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The Lefsetz Letter: The Mars Volta

While you're counting Coldplay CDs, made by a guy married to a movie star with a daughter with the moniker of a fruit, while Eminem is tanking in the live marketplace, while the media is fixated on a mutilated, aged pop star, you're missing the biggest music story of the year, the Mars Volta.

By every standard of today's music business the Mars Volta is a failure. They don't sell millions of albums, they're not all over music television, the tabloids never talk about them, and they're not at the top of the box office grosses. But, the Mars Volta is THE most happening band in America today.

It's credibility. It's culture.

Oh, the band used to be called At The Drive-In. But they broke that one up, it just didn't feel right. Refugees from that act formed the Mars Volta, to further explore their musical sensibilities, to go on an adventure, to make LESS COMMERCIAL MUSIC!

Just think about it, a band doing it for the MUSIC!!!

Oh, you might have been to the show. You might have listened to the album. You might not get it. And, that's PERFECT! You're MISSING OUT! You're listening for hits, you're listening for hooks, you're listening with MUSIC BUSINESS ears, not FAN ears. Fans want to be touched, fans want to be moved. And no band has reached its fans like this since…maybe the Grateful Dead.

Oh, don't talk to me about Phish. Don't talk to me about the Dave Matthews Band. Those are frat rock bands. They're made for people wearing Timberlands, for people with money, having one last hurrah on Daddy's money before they've got to enter the real world. They don't have that one key element of rock and roll. Darkness.

The darkness is palpable. You don't see accountants counting the money backstage. You don't get the feeling this same venue will host Britney clones the next night. Rather, you feel like this is a one night affair of a traveling circus willing to die on stage if that's what it takes to get EVERYBODY off.

Not that the band is playing to the very last row. It's more like they're trying to light themselves on fire, musically, so the audience will stand there in aural SHOCK!!

I mean the band is fronted by LATINOS! Not gangbangers from the ghetto, nor dermabrased poster boys ready for prime time TV. Rather…you're just not sure if you should be AFRAID of them, or EMBRACE them. Your race radar tells you to be open-minded. But really, you don't know anybody like this. Then again, over in the next row, there are some people who look like this. Should you be afraid? Or, does the music make everybody SAFE?

Yes, it's a WOODSTOCK vibe. It SHOULDN'T work, but the music both lifts everybody up and keeps them calm.

Look around. It's like everybody's on his own separate drug trip. There's no production numbers, no sets, it's SOLELY about the music. It's like the Fillmore East. Being in a place that the rest of society just doesn't UNDERSTAND, and you don't CARE!

The goal of the Mars Volta isn't to latch on to a track so catchy that Susie Homemaker's prepubescent daughter will want to attend for a hundred bucks and buy a t-shirt. The band isn't coming to YOU, you're coming to THEM! They're not the sniveling snits begging you to love them. Not even the aforementioned Marshall Mathers appearing in million dollar, over the top videos, trying to ENTERTAIN YOU! If you're not ready to be dazzled by the music, CHALLENGING music, the Mars Volta wants NO PART of you!

Rule number one of rock and roll…don't play anywhere you can't sell out. It's about the FUTURE! This is what causes mania. The fact that you CAN'T GET A TICKET! It's the OPPOSITE of the movie business, where the blockbusters open in 3,000 theatres and everybody can get in the first weekend, if not the first night. You've got to find out about the Mars Volta gig from the Web, or a friend, you've got to be constantly on the HUNT! Because as soon as tickets are available, they're gonna SELL OUT, you're gonna be LEFT OUT!

THIS is how it was in the late sixties and early seventies.

And, the screwed up economists, the jerks at the labels who know nothing about music and careers, only money, will tell you with such incredible DEMAND, you should CHARGE MORE! But the only place where the Mars Volta charged over twenty five bucks was in New York City, where they charged TWENTY SEVEN DOLLARS! Oh, believe me, the gigs would have sold out at twice the price, but by charging so little, the band looks COOL! The OPPOSITE of Gordon Sumner, the money is secondary to the MUSIC!

The Mars Volta have played in excess of fifteen shows since the end of April. Only ONE didn't sell out. In Minneapolis. It did over 80 percent. EACH AND EVERY OTHER SHOW SOLD OUT!!! Usually 2,500 seats, sometimes 3,000. I mean that's where music is supposed to be heard, in THEATRES! There's no such thing as good sound in an arena.

The jerks at the label talk about artist development. Which they take to mean bringing an album from the starting line to double platinum. That's ALBUM development, not ARTIST development. THIS is artist development. Leaving an act alone, to grow, to bond with the audience. The great acts are built on the ROAD, not RADIO! Especially today.

Not that you can play the Mars Volta on the radio. Hell, one of the tracks on the new album is in excess of twenty minutes long. But you can listen at home, in the car, on your iPod, in a world that's not littered with commercial spots.

