You’ll notice there is no hyphen (Drive In, not Drive-In) nowadays. Founder member Jim Ward is also missing, having declined to be a part of the latest At The Drive In reunion. Apart from that, not a great deal else has changed for this recently reformed and hugely revered band, and following the release of the excellent in•ter a•li•a album earlier this year, it was all systems go. Still with so much to offer, and with the requisite (ahem), drive, to get there quick and easy, they are simply carrying on where they left off, making up for lost time.
They were already almost ‘there’ some 17 years ago when they dropped Relationship of Command on the market, an album that saw the band’s fortunes suddenly – and literally – blast off. Having fought their way through the crowded post-hardcore field for several hard and long years, suddenly At The Drive In were being feted as kingmakers, at the tip of the iceberg. The biggest and best. The most extraordinarily creative band in the studio, and the most explosive band on stage. They were literally dynamite, until it exploded in their faces just a short while after that album’s release, a toxic if time-honoured combination of inter-band and personal problems culminating in their splitting up.
Subsequently voted 12th best album of the 00s by NME, and the 37th most influential album of all time by Kerrang!, Relationship of Command perfectly fused all the necessary ingredients together: a melodic drive, emotive vocals, surreal lyrics and an aggressive hardcore edge. Importantly, it took them out of the hardcore ghetto to be embraced by the wider rock fraternity. Television appearances on Letterman and Later… cemented their appeal. Their incredible live power was a sight (and sound) to behold. They seriously rocked, and looked the part too, afros’n’all. They alchemised chaos and noise, looked and sounded vaguely deranged, but carried it off with an incendiary streak of serious aural aggression. They looked possessed and performed as if possessed. Like a mash up of MC5 (vision) and Fugazi (sound), they made Black Sabbath sound like fluffy soft-rockers. For a generation, Relationship of Command was a defining moment. Even Robbie Williams, on Later…, looked totally stunned when he watched the band as he prepared to follow them with one of his ‘show’ tunes, ‘Supreme’.
Having made their mark again in the States, the band are currently in the UK, touring with Royal Blood, looking to make their presence felt once again. Although they are a band who could easily headline their own tours, they’ve taken the strategic decision to take a supporting role this time around, before they come back in the spring for a headline UK and European tour. “It’s been incredible actually,” says Tony Hajjar, drummer with the band. “We haven’t, since we got back together, done one opening spot. We were in agreement that we needed to go out there and challenge ourselves, play to people who haven’t heard of us, had no idea what we do. This came out of now here. We got a call from Royal Blood, and we immediately jumped on it. And we’re glad we did. The crowds are great and the boys are amazing. Incredible people, and an incredible band, and it’s been fun hanging out with them.”
When we speak they are in the middle of three consecutive nights at the Alexandra Palace, London, before the tour winds its way to a finish in Brighton, the home town of Royal Blood. “It’s a different crowd. They’re younger, they listen to different things, different radio stations. They come from a different world. Royal Blood have the privilege of tapping into them, and now we have the privilege of playing for them. It’s a battle every night,” admits Hajjar. “But honestly, we enjoy the battle. Our whole career before people really got into our band was a fight. Every night was a fight. Let’s just see what happens! We kind of missed that feeling, so it’s been really nice to go out there and do it.”
It does sound like a good match up, between At The Drive In, experienced pros and Royal Blood, the new heavyweight champs. They’re good guys, aren’t they? “They’re genuine in every way. They’re genuine, they’re generous, they’re positive. They always come and check in on us. That attitude goes down the ladder; their production, their crew, all get treated with the utmost respect. We’re greeted with the utmost respect. Sometimes you don’t get that when you’re on tour, even with a ‘special guest’ position.”
I mention that the tour ends in Royal Blood’s home town. So, will there be some letting down of hair, possibly? “We’re all going to go home the day after, but we’re definitely going to hang out and see how Royal Blood does it in their home town. Ben (Thatcher, and fellow drummer with Royal Blood) and I share a little bit of tequila every night, so we’ll see what happens!”
There wasn’t always such positivity with At The Drive In. After years of relentlessly touring, recording, and repeating that cycle, it all came to a head despite their new found success, both critical and commercial. In September 2000 they released Relationship of Command. By the spring of 2001 they called a halt. It was a massive let down. They had just been dubbed ‘the new Nirvana’ by NME, and were in the process of helping to demolish the cartoonish nu-metal and pop-punk scenes, where the likes of the criminally overrated Limp Bizkit and Green Day were ruling the roost. The relentless touring played a part. As did lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s spiralling drug habit, that included a reported $1,000-a-week weed habit. “You’re doing this in front of everyone, who are kind of waiting to see if it’s going to explode,” he has said recently of that time. “Especially the UK press. If they smelled blood, they were gonna go for it.”
“I definitely had anger issues,” says Hajjar. “People were dealing with a million things and we didn’t know how to talk.” “A rock band is a family, especially when you’re five kids growing up together. You’ve shared a lot,” says Bixler-Zavala.
