Interview by Damon Locks
Charisma, image & style, all of these things create the persona of a performer. Someone like David Bowie (in the 70’s) was a master at manipulating these things to create his ever changing stage identity. The Clash as a group changed their fashion often to reflect their musical evolutions (to this day Clash bassist Paul Simonon still reigns supreme – in my opinion – as the coolest looking guy in rock). Parliament/Funkadelic…need I say more? The illusions that help create an entire world for the listener are an essential part of the magic of being a performing musician. The Mars Volta is a group that brings avenues of intrigue to the audience. One element of the mystique comes from the group’s visual style. Are there any performers you would credit as building blocks for your own style? Even if they are not reflective of your own personal style can you name some artists/groups whose style has made an indelible impression on you as a listener? Could you also explain why their look is so vital and charged for you?
What informs your personal visual presentation Do you have rules about how clothes should fit you? Pant length?Hair concepts? Colors of clothes? Referencing different fashion eras? Shoes versus sneakers versus boots? Can you explain the reasoning behind these governing factors and how it has changed over the years?
Lets see as far as a look is concerned Omar and I have always had an eye for what we consider a uniform that can be worn everyday. In At The Drive In what we wore stayed on our backs for months at a time. This was due to being practical and on the go. We were sleeping in the same clothes we played in…with our shoes on. There were moments around 1995 when certain members of At The Drive In used to lock Omar in the bathroom and force him to shower and change his clothes. This never worked because Omar would just turn the water on and sit there. Apart from his fear of water…there was also a certain superstition of keeping your lucky socks, shoes and shirt on, so that everyday would be a good show. That superstition still remains.
We were highly influenced by the Trenchmouth and N.O.U aesthetic. We grew out of it and looked backed at what we were up to before At The Drive In(musically and clothes-wise as well). Mind you there was never a discussion about what we should wear…. that would be a little too corny and you can’t get everyone in your band to dress the same(at least with Mars Volta that is true). I think one of the turning points was when Omar brought me the Fania All Stars movie Nuestra Cosa. The look was very 60’s and 70’s, which in all honesty was what we were into around 93. You would have laughed…but to us it seemed proper. Especially when the bass player of MDC rolls through town and he looks like an old Hawkwind burnout (same can be said for Cliff Burton of Metallica, the only hippy burnout amongst a bunch of heavy metal dudes). Even the singer of Government Issue used to roll through El Paso looking like fucking Greg Brady……it was almost this Andy Kaufman approach of never letting anyone in on the joke and being very serious about the joke. Very early Pink Floyd to us was punk regardless of what John Lydon or Duane Peters dictated as rules.
Over the years we have incorporated some Tom Baker from Doctor Who, Joan Crawford noir, Yakuza-style Japanese gangster suits and El Topo spaghetti western style dirtiness. Grant Morrison’s writing style and approach to life took shape in our “play every day like its your last.” Even Kiss and Slade provided a huge example of how not to take things so seriously and to remember to have fun. People like The Butthole Surfers, Throbbing Gristle and Flipper bring out the troublemaker in us. Performers like Sam and Dave (where I got my Nehru influence) and Gram Parsons nudie suites, that’s all in there too. It’s just not obvious sometimes. Above all we just wanted clothes that really fit us…which was probably a reaction to that 90’s baggy look.
Everything thing about our presentation….from backdrop art to dressing up, even the masquerade NYE show is vital to concept of escaping reality. When you have over stayed your welcome in the world of lsd cocaine etc…music and its presentation is the safest most fun way of turning your back on reality. I recently had surgery on my right foot, which has left me a little biased as to what type of shoe to wear. A lot of my problems just run in my family but I certainly aggravated my feet by wearing pointy Cuban heels for over 4 years for 2 hours a night. The metal rod and scar have left me with the option of tennis shoes lately. Some people in the band enjoy the simplicity of tennis shoes and winos which are a very cheap cholo looking shoe. I had heard through the grapevine that you had a magical pair of electric blue creepers that you retired after Trenchmouth. Is this true Damon? That is pretty cool if it is. It is true, except they were red patent leather – Damon
Can you create charisma or are you simply born with it?
