If you thought the concepts behind the Mars Volta's last three records were, well, odd, just wait — you haven't heard anything yet.
The band's 2003 debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, revolved around the tale of Cerpin Taxt, a man who tries to kill himself by overdosing on morphine. The inspiration for 2005's Frances the Mute came from an anonymous man's diary that chronicled the author's search for his biological parents. And 2006's Amputechture tackled topics like U.S. immigration and possessed nuns.
But the band's forthcoming LP, The Bedlam in Goliath, takes concept records to a whole new level. Due in stores January 29, Bedlam deals with a present Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez — who also produced the LP — gave frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala after returning from a trip to Jerusalem.
"He took the trip a little while ago, and he found a sort of curio shop ... [it's] kind of hard to believe that that would exist over there," Bixler-Zavala said. "He brought me back ... what you'd call a Ouija board in the States, and we started playing with it ... we used to get the band to play it a lot after we'd play shows in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do." Making a reference to "The Exorcist," he added, "And we kind of stumbled across our own version of Captain Howdy." While the gift never had an official name, the band referred to it as "The Soothsayer."
"It serves the same function as a Ouija board, but it's just a little more archaic," Bixler-Zavala elaborated, adding that the band discovered a number of poems attached to the board. "This version of it had a sort of love triangle that was attached to it — the poems we found with it sort of described a mother-daughter-and-other-man love triangle, and what I came up with from it was we were being contacted by at least three people on the board that would come up as one person. We wrote down a lot of the messages they gave us, and we used it in the lyrics, and we also tried to fasten the lyrics into sort of like a good-luck charm, by putting positive elements into it. We used a lot of elements of Santeria [an Afro-Caribbean religious tradition] to kind of give us a protective skin when the record does come out."
The more the band played with the strange game, the stranger things started to get. The singer said he started "meeting different people through the game, and I was getting different mixed messages from it. After a while, we started having a lot of bad luck happen to us, and we kind of got rid of the thing, and in the process of using it, we discovered a lot of weird things about it."
When the band's focus for the LP shifted to the strange board game, "the studio we were working in flooded, and then our main engineer had a nervous breakdown, which caused us to almost have to start all over again, because he knew where everything was. I had foot problems, and I ended up having to get surgery." The singer says he's had foot problems for some time because of the shoes he had been wearing. Surgeons had to break some of the bones in his foot, shave them down, and since then, Bixler-Zavala has had to re-learn how to walk.
"We got sunk into a hole financially because of our drummer problems, and having to get a new drummer mid-tour when we were out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers," he continued, referring to the roster upheaval that eventually saw Thomas Pridgen filling the role. "We just started getting a lot of bad luck with it. We were kind of not allowed by Omar to speak its name while we were making the record, for fear of bad mojo."
After a while, when the guys' luck didn't improve, they decided to get rid of it. Rodriguez-Lopez buried the object and was sworn not to tell anyone in the band where he had hidden it.
"Because such a strange impact was left by using the board, we decided to make a record based on ... the stories we were getting from the things or spirits we were contacting," he continued. "The album is basically a sort of ... it's like the 'Ghostbusters,' when they want to catch a ghost, they throw out this little trap on the floor, and they open it. [The] record serves as a bunch of little traps, so when the record comes out, people will have those traps, and they can play the game and try to reverse the bad luck we've had come from it. It's our way of creating a little infernal machine, but we've reversed it, for good luck."
The bad mojo, along with "small details that are a little more private and embarrassing," derailed plans to release the album — which Bixler-Zavala called the "record that did not want to be born" — in September. Despite the bad luck the game wrought, the album's vinyl version will feature the band's own version of the same game, inside the gatefold — so now, everyone can play.
And what does Bedlam — which includes "Aberinkula," "Metatron," "Ilyena," "Tourniquet Man" and more — sound like? The singer said longtime fans can expect typical Volta on this new record — epic songs that run well over 10 minutes, huge guitars (some provided by Chili Pepper John Frusciante), and loads of experimental instrumentation.
"It goes in different directions and has different moods, but for new people who know nothing about us, there are those shorter songs, and I think that might appeal to some people," he said. "It was never done in any sort of, 'Let's get on the radio' intention, but it does help, I guess. The whole album is completely interactive for the listener, and there's something concrete to sink your teeth into. There is a story there, even if it is vague sometimes."
The band plans to hit the road in support of Bedlam early next year and has a New Year's Eve gig planned for San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — for the bash, the Mars Volta are requiring fans to wear costumes. Bixler-Zavala said fans can also expect the album's first single, "Wax Simulacra," soon. Originally, the label wanted to introduce the LP with the track "Goliath," but the band wouldn't have it.
" 'Goliath' is about nine, 10 minutes long, and the end of it is so interesting, we didn't really want it to be used as a single," he said. "It kept getting butchered and came off really bad. If you edit our songs and you take away all the extra stuff, then that song might've just sounded like Wolfmother — and we never want to compete with that. They're their own thing, and we're our own thing."