Mars Volta vs. Jaga Jazzist: Boiling Points

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Although they hail from relatively opposite ends of the earth, The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (Hollywood, CA) and Jaga Jazzist’s Lars Horntveth (Oslo, Norway) share quite a bit in common. Both are highly esteemed musicians, fronting genre-shredding outfits that offer up elaborate and cerebral musical explorations. Both released debut solo efforts last year–Omar’s A Manual Dexterity, Volume 1 and Horntveth’s Pooka–and are following suit with their respective bands in 2005. Indeed, Frances the Mute, The Mars Volta’s newest exercise in Naked Lunch-like lyrical assault and mind-warping soundtracking, could be the hyperactive cousin to Jaga Jazzist’s newest deconstruction of jazz conventions, What We Must.

Although the two hadn’t met or talked at length before this interview, they share a record label in common. Rodriguez-Lopez’s forward-looking indie imprint Gold Standard Labs–home to outstanding acts like !!!, 400 Blows, and GoGo Airheart–first picked up American distribution for Jaga’s Animal Chin EP in 2003. Add to that both artists’ dislike of purists, their dedication to ensemble work, their numerous side projects, and their jaw-dropping live shows, and you have a cross-cultural affinity not often seen.

XLR8R: Both of you released solo albums last year. What kind of opportunities did that provide?

Lars Horntveth: When I work alone, I don’t have to think about the other band members wanting to play this or that. My solo album was more about competition and ego. When you’re in a band, however, you have this democratic model, which is often a good thing but can sometimes be exhausting.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez: I agree, Lars. For me, it was about not having to think about the others. Everything was looser; I was able to approach music the way I did when I was a kid recording at home on a four-track. While our band is not a democracy at all, I still make it a point to take others’ feelings into consideration and think about the overall group dynamic. But when making my own album, it was more of a talking-before-you-think scenario: getting the work out without too much in the way of refinement or analysis.

Omar, your solo release is a soundtrack for your upcoming film, and both Jaga and Volta’s work are equally cinematic in their breadth and sweep. How has film influenced your respective bands?

OR-L: It’s the main form of inspiration for me. As much as I love music, it’s nice to have something like cinema that seems so completely unrelated to it. It’s a different thing for me to derive inspiration from watching a movie, reading a book, looking at a painting, or thinking about a friend I really love. To take that energy and twist and turn it into a piece of music that makes me feel the same way is far more challenging sometimes than just listening to music I like.

LH: Cinema is also my biggest influence. When we started making What We Must, I was also scoring music for a film in Norway. This was very freeing; I didn’t have to think that much about anything other than just making music.

Are there any directors that either of you would want to work with? I know both bands have an affinity for David Lynch.

LH: Yeah, of course. We’re watching David Lynch’s work all the time. The video for “All I Know is Tonight” was inspired by Twin Peaks, as well as some of Tim Burton’s stuff.

OR-L: Definitely Lynch. David Cronenberg is another director I love. Takeshi Miike would be a really interesting one.

Those directors have stretched the envelope on cinema convention, similar to the way your bands have stretched the envelope on rock and jazz. Is there a conscious decision on your parts to redefine sonic territory, or is it just an organic thing that happens as you’re working?

OR-L: It’s both. There are times where it’s just automatic writing, and there are other times where you’re listening to your work and really putting the microscope to the art that you realize things aren’t as interesting as you first thought.

LH: The way I handle it is to have many bands working at one time; that way I am able to do something different with each one. With Jaga, we’ve always tried to come up with new ways of combining instruments. Sometimes you get lucky, but sometimes you just do the same thing all over again.

Has either of you run into a situation where you’re over-thinking everything rather than allowing spontaneity to dictate the work?

LH: Of course. For What We Must, we wanted to be spontaneous and not think too much. It’s very important to keep spirits up that way.

OR-L: I sometimes have a hard time doing that with Mars Volta. It’s hard to be totally spontaneous, because everything is so structured. But I think I find small ways to make the process spontaneous. Sometimes I’ll limit myself to certain equipment, or even sabotage myself with problems that will force me to think in different ways.

LH: I think it’s important to make it sound easy and not constructed, but still have enough details to sound impulsive.

Does performing live offer respite from that?

OR-L: Absolutely. For Mars Volta, performing live is a way to escape and counterbalance the constraints of structure. There is quite a bit of improvisation in our live show because it’s everyone’s time to speak and get away from the guidelines. For us, improvisation is the last true form of democratic expression. It’s also a hot medium, whereas recording music is a cold medium. In the studio, you can be methodical, change the picture, twist things around over and over again until the writing is perfect and all the actors know their lines. But live performance is our theater. It’s the moment where anything can happen, where the people forget their lines and have to make up new ones. It offers us a unique opportunity that I think other bands throw away.

LH: We try to reconstruct onstage what we’ve done in the studio, but still allow plenty of room for improvisation. For this tour, we’re improvising much more. And I’ve seen Mars Volta play once in Oslo. Do you remember that concert, Omar?

OR-L: Was it the one we did just recently?

LH: No, the one before, about a year-and-a-half ago.

OR-L: Oh yeah, I know which one you’re talking about.

LH: That seemed like a really improvised performance!

OR-L: [Laughs] They’re always changing, and much of it depends on the mood at the time. Generally, there’s a different mood happening at the beginning, middle, and end of a tour. Sometimes around the middle of the tour, you get bored and come up with new ways to keep yourself interested. And then towards the end of a tour, when you feel like you’re about to go home, perhaps you start to tighten up again.

How does either of you feel about the idea of purity of convention? There’s still this attitude about what constitutes so-called authentic jazz or rock, especially in regard to the use of electronics, drum machines, and such. It seems to me an anachronistic, if not fascist, attitude.

OR-L: I hate all that. I’m so sick of people saying that we don’t have songs, or trying to impose guidelines on what music is and can be. They’re choking the life out of it because they don’t want it to evolve into anything beyond their own understanding. People who say that rock music should only be verse-chorus-verse, that jazz shouldn’t contain electronics, or offer up similarly lame rules are purists–and purists are boring. Purists are the same people who got down on Miles Davis and Bob Dylan for going electric.

LH: We’ve never tried to purposefully combine styles, but rather make music that doesn’t conform to one style. In a way, the more you work with music, the less you can think like that. Mars Volta has been on the top of the charts in Norway for awhile now, and people are saying that it’s so intense. And I can see that, but I don’t know why people wouldn’t want music to be intense. It should involve you. That’s the great thing about your band, Omar. It’s like listening to Bitches Brew: there’s lots of information to absorb, but when you listen to it you get deep into it. That’s the point.

America supposedly has a rep for being a forward-looking place, but challenging music like yours, Omar, is pretty much banned from mainstream pop culture.

OR-L: I don’t mind, because I find all of that incredibly boring. If the music is boring, it’s because people want all of their music to sound the same. They want their Social Distortion or Green Day played over and over again. People who don’t have an open mind to different forms of music are so archaic. If music was a country, they’d be the Republicans. [All laugh] Music is a form of expression and freedom that we can all share, and these people are only interested in telling us how we can share it, how it can be expressed, and how it has to be regulated.