Feature interview: At the Drive In

Joel Oliphint

When At the Drive In reunited for some shows in 2012, the legendary post-hardcore band opted not to release any new music, even though Relationship of Command, the El Paso five-piece's beloved and critically acclaimed major label debut, came out in 2000.

But in October of 2015, when the band decided to reunite again for a tour, the bandmates knew they were also committing to releasing new music — something its fans had been clamoring for since At the Drive In's abrupt hiatus in 2001 turned into a decade-plus dry spell.

“We had one meeting about the record in Seattle in 2016,” said ATDI drummer Tony Hajjar recently by phone. “At the meeting [we asked], ‘Was this going to be the record afterRelationship of Command but 16 years later, or was it the record afterRelationship of Command and no time has passed at all?' And we decided it would be the record where no time had passed.”

At every stop on the band's tour last year, At the Drive In set up a studio for writing and recording new songs. “Sometimes the engineer was alone in there. Sometimes there were one or two people. Sometimes it was all five of us,” Hajjar said. In July, the band flew to Seoul for a festival and began piecing the songs together in a studio there, then finished it off in Los Angeles.

After years and years of nothing, At the Drive In made new record in•ter a•li•a in about three weeks.

Hajjar said the band didn't have to work too hard to conjure up the frenetic quality ATDI is known for. Singer Cedric Bixler's dystopian lyrics, which he delivers like his life depends on every spat syllable, along with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's careening, aggressive guitar work,won over mostly empty rooms in the '90s. Over time, the rooms filled up and the venues got bigger. But Hajjar said when the band hits the stage now, which it will do on Tuesday, June 20 at Express Live, the feeling is the same as it was in those early years.

“We still have that same mentality: ‘Destroy everything. No one likes our band, so let's prove it to them that theyhave to like our band,'” he said. “We experienced what [very few] bands ever experience. Everyone hates you, then you become a band that everyone wants to see. It didn't happen overnight, but looking back, it felt a bit like it happened overnight, and we weren't prepared. We imploded.”

After the implosion, Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez went on to form experimental project the Mars Volta while Hajjar, guitarist Jim Ward and bassist Paul Hinojos formed Sparta. (Ward opted out of the recent ATDI reunion and has been replaced by Sparta guitarist Keeley Davis.) Hajjar also composed music for video games and movie trailers and plays in Gone is Gone, featuring members of Mastodon and Queens of the Stone Age.

At the Drive In has always been collaborative and democratic. In the past, the consensus-building could be frustrating and exhausting, but these days Hajjar said the bandmates are in a better place.

“The main ingredient isn't musical. The main ingredient is communication,” he said. “We know how to talk to each other now. It's a relationship, and now that we're grown men, we can sit down and communicate and not feel the weight of the world on our shoulders. … It's still that democracy, but the difference is, we applaud each other's strengths.”

And yet, the volatility that's essential to At the Drive In remains, whether in its apocalyptic lyrics (“Portrait of a family force-fed through tunnel straws, singing cannibal hymns of the bourgeoisie,” Bixler sings on “Governed by Contagions”) or its jittery, combative sound.

“As a band, we've always felt it's us against them, so I think that has always translated into our music. … There's something about the way we track together that has this shaky, unhinged feeling,” Hajjar said. “It's like a chemical equation of who's in the room. I've played with a lot of musicians, and the other guys have, too, but there's something about the feeling of these people that is unique to any band. There's a positive anxiety. I play differently in this band. There's an organic, explosive feeling.”

Express Live

7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20

405 Neil Ave., Arena District