Photo: Illustration by Maya Robinson and Photo by Gonzales Photo/Lisa Meinen/The Hell Gate/Corbis
Despite what Vulture’s Stoner Week package may suggest, pot doesn’t work for everyone. So, as a kind of counterbalance, we spoke to singer-guitarist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. As the front man for the Mars Volta and At the Drive-In, Bixler-Zavala had a hand in some very successful, extremely stoner-friendly rock, full of hallucinatory lyrics and dense and intense song structures. (Here’s a whiff.) Since leaving the Mars Volta and forming a new band called Zavalaz, the California native’s music has gotten even more complex and layered — at the same time as its creator has gone from massive pothead to nonsmoker.
Here, Bixler-Zavala explains why he gave up pot. (As told to Corban Goble.)
I was a total monster. I was spending $1,000 a week on weed, and everyone I was in the band with at the time smoked as much as I did. There’s so much stupid behavior caused by weed, but I always had that cliché: I needed it for creativity. I’ve come to realize that at the end of the day, it’s only you yourself that creativity comes from. It doesn’t come from weed. In this day and age, the stuff people are smoking is not necessarily even naturally grown from the ground, anyway; it’s basically been altered to fuck you up and fuck you up royally. I don’t even know how some people are functional after smoking this stuff. And it’s so easy to get now, you can go to stores and buy it. I feel bad because I was always going into the stores to buy and I’d actually see AIDS patients and cancer patients there — and here I am buying in bulk but I didn’t really need it. I just thought I did. I was using it to form this stoned bubble that helped me justify not wanting to interact with people.
Strictly in terms of music, take the Grateful Dead. I’m a big Grateful Dead fan, but there are aspects of the Grateful Dead that I love now that I don’t smoke that are the opposite of what I used to like. Now I find myself being like, “Just gimme the goddamn hook!” When I was smoking I could probably listen to Infrared Roses on repeat. This is awesome! This is great! I mean, it’s not bad. It’s interesting, it’s a cool adventure in art, but now I just find myself wanting to listen to the core of the song, the core of what someone is trying to communicate. Because I was such a pothead, I was not really communicating all that much other than just being long-winded and trying to be difficult for the sake of being difficult. A lot of the stuff I cringe at, you know, ‘cause as a kid I always gravitated to that trippier stuff. I only got into shorter, more direct stuff like Kiss and Cheap Trick later on.
The thing is, smoking weed was part of my identity. My personality loved the way getting high felt. But why? I had this realization: I know what’s going to happen when I smoke, I know how hungry I’m going to get, I know how much money I’m going to spend, I know I’m never going to be as high as the first time I did it, so why am I still fucking doing this? I don’t want all my art and all my life to be defined by weed. I want to be known as someone who grew up a little.
That’s not to say I don’t like trippier music anymore. We still play a song that’s nine minutes long where I kind of exercise an old personality that I came to love. And that’s cool to do sober. It’s also not as if I’ve totally cut any contact with weed out of my life. People offer it to me all the time, I’m around it all the time, and the people I play with still smoke. I never think Oh, I’m above these guys! They smoke weed, I don’t. If people want to do it, that’s totally fine. Everyone has their own personal journey, but I wore out my welcome with it. For me, with my personality, I needed to do something different.
Personally — and not just musically — there are benefits to not smoking anymore. I’m better off socially. I talk to fans. I’m cool with taking pictures. I’ll sign whatever they want me to sign. That wasn’t me when I was smoking weed. There’s some stoners out there who can appreciate their audience and actually function when they’re high. I couldn’t. Now I can look at my audience and be like, Jesus Christ, thank you so much. It’s a nice thing to be clearheaded and make music.