Omar Rodríguez-López, the musical mastermind and producer behind The Mars Volta, and vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala spent many evenings on the band’s tour bus while on the road with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the fall of 2006 deeply engrossed in their new favorite pastime. “After a show, most of the college crowds that are at a Chili Peppers show want to know, ‘Where’s Flea? Can I meet Flea? Can you give me a pass so I can hang out with Flea?’” said Bixler-Zavala in a recent interview with Listen Up Denver! as he recovered from foot surgery and rehearsed for the band’s New Year’s costume ball. “We didn’t really want to deal with those kinds of people and we just kind of retreated to the bus where the new drug of choice was playing this antique game that Omar had bought for me.” The Soothsayer, as the game was known, was a talking board in the style of a modern Ouija board, sold by Parker Brothers.
“We would never dim the lights, it wasn’t some corny Disney version like people might picture. The lights were on, the messages started coming through and I kept looking at Omar like, ‘Are you pushing this thing, or am I pushing this thing?’ I just kept writing down everything that it said because it was 10 times more creative than anything I think I could have come up with,” admitted Bixler-Zavala. “The fact that I was writing everything down is what challenged the spirits that we contacted and alerted them that we had the power of unmasking their anonymity.”
“When we first played the board, we found poetry attached to it. We hired two people to translate it because it was in Hebrew and in Latin and sometimes it was in what I think was Aramaic,” Bixler-Zavala said. “One of those translators gave us back our money and didn’t want to talk to us or have anything to do with us again. The other, who was a little more brave, translated the verses for us and it turned out they translated like traditional sing-song nursery rhymes and the more I read stuff and the further I am away from the project now the more I realize that it is a story steeped in the modern day phenomena of honor killings.”
“The spirit, known as Goliath, is a schizophrenic version of three people who were trying to contact us; a male spirit, a female spirit and her mother. The story is of lust, seduction and infidelity, pain and murder. It is a classic scenario of a male character speaking over a female and the female looking for a champion who is brave enough to tell the story,” revealed Bixler-Zavala.
The more that Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López interacted with The Soothsayer and Goliath, the more they became convinced that the male spirit was casting a curse on them as they began to understand the true nature of the story the trio was unveiling. A series of events unfolded as they developed the concepts for the album and began to record. Severe equipment issues hounded them, their drummer quit, Bixler-Zavala was hobbled by a seemingly random foot injury that later required major surgery, a flood wiped out much of Rodríguez-López’s personal studio, and audio tracks were literally disappearing from the computer monitor in front of their eyes. All together, it seemed too much to be a coincidence. Goliath was angry and bent on destroying this record.
Despite the anger, The Mars Volta drove on and fought the uphill battle against the chilling other worldly force with which they were wrestling. Midway through the recording session, Rodríguez-López commandeered The Soothsayer and, in a move that probably saved the recording project, buried it in a location that only he knows. “He buried it because he knows that I am obsessive compulsive and despite everything that was happening, I would probably want to play the game again,” admitted Bixler-Zavala.
As they became more convinced about the true power of the curse they were dealing with, Bixler-Zavala began to try to work some positive forces into the fabric of the record. “We have taken extreme measures to have the project blessed by more positive forces,” he said. “That’s why there is a track titled ‘Metatron,’ who is said to have believed in some of the myths behind curing some of the ailments associated with Ouija boards. Metatron, Ariel and St. Gabriel are some of the saints that you are supposed to call on when you have problems of this nature. I’ve named a song “Ilyena” after the real name of the actress Helen Miren because she is my favorite actress and the song is a little lighthearted and different from the subject matter. There are a lot of different things that I did to fight fire with fire without being touched by the male spirit.”
Due to precautions such as these, general perseverance and a desire to tell the story that they had unearthed, The Mars Volta have created a furious monster of a progressive rock record that seems to walk the knife’s edge between control and chaos. According to Bixler-Zavala, he and Rodríguez-López work hard to achieve that balance. “None of the band members have material to rehearse. When you hear the album and you hear how aggressive it is, in my opinion, it’s the sound of the tension and the anger of the musicians having to learn everything five minutes before they are going to record. The fact that we have musicians that can do that but go into it kicking and screaming, keeps everyone on their toes and really makes it sound like everyone is recording in the same room together.”
The aggression and tension that Bixler-Zavala describes is further enhanced by a brand new member of The Mars Volta. Appearing with the band for the first time on this record is drummer Thomas Pridgen and he seems to be breathing new life into the collective. “He fits in really well and brings in this new energy,” said Bixler-Zavala. “Because he is just 24 years old and comes from gospel, R&B and jazz, he doesn’t know who The Dead Kennedy’s are and has never heard of The Bad Brains. I feel like he is this invisible secret member of The Bad Brains who decided to jump ship and join The Mars Volta.”
Pridgen’s raw youthful energy is evident on the new record and is sure to electrify crowds when the band takes their live show to small clubs across the country this month. “Thomas kind of reminded me of how to treat the moments on stage as if they are the last time I am going to play, so it is a very active show and nowadays you see the band laughing and smiling a lot more ’cause Thomas is just challenging the fuck out of us. We are exorcising a lot of dark humor and light humor on stage, and it is a show that is very self indulgent and it is a lot of information overload and it is designed for people who want to follow us based on blind faith,” said Bixler-Zavala. “We plan on the same kind of stage setup that we are known for so long, as the venues will allow us to have certain sized backdrops. If not, we’ll have our Dream Machine with us, as usual, and it will just be more intimate.”
Check Out The Mars Volta if You Like: