'Losing fans is baked into what we do' ... the Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, with fellow band member Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Courtesy Image
When Cedric Bixler-Zavala joined the Church of Scientology in 2009, he thought of it as lightly as "signing up for a yoga class or a self-help group". Having been introduced by his new wife (TV star Chrissie Carnell) and friends, the frontman of the revered US rock band the Mars Volta underwent an induction process designed to tackle his $1,000-a-week weed habit (essentially a month of rigorous daylong sauna sessions). He found it helpful until he realised it came at a price. "Scientology becomes habitual, [a] crutch," he says. "What becoming involved actually did was to alienate me from a lot of close friends."
Top of this list was Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, his pal since childhood days in El Paso, Texas, and the only other constant member of the Mars Volta. As Rodriguez-Lopez says bluntly: "Cedric joining the Church of Scientology contributed to the Mars Volta breaking up [because of] the types of absolutist ideas he started to believe."
Bixler-Zavala admits that the religion put him "up on a cloud" from which he looked down on everyone around him, whom he considered to be "stuck" without the religion. He decided to try to turn them on to Scientology despite knowing that the response would probably be negative.
Fans were stunned when the band split in 2013. Since forming the Mars Volta in 2001 from the ashes of punk band At the Drive-In, the pair had recorded six fiendishly complex concept albums, drawing together jazz, metal, Latin music and prog. It wasn't a total rupture - during the hiatus, the pair toured extensively with the reunited At the Drive-In and formed a supergroup, Antemasque. It took until this summer for the group to announce their reunion. A new, self-titled album, which the pair have been working on in secret since 2019, is released next month
Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez in 2003. Photograph: Peter Pakvis/Redferns
Nevertheless, we speak on separate calls: Rodriguez-Lopez is affable and insightful, despite struggling with Covid; Bixler-Zavala is friendly and generous. But my repeated requests to interview them together, to get a feel for their rejuvenated relationship, come to nothing.
Both bristle at the mention of Scientology. Not only is it one reason behind their split, but it also gives their new album its theme. In 2016 and 2017 four women, including Carnell, accused Danny Masterson, a Church of Scientology member and star of the US sitcom That '70s Show, of raping them in the early 00s. Carnell - then Masterson's co-star and girlfriend - alleges she was unconscious during one of these assaults. The criminal trial starts later this month in California and Masterson will face up to 45 years in prison if found guilty. He denies all counts. The women are also suing Masterson and the Church of Scientology for alleged conspiracy to obstruct justice. The women claim they were followed, harassed and surveilled by agents of the church, while Carnell also claims that two of her dogs were killed by people acting on their behalf. The suit alleges that, in the eyes of Scientology, the women are "fair game" for violating sanctions the church imposed on its members by involving the police. Both Masterson and the church strongly deny all allegations.
Bixler-Zavala is also a plaintiff in the civil case, so he chooses his words carefully. "What I'm writing about on this album is watching my wife and her [spiritual] sisters go through a great deal. For me it is an act of listening, observing the emotional toll and saying: 'You are not alone.' There is a view of [the Mars Volta] as crazy, warlike people, but those emotions come from a violent part of the human heart, and here I'm just acting in an emotional support capacity."
Heavy subject matter is nothing new for a group whose founding mission was to "honour our roots, honour our dead". Previously, however, these stories were abstracted or converted into fantastical narratives. Bixler-Zavala's new lyrics, he says, "take the air out of the room" and are, for him at least, unusually clear and to the point. "I'll shine the blackest light to the culprit on all fours," he sings on the single Blacklight Shine.
I'm not bound by genre. The only thing that matters is if music makes you feel something
This time, the levity is in the sound. When the Mars Volta reunited, the real shock for fans was that they had returned with - relatively speaking - pop songs without their labyrinthine, heavy hallmarks: Blacklight Shine has a languid funk groove that speaks of David Bowie in mid-70s Stay mode, or Steely Dan at their Latin-inspired best. It's a long-in-the-making volte face - and another contributing factor to their split. Bixler-Zavala wasn't receptive to the idea when his bandmate mentioned experimenting with pop in 2007, he says.
