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Members include Juan Alderete (joined group, 2004), bass; Cedric Bixler Zavala, singer; Ikey Owens, keyboards; Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez (joined group, 2005), instrumentalist; Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, guitar, producer; Jon Theodore, drums; Jeremy Ward (died on May 25, 2003), sound technician. Addresses: Website--The Mars Volta Official Website: http://www.themarsvolta.com/.
Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, former members of the hardworking and influential emotional hardcore act At the Drive-In, are the same brains behind the more progressive and psychedelic band the Mars Volta. Featuring a similar intensity that helped At the Drive-In create such an impact, the Mars Volta create music that is a hodge-podge of the progressive sounds of Rush, Yes and King Crimson, the free jazz theories of Miles Davis, the psychedelic meanderings of the Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd, the classic rock power of Led Zeppelin, and the Latin funk/rock feel of Santana. Over two full-length albums, the Mars Volta have managed to step further and further into the thresholds of rock music, using their myriad of influences to challenge the ideals of what two former hardcore musicians are capable of producing.
Bixler Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez were both born in El Paso, Texas, and when they met in high school, they discovered that they both shared an affinity for punk and hardcore, but also a similar Latin-American upbringing (and love for that culture's music as well). They were also heavily into skateboarding, and, as they told Law of Inertia's Stephen Blackwell, had a thing for "stirring things up." Soon, both started separate bands that shared one thing in common. "It was cool because both our bands were the most hated in El Paso. We had the nastiest reputation, nothing that we're really proud of now, but we kind of connected on that," said Bixler Zavala. In the same Law of Inertia interview, Rodriguez-Lopez recalled their first meeting, saying, "We were rehearsing at the same place, and this spark between us---comparable to what lovers feel when they say 'love at first sight'---happened in a completely musical and spiritual way that we weren't able to comprehend at the time, and that we probably still don't full comprehend."
That musical and spiritual magnetism was the inspiration for the two to start working together on the same musical projects, and in early 1994, Bixler Zavala (then just going by Cedric Bixler) and Rodriguez-Lopez (then just Omar Rodriguez) formed At the Drive-In. Along with Jim Ward on guitar and vocals, Paul Hinojos on bass and Tony Hajjar on drums, the band combined the fiery intensity of early hardcore bands like Youth Brigade with the strange melodic nature of acts like Fugazi and Jawbox. After the group formed, they self-released two EPs, Hell Paso and Alfaro Vive, Cajaro!, and soon started touring the western United States, playing houses and small clubs to almost nobody. Finally, in 1996, the band's work ethic paid off, as they signed a deal with Flipside Records, who released their debut album, Acrobatic Tenement, in 1996. After that record's release, more touring ensued, and soon the band signed with Fearless Records, who released their second full length, In Casio Out in 1998. By the end of the 1990s, the band had built a huge following, based on their relentless touring schedule, building up enough hype and more melodic material to prompt Grand Royal Records (home of the Beastie Boys) to sign the band. In 2000, the At the Drive-In released Relationship of Command, and was being touted by magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone as rock's "next big thing." Soon, though, the label folded, and the touring strains on the band were becoming too heavy---not to mention Bixler Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez's growing distaste for the music they were creating. Rodriguez-Lopez told Law of Inertia, "When we were in Europe, we played a show and I remember just standing there not feeling anything. It was very obvious to everyone in my band that I was not having fun." The band decided to take an indefinite hiatus, but soon the break up was obvious, as Ward, Hinojos and Hajjar went on to form the more emo-tinged Sparta. Entertainment Weekly writer Evan Serpick noted, "In At the Drive-In's divorce, Sparta got the emo-driven rawk, the Mars Volta got the Afros and the brainy, spastic elements, and they shared custody of the seething passion. ...It's clear Bixler and Rodriguez have the better deal."
The split with the other three left Bixler Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez on their own, but it wasn't the first time that the two would come together to collaborate on a project much different than At the Drive-In. In 1998, both musicians decided to form De Facto, as a nod towards their love for Jamaican Dub music. With Bixler Zavala on drums, Rodriguez-Lopez on bass and sound technician Jeremy Ward (the cousin of ATDI/Sparta member Jim Ward), the group played in and around El Paso for a few years, releasing an EP called The Glove. Then, after ATDI went on hiatus, Bixler Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez moved to Long Beach, California, and eventually hooked up with Long Beach Dub All-stars keyboardist Ikey Owens. In 2001, the group released Megaton Shotblast! on Rodriguez-Lopez's Gold Standard Laboratories record label. The group also released an EP for Grand Royal called 456 132 015 right before the label folded.
While De Facto was always looked at as a "side project," its existence is important to note because the band is also seen as the starting point for the formation of the Mars Volta. Though the work of De Facto was what many fans would connect Bixler Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez to post-At the Drive-In, they were hard at work behind closed doors planting the seeds for the more "rock" oriented Mars Volta. Recruiting De Facto members Ward and Owens, as well as Golden's Jon Theodore and bassist Eva Gardner (daughter of Birds/Creation bassist Kim Gardner), Bixler Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez began crafting a progressive rock beast, one that paid homage to their Latin-American roots, incorporating influences that ranged from classic salsa to early Genesis. Rodriguez-Lopez told Law of Inertia, "We had everything stacked against us from the beginning. I can count on one hand---actually there was only one person---who said it sounded like a great idea. Everyone else said, 'You don't know what you're doing. This is a horrible idea.'"
