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The Making of a Mars Volta albumwriting, recording etc...

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#1 Cybrid



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Posted 25 January 2005 - 01:14 PM

Since people frequently ask about TMV songwriting process, I thought I'd make an FAQ entry about it based on various interviews mostly with Omar and Cedric. Most of these interviews describe the writing process for Tremulant and De-loused...but I can't imagine the process changing too radically for the writing of Frances The Mute...aside from the fact that Cedric is writing the lyrics alone this time (as opposed to the lyrical help that he had from Jeremy for De-loused).

Omar on the writing process
From Destroy All Monthly June 2003

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."
M: What?
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."

From Total Guitar Magazine Issue 120

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."

From Thenitmustbetrue.com

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 Thenitmustbetrue.com

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.

From Interview - MTV Europe

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
From http://www.thecomato...?showtopic=6451

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".

Cedric on writing lyrics
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.

#2 Cybrid



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Posted 30 January 2005 - 01:18 PM

Since the recording process is just as integral to a song's development as the writing process (and sometimes the line between the two gets blurred)...I figured I'd also collect a few quotes about how TMV approaches work in the studio...

Dave Schiffman (engineer) on recording De-loused in the Comatorium
To start things off, here's probably the best article on recording De-loused from a very technical standpoint (in terms of equipment and recording techniques)...

If you checked out that first article (or simply listened to any of their albums) you'll know that Omar probably has hundreds of guitar effects. Here's a few quotes from him about how these effects figure into the writing AND recording process...
Omar on guitar effects
From April '05 issue of Guitar World Magazine

In the Mars Volta you employ almost 200 effect pedals. Do you typically use them to color a guitar parts or do they play a role in the writing process?

"Some parts are just written straight and I add effects later. But there are definitely times when I take into account, say, the sound of a phaser or the different rhythms that a delay pedal can create, and a part is written because of the sound that is being created by those effects, rather than what I'm actually playing. And that in turn becomes the part everyone in the band has to play to. If it's a big mess, then they all have to play to the big mess, even if in reality all I'm doing is hitting two notes on the guitar.

Are the effects ever improvised in the studio, or do you already know how you want everything to sound when you begin recording?
"Both. I have the ability to improvise when I know I'm not getting the right sound for a part. At the same time, I'm able to explore avenues quicker because I have an understanding of each pedal--and I have anywhere from 150 to 200 of them--in a room when we're recording. If I'm going for a particular sound, I can go in the room and say, 'Well, I'll take these four because they'll get me somewhere in the ballpark of what I have in mind.' I'll try them out in different configurations. If I'm still missing something I'll grab another pedal or take one out of the signal chain."

Omar on recording De-loused in the Comatorium
From Thenitmustbetrue.com

I noticed that you have a tandem production credit with Rick Rubin and I'm wondering how you guys worked together. Were you a bit in awe of the process? What did you contribute versus what he contributed?

First off, I think we worked really well together. I wasn't in awe and there was nothing separating us, you know? It was two people who really enjoyed each other's presence working on a project together. Rick really helped with the arrangements and with helping us come back from our tangents, you know? I always think of Rick as this guy: You know when you move into a new place and you wanna put up a painting? When you're standing so close to it the painting looks straight but you have your friend in the back of the room who tells you, "No, it needs to be a little higher to the right."


And then you don't believe him and you go, "No I think it's straight." And they're saying, "No, trust me, just put it up a little more to the right and come back to the back of the room and look at it and if you don't like it you can put it back to where it was." And then you say okay and you hang it and you stand in the back of the room and you go, "Oh okay, I see what you're saying now!" He's kind of like that.

I'm so close to the music, being the songwriter and whatever else, that it's really easy to just get lost in tangents or in self-indulgence. He really helped to guide us through that. I was there to provide what the record sounds like. He definitely did his work on the drums but I was there to get the tones for the bass and the guitars and the keyboards and decide the proper arrangements, decide what takes to use and the layering of everything. Even down to the mixing. I pretty much took over the mixing and just did it myself there with Rich Costey.

Omar and Cedric on recording Frances The Mute
From an article in Kerrang magazine

Was it daunting to enter the studio without producer Rick Rubin by your side?

OMAR: "Not at all. I felt liberated; Rick has a great ear for melody, and is great at pre-production, but most ofthe technical stuff on 'Deloused...' was actually done by myself and the engineer. I had no fear - just a very clear vision of what exactly The Mars Volta whould sound like, which I've always had. We made 'Frances the Mute' much like a director makes a movie. I didnt let the musicians perform together, I recorded them seperately, so they had to memorise their parts perfectly. They had to have absolute trust in me, like actors would trust their director. Afterwards, I assembled all the parts like when an editor pieces together all the scenes from a movie."

CEDRIC: "I was lucky enough to be the person who got to put words and singing to the music. I just kinda went along with the ride, like if you've ever been unsure if you should take psychadelics or not, but you do, and you put all your faith and your luck into that one moment. It had to be the way it was, following Omars lead - you have to take it on faith."

You guys have a habit of throwing yourselves into the deep-end and then learning to swim...

OMAR: "It's like the new drug for us: how difficult can we make things, and how do we improvise our way past those self-imposed obstacles!"

