The Mars Volta is an American progressive rock group formed in El Paso, TX, in 2001, by guitarist Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez (b. September 1, 1975, Bayamón, PR) and vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala (b. November 4, 1974, Redwood City, CA). They incorporate various influences including post-hardcore, jazz fusion, psychedelia, funk and salsa into their sound. They are characterized by their energetic and improvisational live shows, as well as their concept-based studio albums.
The roots of The Mars Volta are found in the band At the Drive-In. Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, both members of At the Drive-In, formed an experimental, dub reggae-influenced side project called De Facto, which featured Bixler-Zavala on drums, Rodriguez-Lopez on bass, Isaiah Owens (AKA "Ikey") on keyboards, and Jeremy Michael Ward on vocals, loops and sound effects.
Due to creative differences and discomfort with mainstream success, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala quit At the Drive-In in 2001. The remaining members of At the Drive-In formed Sparta. By the time bassist Eva Gardner joined De Facto, they had changed their name to The Mars Volta. During 2001, the band recorded two songs with former-Laddio Bolocko drummer Blake Fleming and producer Alex Newport, which became their first demo. The lineup for their first public show at Chain Reaction in Anaheim, California was Rodriguez-Lopez, Bixler-Zavala, Owens, Gardner, Ward, and drummer Jon Theodore. This lineup recorded three more tracks with Alex Newport, which became the EP Tremulant, released as a limited edition in early 2002.
Since the demise of At the Drive-In, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala found themselves once again starting from the ground up, touring and performing in smaller venues. The early years of the The Mars Volta were characterized by chaotic live shows and heavy drug use.
Following Tremulant, The Mars Volta continued touring with a fluid line-up while preparing to record their debut full-length album De-Loused in the Comatorium, produced with Rick Rubin. Whereas Tremulant had no general theme (except the prophetic mentioning) De-Loused in the Comatorium was a unified work of speculative fiction telling the first-person story of a friend (Julio Venegas) in a drug-induced coma, battling the evil side of his mind. Though lyrically obscure, The Mars Volta stated in interviews that the album's protagonist is based on their late friend Julio Venegas (AKA "Cerpin Taxt)," who was in a coma for several years. When he woke up, he jumped from the Mesa Street overpass onto Interstate-10 in El Paso, Texas during afternoon rush-hour traffic. Venegas' death was also referenced in the At the Drive-In song "Ebroglio" from their album Acrobatic Tenement.
The Mars Volta had no official bassist during the recording session, but Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) played bass on nine of the album's ten songs, with Justin Meldal-Johnsen playing double bass on "Televators."
Despite limited promotion, De-Loused in the Comatorium earned strong reviews, and appeared on several 'year-end best-of' lists. The album remains The Mars Volta's best-seller, with over 500,000 copies sold. The band later released a limited-edition storybook version of the album, available by download from the Gold Standard Laboratories website. The book speaks of Cerpin Taxt (Julio Venegas) and his suicide.
While on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in support of the album, The Mars Volta's former member Jeremy Michael Ward was found dead of a drug overdose. The band had canceled the tour's second leg, and the first single from De-Loused in the Comatorium was later dedicated to Ward. It was this event which finally convinced band leaders Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala to purportedly quit using opioids.
As the band resumed touring to support De-Loused, they added Juan Alderete (of Racer X) on bass and Marcel Rodríguez-Lopez (Omar's brother) on percussion. Work on their second album began in 2004. That year the band received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Vanguard Award.
In 2005, the band released Frances the Mute. The album was inspired by late sound technician Jeremy Ward, who found a diary in a car he repossessed while working as a repo-man. Each track of the album is loosely based on characters described within the diary.
Frances the Mute started as a bigger commercial hit than De-Loused, moving 123,000 copies in its first week, and debuting at #4 on the Billboard album charts. Reviews of Frances the Mute were generally positive (with a 75 on Metacritic) if somewhat polarized; Rolling Stone called it "a feverish and baroque search for self that conjures up the same majesty and gravity as Led Zeppelin three decades before," while Pitchfork Media called it "a homogeneous shitheap of stream-of-consciousness turgidity." However, even the detractors of Frances the Mute generally praised the band's musical abilities. "L'Via L'Viaquez" was later released as a single, stripped down from its original 12-minute length to five minutes. Frances the Mute has sold nearly 465,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan ratings.
Rodriguez-Lopez wrote all the instrumental parts as well as arranging and producing the recording sessions himself. He used a method that Miles Davis used to invoke great performances from bandmates: refusing to let the other members hear each other's parts, or the context of their own part, thereby forcing them to play each part as if it were a self-sufficient song. In order to accomplish this, the musicians recorded to the pulse of a metronome. While in the studio, Rodriguez-Lopez recruited Adrián Terrazas-González to play saxophone, flute, and additional wind instruments for the album. Terrazas-González was added as a permanent member to The Mars Volta while touring in support of Frances The Mute.
