Omar on the writing process
From Destroy All Monthly June 2003
From Total Guitar Magazine Issue 120
M: What's up with those crazy lyrics? That's some WILD STYLE!
O: "Yeah, Cedric and Jeremy would get together and write the lyrics. Jeremy wrote quite a bit of them. We'd all sit around and play with words and phrases going back and forth, that's how the the lyrics came about."
M: How about the music?
O: "I write everything, the music."
M: So why do you need Cedric then? He's just the pretty boy up front dancing and shit, basking in the glory....
O: (Laughs) "No, It's not like that. Cedric actually plays all instruments."
O: "Yeah, I'll write a bass line and teach it to him. While he plays that ill try to come up with a guitar arrangement."
What is the songwriting process like within the structure of Mars Volta?
"I write most of the music on the guitar, so my approach is basically spending a lot of time by myself in my room. Everything for this recording [De-loused] was pretty much laid out before any recording began. Certain parts of the album have been left open for expression, so they're always a little different when we play them live. But even the improvising is structured to a certain degree, because you know it's coming."
Before this whole recording process, how do the sounds you have in your head come together with Cedric's lyrics? If you guys writing your own things separately, how do you sync them up?
"Usually the music is written first. I have a number of different songs and we'll sit down and pick out two or three to work on. We'll pick out a couple that stick out to Cedric - you know, sometimes you just hear something and you know exactly what needs to happen with it. And so we'll focus on those things and he'll work out his melodies. They're usually pretty separate but as separate as they are they seem like they've always been one."
From Interview - MTV Europe
What kind of communication went on in deciding the tracks that were gonna end up on the album [De-loused in the Comatorium]? I assume that you had a few in mind, but then there was this concept that everything had to be molded into.
It was very specific once the ideas started coming out about what the record was gonna be about. Most of the songs were written before the concept came together. Once the concept of the story and everything else came together it made everything much more clear. It limited our options, which is really good, because then it was a lot clearer what songs were gonna be on the record and in what order they were gonna be in. It just paved the way once the story came together.
Was there every any question of whether or not to go with this concept? Did you ever rethink it at any point, say, "Uh, maybe this isn't the way to go..."?
No. Not at all. It was a really exciting and adventurous thing to come upon.
And it must've been nice to have a guideline, something to carry you through and keep you centered.
Totally. It was great. It's something we've been wanting to do for a while and now it's finally manifested itself.
You write most of your songs. How does it work when you finalize the songs with the rest of the band?
"Usually our songs have about 8 sections so we'll go through it section by section and then when the lyrics come in we adjust each part, maybe extend or shorten it in order to fit the lyrics. Then we play it a couple of times and go through each part, adjusting it and adding effects until we're happy with it."
Keep in mind, just because Omar may start off writing "all the music" on his own (I prefer to use the word arrangments instead), it in no way minimizes the actual contributions of any of the musicians on the finished product. The way I look at it, Omar's comes up with the skeleton of the song...and the rest of the band fleshes it out...
Cedric on the writing process
Cedric on writing lyrics
So how much of the other musician's input is creative?
CEDRIC BIXLER - Uhh... Our drummer Jon Theodore it's kind of imperative that, since Omar and I, especially me, aren't very well versed in y'know, music writing or reading music. So for us it's just showing our drawing to someone and saying, "Can you try and figure some kind of beat to this?" and the timing and signature and stuff like that, and Jon Theodore is really good at just breaking that down, plus his style is exactly what we needed. Plus he understands. I think the fact his family is from Haiti and he has a lot of that in his background, I think he understands what we're going for as far as like salsa music and when it comes to the dub influence and stuff like that. It's kind of like there's always skeletons that Omar writes first and then we take it to Jon to break it down and we take everyone's input in to consideration. It's not a total dictatorship but we do have final visionary say. It's a lot easier when you're doing mixes and sometimes there's too many cooks in the kitchen and you can make compromised art. And sometimes compromised art is, in my opinion, boring so everyone is just happy and kind of like, "OK, it's dull".
From Interview with Cedric Bixler, Mon 24.03.2002, Leeds Cockpit
A lot of your lyrics seem kind of abstract. I, to be honest, can't actually work out what the majority of the At The Drive-In and Mars Volta songs are actually about at all. Are they deliberately written as abstract lyrics, or do they all have a thread to them and a meaning to the individual songs which is known only to you?
CB - Well, certain songs are known only to us, and then certain songs have an obvious meaning to them, but now I write stuff with Jeremy. Jeremy does our the vocal effects, and hes a fantastic writer and hes a ... hes one of the spirits from El Paso that I learned a lot from, like theres a lot of people that we used to hang out with in, like, 1993 when we were experimenting with a lot of drugs and stuff, and when it came to experimenting we experimented with a lot of different writing techniques as well, it wasn't just music. So I've been in a band with Omar and Jeremy for a really long time, and it just changed different names the whole time, so its ... sometimes the way we write now can be deliberately like "decipher your own message", and sometimes it can be like, we have a song called Concertina, and that song is about one of the people who should probably be in The Mars Volta right now who passed away. He took his own life a long time ago, and it deals with, not necessarily the whole emo thing of "oh I miss you", but this certain friend of ours, his name is Julio Vanegas, he took his life for a certain reason, and someone pushed him over the edge to do it, and I know that person, and this song, to me, is a way of calling out that person and its basically accusing them of killing our friend. And so, its like, there are some songs that are just blatant and there are some songs which don't make sense to people, but thats the way we write them, you know.
