At the Drive-In's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Talks New Album, Gear and Writer's Block
He’s a founding member of progressive-punk trailblazers At the Drive-In, as well as a prolific solo artist, writer, actor and director. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…
It’s been 17 years since at the drive-in released its last full-length, relationship of command. Did the songs on the new record, in•ter a•li•a, come together faster or slower than they have in the past? —Miles Stiverson
I think it was different only in the sense that we hadn’t played together in a room like that for 15 or 16 years or however long it’s been. Overall I think they came together quickly because of the dynamic between myself and [frontman] Cedric [Bixler- Zavala].
To put it simply, I think all this stuff is really easy because there’s only one question that applies: “Does it move you?” If the answer is yes then the answer is yes, so you can say yes to everything. Everyone knows instantly whether something moves them or not. Everyone knows right away when you play a piece of music for them or read them a piece of poetry or show them a piece of film whether it’s boring or whether it awakens something inside that makes you feel something. I don’t know how other people write but that seems to work for us.
Can you pinpoint a specific moment when you realized that At the Drive-In was ready to record new music together? Was it during a particularly good show or did the decision come about more gradually? —Sam Woods
I think it was a natural thing. We went on tour together for all of last year all over the world, and as far as me and Cedric that’s just what happens when we are together. I’ll be playing something backstage or recording on my laptop and he’ll say, “Oh, what’s that?” Then we’ll play around with it. I don’t think it can be overstated how monotonous touring is—and I know that sounds strange because all your life you think about how great it is to travel and see the world.
I’m not complaining about it, but you have a lot of downtime because a lot of times you have to stay in the venue, especially as your band gets bigger it gets harder to leave the venue because there’s more risk of something happening. But one benefit of that is that it allows you time to work on music. I think touring so much last year gave us plenty of opportunities to work a lot on what would eventually become in•ter a•li•a.
What’s your amp setup like these days? Do you still enjoy the sound of a Fender Super-Sonic going through an Orange? —Dann
Yeah, I still enjoy that. My guitar setup these days basically centers around the idea that I like it when my gear works. [laughs] When you have a lot of pedals, you also have so many cables and you have to constantly be changing them out.
Then all of the sudden your whole sound is wrong and you have to plug straight into the amp. I’m using the same gear but I don’t think it’s the gear that makes the sound, I think it’s a person and their intention that makes the sound. The gear makes the sound on a technical level—of course, we’re using electricity—but that’s also why we’re running so many cables and the cables never work. Someone’s got to figure that out.
A huge part of a band like At the Drive-In is the live performances, which are incredibly frenzied. What is it like performing in your forties versus your twenties? Do you think it’s possible to tone down the acrobatics and still put on an energetic show? —Dan Patton
I think that question is more for the audience to decide because ultimately it all depends on their perception. Bruce Lee used to punch harder than any man with just barely a movement of his fist. Moving your entire arm looks visually stunning and what Bruce Lee would do doesn’t look as impressive. But when you think of that as a philosophy or a concept of how much energy he put into just that movement, I think that’s pretty incredible.
Now that I’m in my forties I think of things that came out of me onstage in my twenties and I’m just glad I didn’t break any bones. I’m not prone to throwing my guitar and having those tantrums. If someone comes to an At the Drive-In show and has been watching some clip of how we were 20 years ago, sure, they’re going to want to see a lot more. But at this age I’m trying to exist within my body rather than outside of it. I just think there’s something more powerful in that.
On top of being one of the most prolific musicians of the last few decades you also have a history as a director with movies such as Los Chidos and The Sentimental Engine Slayer. Do you see yourself writing and directing any more films in the future? —Ross Bowen
Definitely. As an expressive person who is allowed to express himself for a living, filmmaking is the best medium that you can participate in because it encompasses so many different art forms. I don’t consider myself a musician. I know musicians and I’ve played with ones who are very knowledgeable in their craft and can move around gracefully and know everything about their instruments. And in comparison, I know very little.
It’s like if you were a really good cook and could make some great dishes and at your dinner party you have a guy there who is a chef who has studied it his whole life. You wouldn’t go, “Oh yeah man, I’m a chef too!” It would be insulting. But not being a musician gives me a lot of freedom when it comes to how I can express myself. That’s a long way of saying: to me the ultimate medium is cinema because you get to express yourself through written words, poetry, people, camera, images, editing, light, music… You get to really play with all of it.
I’m a huge fan of everything you’ve done from At the Drive-In to the Mars Volta to Bosnian Rainbows to your solo albums. You’ve created such a large volume of work. Have you ever experienced writer’s block or lack of inspiration? What did you do to push through it? —Jeff G.
No, I don’t believe in that. I believe maybe it’s a construct for other people, but to say that you have writer’s block is to assume it solely comes from you. I feel like it’s coming from somewhere else and I’m just a part of it. Life is happening all the time. It’s kind of like that movie Adaptation. There is that scene where Nicolas Cage, who is playing Charlie Kaufman, is at that screenwriting seminar and he asks, “What if you’re trying to write a story where nothing is happening?”
And the Robert McKee [writing instructor] character really lets him have it. He says, “What do you mean nothing happens? Are you out of your mind? People are murdered every day, people find love, people lose it, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church, someone goes hungry, someone betrays his best friend for a woman.” And it gives him that whole explosion of energy. I think it’s kind of like that: Things are constantly happening around me and I would argue that my problem and the problem for a lot of creative people is to turn that stuff off rather than push through a block.
How often do you allow yourself to be swept into a performance? Do you have a clear vision of where the solo needs to go, or are you purely improvising and just going where it takes you? —Chris Diaz
I don’t plan them out because when you’re playing a solo you’re kind of trying to pull the statue out of the stone. You know it’s in there but you’re trying to find what it looks like and you’re constantly searching for it. So when you find it you’re like, that’s what it’s supposed to be. When I’m playing live and the moment comes when I’m about to solo my plan is that if I can start on a note that I didn’t start on the night before I’m doing pretty good.
If I decide to not play a note that I know is a winner and then look for a loser and figure a way out of it, that’s what really inspires me. Sometimes it’s really good to start a solo on a really sour note and see how you can make up for that and give it a context where it isn’t a sour note anymore.