Omar on arranging and tracking Frances The Mute
From Fader Magazine

But arranging and orchestrating gorgeous madness necessitates a disciplined approach, and that painstaking process is laid out by Rodriguez-Lopez. Rather than bring his ideas to the band as a whole and working them out at group rehersals, Rodriguez-Lopez met individually with each player to practice each part one-on-one. "We'll sit there and play it forever and slow--real slow--to understand what's happening. It's easy to play something fast and loud, but to play it soft and slow takes a certain amount of discipline. Then once we understand the part, everyone's free to elaborate--their personalities come out and it's not my part anymore; they get into and give it that swing that I can't give it."

While that gateway to improv and character is hardly a new idea, Rodriguez-Lopez took the additional step of recording the band member separately before layering the various tracks to create each song. He allows that tracking in this way had a mixed reception in the band; Alderete and Theodore responded to the individualistic approach while keyboard player Ikey Owens "didn't like it at all." But, as Rodriguez-Lopez says, "People filling in ideas can become tedious and counterproductive. You find yourself working backwards. When you're in the studio 'what ifs' are your biggest enemy, so my general rule is, if it's something you can't live with--if a sentence begins with 'I can't' or 'I will not'--then we examine it. But if it's 'maybe we should' or 'I think that' then it's like, hey man, full steam ahead. Not that there isn't a lot of refinement to what we do--obviously there is--but I consider it a balance of raw energy and refinement."

Juan Alderete on tracking his parts on Frances The Mute
From Bassplayer

How did you track your parts for Frances the Mute?

I recorded my parts in two stages. We stayed in Australia after our tour ended, so we went ahead and recorded lots of Jon’s drums there. I did some bass lines then, including the improvised 30-minute jam at the end of the album. We weren’t really recording for the record; it was more like we were just getting our headphones set up. But we ended up jamming for a half-hour, with me on fretless. It was just my live setup: a ’71 Ampeg SVT and a great-sounding Ampeg 8x10 cabinet with some special speakers I got from Timmy. The bass was my stock fretless ’71 Precision with an added J pickup. Most of my bass overdubs came later, and for those I used my Acoustic 360, the same Ampeg rig, and an Ampeg B-15 flip-top. There was a direct line as well, but it was mostly the amps. On the first cut, I played a ’75 Fender Jazz. I also played my ’73 P-Bass and my fretless Precision, and I have a fretless ’78 P-Bass, too. I like the P-Bass for fretless, because it sounds more like an upright. All of my P-Basses have J pickups, too, but I like the Precision setup more. If I need to do something fast, I kick on that rear J pickup—especially if I’m using effects, because J pickups react better with distortion—but for the meat of the song, I prefer the P pickup.

Omar and Cedric on recording Frances The Mute
From www.mtve.com

How was it different making this album compared to the first?
Omar: Making this album was different probably in every single way. We didn't have any kind of outside influence like another producer. We tracked the album in eight different places as opposed to being in one place for three months like we were last time. The whole record was just approached differently altogether.

What was it like producing the album on your own?
Omar: It just made it that much more organic for us. Before we welcomed the idea of having somebody from the outside come and give us their opinion. Now it was just us back to being completely self-sufficient. It was just closer to the true sound of the band. Obviously I did things and took different decisions than what Rick [Rubin, producer on the first album] would do.

What was it like recording the album in so many different locations?
Cedric: Recording in different places is just our way of adapting to the fact that we're nomadic people so the music is nomadic too. It's capturing the honesty of what the band is like travelling from place to place. It is also fun that way, you don't get stuck in a boring studio with nothing to do. You can kind of go a little bit crazy. Its better if you mix business and pleasure at the same time, like our drummer surfs and everyone else has different hobbies. Australia seemed like the perfect spot to mix all of that. Going to Puerto Rico to record naturally seemed more appropriate and representative of Omar's roots. Sometimes when you get to a city you've been there so many times and you've seen all the sights and you have lots of friends you don't feel like going out but the one thing you do feel like doing is recording. There is just a different magic involved in each city, if you can tap into it and capture it.

What was it like working with Flea and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers again?
Cedric: Working with them was really easy because what they contributed with was more minute than the last time. John's part was a little bit shorter and Flea's part was done so quickly. It was just having your friends coming by and sprinkling a little of their magic dust on the songs. Whereas last time they more into the root of the songs with Flea playing bass on every song.
Omar: It was a lot more laid back and just about having fun this time
Cedric: It is so important to have fun. You can get so stressed out when you are making an album. It's not always fun. You got to have both in order for it to be a labour of love. You have to sweat and bleed and cry through it. You have to let the songs and the whole album kick your ass and kick its ass right back. That is why the outcome is the way it is.

How did the recording process differ this time compared to the first record?
Omar: With the first record we had everything at our disposal. When you're at one place you have all the equipment you need and if something breaks down someone sends you a new one because you're in LA, which is like the central of recording. Recording this album was much more like guerrilla warfare. We were limited to one compressor that we shared for all the different instruments. By taking away pieces and creating problems you have new answers, new avenues and ways to problem solve. It puts you in a different headspace than when you just have everything at your disposal and you can fix anything by throwing money at it. For this record I took the approach that every problem that we had - and we had many - was welcomed as an opportunity for us to re-invent our approach to the band.
Cedric: All of the players were in the dark as to what or why the part was the way it is. Nothing was tracked alphabetically, it was all done so sporadically. So everyone coming in to lay down their part doesn't know where it is or why it is in a certain way.

