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At The Drive-In
At The Drive-InPhotography Clemente Ruiz & Chris Friedman

How At The Drive In came back from the brink

After one aborted reunion, countless side projects and 17 years of fall-outs, the post-hardcore legends are back – Cedric Bixler-Zavala breaks down their new album In•ter a•li•a

In the mid-90s punk scene of El Paso, Texas, you did whatever it took to get out and play. “We jumped on a show illegally,” remembers At The Drive In’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala of one of his first bands. “There was a big Sup Pop band called American Music Club, and my friend was like, we’re going to call (the venue) and say we’re them, and jump on the show. It worked – everyone thought we were the other band, we sort of hijacked it, but that’s the kind of stuff you do to survive.”

At The Drive In began in that same scene, hustling their way around the DIY circuit with dogged determination. The six years following the band’s formation were a whirlwind; their unique, verbose, and confrontational brand of post-hardcore propelled them out of the underground and onto an international stage. In 2000, they released Relationship of Command, held up by many as not only the band’s defining album, but a record that, almost two decades later, is considered a benchmark for what post-hardcore should be: unrestricted and complex but intriguing, aggressive, and artfully executed. The band was at its peak and ready to explode, but behind the scenes, things were falling apart. The following year, a toxic mix of drug use, animosity, and exhaustion led them to call it quits.

In•ter a•li•a, their fourth full-length album, comes after 17 years of side-projects and fall-outs. Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez formed the experimental rock troupe The Mars Volta, while the remaining members formed Sparta, but neither quite recaptured the unbridled, feral magic of At The Drive In. Rodriguez-Lopez released countless solo projects (and is still doing so today) and the former members of At The Drive In, now scattered across multiple bands and projects, alternated between trash-talking and reminiscing fondly about their time together in the press. Rodriguez-Lopez wrote off a short-lived 2012 reunion as “closing the chapter”, and it looked like At The Drive In really was over for good.

In•ter a•li•a, then, is the album fans thought they’d never get. It’s the result of a more considered reunion, where the band members have mellowed, put old differences to bed and communicated properly for the first time in years. Guitarist Jim Ward is the only absent member, and while he’s remained tight-lipped on his reasons for quitting the reformed At The Drive In despite initially being on board, Rodriguez-Lopez has previously said he simply “wasn’t ready”.

The ambiguous poetry of Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics on in•ter a•li•a captures the offbeat spirit the band’s always had, but the production is cleaner, his vocals are softer, and the subject matter, while not immediately obvious, is a scathing take on modern America. “We wanted to take the challenge and go back to what we were – and that’s what we did, as much as we could, because there’ll be some people who hear it and go, ‘You’re not screaming like you used to scream!’” laughs Bixler-Zavala. “The challenge is to honour what people would have wanted (as a follow-up to Relationship of Command) but I don’t think it would be believable if I went out screaming. That’s not where I am right now as a musician.”

“We wanted to take the challenge and go back to what we were – and that’s what we did, as much as we could” – Cedric Bixler-Zavala, At The Drive In

Social commentary is heavy throughout in•ter a•li•a, inspired by Bixler-Zavala’s passion for the work of Philip K. Dick. “A lot of stuff goes right back to him. You can look at things like The Man in the High Castle – the alternate reality of the Nazis having won – and I think he had his finger on the pulse of the future,” he muses. “His stuff speaks to the old persona I used to have when I used drugs, and the persona I have now as a father who’s sober. He has an amazing sense of caution. You see all this crazy shit happening all around us all the time but somehow we’re supposed to care about pop stars breaking up with other pop stars or Ryan Seacrest and E! Entertainment.”

He sounds like he’s going off on a tangent, but the measured way he delivers his monologue shows this is something Bixler-Zavala has spent a lot of time contemplating. “Young people say, ‘I care about that, I’m going to go on this march, but I really care about whether so-and-so has a real ass or not.’ I wanted to include all that (on the album) because that’s where we are today. I really hate to come off like Father John Misty, because I think he’s really eloquent and he can say it the best when you want a straightforward narrative put in front of you that you’re afraid of, but I like to think of it in a different way. The words aren’t immediately in front of your face.”