Charisma is something that I don’t know if I really have. I am a true believer in the alter ego and split personality as a shamanic quality for the benefit of positive energy. Since I was a kid I had the performer in me. I was such a loud mouth that my mother and father use to threaten me with scotch tape over the mouth if I was too loud. Needless to say I spent a majority of my childhood with a clear piece of tape over my mouth. When the movie the Elephant Manhit cable tv in the 80’s, I fell in love with it. While some kids played tag in the front yard I was dressed as the Elephant Man screaming, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” at the top of my lungs. So between being my bark collar and love of Kiss(mom made me a Kiss cake for my 5th birthday! I got a photo too!), I developed a split personality. Laid back Cedric by day and Baby Bix the court jester on stage. I ain’t gonna lie, it sounds corny but it is what it is.
The music that The Mars Volta makes is complex yet reaches a relatively large audience. Do you have any feelings about the necessity of showmanship to reach the audience and draw them in?
As far as showmanship goes I’ve learned that if the audience is asleep I will try everything and my power to wake them up. Breakdancing still runs in my blood and lately even “crip walking” seems to find a way into the presentation. I may not be a very good “crip walker” but fuck I’m trying. When Jon Theodore used to play with us, I had this very anti-audience view because of what we had gone through with At The Drive In. Everyone expected us to be little circus monkeys cuz we established ourselves as live act to watch. When we started this band I wanted to show motherfuckers that I could actually sing, cuz some of those asshole English critics were claiming we could not write songs and couldn’t sing. I wanted show that we could never be that easily categorized. Now with Jon Theodore I often compared him(w/ love and respect) as a grumpy pastor that had little faith in the sermon……very rigid and only having memorable sermons every once in a while. That factor greatly influenced me to kinda lose what I had…that ball of energy that everyone knew. Even my mom said, “Mijo you don’t jump around like you used too.” Then out of the storm of a dark two years Thomas Pridgeon came to our church and I swear to god I have been overcome by his spirit. When he plays on the same stage as me and can’t help but to fully embrace my alter ego (which is too much fun). If that’s showmanship, then yes it is important . I’m glad I don’t think about being anti audience anymore.
Can you name an artist or group that has put on an unforgettably inspiring show to you and why?
One of the most memorable shows I have ever seen and had the honor of being part of was back in the At The Drive In days(once in Oklahoma and again at Gilman Street Collective in Berkley, California). The band was called FAT DAY ! What a band. Talk about presentation…..lets see how do i describe this band…
First off they all (except one guy) had cut their hair to look as if they were balding…you know the inverted mohawk. Hair everywhere, except on top. They all looked like physical education coaches equipped with whistles that hung on their necklaces. They actually used to run laps around the audience. They wore matching purple coach shorts and purple basketball jerseys. If you looked closely you could tell that their hair grew normally, they just shaved it too look like they were bald coaches. Their music was very Los Crudos/Locust…blast beats…extremely short songs, heavy on the screaming. Their secret weapon were these 4 trampolines that were customized with 4 triggers underneath the trampoline. They each had some sort of foil trigger underneath their shoes, so within the circle of the trampoline there were triggers for these Close Encounters of the Third Kind synthesizer sounds. They would all jump in unison, doing jumping jacks and would start playing the trampolines with their feet. Kinda like that Japanese video game called Dance Dance Revolution. I have never seen anything like that ever. Between the jumping jacks, whistle blowing,coach like tantrums, blast beats, and the balding haircuts there was the most unique musical experience I have ever seen. Imagine if The Monks emerged from the space ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and they were your high school PE coaches playing power violence?! That was FAT DAY and I will never forget them!
Recently I have been head over heels for this 80’s Philipino Kung Fu exploitation/007 James Bond spoof called For Your Height Only. It stars Weng Weng, a barely waist high dwarf that flies through the air in a jet pack, wears the illest clothes, gets the ladies, all while making a monkey out of the forces of evil. That’s an actual quote. Look for it on mondomacabrodvd.com. You will thank me later!