How were you able to adjust your lyrics to that sporadic way of recording?
Cedric: It is easy because you just paint with words and sometimes the magic of the interpretation of something is just by the way it looks, not so much the immediate understanding. I'm not afraid to admit that we like to make the listener work a little for what they want to get out of it because then it is going to last a lot longer. It's not just candy.

Andrew Scheps on mixing Frances The Mute
From Digizine.com

It's a hot day outside, but Andrew Scheps sits comfortably in his airy, spacious recording studio, "PunkerPad West" which is tucked away in the woods behind his Los Angeles home. He's just finished working on the new record by wide-ranging neo-psychedelic band the Mars Volta. "We just finished putting the drums together on a bunch of songs, and recording a ton of bass," says Scheps. "They're great. Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez] and Cedric [Zavala] are two of the most talented people I've worked with."

Scheps holds the utmost respect for the Mars Volta's creative process. "When they come to work on tracks, Omar always has the thing finished in his head, but still loves to get surprised along the way," he says. "But as soon as he finds a new thing, he incorporates it, and it always works." One of the new Mars Volta songs is really long — longer than any rock track Scheps has ever worked on. "The one thing about the Mars Volta — much like working with artists like John Frusciante — is that there is nothing except the music you are working on that you take into account," he says. "It's never 'Oh, people might not get that,' or 'Let's try to make it sound like this.' I mean, you look to things for inspiration, but it's never about what you think people are going to want. All you're doing is making it as cool as you can, using anything — it doesn't matter what you do."

Jon Theodore on tracking Frances The Mute (with a few tidbits about the making of De-loused too)
From Modern Drummer, June 2005 Issue

MD: Does The Mars Volta record live as a band, or do you and Omar track first and then add the other parts?

Jon: Actually, I tracked the majority of this record alone with a metronome.

MD: What did you use for a click track?

Jon: I used a cowbell. we built a click map in the computer so we could change the tempo depending on how we wanted a song to feel. I'm so new to using a mteronome that I just kept my eyes shut and imagined some guy with shades leaning against the wall hitting a cowbell.

MD: What was your guide for the melody?

Jon: We had spent so much time sorting out the arrangements that I was aware of the song structures. For example, I would know that a verse section repeats six times in one spot, and then the vocal comes in after two verses, or that there's a gradual build through the verse in dynamic intensity and then a signifying change like a drum fill for the chorus.

This is the first time I've ever been so methodical about recording. Normally I would go into the situation with as good an idea as I could, whether that was from performaing the songs on tour or having a general road map. But this was the first instance where I considered every single hit all the way through, every figure up to and including every change. There were no question marks. So when I was tracking with the metronome it was just a question of right or wrong.

MD: Did you write out charts?

Jon: I wrote notes for sure. My memory is my weakest trait. So I would write out arrangements for myself to work through. I would record with the metronome and then go back and listen. Sometimes parts were shaky, but overall the performances were good. But if something was wrong I went back and did it over.

MD: Why record the drum tracks first?

Jon: We didn't use a metronome on the last album, so the tempos were all of ver the place. But the drum patterns for this album are so precise because I conceived them as being these methodical, cut and dried mostly static grooves. I decided that the power in them would be their steadiness.

I've never had luck playing with metronomes in the past, because I always tried to put the metronome in one ear and the band in the other. Inevitably, someone would be pulling the time and it sounded like we were chasing the metronome. This time I knew the arrangements, so I though I could be more precise and consisten if I could hear every drum and not listen to the other instruments at the same time.

It was strange at first. There were people in the control room who would normally be playing, but who were just listening. I could tell immediately from their reactions whether my time was in or not.

MD: So recording the drums first allowed you to be more consisten and powerful?

Jon: Ultimately, yes, because this was a chance for us to use the studio to make a record. We weren't trying to capture our live show. we ended up putting strings and horns on the album. There's a lot of information on it. We felt that it was important to start with a solid foundation so we could layer the instruments.

One song, "Cassandra Gemini," is an exception to that. I tracked the head and the end of the song with a metronome. Then we recorded bass, guitar, and drums live in a twenty minute improvisation part in the middle. You hear tape edits in and out of the long jam session.

We also recorded the drums alone because we wanted to record them to tape. We believe the best sound for drums is the tape compressing the signal, the natural sound of drums hitting tape. we're purists in a lot of ways. The reason we chose certain mic's, the room and the heads was all for the way it would sound going to tape.

After the drums were finished, they were transferred to hard disc and Pro Tools. We also recorded at Byron Bay in Australia at the end of our Big Day Out tour. we recorded drums for eight days and then transferred them to a studio in L.A.

MD: Were there eight-hour rehearsals for Frances The Mute, as there were for De-loused In The Comatorium?

Jon: For the first album, we all lived together. all we did was rehearse to get the band off the ground. we needed to make a sound, which entailed getting to know each other so we could relate musically and dynamically.

