creative maturity, it’s a shift in attitude shared by Rodríguez-López. The guitarist was born in Puerto Rico and his interest in shedding light on his homeland’s colonial history has shaped the new Mars Volta videos. Their visual aesthetic was once exotic, surreal and garish, but the 11-minute film accompanying Blacklight Shine is devoted to a bomba performance recorded in Puerto Rico, featuring drummers and improvised dancing, evoking both the indigenous culture of the island and its roots. in slavery. Graveyard Love’s short goes a step further, offering a long playlist on the island’s colonial history and an epigraph from freedom fighter Lolita Lebrón, who led an armed attack on the Capitol building. American in 1954: “I did not come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico!
This idea of family lineage has proven beneficial in group reconciliation. When Bixler-Zavala became a father to twins in 2013, Rodríguez-López said holding his friend’s children for the first time was a “breathtaking moment…I’m sure it helped break the bond.” charm”.
So is the commitment to recognize the darkness that stems from their roots. Rodríguez-López still names his deceased relatives and friends five times a day. “It’s deeper than the music. Americans have a pathological fear of dying but what they don’t understand is that it has already happened. It’s inevitable, but here with us all the time. But the closer you are to death, the closer you are to life. It’s healthier that way. »
“I think everyday life requires embracing sadness and embracing certain emotions that Scientology teaches you to ignore,” Bixler-Zavala concludes.
Removing the Crucible from Mars Volta also helped; their stints in Au Drive-In and Antemasque helped pave the way for reunions. “The Mars Volta is sacred ground as much as a playground,” Rodríguez-López explains. “All the elements had to be exactly right for my imagination to open up. And it happened naturally over time.
Bixler-Zavala concludes that they are back for the foreseeable future: “We’ve been working on this in secret for a long time now. Omar said the Mars Volta could be whatever we wanted it to be, which was refreshing because it sets the parameters for us not being a heritage act that relies on old songs. We can redefine who we are and move forward. Our initial feeling was that anything was possible and now, once again, it is.
The Mars Volta releases September 16.
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