What’s in a Name?
By Paul Rogers
“It’s a band—that’s something I haven’t been in for over 11 years.”
Fans of Omar Rodríguez López might be surprised to hear the super-prolific guitarist/songwriter describe his latest project, Bosnian Rainbows, this way. After all, having made his name at the turn of the Millennium with Texan post-hardcore heroes At the Drive-In, he has spent much of the past decade recording and criss-crossing the globe with prog rock flag bearers The Mars Volta which, while fluid of line-up, looked every bit like a band—from a distance at least.
“It was my baby: I started the group; I named it; booked all our tours—it became known as my family, not my band,” Rodríguez López explains, talking a mile a minute from a tour-stop in Copenhagen, Denmark. “I had to be in control of everything and I was really fucking domineering with everybody, not just musicians.”
A New Phase
The elfin, eccentric Rodríguez López even describes himself as behaving like a “little Hitler” during this period.
“That’s not cool; that’s not living with people,” he says. “All I was doing was allowing my sickness—which actually came from my father and his father—to take over. That’s why it was such an important self-indulgence to learn those things. It’s helped my whole relationship with my brothers and my father and my mother.”
Rodríguez López also describes his obsessively controlling behavior as a reaction to eight years of collaborative democracy with At the Drive-In.
“When I got out of that I said, f@#k, no more fucking having meetings to see what shade of yellow on that one record is going to be,” he sighs. “I’m just going to do something where I call all the shots and that’ll be easy.”
With The Mars Volta’s future uncertain (though its sixth studio album, Noctourniquet, was released in March), the relentlessly creative Rodríguez López has been focusing on his solo project, the Omar Rodríguez López Group, and his record label, Rodríguez López Productions, which releases his own music and that of artists like Le Butcherettes (for whom Rodríguez López also plays bass and produces) and Mono/Poly.
After spells in Amsterdam and Mexico, Rodríguez López has returned to live in his native El Paso, Texas, and now Bosnian Rainbows—a real, collaborative band, he insists—has captured his capricious interest.
“I found myself lonely and bored,” he says. “So it’s like, OK, new phase—let’s get into it and lets create a dialogue. Let’s find some things out.”
The Way of Life
It’s Bosnian Rainbows that will be performing at UC Riverside Barn on Oct. 31, though many websites are billing the show as “Omar Rodríguez López Group” or “Omar Rodríguez López Group presents Bosnian Rainbows,” and even the Rodríguez López Productions site describes the band as “Omar Rodriguez Lopez group with special guest Teresa Suarez aka Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes on vocals, Deantoni Parks on drums and Nicci Kasper on keys.”
Given the fluidity of Rodríguez-López’ collaborations, the confusion is understandable. But it’s this band, whatever it gets called, that will be a releasing a record and is in the midst of an epic world tour that will keep them on the road until at least December.
“Doing a collaborative thing is the way life is supposed to be,” he enthuses. “It’s real living; it’s so relaxed and so beautiful and not worrying.”
Anyone familiar with Rodríguez-López’ recent work will recognize his experimental and sometimes elusive sonic signature (though he insists he has never had any musical training) in Bosnian Rainbows, albeit with less oblique song structures and distinguished by Suarez’ haunting, goth-tinted timbre. The band’s music is often minimalist and takes its time, but also boasts actual hooks and memorable melodies.
Confusion—over band names and line-ups or anything else—is nothing new to Rodríguez-López. Indeed, far from avoiding uncertainty, he downright embraces and apparently even feeds off it.
“Chaos likes me,” he deadpans. “That’s how I noticed it at first, that chaos was attracted to me. Then it’s that same feeling as when you know someone, like a woman, likes you or something. It was nice to be liked.”
The realization that chaos was drawn to him, and he to it, was a turning point on Rodríguez-López’ path to relinquishing control over The Mars Volta (which he says could only reconvene as true joint effort) and nurturing the creative democracy which is Bosnian Rainbows.
“You see the beauty of why things had to happen the way they happened, instead of trying to focus on the negative or trying to be in control of something all the time,” he says. “We seem to suffer more when we are trying to be in control.”
Though Rodríguez-López’ music making has at times been famously frenzied (notably the recording of The Mars Volta’s fourth album, The Bedlam in Goliath, which included consultations with an abusive Ouija-type talking board and a studio engineer’s nervous breakdown), he insists this is just a manifestation of the state of his everyday life.
“The music is just a byproduct of everything that’s happening around me,” he says. “Friendships; the way I view the world; turning the TV on; trying to get proper food that’s not genetically modified. The music is a byproduct of everything else—everything else is the important part.”
