The Mars Volta - Frances The Mute
Frances The Mute was no De-Loused Part Two. For one thing, the band’s configuration had changed, in the most painful way .Shortly before the release of De-Loused, sound manipulator and founder member Jeremy Michael Ward passed away, a wound Omar says the group never recovered from. But even though his inspired fucking- with-the-sonic-parameters is absent from Frances The Mute, his spirit and influence can still be determined, the album’s concept derived from a diary Ward had encountered in his day-job in repossession.
“Jeremy picked up lots of interesting stuff when he was a repo man,” remembers Cedric. “Weird things, including this diary, He let us read it a bunch of times. It was by a guy who’d been adopted and was searching to find his real parents. It was very surreal, it didn’t make much sense – the guy might’ve been schizophrenic – but it was very inspiring. It felt like how certain music helps you escape your boring every-day life. The names and scenes in the diary directly inspired these songs.” Some of the tracks pre-dated De-Loused, having their origins in early demos Omar recorded at the duo’s Long Beach home Anikulapo, songs such as The Widow and Miranda The Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore.
Cedric had heard these jams in their embryonic state and began working in his mind on what he could bring to them.“I was attracted to The Widow like you would be to a lover, right?” Cedric remembers. “I sang over it with Omar while we were touring De-Loused in Australia on the Big Day Out, like, ‘Okay, I’ve got something for this.’” A potent ballad, laden with emotional crescendos and evoking the epic drama of Ennio Morricone – an effect aided by an elegiac trumpet part performed by Flea – The Widow would become The Mars Volta’s first song to chart on the Billboard Top 100, capturing the album’s potent sorrow and widescreen sprawl in miniature. Indeed, the lush sound of the album, the depth of detail and breadth of instrumentation, belies its grungy roots.
Having tasted the luxury of Rick Rubin’s mansion, Omar veered in the opposite direction when recording Frances, cutting the album in what he describes as “a shithole... Basically a warehouse with one little air conditioner on its last legs, awful wiring and a console you couldn’t rely on. We were there night and day – I would literally lock engineer Jon DeBaun in there. He slept on a mattress in the vocal booth.” A considerably more complex and ambitious album than its predecessor – four of its five tracks lasted over ten minutes in length, with its closing epic Cassandra Gemini spanning over half an hour – Frances The Mute wasn’t recorded “live” by an ensemble, but with the individual musicians coming into the “shithole” and recording the parts Omar had scripted for them separately. “They had to have absolute trust in me,” Omar remembers, “Like actors trust their director.”
In addition to the core band – now fleshed out with incoming bassist Juan Alderete, and Omar’s brother Marcel on keyboards and percussion – the album featured guitar solos from John Frusciante, saxophone and flute by future member Adrian Terrazas-Gonzales, a full string section, and piano played by Omar’s hero, salsa legend Larry Harlow. “It was a childhood dream come true,” Omar says. “We recorded with him in my hometown in Puerto Rico, and my father flew in to watch the session. Larry was a perfect gentleman, and a very lively spirit.”
The album’s fevered intensity infected even the staid string section, Cedric remembers. “When they performed the part on Cassandra Gemini, ’25 wives in the lake tonight’, one of the guys in the orchestra played so hard he broke his bow, this real old, antique bow. And you could see his ‘classical’ side come out – like, ‘I broke this playing a fuckin’ rock song??’ He was pissed off. But I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, man, that’s on the record! You’ve got to realise things like that are cool.’” The album also features field recordings of “the coqui of Puerto Rico” during the opening minutes of Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore. “We took a page out of the Grateful Dead’s book there,” laughs Cedric. “They recorded air. We recorded fuckin’ frogs in Puerto Rico.”
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