As The Mars Volta, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala battled against all the odds. In 2001, the pair were poised to become mainstream rock stars as post-hardcore outfit At The Drive-In, only to disband and start from scratch with a progressive rock band. The choice was questionable: why would Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala leave a project considered to be “the next Nirvana,” to create…this? Fifteen years since The Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium and the answer is the same — the two wanted to explore new musical directions, beyond their punk rock roots. They ended up creating something that was not only a testament to artistic freedom, but a celebration of their Latino roots, redefining the look and sound of genres not often associated with people of color.
The concept behind The Mars Volta was already brewing before At The Drive-In’s end. Their third album, Relationship of Command, showcased the band’s penchant for experimentation, colliding their punk rock roots with more left-field tendencies. Songs such as “Enfilade,” “Quarantined,” and “Non-Zero Possibility” foreshadowed the ambient sounds used in The Mars Volta, as each song’s outro was a drastic departure from the rest of the track.
By March 2001, At The Drive-In had ran its course. Rodriguez-Lopez reassured fans in a statement about the band’s “indefinite hiatus” — at the time, he said they needed to “rest up and re-evaluate.” In reality, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala wanted to embark on other projects after feeling pigeonholed by the band’s punk and hardcore labels. First came De Facto, a dub and reggae group the two formed alongside Isaiah “Ikey” Owens (keyboards), and Jeremy Michael Ward (sound manipulation). Then came The Mars Volta, which featured everyone from De Facto along with Eva Gardner (bass) and Jon Theodore (drums).
In November of that same year, the band performed in Los Angeles to a sold-out crowd that included stars such as Courtney Love and Winona Ryder at The Troubadour. But Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala were far from escaping their past as At The Drive-In. When fans cried out for old hits like “One Armed Scissor,” Bixler-Zavala told the audience, “All you whiny emo kids go get a Kleenex box.”
The album is an earnest and touching tribute that honored the band’s roots, while telling a story about El Paso that only they could.
Undeterred, the band persevered, releasing the Tremulant EP in April 2002 before focusing on their first full-length album — De-Loused in the Comatorium. The project was recorded between 2002 and 2003 at The Mansion, Rick Rubin’s studio in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. Co-produced by Rubin and Rodriguez-Lopez, the concept album is an homage to Julio Venegas, an El Paso artist, poet, and close friend of Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala’s. Venegas went into a coma for several years after a deliberate drug overdose and recovered, only to die by suicide. In 1996, he jumped off a freeway overpass onto Interstate-10 in El Paso during afternoon rush-hour traffic.
On De-Loused, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala reimagine Venegas’ coma and suicide through a meta-narrative about a man named Cerpin Taxt. De-Loused’s 10 tracks function more like an art house film than a traditional album, its cinematic approach reflected in the project’s intricate mosaic of moods, textures, and sounds. Rooted in psychedelic and progressive rock, the album resembles ambitious classic rock works like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. Because of Venegas’ story, journalists have also compared De-Loused to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The album included “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a multi-part tribute to the band’s founding member Syd Barrett. (Storm Thorgerson, who created most of Pink Floyd’s album art, also designed De-Loused’s cover.)
Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala captured their adoration and respect for these forefathers in the form of a tribute to the late Venegas. But part of what’s so innovative about De-Loused is that it embraces traditional Latin American rhythms. “Drunkship of Lanterns,” the album’s focal point, wouldn’t be what it is without its bongos, congas, and clave, the percussive instrumentation that’s the driving force of the track’s salsa-based foundation. Rodriguez-Lopez embedded clave rhythms deep enough into the mix so that they never become overbearing; instead, they function as the track’s heartbeat.
“Salsa is everything,” Rodriguez-Lopez told The FADER in a 2008 interview. “Everything I interpret, be it rock music or punk music or whatever stage I’m at, is filtered through hearing the clave.”
“Televators,” the penultimate song, is also a celebration of the band’s Latino roots. A somber ballad that functions as a psychedelic take on corrido, the song glorifies Venegas as a folk hero. Ambient electronics add airy textures you wouldn’t find in traditional corridos, and Rodriguez-Lopez’s gentle acoustic guitar strums set the tone for Bixler-Zavala’s eulogy to their late friend.
“One day this chalk outline will circle this city,” Bixler-Zavala bellows in the song’s second verse. There’s a poignant beauty to Bixler-Zavala’s declaration – that Julio Venegas is more than his death. He’s a man who played a pivotal role in Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala’s lives and inspired them to explore their artistic ambitions up until — and after — his death. Venegas was an integral part of what makes El Paso beautiful, charming, and strange, whether people realize that or not.
These days, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala are El Paso’s beloved hometown heroes, revered for revolutionizing two genres as Puerto Rican and Mexican kids from a border town. The pair forced the music industry to pay attention to the city and to recognize its artistic potential, proving El Paso could export culture like other metropolitan cities in Texas. But beyond El Paso, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala are also a testament to the multiplicity of Latinx cultures. Like other marginalized people in this country, they’re far from a monolith.
Fifteen years later, De-Loused in the Comatorium remains an artistic risk-turned-success for Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala. The album is an earnest and touching tribute that honored the band’s roots, while telling a story about El Paso that only they could.
The Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium celebrates its 15th anniversary on June 24, 2018.