TuneDig is an in-depth and informed conversation between two lifelong friends about the power of music — one album at a time.

In each episode, we go down the rabbit hole to spend a while in the strange world we discover. We take an honest look at creativity in all its complexity—from writing and production to history and cultural impact.

We promise you’ll learn something new every time, no matter how much you already love the album we explore.

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Episode 015

Frances the Mute

The Mars Volta

Frances the Mute is a sonic séance, conjuring spirits buried beneath stories left behind by lost souls. The album finds restless living spirits walking a hallucinatory hall of mirrors of space and time, trying to find light beyond the darkness of a friend gone too soon. Don’t be afraid to get your mind bent—we’re here to guide you.

Transcript

Note: our transcripts are mostly AI-generated for now. 

Episode 015: The Mars Volta's "Frances the Mute": Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

Episode 015: The Mars Volta's "Frances the Mute": this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

You're listening to TuneDig, a podcast for music lovers. The premise is simple: in each episode, we dig deep into an album we love and then we give away a copy to you—

Kyle. I know it's our thing to give away a copy of the vinyl. I just looked on this guy and this thing is like five hundred dollars. Can we just give away a cassette tape?

Oh, allow it.

Ok, go to TuneDig.com To see what's up for grabs and learn more about us.

Today, we're talking about "Frances the Mute".

I am so excited to talk about this record. It's one of the most important records to both of us. I think I would venture to say in terms of expanding our palates, I'd come into the Mars Volta by way of deloused.

After a couple of listeners through deals like that became a thing that made a lot of sense to me in that clicked, so then I kind of became a student of what they had done up to that point. So then when this thing dropped, like I was just in the right place to be ready for it. The things that I liked most about Led Zeppelin and Banza were inspired by that were pushing Guitar Hero ism and instrumentation to the very fringes of anything reasonable and occasionally just going kind of off the deep end and then being able to come back into something. And if there's one thing that this record does well, musically, it's going absolutely way far out and then returning back to a hook because these songs are so long.

And I was primed for this record because a couple of years earlier, I had had a completely transformative experience with Queens of the Stone Age. When they blew up, they were my map off of the beaten path, so to speak, you know, introducing me to the Stooges and to. So then when you drop Frances the mute in my lap, I was ready for. All right, somebody give me the weirdest thing I can possibly find. The whole thing felt like an experiment to push as close to the edge as absolutely possible. It was very confrontational in that way. And to learn that that wasn't really what they were going for, like they were just trying to get to the center of themselves rather than the edge of anything else is is another thing that makes it really compelling to me. They weren't trying to be anything except who they were.

There is a reason that this record is shockingly strange and kind of dark in a different way than their previous records had been. I think the easiest way we can summarize why it's weird is this is their first sober album. But the reason that they got sober is probably the most important thing we can talk about conceptually for this record. Jeremy Ward, who is a part of their musical projects and who, as recently as deloused in the crematorium, had created soundscapes. So he was like the sound manipulator for the band, which is still like one of the greatest things to do in a band. And your job is just to make the weird noises.

What junctures in your life get you up to? I'm going to turn knobs and stuff on stage.

What's the interview process like? How many ping pong balls would fit in a bus rear?

So Jeremy Ward was a close friend of theirs. And it's kind of inescapable that we mentioned at this point that they all did heroin. That's not conjecture, right? That's really clearly stated.

And Jeremy OD'd in his L.A. home in 2003, just before deloused came out and they were already starting to write music for Frances. The mute before deloused was done and all that, you know, and it was incredibly impactful and sad to them. Right. Like he was not just a band member, like he was a part of a larger musical family. He was Jim Ward's cousin. Jim was in at the drive in and would later be in Spada. We got. They were all kind of a family and seen together in El Paso, not only did it create kind of a on a personal level, a big change for Cedric and Omar, but then on top of it, Jeremy Ward has a very specific connection to the concept of the album entirely.

