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California Dreamin’

Jon Theodore Wanted To Learn To Surf And Ended Up In The Mars Volta

TIGHT FLITE: Drummer Jon Theodore returns to Baltimore this week with the Mars Volta.

By Mikael Wood | Posted 8/17/2005

“It’s definitely a metal deal,” says Jon Theodore, on the phone from Phoenix, Ariz. The drummer of Los Angeles-based prog-punk behemoth the Mars Volta is referring to the crowds currently filling arenas every night to watch him and his band mates—including singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, and keyboardist Ikey Owens—open for their fellow Californians System of a Down, who are a metal deal in addition to being a polka deal, and a rap deal, and a prog-punk deal.

Or, rather, not watch: “As far as I can see, there’s usually a lot of people pushed up to the front to see us,” Theodore, a Baltimore native, explains. “But there’s always the people who don’t look like they’re excited. You know, it’s 15,000 people. Out of 15,000 people there are definitely gonna be some people who are not happy. It’s just remarkable to me that they still stand there. Someone will literally be standing in the front row flipping everyone off. It’s like, ‘Why don’t you just go get a beer?’”

Theodore left Baltimore in the early 1990s for college in Ohio after he graduated high school at 18. There he formed the band Golden with some pals. Golden played high-octane funk-rock that wouldn’t have repelled a Drive Like Jehu fan or two; eventually Golden’s members moved from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to pursue the band full-time. Later, frontman Ian Eagleson relocated to Texas for graduate school. “At that point I was like, ‘Well, I don’t need to be in D.C. anymore,’” Theodore says. “I was feeling the draw back to Baltimore, so I just went back there.” He then spent the “majority of [his] 20s” here, “as an independent adult. Or a quasi-adult,” he laughs. “I was fixed on the goal of adulthood, but I was still struggling to get there.”

CP: You live in L.A. now, right?

Jon Theodore: Yeah, I’ve been in L.A. now for four years. I left Baltimore on September 10, 2001—flew from Dulles to LAX. It was pretty crazy. I’d missed a lot of flights before that, so it’s good that I got on that one. Totally weird. I’ll never forget that: I woke up there on the morning of the 11th and I was all, “Huh?”

I lived in Long Beach first, and now I live up in Los Angeles. It’s cool. I feel like I’ve come so far from Baltimore that I keep trying to get closer and closer to the beach.

CP: Did you move explicitly to join the Mars Volta?

JT: Yeah, strange story. I had done like three tours already in this one year. It was summer, and I’d just finished an oppressively hot August tour. And I had to drive overnight from Chicago and drop people off in D.C., then pick up the rest of the Golden guys in D.C. and drive directly to Austin, where we started another tour. By the end of that tour I was really ragged out. I’d been having some conversations with friends where we were like, “Where’s it gonna happen next? D.C. in the ’80s, Chicago in the ’90s, where’s next?” And we were like, “Well, L.A.’s due, because it’s been a long time since the hair bands of the early ’80s.” I really wanted to learn how to surf, too.

Los Angeles is like this sort of idyllic paradise. Obviously, the Down and Out in Beverly Hills kind of vibe is there, but if you come from the East Coast, you’re like, “Palm trees and bikini ladies on roller skates on the boardwalk!” I was like, “I’m going to L.A. and I’m gonna learn how to surf. I’ve been [in Baltimore] for so long, I’m just gonna make a move out there. There’s gotta be somebody that needs a drummer. I’ll be able to find a band, I’m sure. In the meantime, I can do what I’m doing here, which is working jobs between tours.” Then when I got home I had an answering-machine message from Omar, and he was all, “Gimme a call back. I don’t know if you remember me.” It had been years since we met. I called him, and he was like, “Do you wanna come out here and join this band we’re putting together?” And I was like, “That’s weird, man. I’ll be right there.”

CP: You’d met Omar during his days in At the Drive-In?

JT: I think they’d just started At the Drive-In, but they were actually playing in De Facto. I met them on tour in El Paso; I think it was one of their very first shows. We played it together in an arcade which was very underpopulated. We had a pretty strong bonding session with drinks and lots more drinks. It was a really fun night: Golden and the Make-Up and De Facto. Everyone played well, and the audience—all eight people—were really stoked. It was more of a party than an actual performance.


CP: What state was the Mars Volta in when you arrived in L.A.?

JT: When I got out there the band had just begun. It was really a formative phase where Omar and Cedric had their eyes set on this prize. They knew that it was kind of now-or-never. I was more like, “Yeah, I’m in California—and I’m playing in a band, too.”

I learned so much from them as far as work ethic and dedication and pursuit of a goal. At that point I wasn’t really into practicing, and I would’ve been happy enough going to the beach. But those guys were really, really dedicated and driven, so it was kind of infectious. We had a place where we could play at any time of the day, and we also lived there. It was kind of an industrial space where we had a big room to play in. And we’d just play there all day long—hours and hours and hours. Then we’d stop, and we’d be so burnt that we wouldn’t ever really leave; we were just locked in.

We’d all been in bands before, so we all knew that it can’t just be, “Oh, we’re making this band, so here’s our music.” I’d never really gotten to know them before, so it was a period of hashing out the fundamental interactions, where we had to explore each other personally and musically. It was a very heavy, difficult period. The things I learned from that, I’ll never forget.


CP: Was that a different way of working than how Golden operated?

JT: Yeah, because for the last 10 years of Golden, we weren’t really living together—not even in the same state. We’d come together and practice as much as we could, which would be for like a week, and then we’d start a tour. This was a much different experience for me. It was very methodical, and it was about putting as much time into it as it took to create what we thought it needed to be.


CP: Everyone paid attention to the Mars Volta at the beginning because of Omar and Cedric’s background in At the Drive-In. Was it weird to be involved in a group that had this sort of prehistory that didn’t include you?

JT: That was a very strange situation, but it was also kind of inevitable—especially in the world of corporate-based rock and roll. But the only thing that mattered to me was that the band kicked ass. I wasn’t familiar with At the Drive-In, except by stickers. I hadn’t heard their music; I wasn’t aware of the success that their band had had, because I wasn’t exposed to it. All I knew was that these were my newest friends, and we were trying to make a band together. And since we were such shut-ins at that point, I was largely protected from the mechanism of that prehistory.

I didn’t really experience it until we started going out on the road, almost a year after I got [to L.A.]. We had spent that time building the thing up, and it never crossed my mind until the press started to get a hold of the band with the release of our first EP and our first few tours. I was fortunate enough to have that not be a factor for me, which was definitely good, because those things can really cloud perceptions. I was able to not be affected by that at all.


CP: Do you think Omar and Cedric dug the fact that you weren’t involved in their background?

JT: I think so. I’ve only heard bits and pieces of how unnatural and extreme the explosion of At the Drive-In was. It’s like reading the stars to determine what happened in the Big Bang, you know? They’re so far removed from that right now—since I got to L.A.—that I’ve never had a long conversation about how crazy it was. But I’ve picked up tidbits from it, and I think that was probably part of the reason why [they called me]. I think they wanted to get me in the band because they liked the way I played drums. And then the fact that we were from very similar contexts—but removed from each other just the same—I think that was probably important to them. I think if I had been like, “Oh, I’m starting a band with the At the Drive-In guys,” they probably would not have wanted to play with me. Quite literally, I was just that guy from Baltimore.

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