This time Omar had been writing a lot on tour, but we didn't have time to rehearse. It was more using soundchecks to explore the ideas. Then we would use those ideas in the set that noght. We're doing that now with some newer songs.

MD: When recording such intense material, is it possible to do multiple takes?

Jon: On the longer pieces, If I got halfway through and made a mistake, we would just punch in and fix it. That was the beauty of tracking alone with a metronome. It was as easy as winding the tape back. My whole life I've watched all the other players punch in and overdub their parts. But for me, if it wasn't solid all the way through, then we would do it all over again.

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Posted 11 February 2005 - 02:41 PM

I put so many quotes into the first post that the board won't let me easily edit it, so here's a bit more info on the writing process...
Omar on the writing process
From Fader Magazine

"Most of the time it's just me in a hotel room, because we're touring. Usually everybody's out drinking and I'm just in my room playing. Sometimes it's very deep and very personal and all that type of bullshit. At other times it's just [practicing] these exercises for my hand that I practice a lot, and it's just me sitting and watching ridiculous things on TV, and I'll come upon a part without even realizing. Then I'll be like, 'that's great,'get the microphone out and record it. A lot of it comes out in sections like that, and sometimes in entire suites. At the risk of sounding cliche or pretentious, I feel like I'm tapping into something that has already been written--it exists already and has its own life and I feel like I'm just recognizing it, like the way we recognize things in dreams. I'm able to hone in on it as a transmission or something. And if I can get the main points in what I'm seeing...say, if I see a house on a mountain with smoke coming out--if I can put that one little thing down on tape when I get home, it all starts to develop from that. Then everything else seems to come with it and it all makes sense. It's like, of course that's the bass line; of course that's the keyboard part or whatever. Cedric's the other half to me. Once he does the vocals I get an idea of the images he's seeing, then it's the final moment when everything pops and becomes so clear to me--that's when the pictures I saw before are fully realized."

Cedric on the writing process Courtesy of D-i-a-n-a
From the Store Studio video interview in Norway. Check this thread for guidance and details.

... so with this band it's... Omar leads. He writes all the stuff, and he creates all the skeletons on his guitar, on his acoustic or electric, and then he brings it to our drummer, and our drummer has to disect it, and from there we all just kind of, put our parts in, you know?

It's kind of like, I've always compared it to like, seeing the making of certain David Lynch movies, he never tells the actor why. Most actors go "What's my motivation, why do I do this, why am I crying, Why is this scene", whatever. He just tells them to kind of like, go in and do it, you know.

And that's the way Omar is, cause everyone is kind of in the dark and it's just this leap of blind faith, you know, and you see the final product when the final product is done. And sometimes I'm a little bit more in on what's going on, but sometimes I'm as in the dark as most of the players are in the band. But it's fun that way, you know?

Jon Theodore on the writing process
From Modern Drummer 06/2005 issue

MD: Mars Volta’s songs are very rhythmically involved and complex. Does the band work up the songs piece by piece, riff by riff? What’s the general process for creating the songs?

Jon: For this record, most of the time it was Omar and me in a room. He had a lot of the riffs in loose arrangements, and we then spent time arranging and mapping out the songs and in the process figuring out what the rhythmic structures would be. Then we gradually added the other instruments [including The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on trumpet and John Frusciante on guitar]. It was song by song, part by part. Often Omar would already have the general arrangement of the song, and it would be a matter of molding it to where we were both comfortable and where he felt like it still retained its original intention.

MD: You sound so interlocked with every note Omar plays.

Jon: Absolutely. That’s the nature of what we do. We tend to hash out that interaction first.

MD: When constructing your drum parts, are you modeling directly off Omar’s guitar lines?

Jon: No. I normally start with the most abstract thing I can possibly think of. If I’m having writer’s block, I might ape the guitar line. But my intention is usually to find the most dynamic and exciting drum part I can find. I listen to guitar riffs and see what they make me think of and where I feel the accents are, and I begin to push my way into it. We just play and play until the ideas start to refine themselves, stopping along the way to make sure we’re on the right path. It may be that the pattern I come up with doesn’t fit exactly, but we’re so excited about it that the guitar line will change. Or I might not understand the rhythm, but by deconstructing it, that will inspire me to create something that I wouldn’t usually be inclined to play.

Ikey on the writing process
From Korg

“Omar writes all of the songs and I write my own keyboard parts. He generates all of the music and then it’s just a matter of each band member adding his own ‘thing’ on top. On the last record, everyone was kept in the dark as to what everyone else had recorded. I was the last to record; almost a year after the drums had been done! So on that record, I was kind of playing blindly. This time I had a better grasp on what was going on.”

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Posted 26 April 2005 - 03:12 AM

Here's some great info on the making of Frances The Mute. Thanks to Savion for finding the interview and a big thanks to D-i-a-n-a for transcribing it for the FAQ. You can hear the interview in its entirety using the links below...

Omar on creating Frances the Mute (audio interview transcribed by D-i-a-n-a)
From 91x.com Interview (Part 1, Part 2)

It sounds like it was a lot more organic than, like, "Ok, we found this diary, and then we wrote this story".

