[INTERVIEW] At the Drive In

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Few bands of the modern era have tasted success with such reckless abandon as At the Drive In.
Starting in the small town of El Paso, Texas in 1994, the young band took a road rarely travelled to success, playing pretty much anywhere and everywhere en route to their revolutionary and groundbreaking third album, Relationship of Command in 2000.

With the world throwing themselves at this innovative bunch of ragtag musicians, At the Drive In performed the unthinkable and broke up, leaving a generation of music-loving public to mourn their demise.

Now, seventeen years later, the band are reunited with only one change – Sparta‘s vocalist Keeley Davis stepping in for Jim Ward – and are once again ready to take on the world with their fourth LP in:ter a:li:a being released earlier this year and a tour of Australia looming.

With so many advancements in music and technology over the last almost two decades, vocalist Cedric Baxter says it was important for the band to pick up pretty much where they left off.

“We wanted to continue from where we finished but also make a fresh start,” he offered. “We wanted to honour what the last record was, and sort of just go back and look at our catalogue and remember what it was like to make that kind of music. You try to put the now into it for sure and when you do that it’s almost like you wanna forget the current technology or tricks you learn as a musician going into it. I think part of what made At the Drive In what it was was it was five guys not knowing what the fuck they were doing and then just going yeah, I meant that (laughs).”

When Baxter first started the band with Ward in 1994 the pair had no real thoughts outside of escaping from their mundane existence in a small town, and he says that the desire to spread their wings and explore the world was the main criteria when it came to selecting fellow band members.

“I think I just wanted to find people who wanted to get out of El Paso,” he mused, “and there wasn’t a lot of people like that. Everyone was complacent and just sort of had a band and fucked around with the idea of being in a band but I was bitten by the movie Another State of Mind that documents the tour done by Social Distortion across America in the early 1980’s. It was an era where if you looked somewhat different you were going to get beat up by people so it showcases the youth culture and basically bands playing for nothing and essentially breaking up at the end of the movie. It inspired me to wanna go and see the world; it inspired me to wanna go play music to nobody and follow the sort of highway that exists in America of underground music and playing in kitchens or halls or tennis courts or prisons or fucken psych wards. I wanted to do that ever since I first saw that movie, so all I wanted really was to find like-minded people who wanted to get the fuck out of dodge and play music and figure it out as we went along.”

Following true to the movie’s story line, Baxter led his band out on the highway through the lesser travelled path of the American music circuit and let them grow as people and musicians on the road under the toughest of conditions. They played at places and venues that were shunned by the mainstream bands and went about building a dedicated fan base of disenchanted youths who connected with the carefree spirit and attitude of the band.”It was always out of necessity,” Baxter confirmed of the eclectic choice of venues, “because we would hit some towns… I remember playing a town on the East coast where the whole city was be closed because it was a tourist town and you would get to these clubs and they would be super pro and announce you when you got on stage and the other bands were these fucken awful, awful 90’s kind of MTV warriors – when MTV was pushing off with alternative music – and you saw a lot of that shit and a lot of people having this kind of careerist point of view doing it and not a real blood, sweat, and tears notion like we had. All of that bullshit would turn you off and made you want to play at places that didn’t attract those types of people. Playing basements or kitchens or libraries or fucken weirdo spots across the United States, that’s how you build your audience. That’s where you find the true fucken weirdos. You’re out there playing for the kids who essentially could go and shoot up their school, so you’re going out there and you’re giving them this brief moment of relief. All of the other pro venues and stuff like that it’s a shit audience so you wanna go and play to the true freaks out there and that’s why I wanted to play punk rock in places that are strictly bare bones. It was very working class but for that kind of music you always attracted an interesting weirdo fucken audience and in that you couldn’t buy a more interesting life experience instead of putting up with a lot of the bullshit that is out there.”

“It was always out of necessity,” Baxter confirmed of the eclectic choice of venues, “because we would hit some towns… I remember playing a town on the East coast where the whole city was be closed because it was a tourist town and you would get to these clubs, and they would be super pro and announce you when you got on stage and the other bands were these fucken awful, awful 90’s kind of MTV warriors – when MTV was pushing off with alternative music – and you saw a lot of that shit and a lot of people having this kind of careerist point of view doing it and not a real blood, sweat, and tears notion like we had. All of that bullshit would turn you off and made you want to play at places that didn’t attract those types of people. Playing basements or kitchens or libraries or fucken weirdo spots across the United States, that’s how you build your audience. That’s where you find the true fucken weirdos. You’re out there playing for the kids who essentially could go and shoot up their school, so you’re going out there and you’re giving them this brief moment of relief. All of the other pro venues and stuff like that it’s a shit audience so you wanna go and play to the true freaks out there and that’s why I wanted to play punk rock in places that are strictly bare bones. It was very working class, but for that kind of music you always attracted an interesting weirdo fucken audience, and in that, you couldn’t buy a more interesting life experience instead of putting up with a lot of the bullshit that is out there.”Despite relentless touring and putting themselves out there anywhere and everywhere, the path to At the Drive In’s debut album,

