April 23, 2021 marks the release of La Realidad De Los Sueños, a deluxe, vinyl-only 18-disk box-set collecting together the discography of The Mars Volta, including all six of their studio albums, their debut EP Tremulant, and Landscape Tantrums, a never-before-released first draft of their debut album De-Loused In The Comatorium. These albums have all been out-of-print on vinyl since their initial release, save for haphazard and unauthorised reissues distributed by the band’s former label, Universal, in the last decade, which featured poorly reproduced artwork and sound sourced from compact disc, and were essentially illegal bootlegs. These 180gram vinyl editions – pressed from vinyl lacquers freshly remastered by Clouds Hill’s in-house engineer Chris von Rautenkranz– represent the best way to hear this music as the artists intended. The release marks the first fruit of Clouds Hill’s acquisition of the Rodríguez-Lopéz Productions catalogue, with future releases from the label’s archive to follow.
To celebrate the impending arrival of La Realidad De Los Sueños, I spoke with The Mars Volta’s leader/producer/composer Omar Rodríguez-López and singer/lyricist Cedric Bixler Zavala to discuss the conception and production of the box-set, their struggles to protect their creative legacy from corporate exploitation, their relationship with Clouds Hill, and the discography of challenging, ambitious, emotionally powerful music the box-set encompasses.
How did your relationship with Clouds Hill begin?
Johann Scheerer [Clouds Hill founder and owner] and me met in 2005, through mutual friends in Hamburg, which was kind of my second home at the time, and an outpost for DeFacto [the dub project of Rodríguez-López, Bixler-Zavala and future The Mars Volta bandmate Jeremy Michael Ward] in the early 2000s. Everyone insisted we needed to meet. We hit it off right away, over his attention to detail and aesthetics… His studio is top-rate and the vibe is undeniable. We got along great on a personal level, and we’ve since done a variety of projects. I immediately began spending a lot of time there, recording parts of [The Mars Volta’s 2006 album] Amputechture there, and laying out parts for future records. We did two movies together and several short films, and recorded a slew of solo stuff there, sometimes living there just to write and feel inspired. It was a very natural evolution – we’ve been collaborating since the moment we met, creating together, and talking about history, art, new technology and new ways to preserve analogue recordings… That’s always been our point of reference.
What was the genesis of the box-set?
For the last 20 years I’d been running my label (RLP) in its different forms with different partners, but had reached a point where it made more sense to relieve myself of that responsibility, in order to take on other projects. So after 15 years of intimate friendship with Johann, spending summers at Clouds Hill working on unique ideas, it had become like a second home. It became obvious to me that Clouds Hill was the perfect place to entrust the whole catalogue. And the most exciting of it was, of course, the Mars Volta material.
We were hanging out, and started having this conversation. It was a debate, really – a critique of what things he thought needed to improve in my own workflow, and that’s when it all started to become obvious to us both. Finally, I said, ‘I’m planning to remaster and reissue my entire RLP catalogue… it’s gonna be a huge undertaking, but the Mars Volta albums are obviously what people care about most, and I need it to be in the perfect hands. Would you be into taking over Volta vinyl, so it’s done at the highest level?’ Then he said, ‘Let’s do it – the whole catalogue.’ And it just took off from there. Straight away he began proposing ideas and putting things into motion. We had that energy between us that we could bounce ideas back and forth very quickly. Johann has a passion that you’ll never get at a corporation. He focuses on the creative first and foremost. For example, he has a graphic designer he works with called CD, and I said, ‘His work is cool, could you get him to take the characters from our world and our iconography on those records, and make a collage work, so there’s new art for the box-set?’ The very next day, I received samples from him. And when I told him I had hired Danielle Van Ark, a close friend and mentor, to photograph everything back then, and that I wanted to include these pictures in the box set as a booklet, the next thing I know, Johann’s tracked down Danielle’s pictures and he has set it all up. We talk once a week and wild out on a lot of ideas. I’m talking to the main guy who runs the whole thing, and he’s passionate about the art that we make, and taking action in its defence.
