Two years ago, Omar Rodriguez and Cedric Blixer were being touted as the earnest, afro'd saviours of punk rock. Over the course of three albums and numerous tours, their band, the El Paso, Tex.-based At the Drive-In, had generated a buzz that was impossible to ignore. And when MTV moved the video for One Armed Scissor into heavy rotation, At the Drive-In seemed unstoppable.
Yet stop they did, calling it quits right in the middle of a tour to support their then-current album, Relationship of Command. Immediately, the music world was awash in rumours. "We heard everything," says Rodriguez, chuckling quietly. "From we broke up because we were getting too big and couldn't handle it, to that Cedric and I were gay and on drugs."
The truth was much less complicated: Rodriguez and Blixer just didn't want to make that music any more. "It was as simple as waking up one day and realizing that you're not in love with the person that you're sharing a bed with," he says, over the phone from a Chicago hotel. "It definitely would have been more comfortable to stay in the situation, especially because we were on the verge of reaching more people. The easiest thing would have been to have stayed in the band and to just faked it, but I can't sleep at night with that feeling."
So Rodriguez and Blixer put together a new band, the Mars Volta, whose sound is anything but punk. Where At the Drive-In relied on the blunt momentum of simple riffs and adrenalized playing, the Mars Volta takes a more complex approach, layering throbbing bass and roiling percussion lines beneath the fluid, melodic guitar and soaring vocals. Their music reflects a wide array of influences, morphing from Fugazi-style postpunk to dub reggae in the space of a single song.
But the key to the band's sound can be summed up in a single word: Salsa. "I'm Puerto Rican," explains Rodriguez. "Until I heard Slayer or Black Flag, I wanted to be in a salsa band. I wanted to be a bass player in a salsa group with my father. Those are my roots, and eventually that is what I will do."
In the meantime, salsa is the standard by which he measures all music. "Be it punk rock, or drum 'n' bass, or dub, or whatever, what I like and what I don't like is filtered through salsa music," he says. "That was a big factor in this band, in needing to have busy, intricate rhythms, the type of rhythms that fall in the pocket of the clavé of salsa music."
Not that anyone will confuse the Mars Volta's sound with that of Marc Anthony or some other salsero. As Rodriguez jokes, you can take the boy out of punk, but you can't take the punk out of the boy, and the Mars Volta -- particularly when playing live -- prefers to keep its music fast and furious. Still, he is serious when he talks about staying "in the pocket of the clavé." In salsa, clavé rhythm -- three slow beats followed by two fast ones -- is a constant, the underlying reference point to which everything else relates. "No matter how far you go out -- or even if you get lost -- you always know exactly where to come back, because the clavé is there, pounding in your head and in your soul."
That sense of rhythmic grounding makes it easier for the new band to stretch out. "It gives us the openness to improvise, and to have the songs be different every night," he says. "To have the songs fall apart, and then get put back together piece by piece, in the moment, which was completely impossible with the last band."
At the moment, the only way to hear how the band's diverse influences and salsa-based aesthetic fits together is by catching them live, as De-Loused in the Comatorium -- their Rick Rubin-produced debut -- isn't due out until July. Even so, the band is poised to make an even bigger splash than At the Drive-In did. Even before its release, the album is evoking comparisons with such old-guard giants as Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Led Zeppelin, and the band has garnered rave reviews for its current slot on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Chili Peppers bassist Flea guest stars on Comatorium).
Best of all, says Rodriguez, playing these songs with this band makes him blissfully happy. "It feels like everything I ever aspired to achieve by forming a new band is happening," he says. "It feels good. It feels great."
The Mars Volta performs with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Queens of the Stone Age tonight at the Corel Centre in Ottawa, tomorrow at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, and on Thursday at the Bell Centre in Montreal.