THE MARS VOLTA
Omar Rodríguez-López unwraps the secrets behind the artery-busting Noctourniquet
by Bill Murphy
I know you always try to do something different with each MV album, and when we spoke a few years ago about Octahedron, you talked about how you had set some ground rules for yourself and Cedric before you started work on it. What was the plan this time?
The same thing, you know—similar ground rules. I asked Cedric to sing in a lower register, and not always be doing the high stuff, and I asked if he could make his lyrics a little more simple, which I think he accomplished on songs like “Empty Vessels”—I consider that his best work to date. But for myself, it was definitely keeping things concise. At first, I had a rule that I was only gonna play four notes per song [laughs], but that kind of went away after a while. But it was definitely about limiting the guitar, and just taking all those parts and arranging them for other instruments—mainly the keyboard.
I also said I would only play one guitar solo on this record—little things like that. I mean, this one was strange because there was such a huge time gap between when the music was recorded and when Cedric finally got around to writing his lyrics. So that was a bit strange for me.
How long of a time gap was it?
About two and a half years. At the end of Octahedron—I can’t remember if we discussed this in our last interview, but he and I have very few arguments after 20 years of being friends, and we sort of got into this argument. He felt that he’s been trying to keep up with my pace for all these years, and it’s not natural for him, and he didn’t want to have to work at my pace, and he didn’t think we had to put out a record every year. He wanted to take his time with it, and he didn’t like me being on top of him like I usually am.
So I said okay, well, you have the record in your hands. When you’re ready, you’ll call me and we’ll do it. And a year went by, two years went by, and I sort of started telling him well, wait a minute [laughs], I understand we can’t work at my pace, and that’s cool—I have no problem changing it up, but there’s gotta be a middle ground, too. You know, it’s been two years.
So that was kind of weird for me, just because since I recorded that so long ago, it’s like I’m in a completely different place now, and I was in a completely different place when it came time to track his vocals, you know? So it was strange. And then at the end of it, because there was so little guitar on it, maybe there was some difficulty there, so then I added a little more guitar just before mixing it. It was just a strange record for me. I’m used to taking what I always say are snapshots—Polaroid shots—of where I’m at, and this is more like a long, drawn-out . . . something.
[Laughs.] A photo collage, maybe.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly.
Has your basic setup changed much since you moved your E-Clat studio to Guadalajara [Mexico]?
This was all recorded in Guadalajara, but E-Clat is more of a portable thing. It’s just the name of my studio, and that can be packed up into different configurations. It’s only changed a little bit, in the sense that I started adding some gear, and maybe taking away different gear and trying to use different compressors and stuff. I’ve been trying to get away from the quintessential rock gear, like the 1176s and stuff.
But you know, if something sounds good, it just sounds good. That’s part of it too. I love my Neve sidecar and I love my LA2As. I definitely stopped using the C12 on Cedric’s voice, because he’s got such a bright, midrange voice as it is, so I tried to use anything darker. But it all comes down to just trying to decide what’s right for the project at the time, or just experimenting with things.
There are a few sounds and songs that I want to ask you about, but for now, with Cedric’s voice, what did you end up deciding on using to record him?
Mostly the U67 and I think a U47 or a 48—definitely one of the darker ones that I had in my collection.
I’ve caught Deantoni Parks before with Meshell Ndegeocello, and I know you’ve been playing with him for a minute, but since this is his first project with the Mars Volta, what’s it like working with him? I mean, he sounds incredible on a song like “Molochwalker,” when he’s really laying into the groove.
I could talk about Deantoni for hours [laughs]. Basically there’s no other drummer like him, and for me that’s an understatement. I’d rather say there’s no musician like him, but that also feels like an understatement—and then I realized he’s just an artist, plain and simple. He’s obviously very respected by all sorts of drummers and all sorts of people, and still when I hear people talking about him, I can tell that they still don’t understand. They’re playing on one level, and he’s in a whole different ballgame.
He sort of does away with all the clichés that I’ve come to accept over the years with drummers, and with having to direct drummers, and with having to utilize certain tricks or certain methods to get them to perform from an instinctual level instead of a sophisticated level. And Deantoni sort of broke all those barriers for me.
Plus I’ve never worked with a drummer who’s also a composer. Maybe after my band, some of the drummers I’ve worked with got inspired and went on to try and write music, but with Deantoni I almost feel like it’s a waste. I mean, in my group I do everything, and I saw him and I’m like, man.
How am I gonna keep him busy?
Yeah, it’s like this guy—he’s an artist. That’s what it is. And at some point, I keep talking about changing the parameters of the Mars Volta, and this will be the last record where I am the sole composer of the music or the dictator of the band, and I definitely want to open it up. A big part of that awakening in me was running into an artist like Deantoni Parks, you know? He just reinvented what it means to play with a drummer—and Jesus Christ, man, the guy knows how to listen. It sounds so simple, but so many drummers don’t know how to listen. They’re just thinking about how to execute their part, and this guy is just so tasteful.
