Marcel Rodriguez Lopez is a Grammy Award winning multi-instrumentalist best known for his percussion and keyboard playing with the progressive rock group The Mars Volta, though this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as his musical accomplishments are concerned.
He is also the drummer and recording engineer for the group Zechs Marquise, which features two of his brothers, Marfred and Riko, as well as Marcos Smith and Matt Wilkson. Their most recent album entitled Getting Paid is out now on Sargent House/RLP.
SIGHT/SOUND/RHYTHM caught up with Marcel before a Zechs Marquise show in Leeds, UK to talk about musical development, studio recording and technology within his music.
I think this is the first time you’ve been here with Zechs Marquise. How’s the European tour going so far?
It’s been great so far. It’s not at all like touring in the States. In the states it’s a lot harder. Over here the promoters are nicer and more hospitable and the venues are nicer. We’ve had places to stay every night and food, whereas in the states you’re basically on your own, you know. You get to the next place and they pretty much act like you’re doing them a favor by being there. Whereas over here they’re a lot more grateful and realize that it’s a two way street. That it takes both parties to make a great show and for people to have a good time.
Back home, when we do come across nice promoters we always make it a point to go up to them and say thank you for making it a good night for us, because it’s really easy for it to just go bad, basically.
Absolutely. I’ve been at venues before where promoters have just disappeared, or sometimes haven’t bothered to show up at all.
Yeah, we’ve had promoters straight out tell us that they have other shows going on that night and that they’re going to those other shows. So they just stop by to show face and then they leave and we don’t see them for the rest of the night, then we end up getting paid from somebody else who they’ve delegated that responsibility to.
Is this something that is still happening?
Yeah, but luckily we’ve started playing bigger venues and more people are coming out to see us, so we’re starting to find that people are a little nicer, but even then it can be hit or miss, you know.
Would I be right in assuming you guys have been together for around nine years or so at this point?
Something like that. The first few years were pretty rough. We had another drummer but that didn’t work out. I was playing keys back then but I only really consider the band to be what it is now since we’ve had this line up. With the exception of Riko joining the band, we’ve probably been as we are now for around four years or so, with me on drums that is. Riko’s been playing keys for Zechs for almost two years. Before that it was all the parts without the keys.
When we were recording Getting Paid, I was doing all of the keyboard parts and they were coming out really great, but because we didn’t have a dedicated keyboard player we ended up putting the parts really low in the mix. We didn’t want to make it a dominant thing because we didn’t know how we were going to do it live, but it turned out that everyone loved the parts so much that we decided they needed to stay.
For most bands in rock music, the keys are just fluff in the background to give it a little atmosphere, when actually keyboards and synthesisers are incredibly powerful. They have their place right there in rock music, regardless of what someone like Ted Nugent thinks about them. You know, it’s like, if Santana isn’t rock and roll, or using organs, then you tell me what is!
I was going to say exactly the same thing…
Yeah, it’s crazy! So we had recorded the parts and the keys were super low in the mix until we put them up nice and loud, which is exactly where they should be. Right about that same time we started hearing our brother Riko, who was probably around eighteen years old then, playing piano more around the house and we instantly thought, ‘he’s got it!’. He just needed a little practice along with some guidance and experience. So from then on me and Riko would just sit there and practice the songs for hours and hours whilst everyone else was working at their day jobs or doing their own thing.
He ended up playing his first show with us in February 2011 and it’s been great since then. He’s a fast learner and everyone who’s seen us play, including our friends and my other band mates, they’re always quick to point out how good of a job he’s doing. He wants to impress his older brothers and friends and he’s a hard worker.
When you were recording Getting Paid had you thought about going back to find another drummer?
Well before I switched to drums, we were actually looking for another drummer to join because I was wanting to go back to playing keys. There’s definitely a certain style that I had on keys which suits what we do and we didn’t know anyone who had that same feel. We figured that it would be easier in El Paso for us to find another drummer than another keyboard player. Once we’d auditioned a couple of drummers we realised that it just wasn’t going to cut it and that I had to be on drums, because there was a certain dynamic that came with it. The other drummer we used to have had great energy and endurance but he didn’t have any focus, and so basically whether we had a good or a bad show depended on how tight he played, so it was always a gamble, you know.
Once I started getting my chops up and my endurance on drums we just realised that we had to do it this way, because there was a certain energy that came from it, especially with Marfred being my brother and playing bass. We’re a year and nine months apart to the day and we basically consider ourselves to be twins. We’ve been through all of the same things together and there’s just something there that we couldn’t deny.