Mid-way through their headlining U.S. tour, former At the Drive-In member Paul Hinojos (also known as Pablo) left the band Sparta to join The Mars Volta, claiming, "My time with Sparta has run its course, and simply wasn't fun anymore." Hinojos joined as rhythm guitarist and became the band's sound manipulator, the position previously held by the late Jeremy Ward. Hinojos had previously toured with The Mars Volta in 2003 and 2004.
On May 20, 2005, instead of playing a traditional set at KROQ's Weenie Roast Festival, the band played a 40-minute instrumental jam that was jokingly named on-the-spot as "Abortion, The Other White Meat" by Rodriguez-Lopez. In keeping with the Mars Volta tradition of testing and developing new work live, parts of "Abortion" later appeared on "Population Councils Wet Dream" off Rodriguez-Lopez's 2008 album Old Money.
During mid-2005, the band toured in support of the album with System of a Down and curated the All Tomorrow's Parties festival. In addition, a full-length live album named Scab Dates was released on November 8, 2005.
Upon finishing the majority of touring for Frances the Mute in fall 2005, Rodriguez-Lopez traveled to Amsterdam and wrote what became Amputechture, which was released on September 8, 2006 in Europe, on September 9, 2006 in Australia and on September 12, 2006 in the U.S. Rodriguez-Lopez spent much of his time in Amsterdam working on and performing various solo projects most notably under the name "Omar Rodriguez Quintet." During this time Rodriguez-Lopez also composed the score to the film El Búfalo de la Noche, which was written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga and Jorge Hernandez Aldana respectively. The Mars Volta as a whole performed the score.
Amputechture was produced by Rodríguez-Lopez and mixed by Rich Costey. Jeff Jordan provided the artwork, making it their first album not to feature the work of Storm Thorgerson. It was once again a concept album, but rather than telling a story, the album was based upon a single idea, with each song looking at it from a different perspective. It became the last album with drummer Jon Theodore, whom Rodriguez-Lopez fired before touring in support of the album. Rodriguez-Lopez said in an interview with an Italian fan site that Theodore was the only member in the band who wasn't happy playing live and brought down the moods of the rest.
John Frusciante was featured on every track on Amputechture, except for "Asilos Magdalena." Rodríguez-Lopez contributed the solos and riffs where the guitar work needed to be doubled. Bixler-Zavala said in an interview, "…he taught Frusciante all the new songs and Frusciante tracked guitars for us so Omar could sit back and listen to the songs objectively. It's great that he wants to help us and do that."
On July 28, 2006, the drummer's spot was filled by Blake Fleming, formerly of Laddio Bolocko, Dazzling Killmen, and the very first Mars Volta demos. A new song titled "Rapid Fire Tollbooth" was debuted live on September 22, 2006 in Chicago, IL, as reported by fans and attendees of the show who had received set lists from the stage. The song originally appears on Rodriguez-Lopez's solo album Se Dice Bisonte No Bufalo. The song eventually evolved into the track "Goliath" from the band's fourth studio album.
On September 25, 2006, The Mars Volta played a unique set on the opening night of a double-header in Toronto, Ontario. Cedric Bixler-Zavala fell ill and could not perform, so The Mars Volta played with John Frusciante on third guitar. The set consisted of over 47 minutes of instrumental material, including a lengthy cover of the Pink Floyd composition "Interstellar Overdrive." On October 17, 2006, while opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the band played with drummer Deantoni Parks. Rodriguez-Lopez fired Fleming because of complications within the band. Parks remained with the band only until the conclusion of the Japanese tour because of his prior commitments with other bands.
On a 2007 episode of The Henry Rollins Show, The Mars Volta performed "Tetragrammaton" and "Day of the Baphomets" in a rare television performance. Afterwards, they did an interview with Rollins about the creation of Amputechture.
In 2007, Thomas Pridgen became the new permanent drummer for the band. Pridgen's first appearance was at the March 12th show in New Zealand, where the band debuted the song "Idle Tooth" which was later renamed "Wax Simulacra" for the forthcoming album. After shows in New Zealand and Australia, The Mars Volta toured a few West Coast venues as the headliner, then entered the studio to record their fourth LP, The Bedlam in Goliath. One of these performances was captured in a forthcoming live concert DVD shot by director Jorge Hernandez Aldana.
Despite finding a permanent drummer and getting the band back on track, the recording and production of the album was reportedly plagued by difficulties related to a bad experience with a Ouija board purchased in a curio shop in Jerusalem. According to Rodriguez-Lopez, the original engineer experienced a nervous breakdown and refused to hand over the work in progress, forcing Rodriguez-Lopez to round up people to help him retrieve the materials. Also, Rodriguez-Lopez's studio flooded twice, and both he and mixer Rich Costey claimed that various tracks would disappear at random.
