Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Interview: Don't Drink The Kool Aid

Omar Rodríguez-López
Our eclectic team of writers from around Australia – and a couple beyond – with decades of combined experience and interest in all fields.

It’s difficult to know where to start with Omar Rodríguez-López.

His musical career has spanned over 20 years, from post-hardcore bad At The Drive-In, to beloved progressive rock group The Mars Volta, and various side projects. The songwriter/producer/guitarist/actor/film director has recently released his second feature length film as well as a trilogy of solo albums over the span of three months. He’ll be touring Australia soon following the release of his 22nd solo studio album, begging the question: does this man have a creative compulsion? I had a chat with him to find out.

Let's talk about the fact that Octopus Kool Aid is your 22nd studio album. It seems like you are constantly putting stuff out. Do you feel like you have to be constantly creating? Do you feel like maybe it's a compulsion for you?

No, I think that's just the nature of people, you know? All of us are constantly creating, we have to create conversations, we create problems, we create food, sex, war, whatever, you know... Again, I'm fortunate I get to do music and so therefore I get to do what I like and so why wouldn't it be a lot? 

Also, actually, this is the point: it's a perspective problem also because I get this question a lot and people always ask, you know, do you have time to sleep and things like this... I have plenty of time, I still have pizza party days, I still have days where you do absolutely nothing but eat pizza and ice cream, there's days where you go out to the park, there's days when you go on vacation, you know, the problem lies in the perception.

It's not that I do a lot, it's that others do very little, therefore I look good. But it's crazy... if you can imagine, bands put out one record every three years... If you're lucky enough to play in a band, you've probably been doing it since you were a kid, and so while everybody else was being asked what's your major, what are you going to do and blah, blah, blah, and you're sitting there thinking, “God, I just love playing music, I don't wanna be an accountant and I don't wanna go to an office,” and then one day somebody comes to you and says, “Hey listen kid, I'm gonna let you play music for the rest of your life and all you have to do is do it.”

So, under those parameters, which sounds crazier? If I put out a record once every three years? Does that sound crazier than I put out eight records in a year? Which one sounds healthier? 

That's a good way of looking at it, I've never thought about it like that. But I guess you must get that question a lot so you must have a lot of time to think about that sort of thing.

Yeah, I get asked it a lot and that's sort of the point is that it's just all about perspective, because I work hard at what I do, don't get that wrong, but relationships are hard work, you know? Anything worthwhile you put work into. But it's not as crazy as it sounds or as much as people want to make it out to be, you know? It's just like, I get to make records for a living, you know? It's like... most of my friends are still fuckin' like working at Applebees and shit. They make music on weekends, you know what I mean, and even they crank out more than one record every three years.

Why do you think bands are only releasing one record every three years? Obviously it mustn't really take that long, because you've been able to... you released a trilogy of albums in the span of 3 months. Do you think it's just that people are lazy, or that there's a culture of that in the music industry?

Yeah, I think it's “asshole” culture, you know what I mean? I think it's a combination of things. It's definitely media, but it's definitely every asshole who buys into the mystification of composition or the mystification of, you know, thinking that writing music is some fuckin' sort of grandiose affair. I think it's people who really buy into the whole fuckin' rock star trip and being put up on a pedestal, and because we get to fuckin' stand on a stage and play in front of so many people they start buying into it and so they think that fuckin' them making this record is the most important thing in the world that's gonna fuckin' save humanity, you know?

And then they take six months to make a record, I mean, do you know how many different feelings you have in six months? And do you know how many different times those feelings actually change within that six months? It's just utterly ridiculous. What we're doing is not special, like, composing is nothing special, there's absolutely nothing fucking special about — it'd be like thinking speaking is special.

I mean, you could say that's true because I understand there are people who are born that can't speak but you know what I mean when I say this, like: it's not special, it's what we do as people – we speak. We think, we speak, we argue, we say 'I'm sorry', and then, you know, we turn the lights off, we eat breakfast in the morning. So, it's like, there's absolutely nothing special about it and when people get caught up on this trip of like, “Oh yes, that composition, I remember it, yes...” You know, the sort of thing you see in rock documentaries and stuff? It's that whole trip and people buying into it, you know and it's like.. a monkey could do what we do! Get outta here!

What's it like, then, experiencing notoriety and being put up there as a god on a pedestal... What's it like experiencing that from the viewpoint of someone who thinks that it is nothing special?
It makes everything a big gigantic joke. It makes everything so much fun, you have no idea. It's like watching a movie play out. Movies do really well at painting those pictures and somebody would see that exaggeration and it's like, well no, that's exactly how it is. So like that film Get Him To The Greek, that comedy with Russell Brand? And he's acting the certain way and people laugh and they think that's funny and I go, “Man, that's real life. That's how most of these fuckin' assholes act...”

That's why I usually tour alone, that's why I don't tour with other bands, because you're hard pressed to find other people who get the reality of it, who haven't fuckin' drank the kool aid and are off in their fuckin' bubble thinking they're saving humanity. I have a brother who's a doctor who works in hospice. Go tell him your bullshit about how important you are.