You and your brothers seem to be all pretty heavily immersed in music. Was playing actively encouraged when you were growing up?
Absolutely! Our dad plays salsa music and he sings, plays guitar, percussion etc… and my mom was a great singer, so they would always encourage us when we were younger. Music was always around in the house and my brother Omar has always been in bands for as long as I can remember. A lot of parents don’t let their kids practise with bands at their houses but my parents always encouraged it. It started with Omar. Instead of going to college he went and toured when he was seventeen and they said, you know, “if this is what you want to do then go for it”. Then when I graduated from high school I knew that I wanted to tour and that they would be OK with it. At that point I didn’t have the means to do it yet, so I just thought that maybe I’ll just go to college for a little bit to make my parents happy in the meantime, but I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to study. I didn’t know any theory so I took some classes just to kind of [pauses]… please my parents and please myself basically, but I failed all of those classes. I was terrible at it and was in there with kids who had been playing orchestral music since they were very young, and who could all read music, which I couldn’t. I could play and knew a lot about records but they didn’t care about that. That lasted for a semester and then I quit and joined a band with Ralph Jasso, who had just left The Mars Volta as their second bass player. After that I got a call from my brother Omar asking me if I wanted to join The Mars Volta on percussion and since then I’ve been touring none stop, which is when the real schooling started.
Did anything you learned whilst studying help you at all?
When I was going to school for music I was learning theory but I didn’t understand it, though I kept the books and carried on reading. Even now I still can’t read rhythm. I can read melody but it takes me forever. So I had these little building blocks there, but it was when I joined The Mars Volta that I started talking to Juan (Alderete) about music. Juan’s the same in that he taught himself and then went to school for a while. He can’t sight read or anything like that but the ideas are there, you know. So from talking to him, and for a little while when we had Adrian (Terrazas-Gonzalez) on sax, who’s a total jazz dude, almost to a fault, I learned a lot from them.
I guess it’s been a mix of everything, from all of the great drummers that we had in the band, to my brother playing guitar, to being in studios and seeing how recordings are done. All of these go hand in hand with how I’m able to lay down my own musical ideas.
So have you been pretty hands on with recording Zechs Marquise?
Yeah. I’d been in a lot of studios and bought my own mics and eventually took the task of basically being the engineer for the band. Once I’d joined The Mars Volta everything opened up and I really started to learn from a lot of different people.
You mentioned all of the great drummers in The Mars Volta that you’ve played along side. Have you found that some of those influences have come out in your own playing and has your approach to drumming changed as a result of that exposure?
For sure. I remember when Jon (Theodore) was in the band, he had that great Bonham feel to his playing and it was amazing to watch him every night. Then after Jon we got Blake (Fleming) back in the group, who had been the original drummer, and he used to give lessons. I didn’t even know how to hold sticks properly before he joined! He showed me how to do it and it felt weird but I just kept on practising. Blake got fired around 2006 and so we had Deantoni Parks join for a tour, and I remember thinking that this guy has got the craziest style, different from the other guys, but I liked it. There was something unique about it. I couldn’t pick up on anything he was doing because it was so fucking crazy! [laughs]
After that tour Deantoni left and Thomas Pridgen joined up, and even though he plays fast the ideas weren’t as abstract as D’s. From watching Thomas and through hanging out, because we’re the same age, he started showing me how to build up my chops with rudiments. Then little things would come together and start to make sense from what I’d seen Deantoni doing.
In my opinion D’s the best drummer in the world. There are other dudes who can do all sorts of crazy shit but no one out there has the ideas that he has. Someone once said that he’s like the Basquiat of drums, you know. To use art as a metaphor, he’s not just a painter, or he’s not just a sculptor, he’s everything. He’s on some other planet and nobody is there with him.
Totally! I remember seeing the Refused TV footage of you playing with Omar’s group at The Troubadour in LA and some of the stuff D’s playing on there is ridiculous.
Yeah! [laughs] There’s one song where there’s a young guy in the audience who’s watching him play and D does something and the guy’s mouth just falls open with amazement. That’s what it’s like every night playing with him. He just throws shit out there to keep you on your toes and is constantly changing it up. He’s the one drummer who really listens to what I’m doing on the keys. I could never tell if he could hear me or not but I’d start doing something and then he starts matching up with me, so he’s always right there with whatever it is I’m doing.