"I'm not bound by genre," says Rodriguez-Lopez. "The only thing that matters is if music makes you feel something."
Nevertheless, both have been preempting a negative reaction to their new style. The comments under the videos for Blacklight Shine and Graveyard Love are overwhelmingly positive, yet Bixler-Zavala has rooted out the few negative responses. "Some people might see it as betrayal." He laughs, defensively: "I've seen some people call it yacht rock. But yacht rock slaps so hard that hip-hop producers sample it all the time."
"Losing 'fans' is baked into what we do," says Rodriguez-Lopez. "I don't know a greater happiness than losing 'fans'. A true fan is someone interested in what's happening now, and then there's everyone else trying to control what you do or project on to it. I have an aversion to that. That sounds like school. That sounds like the government. That sounds like the police. And unfortunately that's what a lot of people who think they're fans end up thinking like."
Perhaps the lack of any real pushback is a sign of how music has changed during their absence. Pop has been the battleground of the avant garde for the decade that the Mars Volta have been on ice. Their most prominent fan of recent years is Lizzo, who clearly doesn't care about genre partisanship, and nor do her Zoomer audience. "The most revolutionary thing we could do would be to make a pop record, really," says Bixler Zavala. I want to believe them, but on paper there isn't much to separate this idea from the narrative arc of most bands: simply mellowing with age.
The one argument against this being an exercise in commercial survival rests on the quality of the new material. Their single Vigil is the catchiest thing they have written, landing between Hall & Oates, mid-80s Peter Gabriel and early Talk Talk; Shore Story is pristine R&B that makes it sound as though they've been playing this music their whole lives. Bixler-Zavala, who was born in Texas to Mexican parents, appreciates the description: "R&B is not alien to our DNA. It's cholo music. It's what my parents listened to when I was a kid. Once my skateboard session was over, I'd go home and there would be a lot of Sunny and the Sunliners, a lot of the Penguins being played."
The Mars Volta performing in Manchester, Tennessee in 2009. Photograph: C Taylor Crothers/FilmMagic
If Bixler-Zavala's direct response to his wife's alleged trauma speaks of a newfound creative maturity, it's a shift in attitude that's shared by Rodriguez-Lopez. The guitarist was born in Puerto Rico and his interest in shining a light on the colonial history of his homeland has shaped the Mars Volta's new videos. Their visual aesthetic was once exotic, surreal and garish, but the 11-minute film accompanying Blacklight Shine is given over to a bomba performance recorded in Puerto Rico, featuring percussionists and improvised dance, speaking both to the indigenous culture of the island and its roots in slavery. The short film for Graveyard Love goes a step further, offering a lengthy reading list regarding the island's colonial history and an epigraph from the freedom fighter Lolita Lebron, who carried out an armed attack on the US Capitol building in 1954: "I did not come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico!"
That idea of familial lineage has proved to be healing in the group's reconciliation. When Bixler-Zavala became a father to twins in 2013, Rodriguez-Lopez says that holding his friend's children for the first time was a "breathtaking moment ... I'm sure it helped break the spell".
So, too, has the commitment to acknowledging the darkness that stems from their roots. Rodriguez-Lopez still names his dead relatives and friends five times a day. "It's deeper than the music. American people have a pathological fear of dying but what they don't understand is that it's already happened. It's inevitable, but here with us all the time. But the closer to death you are, the closer you are to life. It's healthier that way."
"I think everyday life requires embracing sadness, and embracing certain emotions that Scientology teaches you to ignore," Bixler-Zavala concludes.
Removing the crucible of the Mars Volta helped too; their time in At the Drive-In and Antemasque helped to clear the path to reunion. "The Mars Volta is a sacred ground as much as it is also a playground," says Rodriguez-Lopez. "All of the elements had to be exactly correct for my imagination to open up to it. And that happened naturally over time."
Bixler-Zavala concludes that they are back for the foreseeable future: "We have worked on this in secret for a long time now. Omar said the Mars Volta can be whatever we want it to be, which was refreshing as it sets the parameters of us not being a heritage act that relies on old songs. We can redefine what we are and move forwards. Our original feeling was that anything was possible and now, once again, it is."