The band eventually split into two factions. Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez soon formed the equally successful progressive-rock band The Mars Volta, while Jim Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos and Hajjar set up alt-rock outfit Sparta, who also enjoyed some success (the current version of Sparta is headed up by Jim Ward). However it seemd that At The Drive In had some unfinished business, and reformed in 2012 to undertake a few shows, but apparently with no thoughts of making their return permanent.
So, what happened exactly? Why did they split up in the first place, just when they were getting mainstream recognition? “It was a little bit of everything,” says Hajjar. “For us it was a whirlwind. From the most hated band on the punk-rock touring circuit, to one of the most beloved bands. NME’s writing, you know, the next Nirvana on the cover. And we’re like, ‘What!?’ We went from a year and half prior of everyone hating our band. It was combustible. We weren’t really combustible people. But what was going on around us, a lot of bands when they break, they break in one country at a time, or one region. When we finally broke, we broke around the world all at the same time. And everyone wanted this and wanted that. And what should have happened when people saw us exhausted and about to implode, they should have taken us off the road, and made us stay off the road for three or four months. No one did that. It’s a lack of experience, it’s not a blame. But, how lucky are we that we formed two other bands that had success as well, and had plenty of major label records, and toured the world continuously after that? That doesn’t happen that often. We’re blessed with all that.
“In general, the shows that we did in 2012… it wasn’t a decision (to not carry on) that this isn’t right. It was really a plan of doing ten shows. That was literally the plan. We enjoy jamming together, so let’s do ten shows. Let’s not put a tonne of pressure on ourselves, and make sure we have a good time. And we did.” says Hajjar. “It was interesting. It was tense. Things hadn’t really mended yet. But it helped the process of healing,” says Bixler-Zavala. “At that point we were thinking about writing, but there were some internal issues between Cedric and Omar that were highly publicised (Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez weren’t getting on, and shortly afterwards The Mars Volta split up, temporarily ending a more than 20-year musical relationship between the pair). “In 2014 we got back together and got into a studio and didn’t really care if were writing or not. It was all about talking and venting and feeling each other out again,” says Hajjar. “There’s only love when there’s pain expressed,” says Bixler-Zavala. “That was all done in a positive way. But then life took us all in different directions again! For some reason it didn’t happen,” says Hajjar. “But in October 2015 we sat down in a hotel in El Paso and said: ‘Here’s a line in the sand. Whoever crosses it is committed to touring in 2016, writing a record while we’re on tour, and recording at the end of ’16. And then doing a massive campaign throughout ’17 and ’18’. And, that was it. We went for these strange baby steps, but we felt we had to. It felt right.”
They kept true to their word. Except for one of the band founders, Jim Ward, who decided it didn’t feel right for him just a few days before a reunion tour was about to begin. With no apparent ill-feeling between him and the band, they recruited Keeley Davis, who had been a member of Sparta, to fill his boots. So, at the end of 2016, they went into a studio to record what would become in•ter a•li•a, an album that is a very worthy, if very long awaited follow up to Relationship of Command. It’s a thrilling ride, full of wacky time signatures and surreal, paranoid-leaning lyrics. “You know what? We’re proud of in•ter a•li•a. We gave in•ter a•li•a our all. We tracked it just like we tracked every other record; live, in your face, full throttle. And I think you can hear that. Now, we’re just continuing a run where we’re about to release an EP called Diamante, which has three brand new songs that we wrote and recorded in Hamburg in August. That’s the way we’ve always gone. Just write and record immediately. It’s been a very productive period for us. We’re making up for a lot of lost time.”
I’m curious. Sometimes, there seems no obvious starting point, no rhyme or reason for how the pieces fit together. How does a At The Drive-In track come about? “It starts with one riff. For instance ‘Governed by Contagions’, which is off in•ter a•li•a. We’re sitting in our practice room in Philadelphia. Paul had that main riff on bass. I’m playing along to it, Omar is in there, and we’re like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah’. We just go, we don’t even think about it. I accidentally went ‘da da da DAH’, da da da DAH’ and Omar stops me and says, ‘There’s our chorus’. We were recording it, and we listened to it and those toms became the rhythm of the chorus. We don’t let time weigh us down in our writing. We just go, and we don’t stop until it’s finished. We give it a break and then we’ll go back to it a few days later. I think if you write at that speed it’s all natural. That’s how we record as well. If it’s not working out, we move on. We do it as fast as we can. It’s always worked for the band. That’s how every song has ever been composed by this band. It’s literally very quick, straight to recording it, and without over thinking it. We just make sure it’s good, in the sense we like it. We recorded in•ter a•li•a within a very short period of time. I think the mix took longer than the actual recording.”
No regrets then? “Is there a regret? Yes. The regret is we didn’t sit down and say this needs to be our plan. Don’t let anybody divert us from the plan, us taking a break and coming strong. But, it didn’t happen. If there’s a regret, it’s that we didn’t speak to each other for eight years. We loved each other. To this day we spend our days off together. We spend our days on together. We’re rarely apart, all five of us. We’re always together in one room. Let’s go to a movie, let’s go and have dinner. I think we’re trying to make up for all that lost time, and we’re all enjoying the continued success that we’re very, very lucky to still have.”