WEB-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: THE MARS VOLTA’S CEDRIC BIXLER-ZAVALA ON GOING POP, WINNING GRAMMYS, AND MI
In Revolver’s August issue, out now, we interview vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala of prog rockers the Mars Volta about their new album, Octahedron (Warner Bros.). For those of you who didn’t get enough (or are too cheap to buy the magazine), here’s the best of the rest of our wide-ranging chat.
REVOLVER What was the writing process like for The Mars Volta on this album?
CEDRIC BIXLER-ZAVALA A lot of it was written on the road. The first song that’s on the record was finished when we did [2008’s] The Bedlam in Goliath, but we didn’t know if it fit on that album and at the time we had different managers. We showed them the song but they really didn’t even say anything about it. So we just kind of left it because we really wanted to make an acoustic record. We had seen this guy Vic Chesnutt play and it kind of gave us the inspiration to move in a more mellow direction. That song was done a long time ago and everything else just came into place from being in studio on days off from tour.
You say you wanted to make an acoustic album. Is that what Octahedron is you, the Mars Volta’s acoustic effort?
I’ve always been into the ballad-sounding songs from, like, Roky Erickson. We saw Vic Chesnutt play when we were doing press for our last record in Paris. We initially didn’t know anything about him. We went to watch him because we knew Guy [Picciotto] from Fugazi was playing in the band and we wanted to see what Guy was doing. So we went and saw it and the whole band was sitting down. It was just really beautiful. He covered a lot of Nina Simone songs. It was just really beautiful music and it was mellow. It’s stuff that we wanted to do. We knew we had that side to us but it just never came out, and if it did come out, it was just one song on a record. But people would always ask us to play those songs. This time around we wanted to do something that’s opposite, kind of an alienated record, something that’s mellower, a little more simple. People know us as writing over-the-top, long songs. So we wanted to try honoring the threat that we’d always talked about, which was making a pop record because no one would expect that from us.
I know that in the past Omar [Rodriguez-López, guitar] had everyone in the band play their parts completely on their own in order to have you guys play without any kind of preconceived notions as to what was being done before you did your take. Was that the same approach that was taken for this album?
Here and there, yeah. We would practice little parts and improvisations. But for the most part the whole thing was just written separately from what we were doing live. It would be kind of impossible for us to improve a lot of the acoustic stuff in what we do already. We were trying to. We were trying in Germany but people would just be really rowdy and they would just be yelling in between or during the acoustic stuff. So we just kind of gave up on it. It’s not easy, just because half of the time I’m gonna have to spend arguing with them to shut up. I don’t wanna blow my voice yelling at everybody to shut up. And the funny thing was it was a German crowd yelling at Omar to play with more heart. For a German to tell a Puerto Rican that is kind of funny.
What did Omar respond?
He didn’t finish the song. He was just thoroughly insulted. You gotta understand that every time we go to Germany, the culture over there always finds it necessary to tell you how they feel or their opinions about a song. It’s kind of funny that we would deal with that over there. There’s always this preconceived notion of being obsessed with starving artists, and we always joke about it. You know, “Last time you came here you were sick, your lungs weren’t working, it was so good, there was no PA. This time the PA works, you have clothes on, you’re healthy, it’s not so good.” Typical German view.
Can you tell me a little more about the lyric-writing process for Octahedron?
Everything just comes out right away. I used to spend a lot of time taking a song home with me and treat it as homework. What I’ve grown to like is to just write a song instantly, on the spot. If you change a song, it kind of dilutes it. So I like to write on the spot.
How does Octahedron compare to your previous records?
I would say it’s our take on making a pop record just to amuse ourselves. I think we’d be really bored if we made another album that had super-difficult music. It’s just the album that’s honoring the threat that we’ve been saying for so long: that the most revolutionary thing we could do in our system was to make simple pop songs. It’s what we do listen to when we’re not in the band. I personally don’t sitting at home listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra or a lot of jazz fusion. I do love a lot of that shit, but I get really burnt out on it. Sometimes I just like simple songs. I like a lot of 50s oldies and stuff like that.
Do you have a favorite pop act right now?
The last thing that I really was fixated on as the Klaxons. I thought that they had a lot of good pop formula but they did it in a really interesting way with a lot of falsettos, which I like. I feel that sometimes I don’t identify with people and am shaped differently because of my voice. So I utilize a lot of higher singing because I can. I figure if anyone is born with something like that, they should use it all of the time and not be afraid of it. I just thought they were cool. I like their presentation. I liked everything about them. I liked that they didn’t rely on using that disco beat that plagues a lot of Williamsburg. I just thought they were cool. It was different for me and it was pop. And then a lot of older stuff. Badfinger, which is like the poor man’s Beatles. I love shit like that.
You won a Grammy this year. What was that like?
Well, originally I set up a party at my house because everyone in the band was like, “We have to go,” and I didn’t really want to go. So I had a party set up and the party was called “We just lost to Judas Priest.” And then when we got back from the party it was like, I can’t believe we just fucking won. We were there watching and everyone was dressed nicely. We were making fun of every category that was being announced because Lil’ Wayne was winning every category. So we were like, “Best Soap Opera Star: Lil’ Wayne.” We were laughing so hard and making fun of everybody else that when they announced it, we just couldn’t believe it. We were rolling on the floor laughing like we pulled the biggest bank robbery ever. And then we walked by and we saw the Zappa crew cheering us on and that’s when it hit.
Interview by Valerie McQueen