Exactly two months ago, there was only one act in top five of the Billboard albums chart that counted Throbbing Gristle, Fugazi and the Butthole Surfers as chief influences ... and it sure wasn't 50 Cent or Jack Johnson.
It was the Mars Volta — the brainchild of big-haired and tight-pants-wearing duo Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez — whose punky, proggy sophomore release, Frances the Mute, had just astounded just about everyone in the music industry by selling more than 123,000 copies in just one week. Which is a pretty amazing number when you consider that Frances is a five-song, 77-minute semi-concept record about death, rebirth, emptiness and longing; an album with trippy artwork and obscure lyrics that lacked a discernable single and featured a closing track that pushed the 30-minute mark.
Records like that aren't exactly chart-burners.
"We were amazed by the album's debut. It was a big shock to us," guitarist Rodriguez-Lopez laughed. "When we started this band, we figured we'd be playing small clubs and squats for the rest of our lives, and no one would like us. When the first record came out, we figured people would say our EP was better, and when Frances came out, we thought people wouldn't like our new direction. So we're constantly being surprised by people."
The album has gone on to sell almost 300,000 copies in just nine weeks, and lo and behold, the first single from the album, "The Widow" (which features the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea on trumpet) has become a surprise mainstay on rock radio. And the spooky, goofy video for the tune, which Rodriguez-Lopez himself directed and which features gratuitous use of an evil ice-cream man, has begun to get major airplay, even though most people have no idea what it means, director included.
"I'm not really sure what it's about, but people always ask me, 'Is the ice-cream man the devil?' 'Is he giving all those kids drugs?' " Rodriguez-Lopez said. "Everyone has pictures in their heads when they listen to music, but I guess that's one shallow, obvious way to look at it. I see it quite the opposite. I see the main character as God, or as a saint."
"And maybe he's not giving the kids drugs, he's making them aware of what's going on in the world. And maybe that's what they needed," Bixler Zavala added. "They're part of the fast culture, and what he's giving them is that insight to stop and realize everything that's going on around you."
The Mars Volta like to talk about this "fast culture" a lot these days. Probably because they've become emboldened by the success of Frances, an album that boldly flies in the face of today's hyper-speed, compartmentalized culture by being overblown and long-winded, and by taking a rather unique look at the concept of the cycles of life and death (see "Mars Volta's Conceptual Frances The Mute Speaks Volumes"). And now they're aiming to spread those concepts and ideals — and push the envelope even further — with the video for their next single, "L'Via L'Viaquez," provided their major-label masters allow them to (the tune is almost 15 minutes long, after all).
"The video is almost done. I'm directing it. But more and more I realize that there's only so much you can do with the music video. Everything's crammed down to three-and-a-half minutes," Rodriguez-Lopez sighed. "The video for 'The Widow' is a perfect example. I shot it as if I was shooting a short film. It was slow-paced and there were really nice scenes and moments between the actors, and when I got into the editing room, I had to make it fit into three minutes."
And if they fail to spread the message via music video, well, then perhaps the Mars Volta can reach new fans when they open for System of a Down on a fall tour (the real trick, though, will probably be cramming their famously epic live shows into a 45-minute opening slot). But whatever the case, the band has already proven that a challenging rock record can be a hit, and now — inspired by Frances' impact — they've got another lofty goal in mind: to destroy the concept of just what major-label music can be.
"You want to turn on the unconverted," Bixler Zavala said. "It's really easy to play songs to people who really love your music, but it's a challenge to play ball. So that way you can eliminate things like counterculture, and the counterculture becomes the people who are in charge. And that way you can start setting your own rules.
"It would be great if underground bands would be like, 'F--- this underground stuff, let's take this to Russia, let's take this to Korea!' " he continued. "Because it'd be great if kids didn't have to choose between 3 Doors Down and Alter Bridge. It would be great if a band like Le Tigre would play the Warped Tour dates in the middle of America and really turn on those knuckleheads. And if they got pelted with bottles, well, then that's just part of the revolution."