What did the making of this box-set entail?
It’s been a year in the making. First was personally delivering the artwork and the original vinyl masters that had been made back in the day to Clouds Hill. He and I sat and listened to everything, doing test-runs with Chris von Rautenkranz, the mastering engineer at Clouds Hill, who’s a technical genius and does an amazing job. We went track-by-track, said, ‘This is what it was, and this is what it could be…’ and ended up following that process. So we did a whole new vinyl master for every record.
It’s so cool that we’re dealing with a company that is all in-house. They have everything minus a fucking nursery, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they developed that, to be artist-friendly. They show what people can do if you put your mind to it, up against these corporations.
Not only is Clouds Hill all in-house, it’s run by an artist/engineer/producer, and has in-house quality control with his mastering engineer, Chris. You couldn’t be in better hands.
Was it a simple process?
Yes and no. Everything was in my vaults, all the original artwork and masters. But as with any project of this size, it’s all about the people you work with and the communication within the team. So it’s important to mention Stu Gili-Ross and Matt Ash at our management, who co-ordinated everything daily with the amazing Clouds Hill team: Stine Mühle, Eun-Hae Kim, Marie Stave, Daniel Ritzmann, Juliane Darr and Angela Frantz, who have all worked tirelessly under Johann’s direction to realise this project. But it took time to deal with bureaucracy and to correct things like making the ‘jellyfish man’ the actual front cover to De-Loused In The Comatorium, as was intended, and not the ‘egg-man’ on the Universal version [laughs]. Johann did a lot of going back and forth with the original sound and artwork files and original pressings. Eventually, we decided, ‘Let’s just do 180g black vinyl’. We’d talked about doing them as they were originally: interesting colours, picture disks and stuff like that. But we decided that to make it sound the best, 180g vinyl was the way, just to make sure we undo haphazard damage Universal did with these bootlegs. I’m not online or involved in any way with social media, so if it wasn’t for Cedric’s online digital presence and interaction and connection with the fans, I would never have known about these bootlegs.
People don’t know the hoops Omar had to go through to get the initial deal with Universal put into place, the fact that he had to go into this mob-like meeting room and be belittled for being the artist and fighting for these things they thought weren’t important. And you can tell they’re not important to them, because they’re just a corporation. To them, it’s like, ‘Oh, the McRib is back… Who cares if it’s not real meat, or real bread – there it is, we need to make some fuckin’ money.’ He fought hard for it. I hope people reading this understand that you’ve gotta fight hard to make your art be what it’s supposed to be, otherwise people walk away with some shitty fucking product.
When The Mars Volta first signed to Universal, the rights to press your music on vinyl on your own label was a key point in your contract, right?
It was always my plan to keep all those rights, to honour our roots and culture as artists (printing our own T-shirts, pressing up our own vinyl, booking our own tours) and continue that into The Mars Volta. So a major element of achieving that vision was becoming co-owner of GSL (which eventually became RLP). We started with the second DeFacto record, Megaton Shotblast. As I got The Mars Volta up and running, I didn’t want us to be on a major label yet, so Tremulant was self-released. And then we went and toured the whole world, independently, no technicians, printing up our own t-shirts, so that when we came back and started talking to the major labels, I’d have a strong bargaining position. All of this was under the guidance and mentorship of Kristen Welsh, who I worked alongside every day at the Grand Royal label offices, and who became our manager.
But Universal were slow to agree…
Universal did not want to let the vinyl rights go. It turned into a big ordeal – we had a meeting with Jimmy Iovine, Gary Gersh, Jon Silva and the main bigwig at Universal, whose name I can’t remember. Kristen called me up and said, ‘Be at the Beverly Hills Hotel penthouse suite within an hour.’ I got there and our lawyer at the time whisked me into a private room and told me, ‘These are very serious people, so be very direct in what you want – and don’t back down’. So I told them, ‘I have to keep the rights to our vinyl. Something out of this has to remain mine – it’s my baby. It’s part of our tradition – we’ve done it since we were kids, and you basically have all our other rights into eternity.’ Jimmy Iovine said, ‘There’s no way that’s ever gonna happen’. I debated them for a while, going on about roots and community, when finally the main bigwig stops the meeting and says, ‘I get it, I get it – you wanna bring the neighbourhood along. We can do that for him, can’t we, Jimmy?’ And that was the last thing. Jon Silva did the secret handshake with them, and then we signed the deal. It came down to the owner of all Universal, to give his blessing personally, that we could keep it. Which is why it hurt so much a decade later, when Universal illegally repressed our records.
