At the start of 2013, a public statement made online by Cedric Bixler-Zavala officially dissolved The Mars Volta, the band he’d started with former At the Drive-In bandmate Omar Rodriguez-Lopez after the collapse of that outfit.
“I can’t sit here and pretend any more,” Bixler-Zavala tweeted. “A hiatus is just an insult to the fans … Omar did not want to [tour any more] … What am I suppose to do – be some progressive housewife [who is] cool with watching their partner go fuck other bands? … All I can do is move forward with my music and just be happy that Mars Volta ever happened at all.”
Blood was bad, but not too bad, it seems, for the pair recently started making music together again as Antemasque.
Wildly different from anything the pair have made in the past, the debut record from the band – completed by former Mars Volta drummer Dave Elitch and Rodriguez-Lopez’s brother Marfred on bass – is a straightforward blast of high-octane rock ’n’ roll that only hints at the music created by their previous outfits. Over the phone, Bixler-Zavala talks, in his slightly rambling and wholly endearing way, about the band, his dislike of heavy metal and what the future may or may not hold.
The Antemasque album came out in July as a digital release, temporarily, and now it’s coming out on vinyl and CD. Why did you decide to do things that way?
Cedric Bixler-Zavala:_ _“Well, I think it would have always been that way. We started everything ourselves, and then we acquired the right management team and we got to know [record label] Caroline. Everyone wanted to take it down and get enough time and strategy so that we can do what we’re doing now and give us a fighting chance, really. We knew when it was done, but it was just the red tape of getting it out there. Plus, it’s something that people need to figure out how to promote, because I guess it’s kind of an interesting subject matter since Omar and I hadn’t talked or played music together in two years.”
What does this record symbolise for you and Omar? Obviously, it’s a reunion of sorts – you had a fallout and now you’re making music again. What does it mean for the two of you, both personally and musically?
“It’s just this regeneration and redemption for both of us. What happened was a public thing – whether or not the public version of it should have happened is really irrelevant, [because] it did happen. And, you know, maybe it was a necessary step in our relationship, and now, Omar having gone through the death of his mother and me having gone through the birth of my twins…I have twin boys, and whenever they get mad at each other or they fight, I don’t think I could ever be a good father and say ‘You guys need to get along’ if I’m not getting along with my musical soulmate, my best friend beyond 30 years.”
Do you think you guys need that tension to keep the creativity flowing?
“No, no, it’s not like this Kinks or Oasis thing. Our communications were just at really low points. We’ve had maybe two big miscommunications/arguments in the entire time that we’ve known each other, and me leaving The Mars Volta was one of them. But it was a necessary thing to happen.”
** So how and when and why did you decide to do Antemasque?**
“Let’s see. It was just reaching out to him, and him reaching out to me, together. The universe sort of just worked that way and we decided to make something musical. We had all these ideas of what we thought it could be, and that always goes out the door once you actually start writing.
He sent me stuff and then I would get him the drums and I would play to them. Personally, I don’t like calluses on my hands. I have fun playing drums, but if I’m going to play drums I’d rather play dub because it’s really mellow and it’s really easy. I like playing rock drums, but I’m one of those drummers who wears gloves on my hands. If the revolution came, I would be shot because I have such nice hands! So I called Dave [Elitch] and Dave was a good guy to work with because he always had such a bad rap in Mars Volta – people gave him so much shit because of the shoes he had to fill [those of original drummer Thomas Pridgen, who left the band in 2009], that I just thought he was the perfect person. I wanted to show people that this guy is an amazing drummer in terms of being lyrical, and live he’s just this beast, as well. So we started working with him, and he kept some of the drum ideas I did – because I’m not your normal kind of drummer, I guess I’m playing like a singer. He kept some of the ideas, which was cool, and then Omar was in contact with Flea and Flea offered his studio and we got him to play on it. And at the last second we were trying some different people out and then it just made sense to keep it in the family and we got Marfred, Omar’s brother, to play.
So it’s been like this high school thing, like it’s our first band all over again, because we’re all contributing songs. And when I stopped playing drums and Dave took over, I got to come in and introduce songs that I had written in the past two years. It didn’t work with what I was doing with Zavalaz, but it worked better with Antemasque, so it was nice to be able to exercise that, because that’s not the way Mars Volta used to be. It’s nice we all write.”
It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun on this record. There’s a real sense of freedom and enjoyment…
“Yeah. There wasn’t a lot of overthinking it. It was just like, ‘This is what it is. Let’s just be straightforward about it.’ I think that’s what Omar was doing already with Bosnian Rainbows and that’s what I was doing with Zavalas, and I think we’ve learned from that and brought that to the table for this. Because the more I would try to write what is usually the old skeleton of Mars Volta, it just didn’t make any sense to me and I got really tired of writing that way. I wanted to write about everyday things that were around me or that I was involved in, and it just seemed like this was the perfect avenue to do that.”
** It’s definitely – and I mean this in a good way, not as an insult – more simple, both lyrically and musically, than the stuff you’ve done before. So is this a reaction to what you’ve done in the past and a deliberate attempt to get away from your past?**
“I think any artist is going to want to be able to show they can do more than what they do. I listen to everything by Harry Nilsson and he’s more than just some crooner. There’s so many different facets to him and that’s what I like about him as an artist. Same thing with Dylan, as much as I was opposed to Dylan in the past – he can sing in many different ways and he can write lyrically in many different ways, and I think that’s really, really important. By nature, I’m really into a lot of Mott The Hoople and Slade – it’s just simple and straightforward and, to me, it’s punk, because that’s what punk is. It’s this straightforward, immediate thing.”
