With last month’s At The Drive-In news still ringing in his ears, Getintothis’ Paul Riley gleefully anticipates the return of one of rock’s most exciting bands.
At The Drive-In are back. A tweet last month which linked to a video consisting of 15 seconds of unheard material was followed the next day by an announcement of a 2016 world tour and the promise of new music. The day after that, Friday January 21, saw tickets for their London show sell out in under three minutes.
For those who were lucky enough to pick up those tickets, the announcement that they are writing new music together is like manna from heaven, particularly when we think about the lukewarm, brief, and somewhat conflicted reunion of 2012. For the wider music world, this could be massive.
The modern rock scene is bloated, bland and for the most part, a sea of ever-widening waistbands, receding hairlines and ever-increasing levels of self-aggrandisement and colossal egos. No one in their right minds gives a fuck that Guns n Roses are back, surely?
It has recently been reported that ‘Coldplay will follow in the footsteps of The Clash and The Cure when they receive the Godlike Genius honour at this year’s NME Awards.‘ Ok, this is exactly the kind of uninspired pap one expects from the NME, but even so, surely no sentence sums up the plight of modern rock more than that utterly depressing death-knell.
In a time when the best we have to look up to is vanilla-beige Chris Martin, a geriatric Axl Rose or the increasingly bloated and irrelevant stadium-wank iteration of the once-brilliant Muse, the return of At The Drive-In is one reunion that should be taken notice of. If they do this right, it has the potential to be incredible.
The convoluted history of ATDI and The Mars Volta is a story of heartbreak, tantalism, catharsis and joyful brilliance. Indeed, when taken altogether their artistic output is arguably fit to rank alongside some of the greatest bodies of work in popular music.
Originally formed in 1993 by vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Jim Ward, the band quickly released two EPs followed by debut album Acrobatic Tenement. Shortly after the album’s release, bassist Omar Rodríguez-López switched to guitar, and with Paul Hinojos on bass and Tony Hajjar on drums, the current line up was cemented. While there is no doubting the excellence and meaningful contributions of Hinojos, Hajjar and Ward, it is the pairing of Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López that make this musical story so engrossing.
At The Drive-In, during their initial eight year career, went from playing high schools and basements to being on the brink of taking over the world as one of the most explosive and utterly original bands ever to have graced rock music.
Elements of post-rock/hardcore, as well as influences of prog and metal, were brought together into something quite distinctive, but it was a long and difficult path to recognition. For a long time, no-one cared. They took a lot of drugs and played a lot of poorly attended shows, in bowling alleys and other people’s apartments. At one point they even pretended to be a polka group so they could get on a TV show.
A first listening to 2000’s Relationship of Command proved a revelatory experience. From the opening salvo Arcarsenal, right through to the closing bars of Catacombs, that first listen was like an aural punch in the face. Encompassing much more than just the lead single One Armed Scissor, it is an album that causes the listener’s pulse to quicken and to challenge musical preconceptions.
Trying to describe the music is practically impossible in any brevity. Two comparisons do crop up, however. For a group emerging in the midst of Nu-Metal, there are two other bands that will always be linked to them, in terms of style and impact. Firstly, Rage Against The Machine, for Tom Morello’s insane guitar technique, and Zack de la Rocha’s vitriolic vocal delivery. The fire and anger of RATM are present and correct in At The Drive-In.
The second band are System of a Down. Their early albums in particular brought a Middle-Eastern flavour to the heavy rock template, creating something unique and vital, just as ATDI did with their Latino heritage.
2000’s Relationship of Command was a critical success which brought them to the brink of superstardom, with a world tour, numerous TV appearances and relatively successful radio single in the aforementioned One Armed Scissor. After a road accident while on tour and an altercation with fans in Sydney (who were ignoring safety rules about moshing), the band cancelled European dates and then broke up just before the US tour that should have propelled them into the ranks of guitar-band royalty.
The reason for their untimely demise has variously been attributed to the overwhelming pressure of the hype that was building around the band, a relentless touring schedule, Cedric and Omar’s affection for hard drugs, and artistic differences between the pair and the rest of the band.
For the many unlucky folk who discovered ATDI around this time, all they could do was look back at their records, and kick themselves despairingly over what they had missed. A band who were still developing, growing in confidence and ability; who knows what their next album would have been like, given that Relationship… is to this day recognised as a landmark achievement.
The fact that the band struggled in the studio was a blessing in disguise for those beleaguered new fans, as those who delved into their back catalogue would be rewarded with the second album, In/Casino/Out. ATDI were at their best in the live setting, and were disappointed by their early studio work, which is why In/Casino/Out is comprised of almost entirely live performances with the odd overdub. An absolute gem of an album, it is more restrained than Relationship, and stands up well against even the best Fugazi releases.
