There was a time when rock bands mattered. They topped charts, defined fashion trends, and shaped the culture. The biggest bands were so big that, as a culture, we had room in our hearts for every member, turning guitar players, drummers—even bassists!—into icons in their own right. Being a rock star meant more than just trashing hotel rooms and conspicuously consuming cocaine. It meant that people all over the world knew what Eddie Van Halen’s guitar looked like, that the drummer for Mötley Crüe was stalked by the paparazzi, and that the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers could run a side gig as an occasional movie star.
That era is long passed. If you’re old enough to remember it, and you look at the lineup for most of the major American music festivals these days, you’ll need to bring out your reading glasses before you start seeing the names of any rock bands. It’s not a tragedy—tastes evolve over time, and nothing lasts forever—but the era of the rock star as anything other than a metaphor for a life lived to excess ended more than a decade ago.
Last week, the last rock band that mattered reunited in Dallas for its first show since 2012. The Mars Volta headlined a two-night stand at the Factory in Deep Ellum to launch a tour that runs through November. The El Paso group played the way it did before its ten-year hiatus—a sprawling set, luxuriating in atmospherics, guitar solos, and complex rhythms as it played only fifteen songs during the two-hour performance. Despite coming just a week after the release of the band’s self-titled reunion album, the set list was heavily tilted toward its early days; a third of the set came from the group’s 2002 debut, and in total, it included just two The Mars Volta songs. It was, in a word, thrilling.
The crowd, largely made up of folks who remembered the band from its initial run, shouted along with singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s largely inscrutable lyrics. During 2005’s “The Widow,” the band’s highest-charting single, Bixler-Zavala attempted to add a pause before delivering the song’s final line, but he didn’t get a chance—the audience sang “. . . Cuz I’ll never, never sleep alone” for him, prompting a laugh. “That’s perfect,” he said, “because you built this for us. Thank you.” The band’s leader, guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López—whose bored-looking stage demeanor has been the source of fan speculation in the past—seemed downright delighted by the reception, grinning under his fedora throughout the night. On social media, where fans had agonized about whether the reunion tour would feature the psychedelic freak-out version of the Mars Volta or the new, poppier incarnation of the band that showed up on the new album, the response was rapturous. When someone shared a photo of the set list on the band’s unofficial subreddit, a fan in New York posted, “I just got an adrenaline rush,” one of the more printable expressions of enthusiasm.
Before the band took the stage, the feeling in the packed room was more one of trepidation. The dude next to me, a bald guy in a vintage Mars Volta T-shirt, struck up a conversation. “I wanna hear old shit,” he told me. “I don’t want to chill. I want to jump on people.” He asked me if I knew who was in the touring lineup—the band, outside of Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López, has always had a rotating cast—looking for clues as to what they might play. “Do you know who the drummer is? Because that matters,” he declared. (It was newcomer Linda-Philomène Tsoungui.)
The Mars Volta, in other words, is the sort of band for which it’s reasonable to expect that the random stranger standing next to you at a venue in Dallas might be able to rattle off the names of the touring rhythm section or multi-instrumentalists, and that those names would be a clue as to what sort of set to expect. If I had said Jon Theodore, who played on the band’s first albums, the dude in the vintage tee would have lost his mind with anticipation; if I had named Willy Rodriguez Quiñones, who played on the latest album, it might have muted his enthusiasm. There haven’t been a lot of rock bands this millennium that inspire fans to have such strong feelings about the touring and session musicians sitting in with the group, and almost none who’ve achieved the heights that the Mars Volta had during its initial run.
The Mars Volta were always an unlikely group to become superstars. The band was born out of the 2001 dissolution of the epochal El Paso hard-core band At the Drive-In, a group of childhood friends whose bonds buckled under the weight of emerging stardom. Its rhythm guitarist, bassist, and drummer formed the emo band Sparta, while Bixler-Zavala, its singer, and Rodríguez-López, its lead guitarist, experimented with side projects before signing a major label deal as the Mars Volta. The band quickly became known for Rodríguez-López’s otherworldly musicianship and Bixler-Zavala’s uncommonly elastic vocals and evocative, over-the-top (often downright pretentious) lyrics. (Sample lyric: “In the River Ganges, God damns my name.”) That level of artifice worked to the band’s advantage, creating an aura around it that made it clear this wasn’t just another indie rock group. Other famous musicians cited the band as their favorite young act—Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rush, Tool, and other bands whose fans spent a lot of time thinking about guitar pedals paid homage to what they created. (Flea and John Frusciante of the Chili Peppers served as occasional session musicians on the band’s albums.) The music nerdiness of the band became something of a pop-culture joke—in the 2010 comedy Get Him to the Greek, the young record exec played by Jonah Hill tries to woo his girlfriend with the prospect of a night on the town culminating in a Mars Volta concert; she declares that she’d rather go to bed early.