** So did you set out for this to be a punk band?**
“Yeah. I guess, when I started playing drums first, I liked that really stiff sort of early American punk stuff. I liked the way the drums were just really urgent and stiff. Then when Dave took over I was like, ‘If you can keep it like that, that’s awesome, but I want to hear the swing that you’ve learned from jazz. I want you to have that as a drummer.’ We just really wanted to be conscious of not really appealing to any sort of heavy metal stuff, because I don’t like that at all. I always get bummed out when anybody relates to that, because Mars Volta got that so much. There was always this weird tagline of people saying ‘It’s like a heavy metal Santana’ and I just used to think, ‘Fuck. I’ve failed as an artist.’ Like heavy metal is some sort of adjective, but in my mind I just picture those awful movies, I picture Spinal Tap and stuff. And I know my hair sure as fuck doesn’t help. I grew up listening to MC5 and The Dictators and shit like that, so I don’t understand it. I just wanted to go back to a lot of the fun-loving power-pop that I love. I wanted to take it back there because it’s a simple medium and it’s really immediate and it’s fun to play. It’s so much fun. I imagine myself like, ‘What would I want to listen to if I went out skating?’ and that’s Antemasque.”
** With that in mind, presumably you want people to accept Antemasque for the band it is as opposed to the bands that you guys were in before? Can you ever shake that history off?**
“That’s for sure. I mean, I don’t want to totally shake it off, but I do think Antemasque is slowly becoming its own thing. Even as far as in At The Drive-In, Omar and I weren’t really known for a lot of the more melodic stuff – that was a little more Jim [Ward] – but no-one knows us before At The Drive-In, and we definitely had a huge Minneapolis influence, whether it be The Replacements or Hüsker Dü. I always thought they did pop the right way, because it’s got more stubble on its chin, it’s not so Orange County. I’ve always thought Orange County was the worst thing that happened to anything that was a combination of pop music and punk rock. There were some great things that came out of Orange Music, like TSOL and Adolescents, and even Christian Death, who was our own Bauhaus, but when I heard pop music that was punk rock, I wanted it to sound like Minneapolis, I wanted it to be dreary and downcast. I like that kind of stuff. And then, you know, I’ve always loved Slade. If I could try to emulate Noddy Holder in any single way, that’s my goal.”
**50,000 Kilowatts sounds like the most sentimental song you’ve ever written. **
“Oh yeah. Even to the point where I can see all the men in the audience take off if we play it! So I feel like I’m maybe doing something right. I think it’s the artist’s job to take a trident and throw it to the heart of the comfort zone of a band, and that’s my Cheap Trick, that’s my Big Star – those bands have songs like that, where those bands influenced what our first generation of punk is. The Ramones didn’t care about Zeppelin, they liked Slade, and I like that. I just love Cheap Trick and stuff like that. I love stuff that reminds me of the movie River’s Edge, of being like a kid and you have long hair but along comes this thing called punk rock and you don’t know what to do. That’s what I grew up with. I’d go to the amusement park and I’d ride this ride called The Himalaya and they’d always play Cheap Trick, and I listened to KISS a lot as a kid, so I’m just going back to what I knew as a kid, and that’s the spine of my influence.”
Do you think that’s something you’ve missed out on in the past with your previous projects? Or is it just the pure joy of rediscovering your youth?
“Maybe both. It’s a major chord, and everyone knows us for minor chords. So that’s kind of fun. I just think it’s like being naked in front of a classroom or showing up with a haircut or something – people are like, ‘Wait a minute!’ And I like that. It’s definitely hard to get across live, but that’s the challenge.”
This might be a dangerous question, but how far into the future are you looking? How far do you project this to go?
“As long as we can do it, you know. Dave Elitch is committed to the band and so am I and so is Omar and Marfred’s along for the long haul too, I hope. It doesn’t mean any other side stuff won’t happen, but this is our thing right now, and when it stops it stops.”
These things have stopped quite abruptly in the past. Do you think this will break that mould?
“Well, if it does stop, hopefully everyone will be in on the full stop. The communication is a lot better – any time any sort of problem comes around we definitely are exercising the comfortable zone of being open about what’s bothering us, so hopefully that will never happen. And hopefully any other future possibilities of anything else ever happening we can accomplish. Whether or not we ever want to do Mars Volta again – I don’t know what that holds but I don’t think that’s ever off the table. Bosnian Rainbows isn’t off the table, Zevalas isn’t off the table, the band that Marfred has with his brother isn’t off the table, and Dave playing with whoever he wants isn’t off the table. It’s just we’re doing this right now, and if we have to honour the cycle and promotion of a record we’re going to do that.”
There’s one conspicuous band you just left out there. Presumably that is still off the table and you never want to do that again?
“Oh! Well, I don’t know. It’s a difficult thing. It’s a hard thing to overcome. Because I speak about the communication level in this group of people that I play with now and it’s really good. Let’s just say we’ve got a long way to go with the other band. And that’s not a bad thing to put out there, it just is what it is. We’ve got to learn how to be a true family again for that to happen, and I don’t know if that ever will.”
Antemasque’s self-titled album will be released on vinyl and CD on Nadie Sound via Caroline on November 24. The album is available digitally now.