Jeremy had previously worked as a repo man, and one day he found a diary in the backseat of a car that he was repossessing and as it's told, at least began to know the similarities between his life and that of the author. This diary that he found and they had both been adopted was one of the big parts of it. But the diary talked about, you know, this person's search for his biological parents being guided by a number of people trying to find these people and their names, in fact, being the basis for each named track of Frances the Mute.

The diary itself wasn't a complete story and also seemed to be told by someone who was quite troubled. Right. But when Jeremy found this, he kind of took it upon himself to try to finish the story. And so the story of this person whose car had been repossessed, that was writing a diary about finding his biological parents, created this motif for the Mars Volta to work off of and write basically a series of just outrageously weird musical explorations and songs about someone searching for meaning and connection and family at a at a pretty dark time.

Part of the interviews during the album cycle was about how he had found the diary, but it took a long time and it was aided by Internet culture and message board culture for interpretations of the story to be really fully fleshed out. And there's a lot of really good debate. But it always struck me these were like ghost stories. These were guys telling handed down tales, parables, the lyrics being sort of nonsensical. It was all meant to be more evocative than anything else, but it was definitely haunted. It always struck me as a record about death, even though I didn't really know the full story of Jeremy Ward.

Cedric was talking about it specifically. And I think this kind of illuminates what you were just talking about. He said. Sometimes this record can be about finding the missing piece and trying to look for a biological family as opposed to maybe just realizing your family is whoever is around you at the time. But then he says you just kind of create this corpse and it comes to life and it becomes its own thing. And this gigantic open ended question, as opposed to like a solid meaning or concept.

One thing that I don't think I've explicitly realized, but I think I sort of inherently knew because I love Scob dates because it is just so brain trying. Parts of sickness especially came directly out of one hundred percent improvised jams in those live sessions. So, yes, it got to a place where it was honed and written, but it was really it was really conjured more than anything else because there's such a almost religious fervor to their playing in the live setting. And, you know, you start digging into their influences and you can see some of where that came from. Omar and Cedric, there is a lot of that Catholic Latin influence triangulated with John Theodores influence from not only John Bonham, but Billy Cobham and Mahavishnu Orchestra. There's like speaking in tongues quality to the music where they're they're trying to get the Holy Ghost out of themselves and it really, really, really starts to come through on this record. But out of jams that were born in a live setting. I think that's why they're so, so much further to the playing on this record.

Like, I think that's a great way to understand the way that they were writing music at this time, because things were coming out naturally of pure improvization. And yet Omar was meeting individually with each member of this band to practice their individual parts and write individual parts for each song.

Each movement slowed down. Can you imagine playing some of these parts over and over? Slow down. It's almost like they're reverse engineering their understanding of something that they've conjured. It came out of us organically, but that's not how we're going to deliver it.

We need to get to know ourselves inside and out in John Theater and noted that this was the first time he ever felt like he thought about each individual move of his arms and feet ever.

But that's an important way, I think, to understand the complexity of this record is fascinating for a lot of reasons, not only from the songwriting perspective, but also just thinking about it overlaid with what we've talked about so far, the context of what they were learning.

Is this coming out of learning to be sober or is that irrelevant?

Is this coming out of a seriousness of wanting to honor Jeremy's memory and using him as part of the story, or is that irrelevant?

There was an interesting quote from, I think Omar.

It was either Omar or Sedrick said, Ever since I was a teenager and had various listening experiences with the likes of King Crimson John Coltrane and Bitches Brew, I always wanted to do something like Cassandre later on the record, something deformed and out of control, something enormous and violent. That whole album fit it into one composition, something ruthless that no one can remain careless to.

And to your point about why they did it the way they did it, I think maybe it wasn't about the means so much as the end. It was about something ruthless that no one could remain careless to.

