The Mars Volta
And that territory is increasingly challenging to navigate, especially on the recently released Amputechture, which saw Rodriguez-Lopez returning with Rick Rubin in tow to produce yet another one of the band’s patented aurally lavish outings. Marrying a heavy-music bombast with the contemporary classical concerns for form and tonality, avant-jazz screech with Latin American traditional folk — and embellishing with the imposing gestural flourish their punk rock predecessors put in the gulag to rot long ago, Amputechture serves as a true slap-in-the-face to preconceived notions of how music should sound, and how it should be created.
“When it came to tracking the album,” says Rodriguez-Lopez, “I wasn’t thinking of much; I was just in a work mode, just really happy to be getting these songs finally tracked, because I’d been working on them since about a week after I finished mixing Francis the Mute. So it was pretty much distilling a moment of clarity for me, of being able to finally be off tour for a minute and be in the studio and get all these tracks done so that I could assemble this next record.”
Whereas you might think a musician who deals in massively scaled and broadly conceptual composition would prefer a sizeable portion of time in a singular recording studio to immerse his/herself in the conception of an album, Rodriguez-Lopez prefers to work more sporadically due to the constraints of near constant touring. Amputechture, as he tells, was assembled largely in bits and pieces, with the respective pieces then integrated via Pro Tools at Rubin’s standby choice haunted Hollywood mansion/studio. Though primarily recorded in the aforementioned studio, and mixed by Rich Costey at Gold Standard Labs, a sizeable portion of the album was tracked in geographically disparate locations — from El Paso, TX, to Melbourne, Australia.
“At this point, I travel with most of my studio,” Rodriguez-Lopez tells us. “It’s with me on the road, so I’m able to just work around performances. I have a small TASCAM four-track that I take with me into hotel rooms to work, and a lot of the rough tracks are cut directly to that. I really like this method of recording wherever and whenever I get the chance, and then piecing it all together later at Rick’s, using what I’ve already recorded on the road, and re-cutting where necessary.”
THE DAREDEVIL DIVIDE
This buckshot recording ethos is not only engaged in regards to location, but also in the approach to tracking certain performances. For example, when it came time for Bixler-Zavala to come in and record his vocal tracks, Rodriguez-Lopez didn’t allow him to fuss over them repeatedly in order to get them “right,” preferring Cedric’s first, more unadulterated takes. “Definitely on this new record, there was a lot of really special power behind the first take,” says Rodriguez-Lopez. “And the intent was so strong that when we would try and track it over again, we would find that the first takes just had so much more magic to it.”
The borderline reckless approach to recording Bixler-Zavala’s vocalizations, however, was not employed towards the rest of the album. Omar’s own instrumental works on the recordings in particular are oftentimes re-tracked extensively, almost belligerently. “I feel like I’m a little harder on myself, for some reason,” he says. “Sometimes it’s difficult to be objective. I really feel like the ‘musical’ aspects of the album demanded a bit more refining in the recording process, so I took a lot of time punching in on rough tracks, or completely re-cutting them.” This painstaking attention to detail is concept-specific, according to Rodriguez-Lopez. “Certain parts that were composed to convey a more expressive feel, that were for nuance, were first takes for the most part, or a combination of a few early takes that were later comped down on to one master track during the mix. But the general architecture of the album was the result of a lot of refining, over a very short period of time. From the tracking to the mastering, including the remote recording, we only spent about two months total constructing the album.”
“Most of the time I use an AKG C12 for his voice,” says Rodriguez-Lopez when questioned about how he captured Bixler-Zavala’s characteristic shrill vocals. “For the darker sounding stuff, I’ll use a Shure SM7, when he’s singing softly and I need a certain mic to match that feel. But for everything else, where his voice is really intense and of a high register, I’ll use the C12. It matches the piercing quality of his voice, which is very prominent at the beginning of the sessions. He has a really midrange, yet bright, voice, which is great because it just naturally cuts through, and putting the C12 up for those takes gives a very clean, true result.”
When recording his guitar tracks, Rodriguez-Lopez sticks mainly to his live setup in terms of actual guitars, using the same custom Ibanez AX120 that he wields on stage every night for the majority of the tracks, with only minimal use of more low output, less “hot” sounding guitars such as older model Fenders (particularly Telecasters, Mustangs, and Jaguars) which he chooses for their overall softer tones.
But while he’s minimal in his choice of actual guitars, given the broad range of guitar tones permeating Amputechture, Rodriguez-Lopez employs a veritable fleet of effects to treat his tracks. Though not surprising, taking into account his penchant for applying his live setup almost verbatim in the studio, he largely refuses any effects treatment (save for compression and EQ) outside of his pedal board. As a result, the alien sounds that are at Amputechture’s every turn are the end result of a pedal chain consisting of a vast array of old-time favorites from Moogerfooger Ring Modulators to Electro-Harmonix Big Muffs, not various plug-ins or studio outboard equipment.
But one area in which Rodriguez-Lopez sheds live skin, so to speak, is in his use of smaller amps for recording, employing a Supro Model 50 for most of the tracks — a far cry from the four 140W Orange AD140HTCs that he uses to power the same amount of Orange 4 x 12s on stage. “Even a Fender Twin is too much, usually,” he says, “so I just use Supros, or a Peavey C30. Usually I just close mic with a Shure SM57, sometimes with another SM57 directly behind the speaker as well. Once in a while I’ll couple this with a ribbon set up a few feet behind, to get some ambience, but I’m pretty straight ahead for the most part.”
The convergence of the orthodox and the non-traditional techniques in the studio is indicative of the end product, in that the sound of the Mars Volta and the means of achieving it are parallel. Caution is at times thrown to the wind in composing and capturing the music, but there is also an air of pensiveness, an almost cruel calculation that manages to mimic chaos. And the listening world is giving due attention, even if the group is quite clearly concentrating on being adventurous as opposed to accessible.
“We never think about our audience when we’re writing or recording music,” Rodriquez-Lopez confesses. “We treat that as a dagger point at our hearts — we avoid that at all cost, because it’s never been important before and it shouldn’t be important now. That’s not to say we’re ungrateful. We definitely enjoy where this is taking us, but we recognize that the most important thing is our intent, and realizing that intent, and the only reason we’re here in the first place, is because we were never thinking about things like popularity. We were always just following our hearts, and we can’t let that part of our dynamic or our process be altered in any way, at any stage. That’s the worst thing that can happen.”