Omar: Exactly, and that's... unfortunately that's what people, the normal person interprets it that way, you know.

It's the easy thing...

Omar: It's the easy thing to do, and people, you know, we just get asked. Of course you make a record and people say "What was the inspiration?" For us it was just the first thing that we could trace, because that's the first time... like I said we had this conversation and it sparked a million ideas about what we could do for the next record. We weren't even sitting down necessarily thinking about the record but it just... our conversation and our nostalgia led us to the, you know, to a gate, you know.

Um, so, yeah, I guess that answers my next question if just whether or not it was a conscious decision. Even so, with that being said, there still is a story to the album, "Frances the Mute", or an idea, kind of, throughout the album. The front characters and ideas and stuff that are cohesive. I can definitely see the relationship between all these things in your head inspiring Cedric's lyrics. But does it feel the same to you? All the stuff is where the music comes from to?

Omar: Um, in a way, yeah. I mean the trouble is, the music always comes first, the music always exists and it never ends and you just have to, at some point you abandon it and, you know, which is why we discussed themes and things that can go on top of the music, cause that's what the lyrics do, ultimately, is they just go on top and they speak to people who necessarily don't... aren't attached to notes and sounds, you know, and are more attached to words and visuals. And so, that definitely plays a role into it, I mean you can have a song that is already composed, and when Cedric gives me an idea of what he wants to do lyrically, and once we discuss it, I'm able to tailor the song a little more, and go "Oh, yeah, well... there was this sound back then, do you remember this?" And I can go to my library of sounds and pick out some field recording I had made. For example, at the end of the first song, you hear the sounds of the busses and the children, and that's quite literally me with the microphone in front of our house where me and Cedric and Jeremy used to live together back then. These are the sounds of the children who would come by and ask if they could listen to our rehearsal and, you know, everything else. It's all inclusive, even though, for me that wasn't the spark.

So, listening to Cedric's voice on the record... sometimes there are a couple moments in songs where I honestly can't tell if that's him singing or if it's a guitar, there's a few places where it just totally... it's really cool. I mean his voice is another instrument...

Omar: Definitely

So, my question is then, when you're writing music, are you conscious of that? Are you thinking of him as another instrument, or is all the, like, melody and everything that he adds to it, totally his?

Omar: Um, it's, for the most part, his. I mean, I definitely direct him or guide him or, for lack of a better word, produce him, you know, and kinda switch things. He works a lot with, he definitely loves, you know, spontaneity, what comes out first, you know, the intent, and not so much the meaning. So sometimes I can have a song for him that I feel should be on the record and I play it for him and we'll do this thing where he just sings without hearing it the whole way through. And then we can take bits and pieces and go: "This was really really interesting", and then he'll go home and write lyrics to the, for lack of a better term, the mumbo-jumbo that he was saying, you know. Because it's some sort of ritual, some sort of a, you know... this is the sound that his subconscious wanted to get out, even though it didn't have the capacity to attach words to it, because it was travelling at such an immense speed, you know, so it's a very powerful thing that you can then mix with refinement, which could be just as powerful.

So, when you're in the studio then, would you say like, when you go in, you got the songs ready and you're gonna record Frances the Mute. Is there a lot of improv in the studio, or are you pretty much like "Ok, here's how it's gonna go", you rehearsed it a million times and...

Omar: Uh, this record is confusing because I didn't rehearse any of the songs with the band and I wanted to keep everyone in the dark. In order to get a different result, we've always made our records where we rehearse a million times and you go in and you record it all live and this album was very much more, people just playing parts, and the drummer playing to an idea of what I'm playing on the guitar, but I wouldn't tell them the bass line, I wouldn't tell them the keyboard line. Same thing with the other players, they never had a sense of where they were, so nothing made sense to them, they were completely being, they were constantly being taken completely out of context. Much in the way you would make a film, you could shoot the ending first, or the middle, and then you go to the beginning, and you put it all together later, you know. There was a, you know, everyone was in the dark and there's definitely a, for the most part a sense of architecture. I think a lot of people assume that, because of the way we play live, or because of the way our music sounds to them, that we just... the most commenting is like "Oh it must be so cool you just jam and songs come out" and it's very much the opposite, the songs are very methodical and they're very planned, and they're set up like architecture and even if there is, for example in the last song, Cassandra Gemini, a section that's improvised, that section is still composed somehow, it's still like "Ok, we have a, we have a, b, c, d, e, and then here, this is, because improvisation is the chance for the band to abandon, you know, my dominance over the music or, you know, composition. This is the chance where, this is the true, last form of democratic expression, where we can speak to each other, so it's... a, b, c, d, e, f, g, and then, when you hear the sound, or when Cedric says his word, then we'll talk to each other for a while, and when you hear this sound, then we go back to a, f, g, and then we'll end it with b. You know, this kind of thing, so... Even when it is in there, it's very... it's placed in a certain way. Now when we play live that can change, or it can go on longer, or it can be shorter, but for making the record it's just a... it all makes more sense when you think of it as architecture.

Listening to your music, I can not fathom in my brain, keeping that in my head, keeping it all straight. It is so complex, and there's so much going on. So, do you actually write the music? Do you write notes, like, do you write it down?

