My Favorite Martian: An Interview with Jon Theodore of
The Mars Volta
When progressive rock made an unforeseen comeback on the pop music scene last year, one band credited for causing a major commotion was LA-based experimental quartet The Mars Volta. With its musically acrobatic debut album De-Loused In The Comatorium, The Mars Volta challenged preconceived notions on the viability of Prog Rock and what it means to be truly experimental in an increasingly restrictive commercial environment.
Aurally bold, dense with cryptic lyrical poetry and deeply mind boggling, De-Loused In The Comatorium is a modern rock opera, honoring the life of late artist Julio Venegas, who committed suicide in 1996. Venegas was a friend of Mars Volta vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, both formerly of the critically lauded progressive punk band, At The Drive-In. The album is their homage to Venegas and his continuing cult of enigma. The disc’s eight tracks elucidate a man’s failed suicide attempt that results in his weeklong coma. While comatose, he experiences hallucinatory adventures in the psychedelic underworld of his dreams. By the album’s end, he emerges from the coma, but chooses to die anyway. De-Loused In The Comatorium is ambitious, breathtaking and relentlessly inventive, mixing heavy rock, jazz-fusion and Latin rhythms in a freewheeling amalgam of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Close to The Edge and Santana. Exploding with unexpected rhythmic ideas at every turn is the percussive bombast of The Mars Volta’s drummer, Jon Theodore, a musician totally unconcerned with structural limitations.
Widely considered among critics and his drumming peers to be one of the most unreasonably gifted and promising young drummers playing today, Jon Theodore is an interviewer’s wet dream; a consummate artist and professional who speaks of drumming with the poetic nuance of a brain surgeon discussing the interconnectedness of the human nervous system. “What the hell planet is this guy from?” is not an uncommon reaction to experiencing Theodore’s drumming prowess at a Mars Volta concert. In this fascinating interview with Ink 19, Jon Theodore talked about his musical path and shed some light on why The Mars Volta consistently sells out huge venues not only in the States but also in Japan and South America, Europe and the UK.
It’s so exciting that the record has gotten such great press.
We set about making the record that we all decided we needed to make, based on how we were interacting. It sort of flew in the face of a lot of people’s ideas of what the band should be like. But we just went ahead with it anyway and played down the expectations that were on us, in order to try to make something [that felt] as natural as possible. It’s definitely amazing that people are digging it because of the fact that there was so much pressure on us to get the record done and to make it one that people could back. Our intention was just to make the best record we could, but it’s nice to know that people are reacting so strongly.
How did you start playing drums?
I grew up playing piano. As soon as my parents said I didn’t have to take piano lessons anymore I was like thank god. I started playing drums when I was 15. I was a waiter at a summer camp and they had this funny big yellow drum set. This hippy guy was the head of the “music department” and there were maybe four people who played instruments. The drumkit was in the back of the dining hall, so I used to pass by it all the time. I got involved with the band, but I started out playing bass because I was so tall. On the first day, we played stuff like “Louie Louie.” The next day, the kid playing drums didn’t show up, so I sat down, busted with my first ‘boom bap’ and was just completely infatuated. I guess it’s a story that a lot of people tell. I felt a feeling that I’d never felt before. I have played just about every day since then.
I started playing in my high school concert band and then I got a drumset and started taking lessons. As soon as I sat down, I knew that this was something special. Finally, a lot of questions that I think a lot of kids have when they’re adolescents suddenly no longer needed answers. That’s a whole other story I guess, about being a kid and not having the answers you need. [Once I started playing drums] I found – at the risk of sounding totally clich• – this place where I felt completely liberated and, at the same time, comfortable.
Who were some of your favorite drummers or drummers you drew inspiration from when you were in your early stages of playing?
When I started out, it was the typical classic rock fare like John Bonham, Keith Moon and Phil Rudd. I was into Zeppelin and of course Neil Peart of Rush. Classic rock radio was the only real angle I had. I have to say that my all-time favorite guy ever is Billy Cobham. I even listen to The Traveler and Power Play, his ’80s records (laughs). Of course, there’s Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, who I still listen to every single day. When I got old enough to have contemporaries, to have friends that were playing, that became a very serious method of inspiration. Sebastian Thomson from Trans Am, Tim Soete of The Fucking Champs – he’s super badass – Doug Scharin who played with June of ‘44, who I also played with in a band called Him. Chris Forrey, who I jam with all the time. I have to add Zigaboo (Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste) because I absolutely love the Meters and Mitchell Feldstein from a band called Lung Fish. Damon Che from Don Caballero is one of my main contemporary influences, and Dale Crover from the Melvins. Without any of these cats I wouldn’t be playing the way I’m playing.