That's a great way to segway into the music itself. This thing is seventy seven minutes long. But Cassandra Jemini, which you just mentioned, Omar talking about wanting to create this one thing that was kind of an album in and of itself. Cassandra Jim and I was a thirty two minute song and is a thirty two minute song. And you can tell that because the same hook comes back in on different songs. The reason it's divided that way is because of how record contracts work. If they didn't create enough tracks, they would only get royalties as if it were an EP, a seventy seven million or so in CD format especially. This is all subdivided into a bunch of tracks and then probably named semi arbitrarily.

There's so much friction between art and commerce on this record because they've divided these pieces of music in ways that are not recognized or respected by the commerce and the sales of the record. On vinyl in particular, Cassandra was split on the two sides right in the middle of one of the movements. But interestingly, Art also won out a little on the vinyl. Each side of the vinyl, say, for the last one has a locked groove on it. So it either repeats a sound effect or a bar of music endlessly until the needle is lifted. So you don't just get the pop. And unless you get some of that weird ghost in the machine thing, the end of the first side and the start of the third side also contain the bookends of Livia Vásquez. And those small portions are indexed separately. And it's still really interesting that on Spotify there are two different versions. There's the five track version where it's just the movements by themselves and then there's something like 20 tracks where each little piece is broken up. There's almost no way to get it quite right.

And speaking of that artistry versus commercialism on this album, this is the first time I can remember being happy, ironically, about the single that came out of an album.

Like when I heard The Widow on MTV, it made me laugh out loud because even the single that Universal takes off of this record is about a vendor selling addictive black mush that drips out of your eyes after you've eaten it. He's got bastin black. It's a song that was partly inspired by Cedric's mom's vision of the devil when she was young, she had gone out to buy ice cream and she couldn't remember the vendors face, but she couldn't get the image of chicken feet out of her head.

This dream that his mom had had, combined with this weird dream where he encountered his own father and smeared black, putting on his face like and this is the best thing that you could pull out of this for a single right to put on MTV, because it was something resembling a structured song, which they then also still had to cut out minutes and minutes of just two thirds of the song of just of noise manipulation and stuff like really abrasive noise manipulation, too.

And I remember if you were trying to put it on a mix CD, you had to trim it down first, because otherwise four minutes of it is just a mood killer.

And the other thing that perhaps made that more marketable was flea playing trumpet and John for Shanti's involvement.

And the chili peppers are obviously a huge, huge global phenomenon still at this point, I think this record would have been like a year before a Stadium Arcadium. So this is post Californication era, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Get back to that a little bit.

So they were marketing them a little bit as like the Chili Peppers, weird friends, I think that was a lot of people's entry point. I just got a lot of pleasure over the years thinking about that part of the widow ends and it goes into the noise and then just a whole frat party of people that put it on a playlist have to suffer through this. And it just ruins the whole vibe of the room. It's so good. So, so good.

But that connective point is so great because John's solo on LVA LBA squares. Is that even how you.

I don't know. Sorry to everyone.

I took French in high school, which paid off, but John's John Coltrane Elvia Vasquez is like one of the greatest guitar solos to me. Man, it comes in hot. It has movement.

He's one of two guests on that album that Omar loves, and each one of those two guests kind of get their own chance to improvise. And John's is kind of just raw. It just has this awesome apex. And then the next one is a lot less phloem.

Also in the vocals on that song in Spanish, I just remember being like, this isn't there's there's going to sing it this way.

There's no English, there are no subtitles on this CD at all.

There are so many just weird, great moments, even starting right at the beginning of the record, a lot like Queens of the Stone Age of Songs for the Deaf. You start this record at a volume level that will betray you. Yeah, which is the greatest. Because the first time you put this record on, if you don't know it's come in, you go ahead and crank that thing up.

The.

It sounds like they're playing very far away from you. It's like outside and it's dark and you are following a sound that's far away and then goes right into kind of a complex rhythm that they would keep up throughout this whole thing.

One of the things that's jarring is not just the volume. You feel like you're in a car that just took off at full speed.

The inspiration of Bonzo is really plain to me in the sense that will go from nothing to really fast and then will space all the way out. And then there are several moments where in the middle of being spaced out, you come back in with this really heavy kind of half time rhythm, and they do that two or three times throughout the record.