After their break-up in 2001, the band members continued to produce music. Ward, Hajjar and Hinojos enjoyed some success with more traditional rock fare with the band Sparta. Meanwhile, Cedric and Omar went off-road and in a rather unexpected direction, firstly with instrumental Dub project De Facto (with Omar switching back to bass and Cedric on drums). This drew threads from ATDI and took them into the territory more familiarly linked with King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry.
In 2001, bassist Eva Gardner and drummer Blake Fleming joined De Facto and the band recorded what would become the first demo for The Mars Volta. Despite the near-hit of ATDI, The Mars Volta was a band that started again almost from scratch, playing small venues and once more enthusiastically delving into hard drugs. Crack smoking and heroin injection both became a worringly everyday occurrence. Early shows, reportedly, often descended into farce and debacle. At times, bottles of piss were thrown from the crowd, and even devoted ATDI fans were bemused at best. At one show, after a small group of devotees repeatedly asked for One Armed Scissor, Bixler-Zavala shouted into the audience ‘All you whiny Emo kids go get a Kleenex box’.
The Mars Volta weren’t out to make friends; they made the music they wanted to make and remained suspicious of working with big labels. As with the early days of At The Drive-In, they worked away in relative obscurity, resolutely doing their thing. Almost miraculously, a huge band came out of Omar and Cedric‘s second time out in the wilderness. To refuse to make concessions to popularity and still become a musical success is a fairytale scenario. To do it twice is bordering on the impossible, and yet they did it.
Sadly, the key moment that helped The Mars Volta become more than just a musical footnote to At The Drive-In was the death of a close friend. Omar and Cedric often took heroin and crack with childhood friend and collaborator Jeremy Ward, the man who created many of the soundscapes on TMV‘s debut album and also vocal/sound tech for TMV and De Facto. He was found dead of a suspected overdose on May 25 2003, at the age of 27.
The shock of this gave them both a moment of clarity. Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López quit using opoids, and over the next two years they created two of the weirdest and musically brilliant albums to see a major release this century, De-Loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute.
De-Loused in the Comatorium was produced by Rick Rubin and is inspired by El Paso artist Julio Venegas. Another tragic friend of Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López, he was in a coma for several years due to a deliberate drug overdose, from which he subsequently recovered before committing suicide by jumping off a bridge into rush-hour traffic. The album tells the story of Cerpin Taxt, whose journey closely follows that of Venegas, with the added narrative of the character struggling against the dark side of his own psyche during seven hours of unconsciousness.
As well as being stunning in terms of narrative arc and conception, the musical arrangements and performance are incredible, with notable contributions from Flea and John Frusciante. Indeed It placed second in Getintothis’ Top Ten Albums of the Decade back in 2010, just pipped at the post by LCD Soundsystem.
For any band, topping a debut album as good as Deloused is a tall order. While Frances the Mute was not quite at the same level, it is still another jaw-dropping piece of work; another concept album, this time inspired by a journal that the late Jeremy Ward found in the back of a car while working as a repo man.
Two brilliant albums, both influenced by departed friends, and The Mars Volta, on record at least, may well have surpassed At The Drive-In. They went on to record another four albums before splitting, all of which have merit as standalone works but will forever be in the shadow of their first two epics.
Trying to mention all of the side-projects, spin-offs and artistic endeavours of Cedric and Omar would make for an even heftier chunk of writing than this, and so we will have to start bringing our whistle-stop tour to a close.
Fast forward to 2012. Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López had sorted things out and were once more in contact with the other members of ATDI. The band played a number of dates in the US and Europe. Some fans wondered whether their heart was in it; at the Reading Festival show, despite delirious love pouring out of a capacity crowd, Omar spent a large part of the set with his back to the audience. There seemed to be something missing.
Since that brief reunion, it has become clear that for a heroin-free Rodríguez-López at least, revisiting 15 year old songs was an uncomfortable experience. Understandable, since it was a very different person who wrote and performed those songs.
Last month’s announcement told us that the band have been quietly working away together since 2012, and so when At The Drive-In once more take to the stage, we expect that it will not be a band going through the motions or struggling with their past. If our gut feeling is right, it will be a band ready to grab a new lease of life by the throat, to take this story to the heights of recognition that these musicians surely deserve.
We live in hope.
UPDATE: Listen to the band’s comeback track below.
To celebrate the return of At The Drive-In below is a chronological playlist picking out ten prime cuts from the best of At The Drive-in and The Mars Volta.
At The Drive-In – Emptiness is a Mule from Hell Paso EP (1994)
At The Drive-In – Ticklish from Acrobatic Tenement (1996)
At The Drive-In – Raschuache from Vaya EP (1999)
At The Drive-In – Metronome Arthritis from Vaya EP (1999)
At The Drive-In – Arcarsenal from Relationship of Command (2000)
At The Drive-In – Pattern Against User from Relationship of Command (2000)
The Mars Volta – Son et Lumière/Inertiatic ESP from De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003)
The Mars Volta – Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of) from De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003)
The Mars Volta – Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus from Frances the Mute (2005)
The Mars Volta – L’Via L’Viaquez from Frances the Mute (2005)