Jon Theodore on the writing process
From Ink 19 interview
What was the process of writing the Mars Volta record [De-loused]? I'm wondering how influenced you were by the underlying story or concept behind the album?
"I never met Julio but I heard a lot of stories about him. The way we write is that the song comes together instrumentally. Once the song is nearing some sort of arrangement that we're all happy with, then the voice comes in. In the meantime, Cedric is thinking about lyrics and melodies and how and what to sing. I know his relationship with Julio was the basis for most of his lyrics, but when we were working out the songs, from just jamming, Julio wasn't on my mind at all. It just so happened that we were able to tie in the bulk of what we had written with the songs. There's a ballad most of the way through the album (track 9, "Televators") that came together towards the end of the writing sessions, when we were already in the studio. Those things were conceived with him in mind but the majority of the songs – especially the ones with drums on them – didn't have much to do with him specifically. It just so happened that the album was so thematic and traumatic in a way, it almost plays out like a movie. It was a perfect context to fully realize that angle. I'm glad it was possible to memorialize him.
This record is also emotional for us because we made it with our friend Jeremy (Ward), who is no longer with us. Jeremy was our friend and running mate who did all of the vocal effects for the album. He had a table of sound manipulators and effects pedals, and he'd get a dry feed from the voice and route it through all of his signal processors, then send it back to the main board so it would parallel the dry vocal. He effectively ended up taking the space in the band of a second guitar. He passed away suddenly right before the album came out. This has been an emotional final run for us. His presence is still regularly missed.
It took a year and a half to write the record, and that included over a year of practicing for hours upon hours. I'm notorious for not wanting to practice because I'm into the spontaneity of things and into the result that that brings. But being in this band, I learned a different work ethic, which is that you practice all day long. It was like being in the army. I was on-call waiting for rehearsals and we played every day for a year and a half; sometimes six or eight hours a day. The most important thing was getting it off the ground in a way that was beyond coming together to write songs for a new band. It was more like, if we're going to play together then we have to learn everything about each other: how you sleep, what you eat, everything. We have to get to the point where we can feel each other all the way through so that when it comes time to be on a stage in front of so many people that you can barely even make sense of the world around you, I don't even have to look. I can feel the person next to me all the way through and know exactly what he hears and sees and predict accurately what he's going to do.
It was always more than coming together to start a band or make a record. It was like, I met these guys when our bands played together before and I remember how nice they are and how good of a time we had hanging out. I love to play drums and they want to make a new band and there was no doubt in my mind that we could play together. I came out here to see if we could really relate to each other. That's the most important thing. It was a long time in the works and that record is just the first step. We have by no means arrived, we still have tons and tons of work to do and we have plenty of room for improvement. This is only the beginning."
Also, as their permanent bassist, Juan is probably playing much more of a role in writing basslines than any other of their previous bassists (with the possible exception of Eva)...
Juan Alderete on the basslines of Frances The Mute
from Bass Player - March 05 issue
How many of the bass parts on Frances The Mute did you write?
"I work out certain structured things, like lines that are going to be looped, in advance with Omar. My role is then to interpret those parts as I see fit, to give them what I feel they need. For some parts though, he actually let me write the bass lines. Of course anything that's improvised is straight from me.
'The Widow' is a good example of this combination. I had worked out some ideas, but then when we wnt to record, Omar said things like, 'Make that part go up an octave.' It's a great way to work for us, because Omar used to a bass player, so he understands the instrument's fundementals. Very rarely does he throw something at me that makes me say, 'Uh, that's just something I wouldn't do.' We rarely disagree; we're really on the same page when it comes to bass."
Juan Alderete on approaching a particular bass part on Frances The Mute
From Juan's column in Bass Guitar magazine Jan/Feb '05 issue
It's wise to keep in touch with mentors who have enlightened you in the past. For example, during the making of the new Mars volta album [Frances The Mute], a certain part of the record was puzzling me, and I needed to come up with a part that really lifted a section up without using a lot of different notes. Feeling frustrated, I called Paul [Farnen] (former bass teacher) and hit him up for some ideas. Being the musical dictionary he is, he recalled some of the concepts he had exposed me to earlier in my career. He reminded me that you can get a lot of mileage from a basic triad arpeggio and suggested that I spread its three different notes over the span of two octaves (or greater!). For the tune in question, I had never thought about moving up the neck, but that lateral approach was exactly what I needed, and luckily for me, the song was in 3/4, which slotted in nicely with the three-note structure of triads.