And that was one of the things I always loved about Zeppelin, was because Bonzo would be the person to bring you back to reality. Right. And John Theodore does that so well here.

Theodore can take these beats that are really straightforward and motoric and find the swing in them a little. He has such a natural swing. Right. That obviously comes from Bonzo. I think that's where a lot of that comes from. In particular, one of the more robotic queen songs is sick, sick, sick. And I love listening to the studio version and then immediately going and watching a live version with Theodore, where it goes from sounding like that at dat dat dat dat dat dat to it sounds like Wilson Pickett's Land of a Thousand Dances to me. The way he plays the beat. This record is that in prime time all the time. It's just it's real complex chops played with a swing that no one else can emulate. He's the best drummer alive on.

That first song is one of my favorite examples because they hit this Super Mathey part. I remember that was the moment I was hooked on this album not long into the first track.

He goes from that and they come back and I mean, it's just this awesome moment, the heavy drumbeat comes in.

And there's something so dramatically heavy and dark about it, but it never loses the groove, the sort of quiet groove that they get in as one of my favorite moments on the record and to the point about it being sort of classical in nature and being really movement oriented, that's the part of sickness that comes back at the end of Miranda.

Is a really interesting one being situated in the middle of the record where a lot of it is like borderline field recording. And then there's a song sort of shoved away in the middle of it and then it fades away again.

And then that part of Cygnus comes back, but it's refracted and that's intended to evoke memory and dream. But that groove is one that I could just sit and listen to over and over and over again. And the the hard thing about it is that some of these really incredible parts are couched in larger movements, that you can't really separate them.

There was a great quote in one of the reviews that said, At no point should music from this album be excerpted and viewed as a piece. It's a single and singular entity with the highest playing off the lows. It's a quiet, starry night reprieve from the chaos of what's just happened, all trying to make sense of the chaos of a thing that these guys have experienced. This record sold 100000 copies in its first week. It debuted at number four on Billboard. And yet I don't understand at all how this was so popular. And the one time that I ever got to see them was after Jon Theodore left the band. They had Thomas Peregian. It was on the Belmond Goliath tour. They played one song that lasted thirty five minutes like they started and then didn't stop playing an idea for thirty five minutes and we were standing up. It was a weeknight and yet there were all these people there that didn't look like they would be into this kind of music. But so were and so much of the Mars Volta even to this day is still so inexplicable to me.

It did seem like people gathered around a volatile live show like a lot of people that I didn't think would be into that sort of music at all were like, oh, yeah, I'm there because I'm there to see whatever it is they're going to do for the next hour and a half.

Cedric's lyrics are one of the things, obviously, that make it seem super psychedelic and strange, but a component of what he did was inspired by William S. Burroughs. So like Cedric is just very literature oriented in his approach. And Burroughs have that exercise. He did the cut up exercise where he would take words or phrases that he liked and just sort of would let go of his attachment of the structure of them and move things around in order to create word clouds, almost different combinations and different juxtapositions of you. Put this phrase in front of this phrase and it changes the whole context of what you see in your mind's eye, which is a really brilliant thing about the way both of those dudes wrote.

Cedric was talking about how a lot of the lyrics were written on the spot and that they were recording these and that he was standing in front of a wall of televisions because Omar would collect TVs and then put all these like super weird, disparate things on all the different televisions. And so he didn't have lyrics written right away to a lot of things. And so they were just trying to do vocal takes to the music to figure it out. And so he would just kind of make up gibberish based on whatever he was seeing. And he said that sometimes Omar just wanted to keep the gibberish takes because they liked him a lot better because it was just the first reaction to the music.

So instead of having it make a lot of sense lyrically, it made sense emotionally and they just chose to keep something that made less sense.

