There were two questions most everyone had in the wake of At the Drive-In's separation back in 2001. The first question — "Would the band reunite?" — was answered in 2012 with a reunion tour that included a stop at Coachella. The second question was a logical extension of the first: "Will they write new music again?" ATDI answered that last week with the release of Inter Alia (styled as in•ter a•li•a), their first album of new material in 17 years.
Prior to in•ter a•li•a, the experimental punk quintet went out with the explosive bundle of frenetic energy that was 2000's Relationship of Command. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar, along with newcomer Keeley Davis (who replaces second guitarist Jim Ward), reunite to bring back some of that old 1990s rock magic that eventually catapulted them to fame. Although the tunes don't hit the same level of youthful recklessness as those on RoC (the dudes are now in their 40s, after all), the album careens through 11 tracks at breakneck speed with a sound that pulls from the fast and aggressive portions of the band's discography.
I spoke with Bixler-Zavala (also of The Mars Volta and Antemasque fame) about writing a new record with familiar faces after a nearly two-decade hiatus, his role as the band's court jester, and his love for L.A. band Chicano Batman.
According to your Twitter, you've been binge-watching Rick and Morty.
Yes, that and I'm rewatching Once Upon a Time in America. I remember my aunt, that she said she remembered she cried uncontrollably because that's what it was like when she was a little girl. I was like, "Really?! We were a crime family?! Damn, y'all were smoking in an opium den?"
Then the juxtaposition with Rick and Morty, I'm just like, Jesus Christ, this is hyper-intelligent, man! What a heavy year for people when you really look at it that way.
2016 was a heavy year in general with what felt like a never-ending election cycle.
And still never-ending! I definitely admit it has a big play on the record and why it's called "amongst other things" [the meaning of the Latin phrase "inter alia"] because that's the way I view it. ... Shit, we're in trouble, man. The whole place needs to take a knee and take a breather and realize, like, "Are we OK with the same process?" Because that's when the real fucking protests should be happening, because this whole settling for two-party systems — and you can apply that religiously, you can apply it to gender issues, you can apply it all over the map — we're just fucking broken.
Would you say it's a political record or simply a reaction to the times?
I think it's a reaction to the times. It's done what I've always done. I've called myself the court jester of the band. I'll give you a bunch of fucking riddles and they're not always going to be so immediately-in-front-of-your-face. There's going to be a lot of word associations, there's going to be a lot of combinations of words that will paint images that will come back to haunt you later and [you'll] go, "Maybe he means this or maybe he doesn't mean that."
To this day, I still think about what an "ecto-mimed bison" could be [from The Mars Volta's "The Haunt of Roulette Dares"].
[Laughs] I mean, I can break that down for you, but it'd be so stupid! It's the ghost of something extinct haunting you, you know? And now that I say that, like, why didn't I just say it that way? No, I'm not going to say it that way! I've had a grip of art school teachers invalidate me as a kid. If I don't say it like I say it, it's like coloring within the lines.
When did the band decide to write new music? You were shutting down rumors until last January's announcement about a new tour and new music.
We just wanted to make sure that it came out right, we wanted to make sure that everyone was down to do it, and we wanted to make sure that it didn't come off half-cocked. It takes a lot of planning to do something that you hadn't done together in 17 years. You're figuring out if it can be done, you're figuring out what does the band remember that they liked, what are we trying to say, what are we trying to do, and it takes time — since 2012 actually! Some of those songs from 2012 ended up on the record. It's a human quality that people perceive, which, naively and romantically, I think that's what people like about the band. We're not pushing spacebars and we're not a Las Vegas act. If we have a bad show, you're going to see it. If we have a bad song, you're going to fucking hear it — but you gotta let us be humans.
Musically, I think in•ter a•li•a has lots of similarites with your debut, Acrobatic Tenement. It sounds like this new album is a lot of those faster, harder portions of your debut stretched across a full LP.
That's what we were doing. ... We were definitely paying attention to the [older] songs and referencing them during the recording. That's where [our] frame of mind was. ... I don't know how else to describe it but, in a weird way, you Method act and try to get back to where you were.
We all have kids now, so it's really easy to be able to see the point in which school shows you that everyone's different, and coloring in the lines and [having] a backup plan and shit like that just crushes you once you become an adult. I knew I wanted to tap into that. I see it in my kids, I see it in Tony's kids, I see it in Paul's kids. They come watch us play and my kids are throwing shit around the house and I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's me. That's what I gotta do."
It sounds like fatherhood's been a big inspiration for you.
Yeah, cycle of life! Omar losing his mom, my kids come into the picture, being on the road with Tony's kids and Tony showing me clips of his boys singing the words to this stuff! That totally blows my mind because they're like 5, 3 and 7 or something like that and the fact that they're singing these fucked-up words and mimicking the air drums with all the twists and turns. Like, wow, it's the embodiment of when someone said, "Wu-Tang is for the children." That's what we want to do. We wanted to show you in a strange way that age is just a frame of mind. When you realize it's a frame of mind, the mind is capable of doing some crazy shit once you really put it to work and steer it right.
So At the Drive-In is for the children now!
[Laughs] Well, the ones with a funny lexicon.
How did you come to sign with Rise Records?
We were taking a lot of interviews with people who we thought were really into the band, but only Rise seemed to have the same youthful mentality and that hunger. ... We took this meeting with Rise and one half of the people that run it were like, "Man, I'm from Lubbock," and as soon as he said, "I'm from Lubbock," I just knew he went really far back with us. Lubbock [Texas] was one of the first places where it popped off for At the Drive-In in house shows. He told us, "I saw you back then in Lubbock," and I thought, "Oh, I feel comfortable. You get the band!" If someone came to me and said, "I run a record label, I'm from Sioux City, Iowa," I would feel comfortable because ... these small, little American outposts [where] we somehow stoked people out in those settings, that's our fan base.
I hear you're a fan of Chicano Batman.
That's a great fucking band! It's almost just the curiosity stems off of the name and the logo. I had to tell my dad about it and my dad was like, "Oh, that sounds really cool!" They have a really interesting "Souldies" approach which is right up my dad's alley. That band bridges a lot of gaps like that.
I think they played when Antemasque played Coachella, so my kids have their protective earmuffs for the boys and they got their little Chicano Batman stickers on the sides.
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You were in a band called Foss with Beto O'Rourke, who's now a congressman running against Ted Cruz for Senate in 2018. Are you still in touch with him?
Oh yeah, we text a lot! Some of us share a Dropbox and they sent me Foss: Live in Canada and there's a girl we met there at the show. I can't remember her first name but her last name was Feist and I remember her being this young girl with dreadlocks being really stoked on Foss and coming onstage and singing with us. Years later, someone's like, "Yo, that's the girl, that's Feist!"
And Beto's doing a fantastic job. He has that charisma, his message is pretty solid and his personal taste is impeccable. I see the effect that has for people that have an affinity for him and really be drawn to him.
I learned everything from touring from Beto O'Rourke. He's the one who taught me. I'm not even sure he's done it that much, but he's a big source of inspiration. That was one of the first people to hit me up and say, 'You wanna play drums in this band?' And I said, "Hell yeah," because I knew I wanted to get out and go see the world. People should know he comes from an experienced, grassroots-type living.
At the Drive-In play the Shrine Expo Hall on Saturday, May 13, with Le Butcherettes. Tickets and more info.