Still, the fact that the group permeated the culture to the extent that the joke appears at all is evidence of its success. In 2022, a band with the Mars Volta’s pedigree might fall into the category of “more influential than popular,” but when it emerged at the tail end of the era of rock stardom, the group was both—its second album, 2005’s Frances the Mute, peaked at number four on the Billboard 200, and each of its subsequent albums landed no worse than the top twenty. (2008’s The Bedlam in Goliath was its highest-charting release, peaking at number three.) We’ve seen big, dumb rock bands emerge during the current pop era—think Greta Van Fleet—and that kind of music is an important part of what makes rock and roll thrilling. But the Mars Volta might have been the last big smart rock band.
During that run, the band carved out an indelible legacy. Superstars from all genres are known to drop its name—Lizzo’s “playlist of my life” includes the band’s 2008 single “Wax Simulacra,” and in 2020, Kanye West tweeted at the band that “we need to finish the album” (Bixler-Zavala told New Musical Express this month that the group has never even met him). And it mattered, of course, that the arena-rock band being heralded for its artistry was the project of a Puerto Rican guitar player and a Mexican American singer who both grew up in El Paso; who wore their hair natural and curly; who began using their full names, in the Spanish convention, as soon as At the Drive-In broke up; whose songs had verses and titles in both English and Spanish. The fan in the vintage T-shirt next to me at the Dallas show, as he gushed about Bixler-Zavala’s stage presence before the show, told me, “I want to see him be the Latin James Brown.” A former bandmate of Bixler-Zavala’s from one of his pre–At the Drive-In projects, Beto O’Rourke, told me in August that just knowing the band was back and representing El Paso was meaningful to him. “The fact that El Paso can produce these guys with that level of creativity, and that much success, just makes me so damn proud,” he said.
The band spent its final years dealing with various headaches. It toured in 2011 and part of 2012 as the Omar Rodríguez-López Group (including a high-profile SXSW gig), rumored at the time to be part of a contractual dispute. Rodríguez-López started another side project called Bosnian Rainbows with a musician and performance artist who had recently relocated to El Paso, which consumed much of his time. Bixler-Zavala began exploring Scientology and publicly bashed his longtime collaborator, criticizing Bosnian Rainbows on Twitter. Things cooled off after a year or so, and the two reunited for a new project, 2014’s Antemasque, which put out a lone record. They reunited At the Drive-In with four of the five original members the following year, and spent the next several years touring and releasing new music under that name before entering another hiatus in 2018. Rodríguez-López spent the COVID-19 pandemic rereleasing the Mars Volta discography on his own label, Clouds Hill, and, in the summer of 2022, opening an art installation themed around the band in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, The Mars Volta was announced.
Its first single didn’t sound much like the band fans had gotten used to, though. The group had previously been defined by its unwieldy song lengths and indulgent instrumentation (Frances the Mute is only five tracks, only one of which is shorter than ten minutes; its final song, “Cassandra Gemini,” runs more than half an hour). “Blacklight Shine” clocks in at a tidy two minutes and 56 seconds. The next single, “Graveyard Love,” is similarly compact, at just over three minutes. I sent the third single, “Vigil,” a hook-laden ballad, to my friend Cindy, who had been the biggest Mars Volta fan I’d ever known. “They practically sound like Maroon Five at this point,” she exclaimed.
She wasn’t the only one who was confused by the new direction. The band had disappeared for a decade, and Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala had recorded music together under a handful of band names—so why come back with a completely new sound and call it the Mars Volta? On some forums, fans accused the duo of chasing trends, which seems unlikely; the songs may be shorter and more hook-centric, but they don’t exactly sound like Harry Styles or Post Malone. More likely, they’ve learned that projects with names such as Antemasque or the Omar Rodríguez-López Group don’t interest their fans as much as music they release as the Mars Volta.
In the small handful of interviews the band has done to promote the album and current tour, Bixler-Zavala has addressed the new direction. “It’s safe to say we’ve made a pop album,” he told NME. “It’s there in the name, Volta. It’s almost like a warning to people: don’t get too comfortable with your favorite era because by the time you like it, we’re already moving on.”
Based on the set list in Dallas, the live version of the band hasn’t moved on quite as much as the one that turned up in the studio, which seems a fair compromise. “The Mars Volta” belongs to Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala, and they can do whatever they want with it—but for fans to pay big bucks for concert tickets, they ought to give them what they think of when they think of the band. Of the fifteen songs they played on their first night in Dallas, only two came from the new album. Sandwiched between songs from the group’s classic era, though, they sounded like they fit right in. Rock and roll might not be the chart-topping sound anymore, but the Mars Volta still matters.