The Mars Volta has always found a way to overcome difficult circumstances — such as the tragic deaths of bandmates and close friends — mainly by converting its hard luck and misfortune into a ceaseless work ethic that's inspired maniacal, genre-bending albums such as 2005's Frances the Mute.
According to vocalist and lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the obstacles the band faced on the way to the release of its latest studio album, The Bedlam in Goliath, had their root in superstition. More specifically, these dark forces emanated from a Ouija board that became a source of post-show amusement on its last tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (The board eventually had to be buried after its dark influence started to become a little too apparent.) Bixler-Zavala explains it all to B-Sides.
B-Sides: The Bedlam in Goliath was recently released. Could you explain some of the things that got in your way during the making of that record?
Cedric Bixler-Zavala: The main one was the nervous breakdown of our engineer. He had been with us for a really long time and never really took care of himself either. He just kind of stares at a screen all day, and with the amount of work that Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez] has him doing, he kind of forgets to take time off. But us being superstitious as we are, we kind of equated and related it to the Ouija board that we had been playing with. He hijacked the tapes, and we had to go to his house to get them back. He accused us of making the equivalent of an infernal machine. He thought we were making music just to fuck with people. It almost caused us to have to start over, since he did things his certain way and it was really hard to undo the big tangle.
Where did the Ouija board that caused so much trouble come from?
It was after a tour. Omar had this motivation to go to Jerusalem, and he went over there and filmed a lot of stuff and made a lot of field recordings that made it onto the record. He was singled out by this shopkeeper in a flea market — like, "Oh, you look like one of those Westerners who likes this sort of thing."
The song "Soothsayer" uses some of those field recordings, right?
Yeah, on the beginning and the end of the song. I can't remember which one is which, but one is the Muslim quarter, one is the Christian quarter, and one is the Jewish quarter. It's manipulated a bit here and there, but we try to keep it sounding as real as possible. "Soothsayer" is the name we gave to the Ouija board.
You guys are known for always having several recording projects in the works at once. What can listeners expect from the next record?
We have this very highly mutated version of an acoustic album. It's a mellower approach but there's still going to be rock songs in there. We can't ever shake the information overload that we're known for. But we got really inspired by this cat named Vic Chesnutt recently. We've always had it in us to do mellower and more acoustic stuff, but the way he did it when I saw him play in France just blew me away, and it would be nice to showcase that a little more. And we've been doing acoustic sets during our rock show lately, so we're moving in that direction.— Shae Moseley
8 p.m. Thursday, April 17. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. Sold out. 314-726-6161.
Sweet Home Mississippi
Blue Mountain is a tiny town in Northern Mississippi, between Banana Hill and Bald Knob. Though originally based out of Oxford, Mississippi, the trio of Cary Hudson, Laurie Stirratt (Hudson's ex-wife and sister to Wilco bassist John) and Frank Coutch took their name from that remote place. As the bluesiest, most Southern-identified alternative country band of the '90s, Blue Mountain made the most of its native soil. Its first fully realized album, Dog Days, is a classic testimony to the power of Southern rock in a small Southern town; its last album before breaking up in 2001, Roots, is a musical X-ray of Southern folk culture. The trio has reformed — not for a nostalgia tour, but to pick up the lost rock and country highway where it left off. Guitarist, songwriter and lead singer Cary Hudson brought B-Sides up-to-date.
B-Sides: How many records are you working on at the moment?
Cary Hudson: We just undertook a major task in rerecording eighteen songs from our Roadrunner career. We don't own the masters to any of those albums, two of them are out of print, and we were getting such a terrible deal from Roadrunner for what we could get to sell on tour. Then in December — and we finished about a week ago — we recorded a new record, Midnight in Mississippi, with eight new songs with Stuart Sikes [who has worked with Cat Power and the White Stripes] in Dallas. Both albums should be out in July.
Is it fair to say you guys were Southern-hippie-blues-rockers before Southern-hippie-blues-rockers were cool?
I think what you're getting at is we just weren't cool. More than I feel country alternative, Americana, any of that stuff, I feel a connection to bands from the South. But I think what makes us different from Skynyrd or the Allmans is that we came up at a different time and heard different music growing up. We loved Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, the Clash and X. I do feel a part of that Southern music world, and it's been perceived as cool or uncool at different times, but now I'm at an age where I just don't care.
As a guitar player, and the three of you as a band, you could do the Southern jam band thing. But you don't.
I do love the Allman Brothers and the North Mississippi Allstars, but the thing about us is we're song-oriented. If there's a guitar solo or jam, it's going to be secondary to the song. For me, I want to play 18 to 21 songs a night. I have noticed, though, that our audience has started to draw more from that jam scene. I think that's great.
Would you put the breakup of Blue Mountain to the end of your marriage with Laurie, or was it the other way around?
I can't really answer that question. A lot of bands tend to fracture after eight, nine, ten years. Being in a band can be tough on a relationship. I think that's true if you're brothers or high school buddies or married. I think both things imploded from too much togetherness. Laurie and I talk about it now, and we don't think of the first run of Blue Mountain or our marriage as a failure. We were together playing music together for ten years, and we spent more time together than most couples spend in forty. And most of those times were really great times. — Roy Kasten
9 p.m. Thursday, April 17. Lucas School House, 1220 Allen Avenue. $10 in advance, $12 day of show. 314-621-6565.