Omar: No no no no no no no, I, no, I have a very small knowledge, I should say, of music theory at all. The knowledge I have is just through repetition, it's just for playing music for 15 years, and you hear someone pointing at the third dot on the guitar and go "That's an A" and you go "Ok, yeah, that's an A". But besides rudiments like these, I have no idea about timing, or about how to write things out.

God, that blows my mind, because it seems so precise listening to you guys, I mean, it's just really a natural thing you have, then, you know, I mean, it's awesome!

Omar: Yeah, I'm just neurotic in that way.

But you would never guess. So ok, now leads me to like, how... when you're in the studio, recodring like, Frances the Mute, are you very controlling? Are you looking for to be very precise? Or are you like "Hey...", you know, cause you're doing some stuff by design clearly, you know...

Omar: Yeah, I have that sickness. Just in general of being controlling and wanting to, you know, "What, what did you say? What was that? What are you touching there? You know, cause I have some sense of two of... my favourite part about making music is the engineering aspect of it, producing is just something that comes along with being a control freak, but, you know, so it comes down to the sounds and the nobs and the, you know, "Why are you using that tape and not this other one?", you know, if it's everything under the sun. Now that having been said, again, there is a lot of control there, and there's all this architecture but once you have the building and once most of the work has been done, once the walls have been layed, and the brick, and the dry wall and everything else, and they've painted all the rooms white, then there's this room for saying "You know, this wall should be yellow, let's paint it yellow. But no pictures. But this wall over here, let's put a lot of pictures, this is nice, and I want this one to be, you know. So there's always the room to, definitely to act on irrational impulses, you know, that come from the dark side of the mind would be my favourite, you know. And things that just seem completely wrong at the time, but you have that impulse and you have to pay attention to that craving to do...

What would you say, like, describe to me the studio time with The Mars Volta. Is it... cause listen to the album, what I would imagine is that it's pretty intense, that you're exhausted at the end of the day, you know? Emotionally and physically. That it's just draining, you know, all being satisfying. Am I right or is it more light and jokey and whatever?

Omar: No, you're completely right, like... It can be light and jokey at times but, you know, if John was here, the engineer that I work with, you know, he could tell you himself, I mean... when beginning the record, we started from 10 am and we would go to 2 am. And that was just me and him there all the time. And Cedric would sing around from 8 to 10 around there and then both he and I had some sort of a thing happening, some kind of a nervous breakdown type of thing, and then we started from 4 in the afternoon to about 2 am. And then we would go back to 11, you know and I guess I should mention too that a lot of the times, because of the amount of work that he had to do, I would lock him in the studio and he would stay there. Because the studio is really just, kind of a warehouse space that I rented and I recorded the album on my own gear and, you know. Yeah, parts of it were horrible, parts of it were a nightmare that you wanted to abandon and this thing that was constantly following you and that you couldn't get your mind off of, and other times were completely jokes and you mess around, and you wouldn't get too much done. But, again, that's after the building has been built, you know, the first parts are always, this is when... for me anyway, this is when you're most likely to quit, or give up, or abandon a project.

One of the amazing things about the album, on Frances the Mute and on De-loused, there's so many interesting effects. On Cedric's voice, on... I mean on everything. You can hear little things here and there, and I read back one time, talking about Midnite Vultures saying that in the studio, he and his engineer developped this weird language. Because, what do you call that sound that goes "rruuh" to your voice. Did you guys find that, where you coming up with a language like "Ok, and two minutes into The Widow, we're gonna apply the left [made up technical term] or whatever..

Omar: Definitely, I mean the whole reason that Jon Debaun, I consider him my engineer is because, and I've taken him fulltime is because he's definitely, out of all the people that we've played with, in this medium, he's the one who most understood what I was saying, and he's the one who most quickly got this unspoken thing. As much as we like joking around or talking about things or explaining things or saying "Oh, this should sound more underwater and this should sound like a sunrise", there's also... I enjoy silence too, and not having to talk about things too much. And he's definitely one who could, you know. There is a language there, and it doesn't necessarily always involve words.

Even the transitions between the songs are really thoughtfull, so my question is, are those parts of the songs from the first conception of the song, or do you record the body of the song and then once you have all those, you went back and kind of added in the stuff to ease the transitions?

Omar: It's a little bit of both. Some of them, you know, some of them definitely like, "Ok, this is the outro", or "this is the intro", or sometimes it's just "this sound, this arrangement of sounds has to be somewhere in the song, I have to find the right place for it. And then other times, you know, again when you get towards the end of the project, it's like "Oh, there's something missing here", you know. It's all... as you go along with the building and the rooms and the painting and everything else, everything becomes much more obvious because, to me, these songs are something that already existed, these songs are something... it's like if I can have a dream and I can see a perfect scenario and then I try to take it back with me in my awaking moments, it's like picking some kind of fruit that's already ripe. Everything has its perfect place, and the goal really is to reinterpret your dream, to remember exactly what you saw. It's like falling asleep and seeing a picture and you see the main things, the house, the chimney, and it's smoking, so I guess it must be cold outside and there's a tree here in the front and there's some sort of cow. And when you wake up you go "Ok, yeah, the house, the chimney, so that means it must have been cold". And then, as you go along, then you start remembering, you know, the more details like "Oh yeah, there was this thing in the corner I remember" then, you know.
Anyone who's had dreams and really tries to remember them or has sparks that come up, you know, later in their life that is triggered by a friend saying something. It's writing music or stealing music, whatever, it's pretty much the same, so...

