Finally, you can stop asking.
Cedric Bixler, co-founder of the Mars Volta, is sitting around with his bandmate and best friend Omar Rodriguez-Lopez talking about that other band that so many people seem so interested in still talking about. The band was called At the Drive-In, but you probably already knew this. What you didn't know--or at least probably still seem set on asking--is why, at the peak of a near six-year climb to the top, the band suddenly called it a day. The answer is simple: The other guys didn't like to jam.
"As bad as that sounds, it's true," Bixler says with a laugh, when discussing former bandmates Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos, and Tony Hajjar, who went on to form the post-hardcore combo Sparta. While playing in At the Drive-In there was almost always "resistance," as Bixler puts it, toward loftier thinking and looser arrangements. "We would be like, 'Look, even a band like Fugazi improvises.' Sometimes Omar and I would try to use that as a touchstone. We would tell them, 'Hey guys, not only do they use the structured stuff that we're all trying to copy, but they also jam.'"
So then there was the Mars Volta: a band that was built to jam. Whether it was on old dub tracks or salsa-influenced beats or pass-the-pipe arena rock riffing, when the Mars Volta first got together in a practice space in East Los Angeles over the spring of 2001 (with former Golden member Jon Theodore on drums and, suspiciously enough, former Long Beach Dub Allstar Ikey Owens sitting in on keys), they were determined to let loose the sounds in their minds and the feelings of freedom in their hearts. On their recently released debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium (out last month on GSL/Universal), you can all but hear the joy they have found in being freed of At the Drive-In's loud and fast torch-bearing, experimenting instead with over-the-top art-rock gestures and songs that only contain verses and choruses accidentally. It was such coloring outside of the lines that eventually caught the attention of Rick Rubin: a burly, bearded veteran of the alt-rock production circuit who would later invite the band over to his skin-crawling mansion in the Hollywood Hills to get the Mars Volta's inspiring prog-punk magic on tape. Over the course of three months, Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez spent long days and late nights with Rubin, slowly putting together De-Loused in the Comatorium's pieces while designing it like an old-fashioned concept disc that even the tamest of souls couldn't help but roll a spliff on. Excited and challenged by the recordings, Rubin quickly invited over a few of his friends to listen in. One of them was indie film Svengali Vincent Gallo who, after curating the soundtrack to his film Buffalo '66 (an album that impressively presented Yes as a kickass influence), seemed as good a judge as any to evaluate how things were going. "We would be listening to playbacks and Vincent would be like, 'I want to hear some,'" Bixler recalls. "I remember Rick wasn't so sure of it. He didn't want to put us in some spot. But it didn't bother us."
And why should it: Gallo and just about everyone else liked what they heard. It probably helped matters that the bass-playing was impeccable and that Red Hot Chili Peppers co-founder Flea was the one playing the bass. Oh, and let's not forget that the guitar part on the album's 12-minute centerpiece, "Cicatriz ESP," was delivered by junkie pinup and RHCP guitar virtuoso John Frusciante. But all of this celebrity name-dropping has little to do with the Mars Volta, and when Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez talk about writing De-Loused in the Comatorium, they do so in language that only they--and perhaps a couple of former smack survivors--can truly understand.
"We think of these things as a series of images and storytelling as opposed to music," Rodriguez-Lopez explains. "It's not like, 'Here we are playing an A with an augmented seven, and we should really change that.' I think if anyone had the right chemical makeup to play in this band, that would be something that they would click with instantly. Once they stepped into that room with us and we said that it doesn't sound right or that it needs to sound more 'underwater,' they would get it."
Flea and Frusciante understood this.
But that's not to say their producer always caught on.
"Rick was about telling us things more traditionally," Bixler says with a laugh, quickly launching into an impression. "'Umm, do you think we could just call that part the 'verse'?"
Ah, if only they knew how to write one.