One of the biggest criticisms of the Mars Volta — at least those waged against the band by people who can't even begin to comprehend what the Volta are all about — is that they're too "out there."
They have also been called "overly complicated," and some have even accused the band of trying too hard to be anomalous. After all, the Mars Volta's records aren't commentaries on unrequited love, like half of what's being churned out by the emo pack. They've tackled a variety of topics, like morphine abuse, failed abortion attempts, U.S. immigration and possessed nuns. Likely to stoke claims that the band's themes can be overwrought is the subject of its forthcoming LP, The Bedlam in Goliath (in stores January 29): a Ouija-like board game, discovered in Jerusalem by guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, that irrevocably altered their lives.
The criticism doesn't bother frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who, along with Rodriguez-Lopez, left seminal punk experimentalists At the Drive-In to form the Volta.
"That just goes to show that people didn't understand us in the first place, and they had no business being there," Bixler-Zavala said. "It makes us feel normal when people think we're being too arty or whatever. ... I would feel weird if I wasn't able to be longwinded, or have information-overload on our songs.
"See, that's when I know we're on to something," he continued. "Even when fans don't like certain songs, I know that's good, because they probably want [the band's best-known song] 'The Widow' over and over again. So, I know we're doing something right, even if we can upset hard-core fans. We have the ability to attract and repel at the same time, which I think you should embrace. Otherwise, you're just going to be, like, this Neil Diamond act."
"The most common critique is that we're trying to be difficult," commented Rodriguez-Lopez. "And, it's like, 'Everyone's like that.' Who do you know that just has one mode, all the time? We go through all sorts of mood swings, and within an hour, within a day, you find yourself angry, happy, sad; you find yourself on halftime, you find yourself on full throttle. So, all of that goes into the music — that's our therapy; that's our fantasy land."
But the story behind Bedlam is no fantasy at all. It deals with the Ouija board, which the bandmembers dubbed the "Soothsayer" and say connected them with three different spirits: two women, and one very overbearing male.
"It's a classic story of a man speaking over the females, and the females looking for someone to have the courage to speak about what led them to the solitary confinement of the prison-like state of the talking board," said Bixler-Zavala. "The way I read into the poetry attached to [the board], we think the female spirits [were] telling us this classic story that is a modern story in Muslim society of 'honor killings.' All of the lyrics — actually, about 80 percent — came from these traditional poems we'd peeled off the board, and the lyrics are the best slogans, demands, and one-liners [the spirits] gave us."
It wasn't long before the members of the Mars Volta began to suspect the Soothsayer was something of a black cloud that hovered over them, and they even used elements of Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religious tradition, to protect themselves from it.
"The male spirit in the board kept trying to sabotage us," said the singer, adding that the band's studio flooded twice, its gear was destroyed, and the engineer who was hired to oversee the studio process suffered a nervous breakdown and hijacked the studio tapes. "We had people go to his house to get them from him," Bixler-Zavala said.
Since the album will be spreading the spirits' messages, does the band worry that the Soothsayer's bad luck will infect the rest of the world? "I'm not afraid," Bixler-Zavala said, "because, to me, [the male spirit is] one of the many people who have said 'no' to me. Great — line up, take a number."
The one thing the Mars Volta are looking forward to this year is getting back on the road. They've just come out of their longest dry spell in 15 years, and all that time at home has got them feeling antsy. While they're not sure about plans for an American tour, the band hopes to hit "everywhere and anywhere" during the coming year, Bixler-Zavala said.
As a point of clarification, the singer and guitarist explained that the guys have no say in picking singles from their records — that's their label's choice. Most often, what happens is the label picks one of the band's epic, 10-minute numbers, and lops off a huge chunk of the song to make it radio-friendly — like with "The Widow," for example.
"We haven't cared in the past when they've butchered one of our songs, because essentially, they're making a trailer," said Rodriguez-Lopez. "We made our movie; you make your stupid trailer. And people will say, 'Oh, maybe that's a nice film,' and then they come, and maybe they walk out [when they realize] it's nothing like the trailer."