The Mars Volta's singer is on the phone, and he's giving our bullshit detector a real workout. He's recounting the story of how his band's latest album, The Bedlam in Goliath, was put together with help from a Ouija-like board called the Soothsayer.
The oft-repeated tale — which takes up a good chunk of the group's current single-spaced, six-page official bio — goes something like this: Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez found the item in a Jerusalem shop and bought it for Cedric Bixler-Zavala, his longtime pal and bandmate. Bixler-Zavala then used it to piece together the lyrics he tears through on the record. "I became obsessed with it," says the singer. "I wrote down everything that was said to it and what it said to us — all the messages, all the gibberish."
So, yeah — it's not just you. Bixler-Zavala doesn't even know what he means when he sings lines like "Don't stay long/For teeth nurse/The first wound/Coats revolve." Apparently, it's just what it sounds like: nonsense. Although he swears it makes more sense then it once did.
"When I approached the songs for the first time, it was a lot of gibberish," he says. "Later on, I took a lot of what I wrote down from the messages and fastened and sculpted it into the gibberish."
You can trace your skepticism back to the band's previous three albums — 2003's De-Loused in the Comatorium, 2005's Frances the Mute, and 2006's Amputechture — none of which were packed with tunes you could comprehend without a 50-pound guidebook and lots of mind-opening drugs. And since 15-plus-minute song lengths, multistructured, suite-like tracks, and brain-bending time signatures have always infiltrated the band's work, it's hard to blame Goliath's gibberish entirely on the new toy. But Bixler-Zavala does his best: "It's the only kind of talking board that I know of that has structural poetry attached to it," he says. "I co-opted a lot of it."
Still, that doesn't explain overstuffed lyrics like "Suffocate the inkwell/I am legion, said the pen/Her seraph snout and cruciform limp," or "Primordial cymatics giving birth into reverse/Serrated mare ephemera/Undo her mother's curse." Then again, when you're piling on squalling guitar riffs and prog-metal fury like the Mars Volta does, maybe it really doesn't matter what kind of gibberish your singer is spouting.
The Mars Volta's songs are wrapped in swarms of buzzing guitar notes, thunder-conjuring drum fills, and a shrieking Bixler-Zavala, who circles around the alt-prog noise mix with a wail that's part punk, part funk — and often sprinkled with a dash of Latin-style rhythmic oomph.
Hard to believe this free-form music — which frequently generates 20-minute epics with multiple parts — is mapped out in the studio, with minimal prep work. "Omar has a gigantic library of songs," says Bixler-Zavala. "It's just a matter of everyone tracking the stuff literally five minutes before he presses record. Everyone has to learn it right then and there, on the spot.
"But this isn't the sound of a band trying to be metal. It's the sound of the tension and anger of having to learn complicated stuff right away. So we play it angry. People mistake that anger for genre."
That's pretty much been the Mars Volta's way since it formed at the top of the decade, scraped together from leftover pieces of El Paso indie-rock heroes At the Drive-In. Volta's debut album, De-Loused in the Comatorium, was a rambling meditation on the death of a friend — told from the perspective of a comatose pal. Frances the Mute was supposedly based on a diary found in a car picked up by another friend, a former repo man. We still don't know what Amputechture is about.
"There are lyrics there," says Bixler-Zavala of the band's most challenging piece. "But a lot of the time, they don't really match up with the songs. That's because the gibberish was way better than anything I could have come up with later, if I had worked on it."
So, knowing all this, you'd think the band would despise what iTunes and other digital-music services have done to music — namely, chopped it up into byte-size pieces to be digested as tasty snacks, not soul-filling meals. But Bixler-Zavala doesn't decry the death of the album — even though we can't imagine, say, "Cicatriz ESP" not followed by "This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed." They just sorta fit together. "People can listen to it any way they want," he shrugs. "I'm just grateful people have the patient ears to lend to us."
It's just as weird to hear Bixler-Zavala share his love for old-school power pop — those two-minute-forty-two-second blasts of chewy, melodic, guitar-riffing tunes from the '70s, which exist all the way on the other end of the spectrum from the Mars Volta's bloated songs. "I love the Raspberries," he says. "I like power pop because I know what it's for, I know what its function is, and I know where the left and right turns are going to be."
Even this gives him an idea. "Power pop might be the most revolutionary thing for us to do," he laughs. But he quickly adds that no matter what the band plays — acoustic Tropicália, street-corner doo-wop, electronic-fueled house — it's gonna end up sounding like the Mars Volta. That means more 15-minute, rhythmically sprawling songs with titles like "Aberinkula" and "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore."
"There's always been a part of us that wants to do a lot more mellow stuff," says Bixler-Zavala. "We're starting to do more acoustic stuff, but it always becomes a completely different entity. I say acoustic, but people are going to be really disappointed when the album doesn't sound like that. Our version of that will always be a mutated form of the original rule."