As I got to know him more, I said, holy shit, I’m wasting his talent right now. I gave him way more freedom than I’d given any other drummer, and still I feel like it wasn’t enough, you know? I feel like what the future holds with Deantoni is, for me, very exciting. He has his own ideas about music and composition and everything else—he’s a kindred spirit, you know?
Along those lines, I wanted to ask you about “The Whip Hand,” which sounds like just a straight 4/4 that he’s cutting into pieces. I know you usually present parts to everyone literally just before you start recording. Is that how this one worked?
Yeah. The only difference is Deantoni does not trip, ever [laughs]. Again, I’ve had to wrestle with drummers, wrestle with musicians, to get them to understand my technique, and because I’ve worked for ten years like that now, it’s automatic when you do something for that long.
So I go in there and I play him the track, and I tell him we’re gonna track it right now, expecting him to have the same response that every other drummer I’ve worked with has had, like, “No, what do you mean? I need to hear it again.” And he was like, “Cool.” Literally the whole record, I don’t think we did more than two takes on anything, and we usually took his first take. And if we did more than that, it was merely for my own enjoyment because I was so blown away by what I was hearing.
So were there any instances where the whole band was playing live in the studio?
No, as usual I just laid down all the musical tracks. He was playing to a track that was there. The difference was I let him hear everything. A lot of times in the past, I haven’t let a musician hear the context or anything. But like I said, I just played him the entire track, beginning to end—with the keys, with the bass, with everything. And obviously he would get it right away. He would hear the inherent rhythms in there, and then he would do his own things to it as well.
Are you playing everything on the album?
As usual I played pretty much everything. The difference is sometimes I didn’t—you know, usually I’ll play everything and then show the musicians. On this record, sometimes I didn’t bother to re-teach to anyone, and just left the original tracks that I had laid down for people to learn.
That goes for the bass too?
On some parts, yeah. But I can’t do that too much because Juan is a longtime ally and I don’t want to upset him [laughs].
There are all these choice little electronic filigrees happening throughout the album, especially at the beginnings of songs—I’m thinking of the “Baba O’Riley” vibe that opens “Vedamalady,” or the drum machine sounds in “Lapochka.” Was this part of the sonic blueprint you drew up beforehand?
Definitely. I’ve had several solo records that are heavily electronic, and when choosing the songs that would go on this record, I just realized that I’ve been limiting myself in the past. As you know, I’ve always said there’s no difference—everything equals everything. When people ask me is there a difference between your solo work and Mars Volta, I say no, it’s all my baby and all my music. I just write hundreds of songs, and then I pick ten to make a Mars Volta record.
Now, what ends up happening is that when I pick those ten, I’ve gotten myself into this niche where I’m picking them thinking of what the Mars Volta personality is at that point in time. And this time around, I just said well, fuck it, why not these other songs? I just made a mess of the piles of songs that I usually organize, and said why not these? And Cedric definitely expressed a big interest in those particular tracks—so I said, yeah, let’s do this.
You know how it is. Especially when you have a lot of records in your catalog, or under a personality like the Mars Volta, even I start to get stuck in a certain frame of mind—big riffs or solos or this or that. This time around, I just reminded myself that none of that matters.
Just to switch to gearhead mode for a second—what synths did you use, and are there any songs you can point out where a particular synth sound helped you express what you were going for?
Oh, man—definitely just classic stuff like the SH-101 or the System 100, and all the Analog Solutions stuff and the Doepfer stuff. Also Dave Smith—the little yellow one called the MoFo, that was a big part of it as well. That thing is amazing. For example, at the beginning of “Vedamalady,” that’s a little silver handheld synthesizer with wooden knobs made by Critter & Guitari, this small company. It’s just the coolest thing ever, and actually they’ve just—I’m sure people were saying the same thing I was saying, why doesn’t it do MIDI—and they’ve just put out a MIDI version. It’s the size of a melodica, even smaller, and it’s battery-run. They make a cool sampler too. I’m always into boutique things like that.
Tell me about “Lapochka”—is that guitar or synth, or the two mixed together in the main melody?
It’s definitely both. That song always stood out though because it had a five-minute drone of synth work at the beginning of it, like Tangerine Dream—that’s what I started cutting out, was all the long passages that I’m known for and the band is known for. So there was this drone and a drum program and a bass synth and guitars and all that, and then the same thing, I let Deantoni hear the track once, he played to it once, and the one we kept is literally the first take. I removed the drums I had programmed because he was actually playing against them, which is another great decision that he made, especially at the end of that song.
I was just gonna say that. The rhythmic breakdown he’s doing there is incredible.
You know? So a certain thing was lost, that certain power when I had the electronic drums in there, where they hit that downbeat real big. But at the time, all I could think was yeah, but that’s typical. Anyone and their mother will put the down beat there, and you have it big with that 808 sound or whatever else you put in there. And I said it’s cool, let’s leave it out. It’s gonna make you feel a certain way. Whether or not you understand that the down beat is missing is irrelevant. It produces a certain feeling in the mind when you hear that outro section.
“In Absentia” really stands out for me; it sounds like it was a total challenge to even mix it, there’s so much going on here. Did you work with Rich Costey again, by the way?