On November 5, 2007, The Mars Volta released a document by Jeremy Robert Johnson titled, "The Mars Volta's Descent into Bedlam: A Rhapsody in Three Parts." The document includes a history of the band and describes the obstacles and inspirations they encountered in the creation of The Bedlam in Goliath. On November 20, 2007 "Wax Simulacra," the first single from the forthcoming album, was released with a cover of "Pulled To Bits" by Siouxsie and the Banshees as the b-side.
The band kicked off their supporting tour with a December 29, 2007 "secret show" at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, California, followed by a special New Year's Eve performance at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. That night they played their first ever acoustic set, which included six songs and live performance of "Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore" The band then departed on a club tour of east coast U.S. throughout January, with an album release show at San Diego's Soma, followed by another month's worth of European dates from mid-February to mid-March.
On January 2, 2008, The Mars Volta released an online game called "Goliath: The Soothsayer," based on a true story that inspired their forthcoming album The Bedlam In Goliath. The album chronicles the band's purported experience with the "Soothsayer," a Ouija board owned by vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and its transition from a source of fun on tour to a psycho-spiritual force that almost tore the band apart. The game was available for a limited time exclusively via Amazon.com.
On January 17, 2008, the band made their U.S. network television debut, performing "Wax Simulacra" on The Late Show with David Letterman (Rodriguez-Lopez, Bixler-Zavala and Hinojos had appeared on the show with At the Drive-In in 2000). On January 22, they made a surprise appearance at Toronto, Canada's MTV Live studios, where they performed "Wax Simulacra" and an extended version of "Goliath." In late January, the new album debuted at a career-best #3 on the Billboard 200.
The song "Wax Simulacra" won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. It was the band's first nomination and win. The band members thanked their families and Bixler urged people not to forget the memories of the recently departed Lux Interior and Ron Asheton.
Rodriguez-Lopez had discussed the band's next album as early as January 2008, the month that The Bedlam in Goliath was released, claiming "I consider it to be our acoustic album." Cedric Bixler-Zavala had expressed an urge for the album to not be released on a major label. In February 2009, Rodriguez-Lopez claimed "the next two Mars Volta records are already recorded and waiting for a release date."
On April 14, 2009, The Mars Volta announced their fifth studio album, entitled Octahedron. It was released June 23 in the US and June 22 in the rest of the world. Saxophonist Adrián Terrazas-González and guitarist/sound manipulator Paul Hinojos are not listed as contributors.
In addition, other future projects have been mentioned by band members. One is a film shot by Rodriguez-Lopez documenting the entire history of the band including studio and backstage footage taken over the years. Another is a new live album similar to Scabdates featuring songs from Frances the Mute and Amputechture.
Towards the end of the Octahedron tour, Thomas Pridgen left the band. No official statement has been given by the band on the issue. Weeks later, it appeared on Pridgen's Facebook page that he was "no longer in TMV." On November 29, 2009, the band performed a show in Oslo, Norway with drummer Dave Elitch. The band is scheduled to play throughout Europe and Australia until the end of January, 2010. In 2012, they released their sixth and thus far last album, Noctourniquet, and subsequently toured in support for it until October 2012. The group entered hiatus soon after as Omar focused on a new project titled Bosnian Rainbows.
On January 23 2013 Cedric announced on Twitter that the band had split up. Around the same time, Omar and Cedric had a brief fallout where Cedric accused him of not caring about At The Drive-In or The Mars Volta, and the two were not on speaking terms. However, in 2014 they reunited and created the band Antemasque. Since then, the duo have also reunited At the Drive-In, releasing an album in 2017 titled Inter alia and an EP entitled Diamanté. In May 2019, Bixler-Zavala confirmed that the Mars Volta were in the studio recording new material, writing, “It’s new shit, new people, left turns, tangent inconsistencies, mazapan dreams and churro wishes.” He also suggested that the band's "back catalogue" of unreleased material would also be released, "and it will be high quality, unlike that the fucking buffoon shit that Universal bootlegged a couple years ago." (A large amount of demos and unreleased material had been leaked from an unclear source in August 2013.)
Official discography (with release dates in yyyy-mm-dd format):
2002-11-08 - Tremulant (EP)
2003-06-24 - De-Loused in the Comatorium
2003-07-01 - Live (EP)
2005-03-01 - Frances the Mute
2005-11-08 - Scabdates (live)
2006-09-12 - Amputechture
2008-01-29 - The Bedlam in Goliath
2009-06-23 - Octahedron
2012-03-27 - Noctourniquet