So far from being some detached, bohemian studio hermit, Rodríguez López is instead a man utterly in-tune with his circumstances and those of the wider world in which he functions.
“Things happen in your life,” he continues. “Loved ones get sick; loved ones pass; people come in and out; people aren’t what you thought they were. People are what you thought they were— that’s an even bigger surprise! What’s happening in the world is absolutely crazy and chaotic.”
In Rodríguez-López’ case, the effects of all these inevitables of our existence are amplified by, and spiked with, a predisposition towards spontaneous behavior.
“I’m prone to . . . deciding things last-minute and then just diving in,” he admits. “I tend not to dip my toe in the water . . . So every action has consequences—a reaction—but, like the I Ching [Chinese classic text] says, ‘action brings good fortune’.”
Order in Disorder
Yet Rodríguez López certainly also has an organized side—a dichotomy he relishes. After all, he has juggled multiple musical projects for much of his adult life (having joined At the Drive-In, initially as the band’s bassist, at age 17); helms a record label (though others handle its day-to-day practicalities); and sticks to rigid tour schedules for much of the year.
“My order is an order that works for me, and that’s OK. It took me a long time to realize that’s OK,” he explains. “I’m the person with the messy room you come in and you think it’s one great big mess, but if you touch something I know about it.”
In fact, for all of his spontaneity, there’s even an unusual sense of order in the songs that Rodríguez-López’ bands—Bosnian Rainbows included—perform on stage. These are selected, he says, before a tour even begins and adhered to for its duration.
“We sort of come up with a set list the day before the tour, or a couple of days before the tour, and then we rehearse for a couple of days.”
There’s also rare consistency of ideas running through Rodríguez-López’ creative output (he also directs music videos, mostly for The Mars Volta, and feature films, the most recent of which is the satirical dark comedy Los Chidos).
“The main themes would be family, death, identity, sexuality—all the regular stuff. So my biggest influence first-off is of course my mother, and then my father, and then my brothers, and then the people I’ve known for twenty years and so on,” he says. “And as an extension of my mother of course comes my culture, her culture, her grandparents . . . That’s the sun and I’m just revolving around. Everything else is planets revolving around my mother.”
Rodríguez López takes his music being described as “self-indulgent” as a huge compliment. He sees self-indulgency as an ultimate form of honest expression, and thus the opposite of entertainment, which is something created expressly to amuse and impress others.
“By indulging, that is how you figure out your place in the world and how you can become better,” he says. “The only purpose [in making music], for me anyway, is for it to make me a better person. It serves as a form of therapy; it’s a mirror—it looks back at you and it lets you know what’s wrong with yourself.”
Not only is the art itself a mirror for Rodríguez-López, but so is any audience that engages with that art. This is one of the main functions of his almost incessant touring (another being the simple necessity of making money to live on and to allow him to continue making music full-time).
“That’s how we really get into the nitty-gritty—having new experiences, coming across new cultures, new ideas, people that challenge your own ideas,” he says. “[Concert goers] have the ability to walk away if they don’t like it; to stay if they do; to be bored; to talk on the phone— whatever they want, it’s a cool experience. You can be a heckler if you want—there’s definitely a social agreement that you enter into when you go and you play on a stage.”
In fact Rodríguez López so welcomes putting himself and his creations in front of potentially unreceptive audiences that he even sees his media obligations—especially those where the interviewer is perhaps not a fan of him or his work—as a crucial part of his artistic therapy.
“It’s all one big film; it’s all one big record, and doing interviews is such a big part of it,” he insists. “People are coming at you with completely different perspectives . . . and you’re able to see yourself in this completely other perspective.
“So this is super-valuable information in one way—in another way you have to love yourself and know yourself, but anything that’s a challenge is going to bear huge rewards. Across the board, no matter what religion you come from, one of the main messages is always that go into the cave which you most fear and there are the biggest rewards.”
So when Bosnian Rainbows take the stage at UCR Barn on Wednesday, the audience won’t just witness a talented band working for a living, but will also form a crucial part of a public therapy session and learning experience for Omar Rodríguez-López.
“Bosnian Rainbows,” he concludes. “[Is] what’s teaching me the most right now.”
Bosnian Rainbows/Omar Rodríguez López Group/Omar Rodríguez López Group presents Bosnian Rainbows at UCR Barn at UC Riverside, 900 University Ave., Riverside. (951) 827-4403; rside.ucr.edu/barnseries. Wed, Oct. 31. 8:30pm. $5 UCR student, faculty and staff (presale only); $20 general admission.