To say At The Drive-In is a hard working band is an understatement. I don't think it would be dishonest to say that no other band has worked harder than these five skinny kids from El Paso, TX over the past three to four years. All along the slow climb, from their own record label, to Flipside, to Fearless and now to Grand Royal Records, the theory has been the same. Play honest rock, record it, then tour, tour, tour.
The band is getting more fans, but little else has changed.
If you talk to guitarist Jim Ward ("the white guy"), you would see he is still the chatty, sweetheart of a guy, who likes to talk about his girlfriend and ATDI and will eagerly share a beer with you.
Cedric and Omar are still the non-stop jokers, always keeping everyone laughing, and two of the most trusting, sincere guys you could know.
Paul and Tony are the quieter ones, preferring to have the attention away from them. Their shyness occasionally being misconstrued as ego; which couldn't be further from the truth as they're two of the most straight-forward, warm-hearted people around.
And though that may sound self-righteous, I'm not in the band, so i can say it, and it really is the core of the group's identity. This honesty comes across in the music, and serves as the indirect message of the band. There is no soapbox that they stand on, no political agenda, nor is there any of the "guy meets girl" swarmy love songs. There is just a glowing realness to them that the majority of rock bands today lack. The fact that they've played so many shows over the years and still put every inch of their beings into their set every night is a testament to this.
It takes barely a minute into "Arc Arsenal," the first track of AT THE DRIVE-IN's Grand Royal debut, Relationship Of Command, for all but the most jaded and spiritually bereft listener to realize: Something authentic and vital is happening here. And it's not only that familiar revolutionary spirit that typifies generations of musical revolutionaries from Guthrie to Dylan to Scott-Heron to Rage to Fugazi... True, that fire burns bright throughout every second of Relationship..., but there's something different here. AT THE DRIVE-IN's furor is informed at nearly every turn by a unique innocence; where their spiritual forebears offered up reflections on backlogs of experience, AT THE DRIVE-IN are still compiling, observing, still in the midst of the conflict. Resolution does not factor into these songs.
"It's sort of cinematic," says vocalist Cedric Bixler of the record's narrative thread. "Not cinematic like a Roman gladiator movie, but like Fellini's Satyricon: Students on their travels taking in everything around them. Traveling, being apart from our loved ones, away from where we grew up... There are always so many elements against us: our age, language barriers, hostile crowds, unfamiliar places. It's as if it's always been a battle until the people finally see us play. But hopefully the record is just a document of how we feel during and after all the time we spend playing music and all the feelings that arise from being out there so much."
The first incarnation of ATDI emerged from its El Paso TX breeding ground in the alternative nation heyday of 1994, and steadily amassed a loyal following through (you guessed it) non-stop touring and early releases such as In/Casino/Out (1998) and Vaya (1999) on So. Cal. indie Fearless. As the band's following expanded, so proportionately did its musical scope, pushing beyond the confines and conventions of emo, punk or any number of genres. In keeping with this musical progression, life would ultimately imitate art, and AT THE DRIVE-IN would leave El Paso.
"The record still has a lot of El Paso in it," Bixler explains. "We definitely moved out of there for a reason; it was always a love/hate relationship but I really tried for a long time. We put a lot of effort into trying to build a community there, gained and lost a lot, helped promoters out... We all tried our best. We just needed to get away for a while, but the hometown is still in the music, this desolate area that still drives us to fight for a fair honest chance which we never got until now."
It is additionally ironic that the recent fin de siecle musical malaise--the polar opposite of the era in which they started--would be the point at which ATDI's identity and potential were fully realized. Indeed, today's numbing backdrop of pop culture mediocrity and straight-up greed renders Relationship Of Command's music that much more fierce, its lyrical themes all the more vivid: Revolution deferred ("Must have read a thousand faces/Must have robbed them of their cause"--"Arc Arsenal"), state-sponsored apathy ("Pacifier pacifies/And the emperor still wears no clothes"--"Sleepwalk Capsules") and the ever-deteriorating relationship between elders in authority and disenfranchised youth ("Are we just infants/That are ripe for the training... This institution/Limps with the cane of suspicion"--"Pattern Against User"). What better environment, one might ask, for the continuation of conflict?
"It's always been an uphill battle," Bixler comments. "Now that we've gotten a little more recognition, we're fighting the snootiness of the punk scene, scenester seniority... Sometimes you just want to be given a fair chance at playing rock 'n' roll and just overlook all the regulations. You can do things on your own or you can do things with the help of label. Either way, it's just one big struggle"
No discussion of AT THE DRIVE-IN would be complete without mention of the live show the NME called "jaw-dropping in its intensity and spirit." "It's always just happened that way," Bixler says. "We'd be on some five-band bill in Houston or somewhere and there would be no there, and we'd somehow break five microphones during our 20 minute set. Shit got destroyed. It probably has a lot to do with just dealing with comments from people everyday, which is pretty common for myself and Omar, if you know what I mean. I think if we don't play like that, then we've played a bad show. It's complete therapy."
With able assistance from producer Ross Robinson, Relationship Of Command may very well be the first record to harness the chaotic balance of adrenaline and intellect of ATDI's live performance. "Ross was instrumental in bringing out a lot of feeling from us," Bixler recalls. "We channeled a lot of emotion into this record. He pushed us farther than we thought we could go. I learned to cut loose the way we do live and not to be afraid to break something or whatever."
Beyond delivering on ATDI's evident promise, Relationship...--whether intentionally or not--shines most brightly on its most surprising and experimental tracks. These include a guest turn by Iggy Pop on "Rolodex Propaganda," the (ahem) closing ballad "Non Zero Possibility," and the stunning "Invalid Litter Department," which stretches swatches of eerie imagery over spoken-word verses in retelling a grim true story.
"There was a gang at one time that was hired to kidnap maquilladoras," Bixler recalls. "They called themselves called the Rebels--I don't know what they were "rebelling" against. It's just an embarrassment to everyone there that these things could happen. To most people, this is El Paso: Richard Ramirez, the "Train Track Killer"... No wonder no one wants to play there. That has a lot to do with why we play the way we do.
"Maybe we can dispel the myth, the negative history. Maybe we can show people that something good could come out of such a desolate place."
Maybe they already have.