Lessons Learned From Loving And Hating the Mars Volta
Art and life cohabitate, informing, imitating and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
Let it be known that this is not a reaction to Drew Ailes' polarizing RFT Music article praising the Mars Volta's hair and little else. Ailes has no relationship with the Mars Volta, and seemingly none with At the Drive-In, and if I viewed the band from an outside perspective I would probably also think the group was absolutely ridiculous (instead of just moderately ridiculous). Rather, I always viewed the band too personally, connected deeply to its greatest work and felt straight-up disappointed by its artistic failures. To me, the Mars Volta is a lesson in the dangers of indulgence, both from a band's and a fan's perspective.
Allow me to have my LCD Soundsystem "Losing My Edge" "I was there..." moment. In 2001, the Mars Volta played at the now-defunct St. Louis venue the Galaxy, on a bill sandwiched between opener Mates of State and headliner the Anniversary. The original lineup featured De Facto, the dub project Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez started during their run in At the Drive-In, but a few weeks prior, De Facto disappeared from advertisements and the Mars Volta appeared. It was the band's eighth show ever; there were no recordings to sample, and this was in the pre-YouTube, 56K dial-up days of the Internet. The group played an economical, 25-minute set that remains one of the most important musical performances I have experienced.
This primitive set ruined the Mars Volta for me. It seemed like eternity before the band dropped its Tremulant EP, and even longer until its proper debut De-Loused In the Comatorium. I will skip the details of how the overwrought De-Loused disappointed me (at least past track four) because they are not important. I feel sympathetic for any band who emerges at the peak of its game, because there is nowhere to go but down or sideways. Just ask Hella.
The more indulgent the band became, the more success it saw. Perhaps this is because its appeal grew larger than the indie/punk crowd that embraced At the Drive-In. The Mars Volta reached its unlikely popularity by being the weirdest thing that people who had never really listened to weird music had ever heard.
I feel this is a different story than the average "band changes, fan is upset" tale. I am not sore at the Mars Volta for finding new audiences, or even for trying to grow musically. I never wanted the band to stay in its egg. What hurt me was the band's self-conscious self-indulgence. To me and my friends who caught on to the band early, the "right" thing to do seemed so obvious: Stop trying to be Zeppelin or Yes, and just be the Mars Volta.
Years later, when So Many Dynamos hired Alex Newport, who had produced the Mars Volta's Tremulant EP and ATDI's In-Casino-Out records, to mix our album The Loud Wars, I got some inside dirt on the Mars Volta. It would be unwise and unfair to share in these pages, but I know the band was rife with internal chaos from the start. It's amazing the group even survived to play its first show, much less be a headliner that dwarfed the popularity of its already legendary previous band. For this, I am grateful that those initial recordings exist, and that the band who seemed destined to burn out lasted long enough to mourn its death twelve years after my first experience.
The Mars Volta was around too long, played too many shows, and affected too many lives to just be the Mars Volta. To me, it's a group that made me reevaluate my expectations of bands I love. To others, it was a gateway from punk into prog or vice versa. To Drew Ailes, it was hair. All of these outlooks are valid and honest. The Mars Volta was not the most important band of the last ten years, but it reached an echelon that few groups achieve in the modern age. Its influence, subconscious or not, will certainly inform those making bands, buying records, and getting haircuts for years to come.