Interview :: Omar Rodriguez Lopez
October 30th 2012
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is probably best known for his work as the commander-in-chief of polarising 2000s experimental bands The Mars Volta and At The Drive In. Last in the country with At The Drive In at this year’s Splendour In The Grass festival, the guitar virtuoso will be returning to Australia at the beginning of 2013 for a solo tour with his new band Bosnian Rainbows. The Flog’s Max Quinn sat down with Omar to talk solo work, democracies, and ex sex.
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Max: You have a pretty extensive back-catalogue of solo recordings. How do you decide what makes the set list?
Omar: Usually that doesn’t happen until right before a tour. It’ll depend on what mood I’m in. I’ll just pick whatever sounds like it will be the most fun to play on that particular trip. Pretty much everything I do is based on what I’m craving at that time – whether it’s with this band or that band or whatever. It’s the same as when you wake up and eat whatever breakfast you’re craving that day. It’s that simple. In the case of this Australian tour, I’ve started a whole new band called Bosnian Rainbows, and we’re playing brand new material that hasn’t been released.
Will that be a vulnerable experience for you?
Oh hell no! That’s the best type of experience there is, shit! You know how it is – the best thing for your ego is when you go and play shows and everybody is like ‘awwwhhhhhh!!’ and they sing along. So that’s the ego trip. But the stuff of real substance is when you’re just up there on that wire, man. It’s all fresh and it’s all brand new. That’s what you live for. You have to understand that I’ve done that for nearly my whole career – I’m always playing some stuff that people will recognise, but a lot of it is all brand new. I’m lucky enough to have a strong fan base who find that as exciting as I do.
Do you also find yourself searching for those thrills in other aspects of your life?
Sure, sure! I think it’s always happening to me. My life, for one reason or another, has always been electric. But that has a lot to do with my family. I have a very spontaneous family, so it’s always been exciting. When we were kids my mother would pile us into the back of the car in the middle of the night, and we’d drive all night just to be somewhere different in the morning. Everybody would sing in the car. And then when we got there, we’d turn around and come home because it was back to work on Monday. I definitely like those new experiences that symbolise – actually, no, there’s no symbolism at all – it’s just life happening in front of you. It’s creation.
It’s that old motif: you don’t go looking for trouble – trouble finds you.
Yeah! Except it’s not trouble – it’s everything that’s great about being alive. Probably sometimes I go looking for trouble too: I’ve definitely put myself in some fucking crazy situations for the sake of experiencing it. But for the most part you’re following life around. A lot of people think it’s the other way around.
You’ve also said in the past that democracies don’t work with artistic expression. Do you still agree with that?
I don’t. I think it was something that I felt for a long time. Democracies can work, but they’re just a lot of fucking work. You have to really want to make it work. I definitely felt like that after eight years of being in a democratic band like At The Drive In, so then I said: ‘fuck that!’ and I started the Mars Volta. But obviously, it worked for eight years because we remained a group. But you get to a point where you wonder about the grass on the other side and that’s life. You have to really set it up in the right way.
Yet, one of the most inherent components of your particular kind of artistic expression is collaboration. Do you consider yourself to be a collaborator?
I don’t think I ever truly collaborated with anybody up until this past year or so. For eleven years I was doing what I wanted to do. Collaboration is going into a room with somebody and neither of you have anything, and you just start to create. You give and you take and there’s a lot of sacrifice involved, and then you get to this amazing place. I haven’t been making records like that. I’ve been handing out parts for people to play, doing it exactly how I wanted it, and then somebody else sings on it. I thought that was collaboration. It’s not. It’s the same as a pop or a hip-hop track where a producer makes an entire song and then somebody else comes in to sing on it. That’s not collaboration. I’ve been fortunate – that process can be an incredible one – but the exception proves the rule.
Is it a case of the grass truly being greener, this time? Are you done with dictatorships?
Yeah. It’s mostly a result of having worked through that sickness for eleven years. When you’re making music or anything else, there should be therapeutic properties. If not, you’re just making entertainment. For me, I guess it means I have to learn about myself and the people around me. And so what I learned about myself is that it can be quite miserable being so neurotic. I was controlling everything – you have to understand that was just an extension of my personality. Can you imagine having a meal with me? It has to be where I want, but that place might have germs, but they do have this one dish that I always like, and it’s located between here and here – that’s not real living. It’s really obnoxious. And more importantly it’s not healthy. So I’ve been able to work through that over the past eleven years and come to the conclusion that, yes, the grass is greener. You can’t control life – like you were saying, whether it’s looking for trouble or trouble looking for you, life is crazy enough. Just relax and hang out with people and go with the flow. That’s where I am now.
Do you think that you came around to reforming At The Drive In as a result of this new frame of mind?
Without a doubt. Going back to a democratic process with that sort of energy would have never been possible without it. It’s the act of giving.
The worry that I would have is that it would be like making out with your ex at your high school reunion. Do you know what I mean?
That’s kind of how it seemed to me for a long time. But when I really got down to the nitty gritty, I’ve known Paul since I was twelve years old. He was one of the first people I talked to in English when I moved to America. He taught me how to play guitar. Cedric I met when I was thirteen and Jim right around the same time. Tony came later as well. My point is that there are people who I’ve known all my life. People who I became adults with inside of a tiny band. Really it’s all about: ‘Hey! There you are. How have you been? Oh, you have a kid? That’s amazing. Tell me all about it. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. We have plenty of time to catch up and feel good about it.’
It’s quite a liberating process. There’s no sexuality involved. Our sexuality would be the music, and that’s a non-issue. We’re lucky that people even care about the music eleven years later. So the things that we can really focus on are the relationships.
Can you explain what you mean by sexuality?
There’s no weird sexual tension between the five of us in At The Drive In like I can imagine there would be if you made out with your ex girlfriend. The music is already set in stone – it’s on the record. It’s not confusing the way that actual sexual relationships are.
So exes can really be friends?
I guess so!
Looking forward, do you feel like there’s still life to be found in At The Drive In? Will you be writing another record?
Shit, I have no clue. We haven’t thought about it that deeply. I’m just enjoying being around these guys. But anything’s possible. I thought I would never play with them again and look how that turned out. The music is always on the same page as the chemistry and the friendships between people. Now that we’re all seeing a lot more of each other, anything’s possible.