Omar A Rodriguez-Lopez raises his left forearm to display a tattoo that he thinks might shed light on the new album by his band the Mars Volta. It's a beautifully rendered, subtly disquieting depiction of a man with the head of an eagle, based on an image by the Surrealist Max Ernst.
Ernst's works were just one of the ingredients that fed the fertile creative process behind "Frances the Mute," Mars Volta's monumental, trilingual prog-metal epic, due in stores Tuesday.
Its other inspirations included the many movies that flashed on old television sets set up in the recording studio, a diary lifted from the back seat of a repossessed car, a mother's story about seeing the devil, and the 2003 overdose death of band member Jeremy Ward.
"Things should be based in reality," says Mars Volta co-leader Cedric Bixler-Zavala. "We wanted it to be a very interesting reality, you know."
For Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez, this fragmented account of a man's quest to find his family is more than a fulfillment of their no-borders, no-rules philosophy. "Frances the Mute" is a resounding musical validation of their decision to break up one of the most promising bands of the '90s, At the Drive-In, to follow their musical instincts.
The album also marks the end, they hope, of a stretch of interrupted potential.
And while it hardly seems like a commercial album, this demanding, 75-minute phantasmagoria has already brought them wider exposure than they've ever had. An abridged version of the album track "The Widow" has become a rock radio hit, recently ranking as the top request at L.A.'s KROQ-FM (106.7).
"It's like a movie trailer," says Rodriguez-Lopez in the office of the band's manager south of Hollywood, wearing dark-rimmed nerd glasses and a floppy Afro. "People who get drawn to our band because of that trailer, they'll realize there's this whole other world that they'll really enjoy or really [hate]."
Adds Bixler-Zavala, "Like someone who's a regular rock fan who doesn't know anything about us ... they think they're coming into one thing and maybe they have to do a little homework. I would have liked that if I was young....I was set in my ways, but I'd love there to be an option."
"I think kids are force-fed easily digestible, disposable music, and when they're given something that takes thought, it takes time to get through. I think they're dying for that," says Gary Gersh, head of Strummer Records, a partnership with Universal Records that releases the Mars Volta recordings.
"It's not just a rock thing," adds Gersh, who signed Nirvana to Geffen Records in 1991 and later served as president of Capitol Records. "You see the Arcade Fire, what they're doing, you see Sufjan Stevens, you see what Conor [Oberst] is doing -- you see there is music that isn't trying to be in the mainstream, and I believe kids are dying for new stuff that isn't just trying to be what everything else is.
If it's a surprise that a difficult album has yielded a commercial single, it's absolutely ironic that Rodriguez-Lopez, 28, and Bixler-Zavala, 30, are brought to you by mega-corporate Universal Records. At the Drive-In was a standard-bearer for the rock underground and a key force in establishing the independent-label system as the viable alternative it's become for many young bands.
"Here we have a 30-minute song on our album and it's on Universal, the one big monster that owns all the other little monsters," says Bixler-Zavala, shaking his shaggy head. "It gives some people hope maybe that we might be trying to pave the way so there is no blur between who's counterculture and who were against....
"And there's also the whole snobbery side of indie rock.... Even At the Drive-In took a long time to be accepted. We always operated as the new kid in school up until the very end."
That end came as a surprise to fans who had watched the band from El Paso steadily grow into one of the most highly praised American groups of the last decade. They'd moved to Los Angeles and seemed on the brink of a breakthrough when the singer and the guitarist pulled the plug.
"We were bored musically," says Rodriguez-Lopez, describing the chasm between the band's two camps. "After a certain point we were like, 'OK, they don't get it. This isn't going anywhere.' ... They played a lot of Foo Fighters and Radiohead in the van, and we played a lot of Augustus Pablo and salsa music and Tom Waits, and they would constantly ask us to please take our music off 'cause it was driving them crazy."
Bixler-Zavala even seems embarrassed about the acclaim that was showered on the old band, whose other three members are now leading the group Sparta.
"We were pretty much just this 10th generation ... garden-variety Fugazi sound, which is still being pounded to death to this day and makes a lot of money. Not even a really good version of it."
"We're constantly in danger of being killed off by boredom," adds Rodriguez-Lopez. "Cedric and I have known each other for 15 years now, we've played music for 12 of those years....You just try not to repeat yourself, to come up with something new."
"The things you find when you're a repo man," says Bixler-Zavala with a faint smile. The singer and lyricist is talking about their late bandmate Ward, who had a side job repossessing automobiles in Compton.
The anonymous diary he took from a back seat was written by someone who had been adopted and was searching for his biological family. It became a thematic spine for "Frances the Mute," with subtexts touching on Ward's own death.
"That's the gist of the album," says Bixler-Zavala. "Looking for the missing piece....It's like us looking for him now, trying to re-create his spirit."
The music on "Francis the Mute" matches the intensity of its words, which are heavy on dreamlike streams of creep-factor imagery: worms crawling out of heads, lakes of blood, "The Widow's" "isle of open sores."
The predominantly English lyrics are supplemented by verses in Spanish and Latin, and it's worth noting that the title song is not on the album. Its lyrics are printed on the CD box, and Gersh says the 14-minute recording will soon be made available in various ways.
On the album, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez lead the other four musicians of Mars Volta as well as string and horn sections and two members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- Flea (on trumpets) and guitarist John Frusciante -- through a stormy, seething landscape that shifts from massive hard rock to ominous salsa to free-jazz freakouts.
It adds up to an experience whose scope and vividness suggest a different medium entirely.
"I think we're really trying to tap into the influence of cinema a lot more," says Bixler-Zavala, who shares with his partner a fondness for filmmakers such as Fellini, Bunuel and David Lynch. "That always takes you away. Pay money to sit in a dark room and you go into a different world. That's what we want our records to be like."
The death of Ward, an old friend from El Paso credited as "sound manipulator" in Mars Volta, was the biggest bump in a road that had figured to be smooth sailing when At the Drive-In ended, but turned out otherwise.
Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez initially declined the big offers they say were pouring in and spent two years touring and recording on their own, just to let the group find its identity and get some room to breathe.
They signed with the label headed by Gersh, who had worked with At the Drive In in its final stages. But even though their first album, the science-fiction narrative "De-Loused in the Comatorium," sold respectably, they had trouble finding musicians committed to playing for the right reason.
Drugs got to be a problem too, reaching a point where Ward, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez made a pact to stop using. Ward relapsed and overdosed not long after.
When they look at their way of operating, they turn once more to a cinematic analogy, citing Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo," about an obsessed man transporting a riverboat over a mountain ridge in his quest to build an opera house in the jungle.
"We don't take the boat around the easy way," says Bixler-Zavala. "We pushed it up the hill and it's the hardest way to do it and people have died in the process, but ... we did it, we did the impossible."
"Then when we get to the other side we don't know what happened," adds Rodriguez-Lopez. "And then overnight the Indian cuts the cord and we find ourselves on a different current we didn't expect to be on."
"The boat's just doing its own thing, right?" says Bixler-Zavala. "Sometimes good, sometimes bad. But that's life."
On the Web
To hear samples from the new Mars Volta album, "Frances the Mute," visit calendarlive.com/marsvolta