But maybe you know all the foregoing, despite the almost total news blackout, you're an insider. But talk to anybody promoting these shows, anybody who attended them. They salivate, their eyes bug out, they look at you almost speechless, unable to truly explain the experience. All you gain from the conversation is YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE! And in an era where there's an HBO special, a live DVD, endless hype in the media, this is a sentiment we haven't felt in over a decade. And it's this that the business is built on. We aren't making movies that are static, the same every night, when we're doing it right we're creating living, breathing things, that are different every night, that you want to see again and again, THAT CHANGE YOUR LIFE!!!


Box Office Grosses for The Mars Volta
Courtesy of CelebrityAccess and Billboard

Fri 06/03/2005
The Mars Volta
Hearst Greek Theatre – Berkeley, CA
Another Planet Entertainment
1 / 1
8,500 / 8,500

Tue 05/31/2005
The Mars Volta
The Fillmore – Denver, CO
Clear Channel Entertainment
1 / 1
3,600 / 3,600

Thu 05/19/2005
The Mars Volta
Roy Wilkins Auditorium – St. Paul, MN
Jam Productions
0 / 1
2,699 / 3,289

Mon 05/16/2005 thru Tue 05/17/2005
The Mars Volta
Riviera Theatre – Chicago, IL
Jam Productions
2 / 2
5,000 / 5,000

Sun 05/15/2005
The Mars Volta
State Theatre – Detroit, MI
Clear Channel Entertainment
1 / 1
2,900 / 2,900

Fri 05/13/2005
The Mars Volta
Kool Haus – Toronto,
House of Blues Canada
1 / 1
2,203 / 2,203

Thu 05/12/2005
The Mars Volta
Metropolis – Montreal,
Gillett Entertainment Group/Greenland Productions
1 / 1
2,193 / 2,193

Tue 05/10/2005
The Mars Volta
Avalon Ballroom – Boston, MA
Clear Channel Entertainment
1 / 1
1,955 / 1,955

Thu 05/05/2005 thru Fri 05/06/2005
The Mars Volta
Roseland Ballroom – New York, NY
Clear Channel Entertainment
2 / 2
6,675 / 6,675

Sun 05/01/2005 thru Tue 05/03/2005
The Mars Volta
Electric Factory – Philadelphia, PA
2 / 2
4,500 / 4,500

Fri 04/29/2005
The Mars Volta, DJ Nobody
The Tabernacle – Atlanta, GA
Clear Channel Entertainment
1 / 1
2,602 / 2,602

Tue 04/26/2005
The Mars Volta
Verizon Wireless Theater – Houston, TX
Clear Channel Entertainment
1 / 1
2,967 / 2,967

Mon 04/25/2005
The Mars Volta
Austin Music Hall – Austin, TX
Clear Channel Entertainment
1 / 1
3,000 / 3,000

Fri 04/22/2005
The Mars Volta
RIMAC Arena – San Diego, CA
House of Blues Concerts/Viejas Entertainment
1 / 1
4,539 / 4,539

The Industry Responds

Sherry Wasserman:

you should have come to the Berkeley's Greek Theatre for The Mars Volta…pure magic!


Ian Blackaby:

What is it they say about music that is most predictable having the least information in it? Predictability just leaves superior technique and the show business to marvel at. Anything that rests on technique alone is as boring as a vari-lite. TMV can play but you aren't aware of the virtuosity in the same way that you don't see an illusionist's technique you just hear the music. And
marvel. It's like the Dead on one of those Scarlet Begonias or Dark Star wig outs, like the electric Miles circa 1970, like Mahavishnu.

TMV on stage consistently make the most uplifting, gorgeous, boring, unpredictable, perplexing, challenging, visceral cacophony of noise, horror and beauty in the western world. A band influenced by King Crimson, by Jerry Harlow by John McLaughlin by Fela Kuti. Does this sound like anything approaching the basis of a career plan to you? They are either the most honest band on the
circuit or the most wilfully self indulgent. or both. I'd go for honest and if you're an artist and doing anything but dealing in truth then, to quote Bill Hicks, you are "Ball-less, souless, spiritless corporate little bitches. Just another whore at the capitalist gang-bang". Amen.



… and the CD is still only 9.99!!!

I know I say it over and over Bob, but regardless of how cool, how dark, how whatever… for tons and tons of want-to-be fans… it still has to be affordable.


Paul Rappaport:

Bob, you are dead on about Mars Volta. My sons and I were listening to them on the way back from a great day of surfing on Long Island's south shore. What's great about them is that they are not only creating songs, but they are MAKING MUSIC. They borrow from a few genres and seem to be influenced by bands like Pink Floyd and the Dead in terms of creating a magic atmosphere with
notes and sounds. It's definitely music that TAKES YOU SOMEWHERE. And no, they are not selling tons yet, but they do OK and these kinds of bands take time. Look how long it took the Floyd to break big.I think they're great, exciting, and bring a lot to the party.


Joshua Freni:

That's what I love about the band. The challenge of listening. They have so many layers to their sound. With each listen you catch a new layer. You can listen to it as background sound, but when you actually focus on it and digest it, its a phenomenal piece of art. Plus, aesthetically, the band looks like a band should look. Sort of like someone you know, but with a bit of magical madness going on behind the eyes.