Speaking of the friends I was playing with, there was also a pretty serious explosion around that time around several guys in Chicago, John McEntire (multi-instrumentalist/producer) and John Herndon – those guys played in Tortoise – and Ryan Rapsys of Euphone. Those guys were like friends playing together and they developed a style that was kind of dubbed-out, in that it swung but it wasn’t funk. That was very influential also. I have to proper those guys because I listen to their records all the time and always feel like, “Damn it, they did what I wanted to do first!” Then there’s a whole bunch of stuff from Haiti [that influences me], because my dad’s Haitian. My favorite Haitian drummer is this guy called Azor.
What bands have you played in prior to joining The Mars Volta?
I played in a band called Golden, which is actually how I met Omar and Cedric, the At The Drive In guys. They have another band called Defacto, which is like live dub, and Golden was playing in El Paso with The Make Up. Defacto’s first show was playing on that bill with us, so that’s when we first met. Golden did maybe four records, a self-titled one, one called Super Golden Original Movement, one called Golden Summer and one called Apollo Stars. I played with those guys for ten years; they were all my oldest, best friends. I also made a record with Will Oldham, which was called Ease Down the Road. Then I played with Royal Trux for about a year and a half. I used to play a lot with my friend Sebastian Thomson from Trans Am and I made a record with them called the Illegal Ass EP. We spent a lot of time playing together.
You play at the level of a lot of drum legends. Which drummers have most directly influenced your current playing style with The Mars Volta?
I used to dig on Dennis Chambers, being from Baltimore and all, but I was always bummed out by the fact that [guys like him] seem to be freak show guys. Like, they couldn’t really rock with a band, you know? It seemed like an exercise at all times, although I know Dennis Chambers played with Funkadelic. I listen to Dennis to just trip out on some super amazing technical stuff, because he’s a whole other level of the way that humans can move. I’d have to say Billy Cobham, for sure. I’m totally infatuated with him. I love the way he plays and I think it’s so natural, powerful and dynamic at the same time. I pattern a lot of stuff after him. Then John Bonham because I try and play with as much bombast as I possibly can.
I’d say you’re known for bombast, as a hard hitter.
It was definitely a conscious thing, trying to play hard. We’ve been playing an hour and a half or two hour long sets and at first it was really challenging. Sometimes we’d be over-exerting ourselves and spending ourselves in the first few minutes of the set. Now we’re in this groove where we can maintain the intensity as things move along. Also, the nature of the music is such that if it’s time to bring it down, it doesn’t matter where it is. There’s so much improvisation that goes on that we can take it wherever we need it to go. I still have trouble sometimes coming out of the gates. I get so excited and I have to consciously remember to relax and try to keep it even, but I play as hard as I can. It’s got to be exciting. That’s been a big thing too, trying to get comfortable with sticking everything and making it feel like it’s elevated and completely cosmic, even though sometimes it’s not full hog. That’s an elusive goal, too. But in my opinion, you’ve got to sweat and you’ve got to kill it or else it’s just not worth watching [for the audience].
The transitions in Mars Volta’s music are very demanding, both musically and physically. How do you prepare yourself for this change of dynamics in a live situation, especially where you might be going from playing really hard to going into a very subtle, nuanced section?
I guess I’m inclined emotionally to that [type of playing]. I’ve always thought that dynamics are the most important thing. All the practicing I’ve ever done is about dynamics, all the lessons I ever took… you know, no one teaches you to play as hard as you can. It must just be that I’ve been playing like this for so long that it’s just a natural expression. This is just how we do it, and we’re lucky that we all feel the same way; that dynamics are absolutely the most important thing. It’s important to be able to stop on a dime. The little breaths, pauses and the little hook-ups that happen here and there excite us all. I guess it’s about being vigilant of the song structure to a certain degree, but not to the degree that you prohibit yourself from actually playing to your fullest ability. You can try and predict it, but it doesn’t always happen where it’s supposed to, so it’s just about remaining sensitive to the flux and being able to just change it up.
How do you stay in shape? Do you have to work out?
The drums are definitely a workout on their own, but I do a lot of surfing. I’m a terrible surfer but I’m so hooked that some day I’ll be good. Surfing keeps me active and I find that the muscles used for paddling and stuff are the same shoulder, back, leg and arm muscles used while playing drums. I typically do a few push ups before the show just to get my blood flowing and I’ve also changed my posture a little. I used to play really little drums and sit high up above them. I was kind of coiled over the top of them and it started to take a toll on me. When we began playing hour and a half sets, I felt like my body was developing and naturally selecting itself to another level of musculature. It was really strange. Now I’ve got these huge drums that I’ve been playing and it’s a whole different world. I tried playing them [sitting] up high again and I just couldn’t get the right leverage. So I’ve been sitting a little lower, and that makes my posture a bit more erect. It takes less of a toll on my body as well, because my back is straighter and it allows me to play longer. But I don’t work out, and I smoke a lot.
