The Internet is stuffed with stories, from tales of everyday shopping to reptilian conspiracy theories rife with obvious paranoia. Some of these accounts are surprisingly entertaining; there’s nothing wrong with amateur writing when it’s good. On-line band bios remain a relative wasteland, however. Most seem to have been pecked out by subliterate record-company interns, and few are worth the pixels they’re printed on.
Typically, however, the Mars Volta does things a little differently. Rather than rehash how the dauntingly ambitious and gratifyingly popular neo-prog act emerged from the ashes of At the Drive-In, the group’s Web site (www.thebedlam.net/ ) offers a six-page chronicle of what transpired during the making of its fourth CD, The Bedlam in Goliath. And this is no ordinary band diary; instead, it involves a creepy antique Ouija board and a string of catastrophes weird enough to fry at least one sound engineer’s brain. Malfunctioning computers, flooded studios, the death of a friend—this genesis story has everything but a plague of locusts.
And, according to guitarist-producer Omar Rodríguez-López, it’s all true—even if Jeremy Robert Johnson’s text sounds like utter fiction.
“That’s pretty much the response that it elicits from people,” says the Mars Volta’s Puerto Rican–born musical mastermind, calling from a Dallas, Texas, tour stop. It’s hard to believe, he admits, that a “talking board” found in a Jerusalem curiosity shop could determine a band’s future direction, but Rodríguez-López insists that it did. “In this country, it’s sort of mocked. You can buy one at a toy store. But in my culture it’s quite a serious thing, which is why I was excited to actually find a real talking board, you know, an antique piece.
“Having grown up with that stuff, we were always taught that it was something for a master to use; it wasn’t something to play with,” he continues. “It was for older people.”¦But when you’re told ”˜No, don’t do something,’ it makes you want to do it. And, of course, there’s also morbid curiosity.”
Rodríguez-López and his songwriting partner, singer-lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, started talking to the board, and it apparently started talking back. Most of Bedlam’s exceptionally dense and occasionally otherworldly lyrics were “written” that way. Coinciding with this venture into the occult, however, came the disasters outlined above, which were real enough that even Rodríguez-López nearly cracked under the pressure.
“There was no escaping the record,” he explains. “I had to live, breathe, eat, and sleep with the record. I had to give up certain things; I had to give up sex, I had to give up luxury. And I’d wake up and work and work and work until I was absolutely exhausted. Then I’d go to sleep, and I’d wake up and go through the process again, just to have it be done with. I mean, I didn’t see sunlight for 37 days straight, because the studio was in my house and I was completely involved in this process. I felt like a savage animal, fighting for my life, fighting for my sanity. And of course now that sounds completely melodramatic to me, because I’m out of it and I have a different perspective. But at the time I felt like if I didn’t finish the record I would go crazy.”
Much of that intensity still inhabits Bedlam’s grooves: this is a dense, seething, and at times difficult disc. Musically, its architecture is complex, with towering chordal structures that occasionally come under attack from anarchic guitar and saxophone solos; lyrically, it retails abstruse theological arguments laced with only slightly more straightforward tales of romantic obsession. And if it sees the Mars Volta moving forward on an artistic level, it also represents a psychological breakthrough for Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López alike.
The guitarist sees his new disc’s making as a kind of initiation, a rite of passage that has left him older, wiser, and more at home with his own creativity.
“I feel like I’ve broken into a new cycle of my life,” he says. “Certain parts of me that made this album were destroyed—but that’s okay, because a lot of new things grew after it. At the time of making the record, and especially right after being done with it, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But, like with any trauma, you pass through that time and then you find your laughter, which is usually lost during the trauma. And once you find your laughter, that takes you to enlightenment, because you have a sense of humour again. You’re able to see the bigger picture of how it changed you and why it was all necessary.”
The oracle that initiated all this change has been ritually interred in a safe place, and Rodríguez-López seems reluctant to consult with it again; some energies are best not tampered with. But no matter how painful the making of Bedlam turned out to be, he’s happy with the outcome.
“Whether it was a spirit, as we believe it was, or whether it was just that this board has been designed over the years as a scientific tool for accessing the subconscious, the end result is the same,” he says. “Something incredible happened that wouldn’t have happened without the influence of the board.”
The Mars Volta plays the PNE Forum on Saturday (May 24).