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 07:01 PM

Larry Harlow on The Mars Volta and his role on Frances The Mute
Thanks to vaughncushing for finding the article

From http://www.edmorales...nspanglish.html

Yep, that's Larry Harlow--one of Fania-era salsa's seminal pianists--doing those solos on the Mars Volta's latest album, Francis the Mute. The other day I called him up and asked him to tell me the story behind this crazy collaboration. At the end of the conversation, I think I knew more about salsa and rock music. Or maybe I just got off on the idea of Nuyorico's contribution to the world of hip the '60s and '70s believed itself to be.

Spanglishkid: How did you meet these guys Mars Volta anyway?

Larry Harlow: My son is named Miles Harlow Kahn, an attorney who went to Cardozo Law School, went to school with Avery Litman, a lawyer for Universal Music who signed Mars Volta. When they signed Avery usually asks all the bands that he signs, who’s your hero? Figuring they would say Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton or somebody like that. Omar let out Larry Harlow and he said, “No way!” That’s my best friend’s father. So Omar said do you think you could get him to play on our new album? They called me last summer and spoke to their management and tried to get together a couple of times in LA and our schedules were too conflicting and finally I was going to Puerto Rico to do a couple of concerts, and I was going on a Tuesday and the shows weren’t until the weekend so Omar says why don’t you record Tues, Wed and Thurs in San Juan and I said fine. This was last July. They had been working on their album for a couple of months already; it took them a good 10 months to do this album. They have a lot of guest artists playing; big string arrangements and a couple of guys from the Chili Peppers. I said tell them to send me what they want me to play so I can work out what I’m going to play. But I don’t hear anything so the day comes to go to Puerto Rico, I go there and we meet at the Marriott Hotel. So I say hey can I listen to the music and they say, oh no we’ll listen to it in the studio. They keep putting me off so I know something’s up. Even in the car on the way to the studio. They say no no no, wait till we get there. I heard an EP they did, the first one they did. And I said what the heck am I going to play on this? I knew one kid was Puerto Rican and Cedric was Mexican and I knew they were going to do some bilingual stuff.

Spanglishkid: What was it like recording with them?

Larry Harlow: They’re very bright perceptive kids. To look at Omar with dark horn-rimmed glasses, little piece of tape holding them together. Unpretentious kids, laid back, t-shirts, looks like they haven’t eaten in six months. I look like I eat every 5 minutes. I get them into the studio, a really nice studio I hooked them up with. They were doing everything on Pro Tools, really first-class, and they put on these tracks and stand me in front of all these multi keyboards all over the place and they had a beautiful 9-foot Steinway. It was a pleasure, everything was really top. They only played once in Puerto Rico when they first started. Omar had his whole family there. His father was there eating his rice and beans but he wanted to see some salsa shows so I took him on the weekend. What he really wanted to know was all the stories from the Fania days. About Pacheco, and Cheo and Celia, all of his heroes, and going to African with Fania. He knows the music, every record I ever made. I didn’t even know why I’m his hero and so I talked to him. They put on this music and it’s from Mars, from outer space. It’s all fuzzed out and electronic-ed out and every gizmo gadget you can think of is on there. Frogs croaking and people screaming, echo-ed out. Then it gets to a part where it lands in an A-minor guajira and he says do your stuff. So I’m just playing vamps, the old Fania stuff, and then three or four minutes in he says “take a solo” and he points to me in the booth and says “this is take one, there is no take two, whatever you play stays on the recording. Mistakes, everything.”

They would go in and out of my solos, feed off of my solos. And it was a very long song, 12-13 minute song. I padded some synthesizer stuff on top of it. I played on the last track of the album which was more electronic. They fuzzed me up and made the piano sound like a guitar so I just blend into the mix. The article in RS was very interesting because I learned a lot about them. They said if you’re going to the moon and you have one album to take with you, what album would you take? And without hesitation he said Larry Harlow’s Electric Harlow. Why that record? He said because when I was in my mother’s belly my father would take the stereo speakers and put them on my mother’s stomach and play Electric Harlow. When I was four years old I went to my first Fania concert and I was on my father’s shoulders and my father pointed Larry Harlow out to me and said I want you to grow up and be just like him. This is the kind of music you should play. His father’s a real salsero. They run around with a little 8 mm movie camera. That’s how they make their videos. They’re very creative in what they do. When I hear Cedric sing, he’s like an Axel Rose in both languages. What they’re trying to say is another matter, I don’t really understand their music. I’m three generations in front of them, and It’s going to be very interesting playing with them. I don’t know what they got up their sleeve. I haven’t met or played with the other guys in the band. Children of friends of mine who are 15 or 16, their parents are calling me saying you are their hero now because you’re playing with Mars Volta. I’m playing two numbers. I brought my henna tattoos and I’m going to come out in some weird outfit to make me look 20 years old again.