No, unfortunately it was a timing issue. He was in the middle of a project—he was doing Jane’s Addiction, actually—and I’m not really known for my patience [laughs]. So as much as we both grieved not being able to work together on this record, we know that it’s also not the end of our collaboration. So we said, hey man, everything happens for a reason.
But “In Absentia”—yeah, wow. That one’s really interesting, because speaking of the mix, you can definitely get caught up in these things about, how you say, it could be difficult to mix—it can, unless you’re completely reckless, which is something I really have fun doing. So in terms of “In Absentia,” in the first section, which we can just call the verses, I tracked all the synths and did all these treatments to them and put all the melodies down with the bass and stuff. Then Deantoni tracked to it, and then I messed around for a couple of days, putting treatments on his drums, and I got so used to hearing it that way—it wasn’t even a mix, it was just what was up on the board. I did a bounce of it, and then I used that as my master. So I took all those tracks—whatever it was, 18 or 19 tracks—and did a stereo bounce, and then continued to work off that.
You can really hear the change in quality when it goes to the outro section. Obviously that section wasn’t a stereo bounce. I worked on that one like I would normally, so the song really opens up at the end, with a completely different sound happening. And then the choruses for that song came out of the fact that those were all just treatments that were hanging over from the verses. I was using that Critter & Guitari sampler [Kaleidoloop], and I sampled the sound of the effects, mixed with the melodic instruments coming out of the speakers, and had that on loop, and that’s what became the loop that you hear in the actual chorus.
It was the same thing with the decay of the effects on the drums, which are also playing through the chorus. They sound like some other part, but it’s really with the feedback all the way up, and sort of playing with that, so once it starts to disappear, bring it back again—stuff like that. So that was all printed there, you know what I mean? That’s what I was working off of. And then after Cedric sang his vocals is where we added the little Beach Boys organ there. That was a really fun song and a little rambunctious.
Do you remember what you might have used on Cedric’s vocal? I hear a lot of effects swirling around him too.
I can remember at that time I was really into the—you know, by that point I had exhausted all the Space Echo, Echoplex, ring modulators, and all the gear that I’ve used over and over. I was really into those software plug-ins from SoundToys, especially the Decapitator and EchoBoy, so it’s probably one of those things because it just sounded different and new to me.
There’s no true meter to that breakdown section—I mean, the meter is the sample, but you have to sync to it, so I had to turn off all that shit and just give Cedric a click and a drone that had the harmonic center of the song. That one note, that’s what Cedric sang to, and then once we got the right take, then I turned on all that other stuff. It has a beautiful surreal effect to it. I’m really proud of that one.
“Noctourniquet” is another stellar stereo mix, with the opening guitar panned hard left, and then it’s joined by another guitar in the right channel. It’s a funky, relentless, really catchy song.
That one was almost like the solo record I made called Un Escorpión Perfumado [The Perfumed Scorpion]. All those songs were very similar to “Noctourniquet,” in that they were very simple. What I had in my head was all the old dub records that I like, with that drop on the one. It’s just very simple, and most of the interesting stuff is happening in the hi-hat.
That song had very little guitar in it. I think it was just the intro and the rest was keyboard work. The guitar that’s in the choruses, that little lead melody there, that came at the very end. But I was trying to keep that song as simple as possible. I really love that middle section there, with the synths and sequences.
I think the last time we spoke you had a Telecaster that you played on a lot of stuff. Was that the case on this record?
I might have still used the Tele, and I think around that time someone found me a ’60s Mustang, and I may have played that as well. I can’t really remember. Again, my emphasis was more on everything else, and then at the end of it, I started adding guitars, like I was saying, so that was just my Ibanez because it’s the guitar that’s around all the time. Since it was so much of an afterthought, it was my Ibanez and whatever pedals I had.
It was mixed in America, in Los Angeles, so since I put a lot of those parts on right before the mix, it was like, whatever was there. I had a guitar and a couple of pedals at my friend’s house and that’s what I used.
Well, I know you’re a fan of unusual guitar effects. What are some of the stars on this album?
Man, I can’t remember. I definitely know that when I was able to work at home, it was the old Maestro Phaser—the big wedge. I love those, and the other phaser—the names are escaping me right now. But the Maestro, the design on that is really strange [laughs]. And without a doubt the old Boss Vibrato, the one that I’ve always used—they go for like 600 bucks on eBay. It’s like it’s a Boss pedal, what’s going on here? But it’s a great effect.
Who did you mix with in L.A.?
We did it with my engineer, Lars Stalfors. I’ve worked with him on everything for maybe the past four years. When Rich’s schedule was full, you know, I trust Lars and he’s been working on the project and he knows what I’m going for. He knows that I didn’t want it mixed like a rock record—and again, the record was three years old, and I just didn’t have the patience for explaining how I wanted it to sound. So it was like, listen, you know what I want, you know what the idea was when I made the record, so make it sound like that—and quickly [laughs]. I also like mixing as we go along, you know what I mean? When you’re playing it back, what’s more fun than hearing it the way it’s supposed to sound?