All In The Mars Volta Familia

Progressive Percussion Comes Alive

You would be unlikely to point to Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez as the little brother of Omar, the notoriously ironhanded leader of The Mars Volta. Seven years younger with a mellow drawl punctuated by hip-hop-style damns and surfer-dude fer sures, Marcel is the Texas-bred prog-rock group’s wild card – the guy who does a little of everything in a way that couldn’t be done by just anyone.

“I’m super excited,” says the 26-year-old hand drummer, chillaxin’ in a Hollywood hotel before heading to Bonnaroo in the morning. “I’ve done a lot of multi-day shows like this but this is one of the best festivals you can play.”

But are the flip-flop—wearing hordes of central Tennessee ready for the Chicano-fros, Che Guevara consciousness, and Latin American magical realism of The Mars Volta? When a band possesses singular talents such as singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s falsetto-fueled absurdist lyrics; drummer Thomas Pridgen’s complex open-ended beats; and Omar’s pedal-board pyrotechnics, it’s a wonder there is any room left to squeeze in a hand drummer.

But things change.

Now that guitarist Paul Hinojos and Adrian Terrazas-Gonz├ílez, saxophonist, flutist, and sometime timbale player, have left the band, it’s up to Marcel to fill the sonic void. Whereas before the hand drummer could jump into the fray with a jam block or triangle, now he is more circumspect, since any percussive input will have more impact. “It’s like we got a whole new band. It’s two less members – we got to play differently.”

Skool’s Out

Marcel has vivid memories of messing around on the kit that Omar, himself once a drummer, left behind after hitting the road with his critically adored first band, At The Drive-In. Many of those early years Marcel spent trying to impress Omar with how much his playing had improved whenever the older brother returned from touring.

Though drum set was his “first true love,” there was never a tipping point when Marcel decided to take up hand drumming. He gravitated slowly toward percussion while growing up in El Paso, where his dad’s salsa records, a pair of maracas lying around the house, and family vacations to Puerto Rico turned him on to Latin rhythms. Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, and Nicky Marrero – best known as the timbale player in The Fania Allstars – number among Marcel’s earliest hand-drumming influences. Lately he’s been digging on San Francisco Bay Area—based legend Mingo Lewis. “There’s this one record specifically – this Al DiMeola record – It’s like they sped up the tapes or something. He’s just killing it the whole time, oh my God! Yeah, he’s the man.” Percussion might be in Marcel’s blood, yet he does not think of himself strictly as a hand drummer. “I’d rather just be a well-rounded musician as opposed to being just the most amazing technical drummer or percussionist.” Like many autodidacts, his instruction came from watching and listening, in this case, to the various drummers in At The Drive-In. In addition, he is a natural lefty who learned to play open-handed on a right-handed kit, a situation he feels “messed him up.” Though a lack of formal training has not stymied his career, it is a fact that continues to rankle him. “I wish I’d done it back then just to learn how to read music and be able to pick up a book and understand what they’re saying and to be able to notate a beat and be, ’I’m not going to forget this.’” At University Of Texas, Marcel eventually took music classes but failed them miserably. If he was looked down upon by the other students, he made up for it by tinkering with a Yamaha keyboard, MIDI, Roland MC-303 (better known as the GrooveBox), and the realization he could connect them together to make his own beats. “Maybe I wasn’t doing my homework, but I was at home figuring out how to actually record and all the other stuff that those types of players don’t think about.”

Besides, who cares about an undergrad degree when you have a doctorate from the University Of Mars Volta? “I’m really good at observing,” he explains. “Like when Jon Theodore was in the band, I would just watch him to the point where I would mess up on my parts because I’m trying to figure out what he’s doing.” After Theodore got the boot, the osmosis continued with drummer Deantoni Parks, and the first-ever Mars drummer from the band’s early 2001 demos, Blake Flemming, both of whom filled in until Pridgen joined full time in late 2007. “Even just watching those guys warm up and watching how they hold the sticks, how they exercise, how they warm down – all those little things – that’s the best teachers I could have had.” Marcel is compensating in other ways too. Recent DVD purchases include Jojo Mayer’s hella popular Secret Weapons For The Modern Drummer, Jim Chapin’s Speed, Power, Control, Endurance, and, at the urging of Pridgen, Gospel Chops’ Shed Sessionz, Vol. 2. “I was like, ’Damn, that stuff just escapes me, like, I can’t figure out anything.’ Now, watching it over and over, it’s starting to make sense. So that feels good being able to break it down, ’Damn, I suddenly get this today.’