It's such a unique perspective. You don't really hear it from many people who are known for making music.

They should be out of work. Just on principle alone they should be out of work.

Your latest album is titled Octopus Kool Aid. Where did that title come from?

That's one of the ones I wish I could take the credit for. That was one of my partners in crime, Sonny Kay, he's done a lot of my record covers and all of my Mars Volta covers and stuff and it's one of his paintings and that's just what it was called and I thought it was just an absolutely incredible title. So I just kept it. Usually I'll use a lot of his paintings and change obviously the name to be the name of my record, but this time I just said, you know what, let's just keep the actual painting's name because it's way more interesting than the title of my record.

You once said in an interview – this might've been a while ago – that you hated the guitar and that the reason you use so many effects is that you're kind of trying to make it sound like anything but the guitar. Is that still the case or has that changed?
That's changed. That was a while ago... You know, I appreciate the guitar a lot. I really like it and we've grown fond of each other. We're like old friends now, we've been together for so long that we've sort of, we deal with each other, our shortcomings very very well. And so I don't feel that way. Now I understand that the guitar has been how I... you know, for so long it's helped me express myself. But it's just a vehicle, I also cannot stand — that's another thing that people do — they wanna talk about fuckin' guitars and gear all day long...

Yeah, I saw some sort of 10 minute video of some guy interviewing you about your guitar. You must've enjoyed that.
Yeah, it's awful. It's awful. I mean, it's as awful as you know, whatever... again, I should be so lucky. Of course I do it with a smile, because how lucky am I that these people from whatever want to interview me talking about absolutely nothing? So, okay, I'll do it... But the guitar is the least of anyone's worries. The sound of any person, any artist or whatever is in their hands and in their spirit and has very, very little to do with the instrument that they're holding.

A fine point. So you're touring at the moment and you're obviously going to be touring Australia in December. Have you got anything else going on? By the looks of your discography, it seems that you'd always have something going on the side, so have you got more happening at the moment, or are you just touring?
Touring. I just recorded a new record with this group, the Bosnian Rainbows group that will be on tour there in December. After the Australian tour — we'll find out next week if the funding is actually coming through, then in December we'll be making a new film, and then more touring.

And film is a passion for you as well? You released your first feature length film, The Sentimental Engine Slayer, and did you write the new one?

Yeah, well, we released another one, Los Chidos, which has been playing everywhere. I think it's also going to be playing in Australia at the festivals there – I think Adelaide or somewhere... And then the one that will hopefully be going into production in December is, yes, is another one that I've written.

So that's a passion of yours as well then, obviously.
Yeah, it's another outlet. But definitely film in general, that medium is the one that I've been most attracted to since I was little and started forming my own ideas outside of my mother and father. I never had an idea about playing music for a living, that was never... Music was just something that was always around. That would be like dreaming about fuckin' eating fried bananas and rice with beans, you know? It's just there, all the time, you don't have to dream about it.

Do you ever see yourself moving away from music altogether, or no time soon?

Um... no. I mean, no, no. Because, again, music's always there. It's just a part of my upbringing, you know? When I go home, somebody's playing something all the time. It's just that what I've learned to do now as I grow older is to take those notes and convert them into other things. So music's always happening, all the fuckin' time, you know, and then you can either translate it and it becomes more music or you can turn it into a good conversation or turn it into a recipe or turn it into a film. And so, I learn to be able to sort of delegate the energy to different outlets. 

There have been various things going around the internet about The Mars Volta and about whether you guys have completely called it quits or what's happening there. Do you have any light to shed on that?
Not any more than anyone else would know [laughs].

You guys have just kind of left it hanging? 

Well, I'll put it this way... I did At The Drive In for 8 years and then I had to do something different, and then I put together The Mars Volta and I did that for 11 years and now I've put together a new band called The Bosnian Rainbows and now I'm doing that. So that's where my energy is. That's what I'm focusing on.

I read the press release and it made it sound as if it were a solo tour but you're approaching this as a group? As a band?
Yeah, exactly. What happened was, as you know, tours have to be booked months and months in advance, because of all sorts of reasons... bureaucracy. And so somewhere in that six month interim, we were rehearsing and we were gonna play these songs and records that I'd done however long ago and it all seemed so boring to me, and I said, “time to change it up. I'm starting a new group, let's give it a name.” And this is what it is. And that's where we're at.

Omar Rodríguez-López plays the following dates in Australia:

Nov Fri 23 — Fowlers Live (Adelaide)
Sat Nov 24 — The Rosemount (Perth)
Sun Nov 25 — Cherry Rock (Melbourne)
Tue Nov 27 — San Francisco Bath House (Wellington, NZ)
Wed Nov 28 — Kings Arms Tavern (Auckland, NZ)
Thu Nov 29 — The Zoo (Brisbane)
Fri Nov 30 — The Great Northern (Byron Bay)
Sat Dec 1 — The Hi-Fi (Sydney)
Sun Dec 2 — Corner Hotel (Melbourne)

Omar's feature length film, Los Chidos, is screening at the Mexican Film Festival in Adelaide on Sunday November 18.

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