There are so many areas of unstructured music in The Mars Volta. How does the band come up with the freeform elements of your material? Some of it sounds like it follows or emanates from the drums.
I think that’s true. We all listen to all types of music, obviously and even things that aren’t music, for inspiration. A lot of the things that we listen to feature the interaction between players, which to us is the most important thing. Above and beyond the songs, it’s how they’re being played. Songs are just vehicles for us to relate to each other, basically. That said, Omar turned me on to (a lot of Latin music and) Larry Harlow and Ray Barretto and the rest of the Fania All-Stars guys. They’re Puerto Rican guys who moved to NYC and mixed Salsa with the Brown Sound of the early ’70s. They play out a ton and everybody solos all the time. You can get any Fania record and it kicks ass, no matter what. When they play together, it’s all very loose but my whole musical life has been about solos – solos are important to me.
Along the lines of dynamics, it’s important that people are actually relating to each other, because if you have a set of songs that you play the same all the time, what if you get in a room and the bass drum sounds like shit? Then you have to compensate. In my opinion, it’s important to not force yourself onto any situation, but to remain sensitive to it. Things are always changing – that’s the way it’s always been in my life and my career. Plus, I get inspiration from listening to bands who jam – like the Allman Brothers or any jazz band or combo, like Elvin and John Coltrane •- where it’s constantly shifting and constantly dynamic. Everything is subject to nightly re-interpretation. Every single second is a chance to reinvent the universe; to reconfigure it around you or to reconfigure yourself in it in order to make sense of what you’re dealing with. It seems unnatural to me, in fact, to arrange sounds and motions in such a way in time that they make a structure – like the structure of a song. A record is just a snapshot in time and so is a song. If you’re not evolving and your music is not evolving, then it’s dying. It can die while it’s evolving too, that’s the thing. With so much improvisation it can be spectacular and completely connected and spiraling towards the heavens or it can be crashing like a jumbo jet (laughs). You run the risk of disaster as every second. It’s like a tightrope walk.
That goes along with one of my next questions, which is, when the band plays live, how closely do you stick with the parts on the record?
It actually varies, depending on how we feel. On this last tour, our record had just come out, so we played several shows where we just performed the record all the way through. Of course, the record is less than an hour long and our show is an hour and forty-five minutes, so that varies as well. We played in Japan at this huge festival with Blondie (laughs) – I met Debbie Harry, it was pretty rad – and all of these other crazy bands. We had fifty minutes to play but we were all so offended by the proliferation of guys in tapered black pants wearing eye make up that we took it upon ourselves to represent the other angles. We played a fifty-minute set that was comprised of three songs. We’re very reactionary, in the way that chemicals are reactionary. Our thing is that if there’s something that has to happen, you do it. I try to never be inhibited by a pre-existing condition. If there’s a verse coming, and you don’t feel that verse • if it’s not working or if something’s not connecting or if you can’t hear the guitar, whatever the reason – if you stumble onto some other exciting way of making it happen, then you do it.
I’m guilty of playing with my eyes shut a lot because it’s my nature. I try and use my ears more than my eyes and we all try to listen to each other. Above all else, we listen so that if something like that goes down – or I should say when something like that goes down – we’re all able to react quickly. We play together and we’re not like monkeys in a box playing our songs for the carnival goers. We’re here to play with each other.
The band has a few different styles dropping in and out of the music – heavy rock, fusion, Latin. Have you studied different styles? Is that a goal you have for the band, to merge these differing styles together?
This is a very crucial question, actually. Our band is like a rainbow of fruit flavors; a lot of different people coming from a lot of different angles. I think we all bring what we have to the table. On one level, this band works because none of us are constrained by any genre boundaries in any part of life. We happened to be fortunate to come together and all be open minded enough that we could go at whatever angle anyone had to bring to the table, having already forged, to some degree, our own identities, musically. We have people in the band that practice all day long and we have people that don’t practice at all. We have people who have studied and we have people who are completely self-taught.
Where do you fall between those two extremes?
I’ve done a good deal of studying. I studied when I was in high school with the band teacher, but by then I already knew how to read and the charts we were playing from were pretty mellow, like John Williams arrangements where I was playing timpani or percussion or drumset to really rudimentary Count Basie arrangements. At that time I also studied with this guy from Baltimore named Grant Menafi, he’s a University instructor in Baltimore. He was really cool, and he was almost a mentor for me. He made me play on practice pads and on the drumset and work on all different types of grooves like Latin and other things. He was an all-around guy and the type of player who was a University professor but people would call him for gigs. He was a master of all styles, which I always found to be exciting. To me, it was less about learning how to play like that person than it was about having to report back every week having worked on stuff. Like, I didn’t do any homework for school; I just went downstairs and played drums all day and all night. My parents hated my guts (laughs).