The first single, “Governed By Contagions”, touches directly on this, opening with the line “Portrait of a family force-fed through tunnel straws / Singing cannibal hymns of the bourgeoisie,” and “Hostage Stamps” follows a similar theme. “No Wolf Like The Present”, though, is one of the least ambiguous songs At The Drive In have ever done. “It’s my take on the war on African-Americans from an organised police force,” Bixler-Zavala reveals, yet it’s an area he was tentative about exploring because of how close to home it is for the band.

“It’s a tricky subject matter, especially within our band,” he says. “Our bass player (Paul Hinojos)’s father-in-law is a police officer; the drummer (Tony Hajjar)’s father-in-law is a detective. You want to open up this dialogue that doesn’t say ‘Fuck all police’, but if you’ve grown up with them breathing down your neck I can understand that point of view. For some of us who haven’t, you want to have that cognisant dialogue. Not all (police) are bad, so it’s tricky subject matter and sometimes I hide behind the way I write so it’s not so obvious. ‘Governed By Contagions’ has a little bit of that as well, it’s a precautionary tale of not getting to the point of North Korea.”

“It would be great if we could have just picked up where we left off, but you can’t. You have to adapt” – Cedric Bixler-Zavala, At The Drive In

Bixler-Zavala says he’s always been cynical and curious about the world since childhood, and in some ways, he’s harnessing the shitkicking rebelliousness on in•ter a•li•a that he felt during his time as a teen on the El Paso DIY scene. “To be involved in the subculture of punk rock puts you in a minority,” he says. “There were the rich, Narcos-style kids, and the poor Mexican kids. Chicano kids who didn’t speak Spanish, and those who did, who’d come over the border from Mexico. There was about five of us that would provide you a place to stay after a show in El Paso, and if the club had their heads up their ass and didn’t do all ages, then we’d take it to a garage or a back yard. Before that, in the 80s, we had small clubs where the Ramones or Youth of Today would come and play but those places came and went really fast, so by the time it was our sort of era it was a lot of house shows and back yard shows. I made friends that I still have to this day.”

One of those friends was Damon Locks, former vocalist of Chicago band Trenchmouth, who designed the cover art for Relationship of Command and – in a nod to the band’s roots – in•ter a•li•a. Another was, of course, Rodriguez-Lopez, or, as Bixler-Zavala remembers him then, “a little Puerto Rican who looks like Woody Allen”. The pair’s friendship was always a defining feature of At The Drive In and their subsequent band, The Mars Volta, but it looked as though it had turned sour in 2012 after At The Drive In’s first reunion, where they regrouped to play Coachella. That same year, Rodriguez-Lopez lost his mother, and Bixler-Zavala admits that he wishes he’d been more supportive.

“I was a very immature person, which doesn’t excuse me, but I got thrust into a situation I didn’t understand how to deal with,” he says. “We had two bands we were trying to juggle at the same time, we had to put our livelihoods and our bands on a break because of (the bereavement), and I didn’t know how to deal with it. You’d think I would have been a more sympathetic best friend but it was only when I had my kids that I thought, ‘Holy shit, there are more important things in life,’ and it put things in perspective. Now we could be functioning adults who can have a conversation that we weren’t really able to have in our twenties.”

Whether or not it’s all down to having been mellowed by fatherhood (Bixler-Zavala mentions his four-year-old twin boys Ulysses and Xanthus multiple times throughout the conversation), At The Drive In certainly seem to have found the personal and professional cohesion that the band lacked before. There’s no poetry or metaphors when Bixler-Zavala ponders on why that is. “It would be great if we could have just picked up where we left off, but you can’t,” he says. “You have to adapt.”

Rise Records released in•ter a•li•a on May 5