And so just that give and take and that contrast of being both extremely rehearsed, like we talked about earlier with Omar rehearsing each part with everyone to be on the same page and then all the way on the other side in the same record to just say, you know what, your words don't even matter. Just literally whatever comes out of your mouth that feels inspired to this music is something we ought to keep like. That's the Mars Volta. That's why I cry that they don't exist anymore.

You know, they're very smart, studied dudes across history and sociology and literature, and they're very well versed in a lot of ways. And the other inspirational touch point I thought was really provocative for me was Jodorowsky. And we're sitting here with Holy Mountain on to try and evoke the feeling of watching a Mars Volta record.

And it is so right on because it's all images that don't make linear narrative sense and it's transgressive and a lot of it feels really wrong. And there's so much of a religious aspect to it and there's so much death in it.

It's an expression of of like monolithic ideas about what it means to be alive and how wrongheaded we are about the expression of aliveness and normal culture. It's all super strange. The more that I try to talk it out and to be out of my head, the less any of it makes sense to me. But that's one of the things that I think was so rad about them the whole time.

Well, I think that makes sense and. I feel like this record makes me feel afraid, but any time I try to talk about what I'm afraid of, there's no shape.

To that thing that I feel afraid of and so to me in a way that I never really would have appreciated unless I could read some of the intent from Cedric and Omar, I see now that they did manage to create a thing that feels like I'm going to create a corpse, I'm going to raise something up that's dead and see if I prop it up for a while, if I can explore it and make it feel alive.

But turns out, not really. I'm just sort of afraid and I don't know why and I don't know of what you know, they had a member of their family just leave and how that must have felt to try to figure out why and what that means.

Because we all go through that when we experience that sort of closeness to death doesn't mean something. Every time we try to put some shape or substance to whatever it means, we find it to be hollow. And eventually we just kind of put it back where it came from and move on. I just I guess we're going to put the corpse back in the ground and move on. Time to walk out of the graveyard.

That's a really excellent point. There's a great review of this record that I think was trying to be funny, but sort of gets to a more earnest place. Like what you mentioned. This record is like being handed a beer that you didn't realize was spiked with acid. We had a good laugh about reading that review. Then somewhere over the course of the show, you're standing in the mosh pit and that you realize all life as a single shared vibration. That I think really brings it home for me what this record is about, trying to understand why things happen the way they do eventually of learning that we will never understand. And just short of shrieking your way through that until the very end.

Go to TuneDig.com to sign up for our emails and click the link in the email when you want to win. That's it.

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Original "Bitches Brew" Art

To celebrate the endless creativity of Bitches Brew—and especially its famous album artwork—TuneDig partnered with two incredible Atlanta-based artists to create one-of-a-kind, handpainted gatefolds.

With the spirit of the original art in mind, each artist brought their own vision to life. These pieces will spark conversation for any jazz fan.

Each piece includes a new vinyl copy of Bitches Brew. 100% of the purchase price goes directly to the artist, so take this opportunity to support the arts in the raddest possible way.

Seriously. There’s literally only one of each. Make it yours. 😎

SEASON 5 EPISODES

TuneDig Episode 41: Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”

Let’s be clear: "Bitches Brew" is a challenging record, even to some of the best musicians in the world — but all of them say it’s worth the investment. It’s the kind of trip that, even if we *could* draw a map, it wouldn’t take you there. Let go of the need for meaning and enjoy the ride with us. We can promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised where you end up.

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TuneDig Episode 40: Fiona Apple’s “Tidal”

On the heels of one of 2020's most acclaimed albums — Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters — we revisited Apple’s debut Tidal and wound up working to extract ourselves from the mostly male gazes that made its reception … much different. We arrive at a question much like writer Jenn Pelly had: “People would constantly prod Fiona on how an 18-year-old could write songs as mature as these ... Why did they not ask instead how she became a genius?”

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TuneDig Episode 39: Death Grips’s “The Money Store”

The modern world is accelerating beyond our control, shaping our reality in ways we can’t yet perceive or understand. Enter Death Grips, an art project capturing the chaotic energy and illustrating the absurdity of our hubris in trying to harmonize the surreal and extremely real — never more perfectly than on 2012’s prescient "The Money Store".