Spanglishkid: Tell me a little bit about that album Electric Harlow—the word “electric” was kind of a buzzword back then.

Larry Harlow: The Electric Harlow record was the first time electric pianos were used on a recording. Before Stevie Wonder did "Superstition" on the clavinet, I was playing the clavinet four of five years before that. It was an electric clavichord. It had one string per note. It wasn’t struck like piano, it was struck like a guitar. It gave it a sound kind of like a Cuban tres. So when I did the Electric Harlow album it had a really funky tres-y kind of sound.

Spanglishkid: When did the album come out?

Larry Harlow: Electric Harlow must have been 69. It was kind of revolution, Woodstock time Young Lords, protest, revolution. Sex drugs and rock and roll. Everybody had long hair and the Puerto Ricans were looking for identification. The word salsa started then. Every where we played there was always a crowd and there were hundreds of clubs to play in. People were writing songs—message of protest or politics and it changed the whole lyrical content. Me and Eddie and Barretto were changing the harmonic concept of Latin music. It used to be a two or four chord song and now we were using modern jazz chords 9th chords. We were changing the harmonies around while keeping authentic to the Cuban clave and son. It was quite an experimental time.

Spanglishkid: It’s amazing to see films of the old Fania All-Stars at the time and everyone had wild long hair and hip clothes.

Larry Harlow: I was the one that started with the satin jackets and the long hair, I was the one who psychedelicized them a little bit. Everybody was taking acid and drugged out. It was time of experiment. Let’s wear wild outfits. The cover was done on ultraviolet film. The big buzz around the Billboard conference is everything is going back to ‘70s salsa. We’re having our third renaissance. I appreciate what Omar and these guys are doing because they’re putting a little funk into what their thing is, that alternative rock sound, they’re turning on a bunch of American kids to latin music. They have a big tour coming up to South America. I’m having fun. The guajira part sounded nice percussion wise. They’re just taking it somewhere else, opening up the ears of their fans to Puerto Rican music and Cuban music. It’s not like playing with Earth Wind and fire. I had a band called Amber Gris around the time of Electric Harlow. But we were more in to the funk thing, the Chambers Brothers and stuff like that.

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Posted 03 August 2006 - 08:58 AM

Jon on the making of FTM (Rhythm Magazine)
Thanks to Discordia for transcribing in this thread

Talking of moving forward, tell us about the making of the follow up to DITC...

Well, broadly speaking, making FTM was a completely different creative process than we'd go through with DITC. That first album was the result of life just happening for all of us. We had nothing to do at the time of writing that record other than making a band and coming up with these tunes. We had no money or anything, we just had our instruments and they were the best way of us relating to the rest of the world, and that was it. When we were jamming through ideas for DITC...and living together, we would go to a bar maybe once every couple of weeks. Other than that, we just did music all the time.

Most of the material on FTM was written on the road rather than with all of us jamming in a room together, and Omar took much more of a controlling role this time. Where DITC was kind of distilled from us jamming together and practicing, FTM came out of Omar writing riff ideas and he and I thrashing these out separately from the other guys. No one else knew the songs for a long time, although quite a lot of ideas stemmmed from stuff that we'd played in live improvisation on tour. Omar took the seeds and worked on those.

It sounds a pretty intense way of getting your drum parts down (using a metronome)

It really didn't feel that way. We approached DITC as if we were never going to make another album. Which was cool, but very intense. This time around, we'd been playing on tour all year, we were in good shape and we were very relaxed. And, as I said, Omar and I worked on every riff, beat, fill and chord change and we really distilled every essence of the songs down.

FTM is a much more concise, easily understandable statement I think. On the first album, I put a lot of energy into trying to bridge the gap between what I was playing and the best thing ever. I put a lot of pressure on myself in that way. On FTM I let a lot of that go. There was no 'grey area' on that album. I decided just to go, 'Ok, this is what I have, let's make it the best that I can and not worry if there's something better out there.' And we just played it over and over to get it nailed.

The making of DITC was really challenging; I was really sick and a bit of an emotional wreck and uncomfortable with the whole thing. And I wasn't really hip to Rick Rubin's production methods either, so the whole thing was hard. This time around we had the studio that we wanted. I had the drums that I wanted to use and Australia is paradise, so everything was good. And Omar and I just felt right, because we'd finished our touring commitments, so the sessions were very laidback and cool. Normally I end up smashing my head against a wall but these sessions were very special and I was in a very inspiring space. It was kind of magical.

Did you two have the luxury of working at your own pace, given that Omar was producing FTM

Yeah, and that was great. I find it strange that some people can clock in on music. I know guys that have the mentality that if they just keep hammering away it will all come good. But I'm not comfortable with that at all. The best thing sometimes is just to walk away. You can't force yourself into a situation where it's all working, and if you do the quality will always suffer, so it has to come naturally.

My physical and mental state is in a state of flux at all times. I always worry that I'm going to play like shit and I'm really aware of all the combinations of organic and inorganic factors--the rest of the band, the crew, travelling, accommodations and so on--that have an impact on my playing. Those micro vacillations are always present, but that's life and we kind of thrive on that unknown aspect of things.

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