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Music you must see to believe

The Mars Volta's increasingly cinematic sound stylings challenge listeners to share the band's dark visions even as its co-leaders challenge themselves.

February 27, 2005|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Omar A Rodriguez-Lopez raises his left forearm to display a tattoo that he thinks might shed light on the new album by his band the Mars Volta. It's a beautifully rendered, subtly disquieting depiction of a man with the head of an eagle, based on an image by the Surrealist Max Ernst.

Ernst's works were just one of the ingredients that fed the fertile creative process behind "Frances the Mute," Mars Volta's monumental, trilingual prog-metal epic, due in stores Tuesday.

Its other inspirations included the many movies that flashed on old television sets set up in the recording studio, a diary lifted from the back seat of a repossessed car, a mother's story about seeing the devil, and the 2003 overdose death of band member Jeremy Ward.

"Things should be based in reality," says Mars Volta co-leader Cedric Bixler-Zavala. "We wanted it to be a very interesting reality, you know."

For Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez, this fragmented account of a man's quest to find his family is more than a fulfillment of their no-borders, no-rules philosophy. "Frances the Mute" is a resounding musical validation of their decision to break up one of the most promising bands of the '90s, At the Drive-In, to follow their musical instincts.

The album also marks the end, they hope, of a stretch of interrupted potential.

And while it hardly seems like a commercial album, this demanding, 75-minute phantasmagoria has already brought them wider exposure than they've ever had. An abridged version of the album track "The Widow" has become a rock radio hit, recently ranking as the top request at L.A.'s KROQ-FM (106.7).

"It's like a movie trailer," says Rodriguez-Lopez in the office of the band's manager south of Hollywood, wearing dark-rimmed nerd glasses and a floppy Afro. "People who get drawn to our band because of that trailer, they'll realize there's this whole other world that they'll really enjoy or really [hate]."

Adds Bixler-Zavala, "Like someone who's a regular rock fan who doesn't know anything about us ... they think they're coming into one thing and maybe they have to do a little homework. I would have liked that if I was young....I was set in my ways, but I'd love there to be an option."

"I think kids are force-fed easily digestible, disposable music, and when they're given something that takes thought, it takes time to get through. I think they're dying for that," says Gary Gersh, head of Strummer Records, a partnership with Universal Records that releases the Mars Volta recordings.

"It's not just a rock thing," adds Gersh, who signed Nirvana to Geffen Records in 1991 and later served as president of Capitol Records. "You see the Arcade Fire, what they're doing, you see Sufjan Stevens, you see what Conor [Oberst] is doing -- you see there is music that isn't trying to be in the mainstream, and I believe kids are dying for new stuff that isn't just trying to be what everything else is.

If it's a surprise that a difficult album has yielded a commercial single, it's absolutely ironic that Rodriguez-Lopez, 28, and Bixler-Zavala, 30, are brought to you by mega-corporate Universal Records. At the Drive-In was a standard-bearer for the rock underground and a key force in establishing the independent-label system as the viable alternative it's become for many young bands.

"Here we have a 30-minute song on our album and it's on Universal, the one big monster that owns all the other little monsters," says Bixler-Zavala, shaking his shaggy head. "It gives some people hope maybe that we might be trying to pave the way so there is no blur between who's counterculture and who were against....

"And there's also the whole snobbery side of indie rock.... Even At the Drive-In took a long time to be accepted. We always operated as the new kid in school up until the very end."

That end came as a surprise to fans who had watched the band from El Paso steadily grow into one of the most highly praised American groups of the last decade. They'd moved to Los Angeles and seemed on the brink of a breakthrough when the singer and the guitarist pulled the plug.

"We were bored musically," says Rodriguez-Lopez, describing the chasm between the band's two camps. "After a certain point we were like, 'OK, they don't get it. This isn't going anywhere.' ... They played a lot of Foo Fighters and Radiohead in the van, and we played a lot of Augustus Pablo and salsa music and Tom Waits, and they would constantly ask us to please take our music off 'cause it was driving them crazy."

Bixler-Zavala even seems embarrassed about the acclaim that was showered on the old band, whose other three members are now leading the group Sparta.

"We were pretty much just this 10th generation ... garden-variety Fugazi sound, which is still being pounded to death to this day and makes a lot of money. Not even a really good version of it."

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