There were moments at that show when D’s going crazy and Juan’s looking over at Omar, like, ‘I don’t know where we are, I’m just trying to keep the time’. After the show, Juan said, “I had no idea where D was at but you were right there with him”, but I had just broken it down into rudiments and patterns and then added the additional notes, you know. For me, I was looking at it more from a drumming perspective and the melody was just embellishing it.
I suppose a lot of that comes back to you having a shared background in both playing keys and drums.
Absolutely. When we hang out we don’t really talk about drums, and when we’re on tour he doesn’t really practise drums all that much. He’ll be sat working on his music and composing, and I do exactly the same thing. I sometimes forget that I have to be playing in an hour because my focus is elsewhere.
Some people who only play drums are able to dedicate their time to becoming the best player that they can be. I’d love to be able to do that but the reality is that I also have to play keys and I have to record, as well as making electronic music. I’m constantly learning more about the technology, and how crazy things are with Midi; open source controllers; touch screen controllers, iPads… It just gets you thinking differently.
I definitely don’t shy away from recording an idea and then chopping it up in order to come up with something that I wouldn’t necessarily have played naturally. I’m then forced to actually have to figure out how to play it on a keyboard.
It’s definitely an interesting approach towards creating new ideas. From listening to Eureka the Butcher it’s clear how important a role technology plays within the music you create.
The tools are so powerful nowadays but most people tend to just scratch the surface with what they’re capable of doing. There’s a tendency to let the technology just do the work for you. It’s the same thing that happened with auto tune, where it was initially used when a singer was either a little flat or a little sharp. You could go back and fix the notes, but then it was taken to an extreme and everyone started using it. Which is fine when it’s just a few people doing it, but once everyone is then it’s a sign that people are getting lazy. It all sounds the same after a while.
Totally! Switching topics for a moment, I think you’ve played on around eighteen of Omar’s solo records…
[laughs] I have no idea. Sounds about right.
When I hear them I always imagine there’s a very fast turnaround time with getting them done. Is that usually the case or is there a lengthier process involved in putting them together?
Some of them take a while to come out after being recorded but essentially the songs are all done in a couple of takes. When I first started doing it I definitely found that way of working a little overwhelming. I was thinking, I can’t do this. I wanted time to actually figure it all out but I realized that there’s something special about acting upon your first instincts with music as opposed to putting too much thought into it. Eventually it does make you grow and now it’s made it easier for me to get those ideas out.
That’s not to say that I won’t spend time thinking about musical ideas from now on, because somethings you just have to take time to figure out what it is you’re doing, but there are times when it’s better to be more spontaneous. Omar’s definitely more spontaneous with how he works and the foundation of each track is done in just a few hours. We might not come back to the track to do overdubs for a while but when we do it’s right back into that same mentality of just getting it done as quickly as possible.
Do you also apply the same approach when you’re working on keyboard and synth parts?
I usually spend more time getting synth sounds. I usually have an Access Virus synth on tour with me and I’d sit in my hotel room, or on the bus, just getting a whole bunch of new sounds that I could use. Whether they’re harsh leads, pads or bass sounds, I would just familiarise myself with them so that when the time came to record that I had a palette to work from.
Me and Omar have a great rapport with regards to describing sounds, as far synthesisers are concerned. He might say, “okay, give me something with sprinkles”, and I’d know exactly what he would mean from these kind of abstract descriptions. Engineers in the studio would just laugh, but I knew what he was talking about.
What’s the one thing that you find particularly challenging as musician?
Consistency. Especially as a drummer. Some drummers can just get up and play and they sound great. I have to practise all day everyday and I still fuck up all the time, which can be kind of embarrassing, but I’ll be the first one to admit it. Like I said, I’m more than just a drummer. Which is not to take anything away from drummers, but I’m also working on writing and playing keys, too.
I feel like I have to struggle with playing. For everyday that I don’t practise it’s like losing two days of practise, you know.
Absolutely! I have times when I’ll have a run of great practises followed by a couple of really bad ones.
Right! Exactly! And that’s how it goes with Zechs rehearsals. The band will sound great one day and then we’ll have one where it’s terrible. It’s sometimes just a matter of taking a day off and then we’ll come back and it’ll sound amazing. We had a bunch of bad ones recently so I’m hoping tonight is good! [laughs]
I’m sure it will be. Thanks for taking the time out to do this.
Sure, dude! It’s been fun!
Interview by Dave Jones. Photographs by Daliah Touré & Mat Dale.