The naysayers and At the Drive-In fanatics---who wanted nothing but the band to reform---did nothing to stop the Mars Volta from proceeding with their plan. Even when they struggled to find a record deal and had to release their debut, the Tremulant EP, on Rodriguez-Lopez's Gold Standard Laboratories in 2002, the band pressed on, eventually booking themselves tours with the likes of Les Savy Fav and the Anniversary. Finally, when both Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler Zavala close to being completely broke, the band signed a deal with up-and-coming Universal imprint Strummer Records.
After signing with Strummer/Universal, the band was granted the opportunity to hit the road with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was there that the band struck up a particularly close relationship with the Chili Peppers' guitarist John Frusciante and bassist Flea. After losing both Gardner and replacement bassist Ralph Jasso, the Mars Volta invited Flea to rehearse and record with them for their upcoming full-length release, produced by Rick Rubin, called De-loused in the Comatorium. Released in 2003, the album was complex and abstract, dealing with a storyline based around the death of Julio Venegas, an artist and El Paso music scene staple who was close to both Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler Zavala. Featuring the manic guitar stylings of Rodriguez-Lopez, the throbbing tone of Flea's bass, the strange sound effects culled by Ward, the soulful squeals of Owens keys, the unmerciful pounding of Theodore's drums and the helium-like vocals of Bixler Zavala, the album was championed in the press as being one of the new millenniums most powerful releases. Prefixmagazine.com said, "If you have the courage to listen to---and digest---De-Loused in the Comatorium more than once, it will no doubt stick to your ribs." Popmatters.com said, "In a time where originality is drowned beneath a muddled mess of mediocrity, in a period when retro(gressive) bands clog all indie stratums, in an era where punk's been annexed by the prefix of pop, art is lost and forgotten, ignored and betrayed. The Mars Volta, above all the genres they transpose and trends they lay to waste, stand as an outfit determined to inspire and uplift art from its current dormancy. You should do the same."
Of the album, Rodriguez-Lopez told Law of Inertia, "When we finished the record, that was the success. That was us getting the boat over the hill. We built this gigantic boat and our goal was to pull it over a mountain and get it into the ocean. Everybody said we couldn't do it and we did. That was the celebration."
The band didn't have much time to celebrate, however. Near the release of De-loused, sound manipulator Jeremy Ward was found dead in his home of an alleged drug-overdose on May 25, 2003. He was 27 years old. In Ward's honor, however, the band decided that he would want them to continue on; and so the band took to the road to promote the album that they had worked so hard to create, playing it in it's entirety.
After many months spent on the road, the band returned to Los Angeles to start work on their next album. The band, now featuring bassist Juan Alderete, began crafting an album based on a diary the late-Ward found while working as a repo-man. The diary contained entries about a man searching for his biological parents, and Bixler Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez thought it excellent lyrical fodder for their next album. The group began creating "movements" instead of songs, tying the entire album together as one long, non-stop piece. The result, released by Strummer/Universal on March 22nd, 2005, was the hour-plus journey dubbed Frances the Mute. Met with a bit more apprehension than De-loused, the band still garnered positive reviews from a gaggle of critics. Blender Magazine said, "Mars Volta's songwriters took what they liked from a virtuosic tradition, discarded the silly piping-in-a-glen and mountains-come-out-of-the-sky, roughed it up through a mordant sensibility and added ambient scraping, static and salsa piano solos. Frances the Mute is heaping proof of their ambition, a heavily detailed, high-impact serving of something genuinely new."
by Ryan Allen
The Mars Volta's Career
Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 2001; members were previously in At the Drive-In; released Tremulant EP on Gold Standard label, 2002; released De-loused in the Comatorium, 2003; released concept album Frances the Mute, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Tremulant (EP), Gold Standard, 2002.
- De-loused in the Comatorium Strummer/Universal, 2003.
- Frances the Mute Strummer/Universal, 2005.
- Entertainment Weekly, July 18, 2003; March 4, 2005.
- Interview, July 2003; April 2005.
- Law Of Inertia, March/April 2005.
- Popular Music and Society, May 2005.
- "De-loused in the Comatorium: PopMatters Review," Popmatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/m/marsvolta-deloused.shtml (August 22, 2005).
- "Frances the Mute," Blender Magazine, http://www.blender.com/guide/reviews.aspx?id=3230 (August 25, 2005).
- "The Mars Volta," Gold Standard Labs, http://www.goldstandardlabs.com/marsvolta/marsvolta.html (August 25, 2005).
- "The Mars Volta," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/bands/az/at_the_drive_in/bio.jhtml (August 25, 2005).
- "The Mars Volta: De-loused in the Comatorium," Prefixmag, http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews.php?page=M&a=1&rt=cd&rf=MarsVolta%20DeLousedintheComatorium062403 (August 25, 2005).
- "The Mars Volta's Jeremy Ward Found Dead In Los Angeles," Chart Attack, http://www.chartattack.com/damn/2003/05/2809.cfm (August 25, 2005).
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