Meeting Omar Rodrguez-Lpez
, the Mars Volta
's guitarist and co-leader, is like meeting and talking to a shaman. Intelligent, well-read and possessing a wealth of musical ideas and spiritual insights, one learns much from listening to his insights and musical musings.
Last year his band released the fifth Volta
, and Rodrguez-Lpez
himself has released a string of over a dozen releases under his own name as well. I recently met Rodrguez-Lpez
in Melbourne, Australia during the band's stint on the Big Day Out
music festival, and sat down with him for the following interview for Ultimate-Guitar
to discuss his approach to music making, his unorthodox influences and John Frusciante
UG: You view the studio as a laboratory of sorts where you conduct musical experiments. With that in mind, do all the musical ideas that end up on a Mars Volta recording come from this studio environment or do they come from the onstage improvisations?
Nothing is ever taken from a jam and there is very little actual improvisation that happens on stage too. There has been a big misconception about the band regarding this matter. Quite literally onstage, what our fans perceive as an improvisation or jam is usually a rehearsal of new material. When you're playing these songs every night, you can get bored so I will usually give the band new material. I will say, we're going to take out this section and we're going to play this new part in there' which could be something I may have shown the band a week ago or even five minutes before we go onstage. Either way, it is a way of rehearsing and making good use of that time onstage. As far as the studio goes, I consider it as another instrument no different from say a pedal or a musician or an actual guitar. So if you're viewing the studio as an instrument then the answer to your question is yes, a lot of the ideas do come from the fact that you have such a vast instrument at your disposal to play with.
You co-produced Mars Volta's 2003 debut album De-Loused in the Comatorium with Rick Rubin and then have produced yourself each successive Mars Volta album. What did you learn from Rubin that you now apply in your production approach?
There are two main important things I learned from him. When we produced that album together, he made me realize that every problem has a solution no matter how big. I used to really freak out about things, but he was very much the Zen person, making me realize how simple the whole process is when you really break it down once you really let go of all these things that you get hung up on. And second to that, it would be that he showed me a lot of what I didn't want to do. He showed me a direction that I personally didn't want to be going in. So working with him, I saw exactly what I didn't want. And that is a big key to things really. Also Rick does not see the studio as an instrument, at all. He sees the studio as place where you basically go to finish something, like the last stage of something. So for Rick, he sees it as a place you go and you just do it and that's it. So it's a very methodical approach and very much so about going in there and recording this thing and then it is done.
Let's discuss gear, what's the set-up like for the studio?
"As far as the studio goes, I consider it as another instrument no different from say a pedal or a musician or an actual guitar."
I use a couple of Supro amps and a Harmony combo amp which I've used on almost every single record, a couple of boutique amps whose names I can't remember right now unfortunately. Also a Vox AC-30, and a small Orange combo amp. Guitar wise, I mainly use my custom Ibanez. I do have a lot of guitars, but not so much because I am a guitar freak or collector, but more so because it's kind of like when a dog starves it will always eat more than it can. I'm left handed and growing up I never had a normal guitar, I'd always have to restring the guitar as it was always out of tune so when I started having money and if I ever saw a left handed guitar, I'd buy it. But once Ibanez came into the picture and started making me guitars, I no longer had to worry about it being in tune as I had an actual intonated left handed guitar.
So how many guitars do you have in your collection?
I have around 30 guitars everything like old Les Pauls, old Mustangs, old SGs, anything that I could find because left handed guitars are so rare to find. If you're right handed you're quite spoilt as you can go anywhere in the world, walk into any shop and buy a guitar but when you're left handed, you can only get what you find.
You have a ton of effects in your rig, are you constantly seeking out new effects and sounds?
Yes definitely, but the type of sounds that I want, are obviously constantly changing. At first, and for a long time, it was all about the most intrusive sound, the sound that sounded most unlike a guitar. While lately for me it is been the most subtle sounds. Things like changing the tone of the guitar simply by putting on different pedals, things that probably somebody in the audience wouldn't even care or realize. But for me, it's become very fun to hear the difference between say from one Flanger to another.