Eight Ways To Slay

Octahedron is not as difficult a release as, say, Amputechture, nor as frenzied as the previous The Bedlam In Goliath. Instead, it balances complex structures with pop immediacy. Perhaps the most striking thing about the new album from a hand-drum point of view is how stealthy the percussion parts are. “Yeah, there’s definitely not as much of it,” Marcel says. “There’s a lot more mellower stuff so we focused more on the synthesizers and ambient stuff.”

The composition method within the band trickles down from Omar, but not exclusively. “Sometimes it’ll be just like, ’Feel it out’ or ’What are you thinking?’” After repeated listens, the percussion table makes its presence felt, like the rattle of shekere on “Desperate Graves.” “Normally when I do shakers I’ll do maracas in one hand and a shekere in the other hand for a downbeat and do like a triplet feel. I like doing that type of stuff where maracas will be doing one thing in one hand and I’ll have the other hand doing a rhythm against it.” On “With Twilight As My Guide” the shimmer of jingles leavens the turgid arrangements with Tolkienesque whimsy. “Omar loves chimes in everything,” he continues. And we’re not talking some ergonomic state-of-the-art model but a homemade instrument scored in Eastern Europe. “It’s really heavy and it seems like just about every song I’ve always got to be there holding it up and [Omar]’ll tell me, ’Okay, now play it delicately. Now play it hard. Now play it hard as you can.’ And it’ll be a 30-minute track, but we don’t have a stand for them, so I’ve got to sit there and hold them up and then move them with my fingers and then hit them.”

In tracks such as “Teflon” and “Copernicus,” Marcel’s heart lies more with sci-fi-sounding plug-ins than hand-held noisemakers. He conjures many a groovy atmosphere with vintage keyboards, including five separate Fender Rhodes organs and a rare Mellotron (#863 out of roughly 1,400 that were built).

Nevertheless, these days he approaches music making more than ever like he’s playing a drum set. For example, when he works the wah pedal with his Clavinet, he is simply thinking of it as a kick drum. “That’s something that I have to do as far as playing my congas is incorporating my feet now and having like a cowbell or a clave and break it up between my limbs, whereas before I might play the congas with the left hand then do the clave with my right hand on a woodblock or cowbell.”

Learning On The Job

A new set of rhythmic challenges is stressful enough for anyone. Compounding matters is reproducing Octahedron – a product of the studio in every way – on stage in a band that never sounds the same from night to night. With Octahedron’s maiden outing taking place in less that 36 hours in one of the summer’s premier musical happenings, any other drummer would be sweating bullets. “A big part of it is just trying it,” Marcel says, cool as a cucumber. “When I first joined the band I used to be, ’I’ll practice it at sound check. I’ll practice it in my room.’ It seems to me when I sit there and I do it onstage I advance faster.”

This is where a metronome comes in handy, or at least The Mars Volta version of one, which could be sequences, drum machine, or backing tracks. “Not backing tracks in the sense of Britney Spears or a pop thing where they got the actual guitars in there or the drums that you’re hearing,” he clarifies. “It’s more like supplementary stuff like a backing loop – something that the song is based on.”

Marcel also avails himself of in-ears since a man needs all the help he can get in a beast as unwieldy as The Volta. “Suddenly out of nowhere the bpm jumps by like ten, or it might be more subtle. But if we’re all playing together and it’s something that has a lot of notes in it, there’s a click so we don’t get off on that transition.” Historically, miking the percussion has been problematic for the band because of all the personnel and gear. Specifically, ex-guitarist Hinojos’ instrument would bleed into the percussion mikes and vice versa. Now with a better targeted condenser mike – and the absence of Hinojos – the bleed is minimized. “Even then it’s always a battle of getting the congas loud enough in my mix without getting the guitars going in there real crazy.”

The Mars Volta’s sole hand drummer has come a long way from the days when he had eight or nine cowbells to choose from. In these downsized times, mean and lean is the way to go. “It feels like I have more to work with in the sense that before there was so much stuff it was like, ’Should I grab this? Should I grab that?’ Now I know what I’m grabbing. I can make more with it.”

True Bromance

There are obvious perks to having an older brother as head honcho of your band – like the fact that Marcel never really had to audition for his spot. Then again, you are never quite sure what your status is within The Mars Volta, and a long list of former members will attest to that. While his recorded hand-drum and keyboard parts go back to 2005’s Frances The Mute, there is a nagging sense of being only as good as the last gig. “It’s always been this trial period,” he says. “And who knows if we’re still on this trial period.”

Is Marcel being a tad dramatic? He still has his job after six years, so chances are he’s doing at least some things right. “Whenever we’re together, we’re watching TV, YouTubing stuff all day,” he laughs. “When you can be in the company of someone else and not have to say anything, that’s a good sign.”