Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López released their new self-titled album as The Mars Volta today (September 16) – a record that draws influence from the likes of Van Morrison, Slade, David Bowie’s later work and Peter Gabriel. “It’s safe to say we’ve made a pop album,” explained Bixler-Zavala.
“It’s there in the name, Volta,” he continued. “It’s almost like a warning to people: don’t get too comfortable with your favourite era because by the time you like it, we’re already moving on. That’s just a natural progression of someone that is very selfish with art. Our actual fans understand that the unspoken truth is to just let us do what we do. And that there really is no room for requests.”
He went on: “Peter Gabriel’s solo stuff has always been progressive and direct about the emotions he’s talking about, so he’s a strong, obvious choice to pull from”.
Admitting that they considered reaching out to Gabriel to feature on the album, Bixler-Zavala came to realise: “Once I listened to everything though, I realised we didn’t need a co-sign.”
Bixler-Zavala also said that the band had been inspired by Rosalía’s ‘Bizcochito’. “I wasn’t listening to it while we were making the album, but it’s affecting me now,” he said. “It’s affecting how I approach the music in rehearsals.”
Despite the pop influences, Bixler-Zavala told Rodríguez-López he wanted The Mars Volta to return with a heavy album. “Anybody else would have thought ‘OK, let’s turn down and make our version of a Black Sabbath record’ but it’s definitely not that,” explained Bixler-Zavala. “It’s heavy in terms of what you feel.”
He recently played the album to his wife, Chrissie Carnell Bixler, who said “people aren’t going to know whether to cry or dance to this”.
“People need those sorts of records because, whether it be a spiritual hangover or a regular one, you’re going to need something to cushion that fall,” he continued. “Those are the albums that really stay with you. Sometimes a lyric in a pop song can make a human being feel seen and validated in their existence. Like Peter Gabriel sings, ‘Don’t give up’.”
He went on to say that the character and meaning of the record is “really open to interpretation but there is a lot of sadness on it. Sometimes sadness is a good thing to go through. Maybe a good cry is just what people need sometimes.”
Rodríguez-López added: “To bridge the two concepts of not giving up and of sadness, I hear a lot of strength in the record. There is that sadness but this is also that feeling of knowing we can overcome things. We can pull together.”
Previous Mars Volta albums featured complex concepts and abstract lyrics, but “this album is a lot more direct in terms of confessional lyrics,” Bixler-Zavala explained. “I really hope it makes people feel seen or validated, because right now, that’s what it’s doing for me. It’s actually really hard to rehearse some of these songs.”
It was also hard for him to write the lyrics, “because for years I was doing one thing and I think maybe secretly I didn’t want to be understood. To be understood is to open yourself up and to be completely naked, you know? I’m in a place in my life now where I can sing about stuff that is more understood by people. I’m OK with being that vulnerable because I think good things come with getting it out. It’s therapy, it’s church. It’s all that, rolled into one.”
The Mars Volta started around the idea of honouring your roots and honouring your dead. Almost 20 years later, that driving force is still “everything” to the band, they explained.
“We’ve grown up in American society where you really have to protect your culture because it’s constantly being stripped away from you,” said Rodríguez-López. “From the moment you’re indoctrinated into the education system, your second last name is stripped away from you, the pronunciation of your name is stripped away from you.
“I was just called Mike for a while, because it was hard for people to pronounce ‘Omar’. The punk scene was no different. People are constantly trying to take your culture away from you and ridicule you for not assimilating. Obviously, things are changing and there’s a lot of different, new conversations happening now but that’s only started in the past few years. It’s still just as important to protect and honour where you come from.”
For our conversation, the band were in a their rehearsal space in Texas, preparing to return to the stage.
“It can be a little crazy relearning older material,” said Bixler-Zavala. “It’s fun, but it’s more emotional than anything.” The Mars Volta have never been ones for playing the hits either. At their first appearance at Reading Festival in 2003, shortly after the release of debut album ‘De-Loused In The Comotorium’, they played none of the singles, instead stretching out three tracks to fill their 40-minute slot. “We were really selfish like that,” continued Bixler-Zavala. “We attracted a lot of people, and we also repelled a lot of people.”
The band still do whatever they want but “with this tour, I think we’re going to cover a lot of that ‘classic’ stuff, because so much time has elapsed.”
Originally formed in 2001 from the ashes of revolutionary punk band At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta went on to release six albums that touched on everything from progressive metal and experimental jazz, to funk, soul, salsa, dub and sci-fi before they went on hiatus in 2012.
Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López didn’t speak for two years, but went on to form the short-lived punk supergroup Antemasque (that featured Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Blink-182’s Travis Barker) in 2014 before an At The Drive-In reunion followed in 2016.
Some not-so-subtle hints about the return of The Mars Volta came in 2019 (“It’s happening,” Bixler-Zavala tweeted that year. “It’s in its infancy right now. No deadlines, no ball tripping, no drama,”) while in 2020, Kanye West stoked the rumours even further, tweeting The Mars Volta and saying “we need to finish the album”.
There was never a collaboration on the cards, though. “No, we were not working with him. We’ve never even met him,” said Bixler-Zavala. “But I think him doing that shows me how I really can’t pinpoint who a Mars Volta fan is. We attract everyone from Drum and Bass heads, to people who are really into cinema.” He did however describe it as “a nice pat on the back from the universe.”
The decision to return to The Mars Volta was because “it’s family,” Bixler-Zavala explained. “It’s an old family friend that we wanted to start communicating with again. It just took some time to get it right.” Re-releasing their previous material in 2021 “helped us close the door on the past and usher in the future,” he added.
According to Rodríguez-López, “there were some ups and downs, but that’s natural in any relationship endeavour, not just a creative one, right? You need to be able to see each other’s point of view and now, it’s just super exciting.”
One of the main functions of the At The Drive-In reunion was “to repair friendships,” said Bixler-Zavala. “Not everything totally worked out that way but it brought Omar and I a lot closer.” Through sit-down conversations “all five of us were able to hash stuff out. We were just being way more adult about everything, and being more direct in communicating what we wanted and how we were feeling. It was almost like we created this safe space to have any uncomfortable conversations for repairing relationships.”
From there having laid the past to rest, it was all the more easy to forge forward into the future with The Mars Volta.
The Mars Volta’s new self-titled album is out now.