Having so many varied effect pedals, do they inspire you with ideas directly as well?
Sometimes, but a lot of the times it's the execution of the songs that are inspired by the pedals themselves. The songs themselves are a direct result of being a human being. Of living and experiencing life such as falling in and out of love, having a conversation, having a shit whatever, from the most the mundane things to the most highest things. It's all an influence and can generate a tone that becomes a song. Executing those songs then becomes the fun part of it, it becomes the playground it becomes the film and everything else. The pedals can steer the song into a different direction especially if you find a really cool tone for a certain section that you would never had imagined when you wrote the actual musical part of the section for the song initially.
How does the studio set-up differ when it comes to the live environment?
Live, I pretty much rely on the old faithfuls. Pedals like the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, MXR Phaser, Moogerfooger Ring Modulator, those pedals that can resist all the touring. At home I become most interested in individual pedals especially boutique pedals, pedals that people are really putting in a lot of time and love into. And again things that most people probably won't even realize. But it is beside the point as its all about what you're doing and the sort of bubble you're living in when you're creating.
Your biggest hero in regards to guitar playing is actually a Puerto Rican cuatro player, Yomo Toro
Yes, it is because my culture is second only to my family tree, my immediate environment is my biggest influence. So being Puerto Rican I come from a very musical culture that is centered around son montuno styles like that, which are better known as salsa music. It sings about the culture and the culture sings about the music. So growing up, that was what surrounded me, and so those are my heroes. So people like Hctor Lavoe became the food of the imagination for me. These were people who are constantly shaping my musical identity even if I don't realize it. My true great influence was the piano player Charlie Palmieri and Larry HarlowI always wanted to be a piano player really but stayed with guitar because the big thing about Yomo Toro was that he was left handed.
Former Red Hot Chili Pepper guitar player John Frusciante has been consistent with contributing guitar on the Mars Volta albums. How important has John been to your musical vision and guitar playing approach?
"Rick Rubin showed me a direction that I personally didn't want to be going in."
John is responsible for raising the bar as the musician that I want and in executing my music. He made me realize there are musicians like him, those who are a complete all rounded musician. John is very versed in the technical aspect, he knows all the intervals, and knows what you're playing and why, but he is not limited to that only. He also has the emotional aspect. I'm a musician who is stuck in the emotional realm. A lot of musicians are stuck in the intellectual realm and some are stuck in the sexual realm, and then there are the musicians that are a complete body and not only of the head or a heart. John is that complete body. He understands the whole aspect of music. And so what this does for me is it liberates me, as I can come at him from whatever angle that occurs to me within my limited emotional state, where I can show him something and because of his level of intuition and professionalism, he can do it within minutes. And I'm very impatient when it comes to this sort of thing so I need this type of musician. I have to say that more important to all of this is, is our personal connection we have and our close friendship which started from a shared love of the cinema of Luis Buuel and Werner Herzog, you know things that other people don't usually like. So the most important thing is that he understands me as a human being.
Aside from Mars Volta do you find you have an urge to be prolific and keep performing music in your various other projects?
It is something that happens with or without my own desire. It is in the same way as I compare it to the inner dialog of the mind. We really have no control over it. We wake up and our mind is thinking and it's constantly going on without us. The Buddhists make a point of their life of quieting this inner dialog, they work their whole life in order to achieve this moment. So when it comes to producing material and recording songs, I always say there is nothing special about it, it's as simple as putting a bucket underneath a leaking faucet if you know what I mean.
Finally, what has the rest of 2010 in store for Mars Volta?
This current tour will be the last for this part of the year, until the end of the year at least, when I'll start the band up again. But for now, I'm going to give everybody some time off and will probably record some new things.
Interview by Joe Matera