They did a shitty job – it was very basic, beige and bland, they didn’t have any love for it. It was just product. They weren’t nerds about it. And that’s what fighting for the aesthetic was about: ‘I’m not gonna trust you to put something out’. When DeLoused came out on CD, someone on their own at Universal decided to make the ‘Egghead’ the front cover, when Storm Thorgerson had designed ‘Jellyfish man’ as the actual front cover, putting no text or logo on the back cover, to make it be interchangeable. So that if you put it down the ‘wrong’ way at the record store, someone would see the other side, and it would be this conversation – what most nerds today call ‘Easter eggs’, something cool to find out about. Big corporations didn’t think like that. We came from a different world – cool shapes, cool colours, cool shit you could do with it – shit that’s just not fuckin’ ‘normieville’.
They were pulling the artwork from scans, not the real thing, and the vinyl was pulled from a 2003 CD… You remember back when El Topo or Holy Mountain were officially unavailable, but you could find high-end bootlegs, but it’s still a fuckin’ bootleg? That’s what it looked like – like someone’s idea of The Mars Volta, rather than The Mars Volta’s idea of The Mars Volta.
They literally are not using the master that came from me, the one used for the original analogue pressing. They have the digital master, from which they made the CD and the digital releases. But you have to then make a completely different master to cut the lacquers. So their attitude was basically, ‘Eh, good enough.’ But it wasn’t how it was supposed to sound. And De-Loused took us a year and a half to make, so talk about attention to detail – we recorded it twice! And it was a pain in the ass to mix – and I was still making changes in the mastering. So if you’ve got one of these other versions, it’s not anywhere near close… Frances The Mute is another great example: Rich Costey and me mixed that record three different times to get it right. We had to schedule it in between our touring, so technically it took eight months to mix that record. And now you’re just gonna go and say, ‘The CD master will be good enough to print from’? Nope – completely different dynamic, completely different nuances to worry about, completely different process which requires attention-to-detail and taking those things into account. But none of these holistic factors mattered to these bootleggers at Universal. So all the hard work done by the teams I’d put together over the years – Rich Costey, Howie Weinberg, Vlado Meller – was thrown out the window in favour of, ‘Eh, that’s pretty much what they did’. It’s just shitty.
It’s really shitty. I have great pride in the fact that we have fans who are super-nerdy about our shit, because the music is designed that way. There was so much effort on Omar’s part to make that a reality. The Mars Volta – and especially this box set – can be summed up best by the phrase, “the devil is in the details”. If you miss that, you are going to miss a fuckload of shit.
Universal had no rights to release any TMV vinyl ever, am I right?
Exactly. What Universal did was illegal, and a blatant and egregious breach of contract. If power structures were in any way held accountable, they would have had to pay us damages, because they went into multiple pressings of the first four records, and then kept pressing Bedlam In Goliath after the first cease-and-desist, so we had to get really aggressive about it. I told our lawyers, I want to sue them, because they’re in breach of contract. And the advice was, ‘That’s not really gonna happen… You can try and sue them, it will just eat up tonnes of your money and tonnes of your life, and in the end you’ll get no result.’
The box-set contains Landscape Tantrums: The Unfinished Original Recordings Of De-Loused In The Comatorium, your early version of The Mars Volta’s debut album, which has never been released before.
Some asshole bootlegged the two-track references for this session, but the actual mixes we did back then were luckily preserved and stored in my vault for the past twenty years. So it’s super-exciting for my engineer Jon DeBaun and me that it’s seeing a release. This was the very first thing we worked on together, and it holds a lot of great memories. And if it’s this exciting for us, we imagine it’s going to be exciting for the fans.