I went to Overland College and that has a very renowned conservatory of music, which was an invaluable resource. The video, CD, vinyl and book collection that they had was just amazing. This is when I studied with a guy named Neil Smith and although it was technically lessons, we’d just get together and hang out. I studied a lot but I was never the best student because I’m too scatterbrained, I guess. At the same time I was always playing with different people and listening to lots of different stuff, which is what’s most important, I think.
I was also blessed with the blissful ignorance that comes with being a young adolescent, where I was oblivious to my whack style while I was bashing away for six hours a day. By the time my head finally came around to really deciphering what it was that makes this so special to me, my body was physically in tune enough that I could communicate those ideas. I definitely would say that when I started playing I was no pleasure to listen to. I can specifically remember trying to quote a Neil Peart fill in some classic rock cover song I was playing with my high school band and I didn’t have any sense about me. If I were to start studying now, I think I would have too much of a preset idea of what I think is good and too many concrete ideas that might prohibit me from losing myself in it to the degree that I would actually get something from the repetition of practicing.
I know that Flea bass played on the record but who is your full time bass player now?
His name is Juan Alderete. He’s a total savage. He’s an amazing person, really great to hang out with. He’s selfless and completely compassionate and he rips ass on the bass. He’s fucking amazing, he can play anything, any figure, and the things he chooses to play – having the capability to play everything – constantly amazes me. I have a really easy time locking in together with him as a rhythm section. It’s a real pleasure to have him standing right next to the hi-hat. I find comfort when I look over and I know that we’re locked up. I don’t even have to look, he’s right there and he’s in it. He’s been doing this for a long time and he’s been in a lot of really great bands like Racer X (with Paul Gilbert) and Distortion Felix plus he’s recorded with Vinny Colaiutta.
What was the process of writing the Mars Volta record? I’m wondering how influenced you were by the underlying story or concept behind the album?
I never met Julio but I heard a lot of stories about him. The way we write is that the song comes together instrumentally. Once the song is nearing some sort of arrangement that we’re all happy with, then the voice comes in. In the meantime, Cedric is thinking about lyrics and melodies and how and what to sing. I know his relationship with Julio was the basis for most of his lyrics, but when we were working out the songs, from just jamming, Julio wasn’t on my mind at all. It just so happened that we were able to tie in the bulk of what we had written with the songs. There’s a ballad most of the way through the album (track 9, “Televators”) that came together towards the end of the writing sessions, when we were already in the studio. Those things were conceived with him in mind but the majority of the songs • especially the ones with drums on them • didn’t have much to do with him specifically. It just so happened that the album was so thematic and traumatic in a way, it almost plays out like a movie. It was a perfect context to fully realize that angle. I’m glad it was possible to memorialize him.
This record is also emotional for us because we made it with our friend Jeremy (Ward), who is no longer with us. Jeremy was our friend and running mate who did all of the vocal effects for the album. He had a table of sound manipulators and effects pedals, and he’d get a dry feed from the voice and route it through all of his signal processors, then send it back to the main board so it would parallel the dry vocal. He effectively ended up taking the space in the band of a second guitar. He passed away suddenly right before the album came out. This has been an emotional final run for us. His presence is still regularly missed.
It took a year and a half to write the record, and that included over a year of practicing for hours upon hours. I’m notorious for not wanting to practice because I’m into the spontaneity of things and into the result that that brings. But being in this band, I learned a different work ethic, which is that you practice all day long. It was like being in the army. I was on-call waiting for rehearsals and we played every day for a year and a half; sometimes six or eight hours a day. The most important thing was getting it off the ground in a way that was beyond coming together to write songs for a new band. It was more like, if we’re going to play together then we have to learn everything about each other: how you sleep, what you eat, everything. We have to get to the point where we can feel each other all the way through so that when it comes time to be on a stage in front of so many people that you can barely even make sense of the world around you, I don’t even have to look. I can feel the person next to me all the way through and know exactly what he hears and sees and predict accurately what he’s going to do.
It was always more than coming together to start a band or make a record. It was like, I met these guys when our bands played together before and I remember how nice they are and how good of a time we had hanging out. I love to play drums and they want to make a new band and there was no doubt in my mind that we could play together. I came out here to see if we could really relate to each other. That’s the most important thing. It was a long time in the works and that record is just the first step. We have by no means arrived, we still have tons and tons of work to do and we have plenty of room for improvement. This is only the beginning.