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TuneDig Episode 38: Augustus Pablo’s “King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown”

Reggae music is easy to take for granted, but its impact is underappreciated and massive — in the case of dub in particular, everyone from Radiohead to Johnny Rotten to Run-DMC owes it a debt. Augustus Pablo and King Tubby together created what’s regarded as “one of the finest examples of dub ever recorded.” Join us as we dive into the culture, history, and unique engineering experiments that made it possible.

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TuneDig Episode 37: Rihanna’s “ANTI”

By every measure — sales, awards, chart-toppers, global name recognition — Rihanna is objectively as big as the Beatles ever were. In fact, ANTI is so big it’s still on the charts, a record five full years later. Take a closer look with us at “the record you make when you don’t need to sell records”, and get a taste of the true freedom that comes from focusing on your inner voice when faced with insurmountable expectations.

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TuneDig Episode 36: Son House’s “Father of Folk Blues”

All American music traces back to the blues, and deep at the root sits Son House. That the recordings on "Father of Folk Blues" even exist is something of a gray area that cuts to the heart of the great American myth, but wherever you land after hearing these stories, you’ll find that what matters most is what the great Muddy Waters once said of House: “That man was the king.”

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TuneDig Episode 35: Melvins’s “Stoner Witch”

The futility of describing the Melvins has stretched critics in the direction of absurd words like “Dadaist” for nearly 40 years now. They’ve belligerently flogged any attempt to pinpoint their essence simply by being themselves, but "Stoner Witch" remains a reliable mall directory for the Melvins’ vast and wild discography. Grab yourself some pretzel bites.

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TuneDig Episode 34: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

We should talk about Dolly the way we talk about Prince. Her extraordinary kindness and unique kitsch both make her universally loved, but what gets left out of the conversation is the very thing that made her famous: the music. Join in as we focus attention on the sonics and songwriting of the low-key masterpiece "Jolene".

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RADIO EPISODES

SEASON 4 EPISODES

SEASON 3 EPISODES

SEASON 2 EPISODES

SEASON 1 EPISODES

BONUS TRACK EPISODES

Kyle and Cliff

BONUS TRACK: How We Got Here

We got a bunch of interesting listener feedback in our off-season, and it encouraged us to shed some light on why we do things the way we do ‘em. Also, we reflect on our first writeup, which was ... interesting.

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ABOUT US

We're Cliff (left) and Kyle (right). We’re two dudes born and raised in ATL with day jobs in tech and entertainment, respectively.

We met in middle school, and in one way or another, music’s been the thing that’s kept us close for the two decades since — whether it’s sharing and talking about new music (like this podcast, except in our texts or over beers), going to shows, or working with our favorite record stores to help them survive and thrive.

We started TuneDig as a little art project that connects us more deeply ourselves and to the world through the infinite gift of music. We hope you’ll join us for the conversations, let us know what you think, and share discoveries of your own.

More About TuneDig

TuneDig began as a little something called MusicGrid.me, which we created after realizing there was no place online to directly exchange music recommendations with your friends. Our aim was simple: to make rating albums simple, useful, and social. We got some love from places like MashableWiredEvolver.fm, and Hypebot. We managed to foster conversation between music lovers, get thousands of reviews, and meet great people.

Along the way, we realized that record stores were an essential part of the music lovers’ community. After many a conversation about how we could helpfully connect them to the people who loved them, we began helping them leverage technology to create new revenue streams and embrace streaming services without giving up what’s unique to them: expertise and curation. (Long live the counter clerk who knows exactly which record will be the right introduction to jazz fusion!)

TuneDig is our vision to connect music lovers with the music they love, because no matter how much has changed in the way we discover and enjoy music, recommendations from people you trust and respect will always be the best way to find new music you’ll dig. With this podcast, we’re channeling the spirit of trusted curation pioneered by record stores, and bringing you something to take you deeper into music you can love.