What are your memories of those early recordings?
That’s a loaded question, because there’s a whole intimate saga behind those sessions. We did weeks of interviews on the subject, and there’s a detailed account of the process in the box-set liner notes – we don’t want to spoil it for anyone receiving the box-set.
Tell me about the title of the box-set, La Realidad De Los Sueños.
I took it from one of Cedric’s lyrics – from Concertina, off Tremulant. I’d asked Cedric to sing more in Spanish, and this particular lyric was a potent and moving one about Julio. It always stuck out to me. So I changed it a little (from “The Reality Of Your Dreams” to “The Reality Of Dreams”) to give it a new intention, being that much like having children, the dreams you produce go on to have their own life, their own reality, which you as the creator can’t possibly control. So there’s the process of letting go and understanding that you own nothing. The other side of it is, everything you do, there’s a price to be paid – there’s a reality to accomplishing the things that were once just an image or thought floating in your head. We lost Jeremy along the way, we lost Ikey along the way. We lost friendships, relationships – we missed funerals. There is a price to be paid, when you’re accomplishing the very things you were postulating for. Just like a listener who experiences personal, private memories associated with this music, there’s a whole other personal level that’s represented when we take in this box-set. It’s a reminder that when you receive, something has to be given. So there’s always an unseen price to be paid. There’s a sad and beautiful irony in this. It’s like when Rupert Pupkin says to Jerry Lewis in King Of Comedy: ‘A person can have anything they want in life, as long as they are willing to pay the price.’
What is it like, to listen to these albums together like this? The box-set collects together this amazing, crazy creative journey, which yielded some of the most astounding music of that era… How does it feel to look back on it?
When I look back at it, all those releases, I get super-emotional. These are our high school yearbooks, year after year – these are our sonic family photos. Because, god, we were never fucking home. It’s super-emotional for me to see this. There’s the geek part of me, and then there’s the human part of me, who sees what Omar talks about, all the sacrifice, and all the moments when we’d choose to not go home for the holidays – instead, we’d be out there, trying to get this shit out, having some pretty dark and lonely moments, knowing full well that this fucking thing we’re creating is like Frankenstein. And now, to look back at the creature… It’s bittersweet, but I’m super-proud of it, and I get teary-eyed when I think about it. There’s humanity in there, there’s people that made this. And it existing eases my idea of being criminally misunderstood, because a lot of the times I can rest easy knowing the music will speak for itself, the density and the quality of it.
Amen. We often chose the work over our own health and family life – not that that’s right, but the deepest lessons can only be learned the hard way, so that you acquire actual knowledge and not just information. Having the perspective of being able to look at it now, I’m grateful. I feel super-grateful for what we were allowed to do, and for the work that we did, because usually I don’t ever look back. When doing the remasters with Clouds Hill, that was the first time I’d heard any of those records since the day they came out. And we recorded these albums all over the world – setting up my studio in hotels, in backstages, on the bus, abandoned buildings and fields – so when we hear this music, it takes us back to a place and time, and produces images and olfactory senses that recreate everything we’d forgotten about. It’s a snapshot, the only proof that I have that that person, now unrecognisable to me, once existed and did these things, had these experiences. It’s like finding a beautiful surprise package that becomes sentient and awakens us. ‘No, no – remember? You did this, you were there, and there were these people involved…’ And I’m reminded of the bittersweet taste of how it all unfolded. We lost track of time, through singular focus. And to me, that’s what brought the success. That passion, that commitment brought us here. We were having so much fun that time escaped us. It collected our lives’ memories into a jar cast out into the endless ocean of shared consciousness. We could have never imagined that we’d be sitting here, doing this, as a result of those losses, that moment in time that are these records.
We were building a time machine. I don’t think we even realised it.
Exactly. That’s a great way to put it.
Interview by Stevie Chick
Vinyl & Merch: Clouds Hill Shop
Pre Save: Intertiatic ESP