Echoes from Mars: The Methodological Madness of Omar Rodriguez Lopez

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OMAR RODRIGUEZ LOPEZ IS NO PUSSYFOOTER. IN THE PAST SEVEN YEARS ALONE THE 35 YEAR-OLD GUITARIST AND COMPOSER GENERATED ENOUGH MUSIC TO FILL SIX ALBUMS BY HIS BAND, THE MARS VOLTA, AND TWICE THAT MANY SOLO ALBUMS, AS WELL AS NUMEROUS COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS WITH ARTISTS AS DIVERSE AS DAMO SUZUKI, JOHN FRUSCIANTE, AND LYDIA LUNCH. DURING THAT SAME PERIOD, HE ALSO PRODUCED MORE THAN 20 ALBUMS AND MADE NUMEROUS GUEST APPEARANCES, AND THAT'S NOT TO MENTION THE DOZEN OR SO ALBUMS HE MADE WITH VARIOUS BANDS PREVIOUS TO 2003. RODRIGUEZ LOPEZ IS ALSO A SKILLED VOCALIST and plays drums, bass, and keyboards; writes, scores, and directs films; and is reportedly a badass chef.

The Puerto Rican-born maestro began his career in 1990, singing for El Paso, Texas-based punk rockers Startled Calf. After taking a year off to dharma bum around the States, he returned to Texas to join his friend vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala in the band At the Drive-In. Originally the band's bassist, Rodriguez Lopez soon switched to guitar, earning a reputation for conjuring cosmic sounds from--and brutalizing--his instrument throughout the band's often orgiastic sets. Rodriguez Lopez and Bixler Zavala also helmed a dub-reggae side project called De Facto, the members of which solidified into the core of the Mars Volta in 2001.

The Mars Volta retained much of the pugnacious attitude and hard rock energy of ATDI, while evolving a broader musical aesthetic embracing '60s psychedelia, '70s art rock, and '90s electronica, with traces of free jazz, musique concrete, Latin, and myriad other idioms providing additional color. Frequently categorized as a "progressive rock" band by less-than-imaginative critics, the Mars Volta is one of the few contemporary groups thus pigeonholed that actually do progress, as illustrated by their latest album.

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While Octahedron [Warner Bros.] is still replete with the rapid-fire angular riffs, tricky time signatures, disturbingly warped tonalities, torrid solos, and brilliantly effected tones that characterize the Mars Volta trip, those elements occur within more concise and tightly scripted structures, and pieces such as "Since We've Been Wrong," "With Twilight As My Guide," and "Copernicus" are downright halcyon compared with the sublimely chaotic din of 2008's aptly named The Bedlam in Goliath (containing the song "Wax Simulacra," which scored a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance). The differences embody Rodriguez Lopez's newfound desire to play fewer notes with greater finesse, and the influence of more acoustically based artists such as Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and solo-era Syd Barrett.

But as fans are still wrapping their minds around Octahedron, the creatively restless Rodriguez Lopez has already journeyed parsecs down the line. In addition to releasing a magnificent solo album titled Xenophanes (featuring members of the Mars Volta with Spanish lyrics penned and sung by himself), he was already at work on a new band album when he his creative soul searching lead him to rethink the way he produces records--an approach calculated to deliberately introduce discomfort by not allowing players to hear the music before a session, yet expecting them to quickly grasp and execute their parts anyway, often without listening to other key tracks while recording.

"I made a record right after Octahedron that I thought would be the follow-up, and it was nearly finished when I realized that it really wasn't--so I shelved it and started from scratch," he explains. "I've gotten comfortable with my way of dealing with musicians and the compositions. So I'm struggling to discover something new to make me uncomfortable." Any wagers he'll have found it by the time this goes to print?

You once said that you hate the guitar but were warming up to it. How's that relationship going?

It's going well. What I meant was that after 17 years of playing, I had accepted that the guitar is the instrument that I can communicate my ideas on most quickly. …