At The Drive-In - Biography
By Brad Austin
While At the Drive-In were usually passed off as a post-hardcore band, they were closer in sound, attitude, and ethos, to the post-punk and emo of Fugazi, even sharing a DIY mentality with hardcore punk bands of the early ‘80s. Brutally earnest lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala shouted and sang his abstract personal/political rhetoric over the ever-changing rhythms and styles that bordered on chaos. For their first six years, the Texas-bred band toured nearly incessantly, releasing four EPs and two albums to relative obscurity. For the last two years of their time together, things were finally taking off for the band. They had a hit third album, a hit single that they performed on television, and a vote of confidence from Iggy Pop that resulted in his appearance on their LP. Instead of capitalizing on that success with another album, however, At the Drive-In went on a hiatus, eventually splitting into two bands that have become widely successful in their own right.
The band was formed in 1994 by guitarist Jim Ward and Bixler-Zavala in El Paso, Texas. The duo was quickly joined by a second guitarist, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar. Their first live performance occurred on October 15th, 1994, at the Loretto High School Fair in El Paso. They documented themselves with an EP called Hell Paso (1994 Western Breed) and toured Texas. The band then released a second EP, Alfaro Vive, Carajo! (1994 Western Breed), a live snapshot of their early enthusiasm, recorded on two-track. What it lacks in production quality it makes up for in spades with its energy. The EP prompted the band to tour again, this time venturing outside of their home state to play at people's houses and small clubs in the west.
They received their first record contract after an impressive show in Los Angeles. Even though there were only about nine people in attendance at the gig, it was enough for Pasadena-based Flipside Records to see something special in the band. The full-length debut, Acrobatic Tenement, came out on Flipside in 1996. They toured relentlessly, with a determination and self-belief that they knew would result in some kind of success if they could only maintain that energy. As is usually the case with a band that tours as much as ATDI, club-goers started to talk about the band to the point that even the non-club-goers were hearing about them.
A third EP, El Gran Orgo (One Foot/Offtime), was released in 1997. The post-punk was still there, but this time the band incorporated more elements of emo and melody. The first round of pressings sold out in a mere three days. Their second full-length, In/Casino/Out (Fearless), arrived in 1998. A fourth EP, 1999's terrific Vaya (Fearless), showed the band perfecting the sound they were struggling with all those years. The recordings were strong enough to get the band signed to Grand Royal.
One year later they would finally achieve their commercial breakthrough. Relationship of Command (2000 Grand Royal) showed a group at the summit of their powers, blending throw-down hardcore punk with melodic breaks that slow the pace but never kill the momentum. Whether you love or hate At the Drive-In, their energy is undeniable. They surge through these songs with conviction as if they know they're the greatest band working. Their reputation at that point was such that they were able to get a similarly energetic performer, Iggy Pop, to lend his vocals to the song “Rolodex Propaganda.” The album was a hit at home and abroad with the single “One Armed Scissor” receiving international airplay, becoming a number 26 modern rock single, and getting them TV spots on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and Later With Jools Holland.
As things were only beginning to heat up for them professionally, the members of At the Drive-In were beginning to sputter out on a personal level. Their last show was played on February 21st, 2001 in the Dutch city of Groningen. They actually had five more shows to play after the gig but instead released a statement to let their fans know the gigs were canceled due to extreme exhaustion. Then they returned to America. Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez showed up in Europe shortly after on a tour with their dub side project, De Facto, while the other three ATDI members remained in Texas, preparing for US dates with the band.
One month later, the band announced that the US leg of their tour, scheduled to begin in April, would be canceled as well. Not only that but the band was going on an indefinite hiatus, claiming that the seemingly endless pattern of album release, tour and repeat had begun to wear on them. Many interpreted this “indefinite hiatus” as a full-fledged breakup and they were right. Although there could come a day when At the Drive-In decide that they are better together, they currently remain split into two camps. The two afro-sporting De Facto members with hyphenated surnames started up a prog-based, experimental band called The Mars Volta. Meanwhile, Ward, Hinojos and Hajjar stayed true to the post-hardcore sound that had made them a success, forming Sparta. Both bands remained with the Grand Royal label and both found an immediate fan base. Later on, Hinojos left Sparta to play bass for The Mars Volta.
2005 saw the release of This Station is Non-Operational (Fearless), a compilation spanning not only the band's two years of success, but the six years that came before when At the Drive-In were just another post-punk/hardcore emo band from Texas, slaving away on the road.