If Omar Rodríguez López never wants to talk to me ever again, I completely understand. Not because I offended him or because he’s some prog-rock heady diva, not at all. He’d be prone to try and forget my existence because he might think I’m going to go all Misery on him. Admittedly, I’m a fan. Admittedly, The Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium is one of the reasons this little San Juan schoolgirl became a music journalist. Admittedly, it’s Omar’s guitar playing and composition skills that made me think of music in a different way, after being so violently saturated by reggaeton and La Mega my entire life. Admittedly, I’m a little obsessed. And all of this was admitted over the phone, gushingly and with no regard for the art of cool, to Omar Rodríguez López, as I interviewed him prior to the release of what feels like his gajillionth album under his solo moniker, the mammoth Telesterion (out April 16th, Record Store Day).
He’s pleasant, well mannered, assertive yet soft spoken. He’s everything I wanted him to be. It wasn’t like meeting mall Santa when you’re 7 and realizing he’s a dick and has an alcohol problem. It was like having a nice conversation with a nice person. Omar talked about his roots (both Boricua and now Mexican), his will, and what he is and isn’t.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your upbringing, going from Puerto Rico to El Paso. How Latin would you say your upbringing was?
My upbringing, in reference to our culture, was 100 percent Latin. I don’t think I had a friend that was outside of the Latino community until I was about 13 or so. I was born in Bayamón and then we moved from Puerto Rico to Puebla in Mexico. I lived there for five years before eventually going to El Paso, which is, as you know, mostly Hispanic. We were being taught to speak English, but we weren’t allowed to speak it at home. And the food was the same at home, even when we moved to the States, we lived as if we were still on the island. That was always something that was really important to my mother and my father, also in the way that things played out for me. I got along more with the chicanos, and the Mexican culture, and whatnot.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
There was salsa and The Beatles, pretty much.
Was it influenced by your parents or was it mostly you?
To me everything comes from my parents, there’s nothing that I’ve learned as an adult that wasn’t already put into place for me at some point as a child by my parents. Parents are single handedly the biggest influence on the human spirit. As the spirit enters the body, the very first trauma that any human being can experience is “Does my mother want me? Is she afraid of this pregnancy, does she welcome this pregnancy? Am I wanted?” And from there on out, after your parents would be, obviously, society, school, church. But that having been said, that was the music that was around me. That’s what everyone around me listened to. That’s where I came from. So people like Héctor Lavoe were big stars for me and the only English-speaking music I was exposed to were things like The Beatles, and eventually when I moved to the States I found punk rock. But even that I wouldn’t say I found on my own. Because, again, my parents placed me in a situation where those are the people I ended up meeting and my father was the one who took me to the record store. I am blessed to have a very solid family system and to have been wanted from the moment I was conceived.
You were talking about making the transition to the U.S., was it hard or were you so young that it felt natural?
No, it was an awful transition. For me it was the one defining moment of self awareness. You know, I wasn’t actually aware of myself or of the things I chose to do, or the color of my skin, texture of my hair, or my features, until I moved to the U.S. We moved first to Columbia, South Carolina, which was at the time a very, very divided place, and full of racial tension and overtones. And so I was completely surrounded by racism and because I wasn’t white I was thrown in with the black kids. It was the first time I ever heard the word “spic,” it was the first time I ever realized the food I brought to lunch smelled funny or that I smelled funny, or became aware of the color of my skin, or that my hair was curly. Our move to the U.S., in that way, was very, very marked. In another way, as I said, we were completely insular. Even in South Carolina my parents found a Puerto Rican community, so we ate at Puerto Rican restaurants, we had Puerto Rican friends, and all the festivities were Puerto Rican. In fact, I was only around English-speaking people at school.
I THINK AT THE CORE OF MY BEING, LIKE ALL OF US, I’M A PERFECT REPRESENTATION OF THE UNIVERSE. I WAS BORN PERFECT.
Do you think if you wouldn’t have had that hardship, that tough transition, you’d be the person you are today, or the musician or artist? I mean obviously, we’d probably all be different if things were different when we were young…
Like you said, everything influences who we are and what we will become. But, I think at the core of my being, like all of us, I’m a perfect representation of the universe. I was born perfect. My entire goal in life is to shed all the layers that have been put on me by society and eventually get back to that. So I think, at essence, I would have always remained the same, regardless of my environment. Because my particular goals in life are that of getting back to the essence, back to everything that is around me. Regardless of what life would have thrown at me, my will would be the same. My will to accomplish that and to go back to the womb and where I came from, it still [would] have been an obsession of mine. Again, because it’s handed down from my father, and my father’s father, and my mother, and my mother’s mother. I’ve had all these concepts from a very young age. I will say, this is how I perceive it now, maybe I would have had less obstacles. I just feel like I had the obstacle of self loathing, because of moving to the U.S., and how I interpreted peoples’ words and actions toward me. And so, that caused a lot of anger, and self loathing, and blah blah blah, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I wonder if I would have gotten to where I am now at 35 at 25 had I not had that anger come into play. For whatever reason it’s what was handed to me.