Ryan Burton:

How right you are. One of your emails I can totally agree with (except for the Phish part). I was fortunate enough to catch Mars Volta at Bonnaroo last weekend, and they were fucking incredible. Exactly how you describe them, loud, dark, and very non-commercial. They were there to play their tunes and blow people away. I felt privileged to witness such a great band in the perfect setting, the best festival on the planet. And I have caught them on XM from time to time, perfect for the sat radio.


Mike Greene:

They have been my favorite band for 3 years!



I had the pleasure of taking in a Mars Volta show shortly after their first album was released. The energy exuding from these rare talents was unbelievable. I hadn't seen a crowd react to music like this since I saw Radiohead live in Toronto a couple years ago. People always ask me to describe what it was I had seen and experienced when I saw the Mars Volta and I've never been able to do the show justice. You said everything I've been trying to say. So to you I say thank you. Thankyou for shining a little bit of light on this confused business and also congratulations. Not many people have yet had the life changing epiphany to what the Mars Volta really are.


Mike Krebs:

Wish you coulda made the Greek show. It was magic.

Sold out in 1 day. Tix were $25.


Anton Zovic:

While the numbers are certainly impressive, it should come as no surprise to any true fan of music. Music is why I hope most of us got into this dance in the first place, not marketing a product. The Mars Volta take me back to a time long ago, where I would open a vinyl record, throw it on the record player, sit back and read all the liner notes and lyrics and just let the music play.
No one had to sell it to me…all I had to do was listen.


Daniel O'Connor:

You`re missing a date here, 4/28/05 in New Orleans, I`m pretty sure that was sold out as well. The line to get in was wrapped around the block. I think it was at the Orphiem theater, great show.


Neil Wedd:

Saw the MArs Volta at The Big Day Out in Melbourne Australia 2 years ago. Absolutely riveting, just like I imagine the Allman Brothers or Miles Davis fusion period would have been like. So exciting to see musicians play with each other and challenge each other to go further.

The understanding of the players is great. Back off give me some room or bring it on and make it happen.


Deke Ship:

I hate to take only a single part of your latest letter to task, but you've crossed a line.

When the band was on, their embodied every single ounce of every single feeling-word that I read capitalized in these posts every day. The guys in Phish were STUDENTS of the GAME. The clostest thing in the musical universe that you could liken them to was FRANK ZAPPA. Odd time signatures, completely-at-odds-with-each-other styles of songs, SHREDDING GUITAR. But you always knew when it was Zappa, and you always knew it was Phish.

If I picked up a Phish CD and a Mars Volta CD, I would certainly "get" the MV faster. They've bared their souls in 45 minutes, each idea expressed in 3-5 bursts. Phish made you listen. They made you wade through a fifteen minute jam, sometimes spending over half of that time in complete melodic dissidence, waiting for that Clapton-meets-NASA solo you knew was coming. And the "Darkness" to which you refer – I hate to sound like a nerd, pointing out an exact refute to a broad statement, but listen to a Phish song like "Stash". Especially the one off of "A Live One". The song is Santana in a locked closet after accidentally licking a sheet of Owsley blotter dark.

Also – generalizing the Phish fanbase (incorrectly) has always been people's favorite way to come after them. Of course a good deal of the kids out there ar e on break from college, and dad's Amex is putting gas in the Grand Cherokee, there are far more wookies (the patchwork hippies) and young-corporate-types who, after spending thirteen of a possible fourty-five hours a week at the office emailing and reading message boards, could manage to turn two days off and a weekend into five nights of music.

When I left the last show in Coventry, VT last summer (which over 15,000 people abandoned their cars and WALKED over 10 or 15 miles down the interstate to get in to) my friends and I spent the ride home sh*tting on our favorite

band's last performance. Why? Because the band's music had taught us to really listen, and we knew what we had just heard was crap.

So, say what you will about the Dave Matthews Band. Hell, I'm from Charlottesville, and I can't stand them or their fans. But Phish was different (I will spare you Lebowski's "man") and I think your own words ring quite true when talking about the real Phish fan:

"Believes EVERYBODY would love the act's music if they could just sit down, play them the CD and EXPLAIN it to them." (how true with this response!)

"Has traveled at least 100 miles to see the act." (Ha!)

"HAS to go to the show(s). Just as long as you don't play the same market
over and over without new material."

I'll stop there. I'd say I applied to at least one or two others….(wink
wink, knudge knudge)

Thanks for reading this. You should really pick up "A Live One", too.

Dear sir(s):
thanks for the glowing review.
please be advised, however, that there are
accountants backstage counting the money, but
they just look funny, so you don't spot 'em…
nick ben-meir
(cpa for tmv)

Contact Bob Lefsetz | View Lefsetz Letter Archives

NOTE: The views expressed in this editorial do not necessarily reflect the opinion of CelebrityAccess, Encore or its employees.