You’re playing the Puerto Rico Indie Fest soon. Do you still feel rooted when you go over there? Ever since At the Drive In and The Mars Volta, you’ve had a big following in Puerto Rico. What’s that reception like now when you go back? Does it feel like home or home away from home? Or foreign?
It feels like going back to the mother ship, you know? I’ve been away from it for so long…it’s sort of when you see a true friend that you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s never awkward, even if you haven’t seen them for 10 years, when you have a true connection with someone you pick things up as if you’ve never left. The majority of my fan base is still in Puerto Rico, my older brother is still in Puerto Rico. That’s where my spirit is. I don’t get to go back that often and I’m way more surrounded by the Mexican culture. I live in Mexico and my wife is Mexican. My fans are Mexicans or chicanos. And so I go back after I’ve taken on the Mexican dialect and I use a lot of words that don’t exist in Puerto Rican dialect. My family is always making fun of me, saying I’m a wannabe Mexican. And the Mexicans always make fun of me because of my Caribbean accent. There’s always that struggle, or that need, to find your place within any structure. The closest structure, or the home structure.
I’M NOTHING AND THAT ALLOWS ME TO BE EVERYTHING.
You’re a Mexi-Rican! You just mentioned your wife and we’re obviously huge fans of Ximena [Sariñana]. What is it like collaborating with her? She does come on stage and collaborate with you a lot. What is that dynamic like?
What’s it like? It’s like…oh what’s it like…it’s like when you sit down and you eat food. It’s like when you decide to walk from one point to another. It’s like when you’re thirsty and you drink water. It’s like when you have a thought and then you speak.
So it feels natural?
Yeah, it’s nothing special. It’s something and yet it’s nothing special. I try to explain it this way and I think people misunderstand me because of the word “special.” What I try to get out is that I feel like it was always there and that’s the way that it’s supposed to be. This is what I mean by saying we eat and it’s nothing special. But if we don’t eat we die. And we drink water and it’s nothing, but water is the most amazing, wonderful drink you can have. That’s how it feels to work with her, to be with her, to be around her, and to know her. It’s absolutely nothing special, it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Tell me about Telesterion, it’s coming out on Record Store Day [April 16th]. It’s kind of a beast of an album.
Telesterion is a compilation album. It happened because our distributer in Japan came up with the idea. He said, “I’d like to put something together where they [fans] can go and check out the different music, a lot of people are overwhelmed because there are so many records and they don’t know where to begin. I’d like to make a record where they can go check out the different music and within the record you can see where the songs came from, and then you can decide which of the albums you like.” I thought that was a good idea and everybody on this side of the river thought it was a good idea. I had very little to do with it, I didn’t choose the songs. I have no perspective on those types of things, but I understood the concept quite well. It seemed completely pragmatic and a smart thing to do, so we did it. For me it wasn’t a normal record, I didn’t have very much of my hands in it. It was more of a record about me, than a record by me.
Which is flattering, I’m sure.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
I wanted to ask you about “Calma Pueblo” with Calle 13. What was that collaboration like and where did it stem from?
That was like most, if not all, things in my life, very natural. It just happened. I’ve known those guys for a long time, obviously them being my paisanos and from tour. It happened that I was on the island because my grandfather was turning 100 years old and we were making a party for him. And then I got the track from Eduardo [Visitante], but I was flying home the next day. He told me to feel free to do whatever I wanted to do but they needed it by tomorrow night. So I sent it out the next morning. It was very spontaneous.
Tribeca is coming up and I remember you had The Sentimental Engine Slayer screening last year. Do you have any plans to film anything new?
We made another film in Juárez [El Divino Influjo de los Secretos] for the fall festival season, and we shot another, Los Chidos, in Guadalajara.
If you weren’t a musician or a filmmaker or an artist of any sort, what do you think you’d be?
People see me playing guitar and call me a musician but I don’t relate to musicians. I love to cook but I’m not a chef. I take pictures but I’m not a photographer. I’m nothing and that allows me to be everything. I’m not a musician. This is only one calling to awaken to the truth of everything, to become perfect again.
Omar Rodríguez López’s Telesterion comes out April 16th on Record Store Day.