Despite relentless touring and putting themselves out there anywhere and everywhere, the path to At the Drive In’s debut album, Acrobatic Tenement was not entirely smooth sailing.”We had a label, but they never put our record out,” Baxter spat. “We were signed, but they didn’t fucken put it out. We had this show that was initially supposed to be at a place called Al’s Bar and Al’s Bar got shut down the day we showed up. They switched it to another place, and we weren’t old enough to be in there because it was a bar and the only people that were there was the drummer out of

“We had a label, but they never put our record out,” Baxter spat. “We were signed, but they didn’t fucken put it out. We had this show that was initially supposed to be at a place called Al’s Bar and Al’s Bar got shut down the day we showed up. They switched it to another place, and we weren’t old enough to be in there because it was a bar and the only people that were there was the drummer out of Mudhoney, and five staff writers from Flipside Records and they felt bad for us and let us play. They saw these young kids in a band, eating shit, just wanting to play so they waited for us and watched us and I think that was the moment we solidified some heads turning, like oh these kids aren’t fucking around, who the fuck are these little kids? We got signed from there which was great. I think the other time something like that happened was when we were playing at Gilman Street, which is a quintessential place to play in the Bay Area. It gave birth to Green Day and Rancid and also a lot of unknown, amazing bands but when you go to play at fucken Gilmans, and you’re from El Paso no-one is gonna watch you because these kids don’t fucken care except for the weirdos who would come to the shows, but we made an impact there and made people go wait a minute, who the fuck is this? They’re playing as if they’re headlining and they’re playing like it was their last show ever on the face of the Earth. That was another time that led to people like Mike D from the Beastie Boys taking notice of us, and then everything spiralled out of control after that.”As a bit of an afterthought, Baxter added.

As a bit of an afterthought, Baxter added: “You just never know. You never know who is gonna be there. I played a show once, and there was one guy watching us in Colorado, and I got down, and I was just singing in his face, and I wrapped him in my mic chord and put my microphone down his pants, he was such a good sport. He was laughing and jumping up and down – he didn’t know the songs – and afterwards, someone said to me do you know who that was and I said no, and they said that was the drummer from The Descendants. I was like, get the fuck out of here! The lesson is if you keep going down and not giving a fuck and just… with the idea of zero fucks given. You’re playing for you to make yourself happy and because you just fucken love doing this and if you do someone’s gonna take notice. That was one of those moments that was a big fucken deal for me and us. The drummer from The Descendants who was the drummer for b who had such an influence on my life as a teenager and pre teen skate punk… little things like that happen when you hit the world with zero fucks given.”

When Relationship of Command came out in 2000 it changed the way people viewed punk rock music and almost single-handedly ushered in the post-hardcore genre. It was an eclectic album that was as confronting as it was different, but Baxter argues that at the time there were so many other things happening in the music world that the full effect of what they were doing was lost on the band.

“We came from a world where there was much more crazier, interesting, iconic fucken records that came out,” he countered. “Like Brainiacs last record came out in 1996 and that fucken blew everything out of the water for ten years after. Anything that was happening in Fugazi or Blonde Redhead… there was just a lot of that shit that we thought was fucken normal, but when you got over to England and started playing festivals and you saw… in early 2000 the climate for rock music was terrible. It was fucken dead as far as in the eye of the mainstream. It was Limp Bizkit and I can’t remember what the other stuff was out there but it was just really tired shit. With all due respect to them – they worked hard – but 2000 was a fucken dinosaur up there and for some reaso, we were doing what we do and people fucken took notice.”

With the enormous success of Relationship of Command, At the Drive In had realised the dream of small town musicians making their mark on the world but rather than continue down that path, they surprised their many legions of fans by announcing a separation in 2001.

“I just wanted to take a break,” Baxter said matter-of-factly. “We had been hitting it hard for a really long time, and when you’re in your twenties, you are able to do that. Hit it hard means playing two shows in one day and playing shows back to back and you fucken lose your voice and do shit like that but you’re struggling to… once you see someone notices you you hit it harder and it becomes your life and by the time Relationship of Command happened we had been on the road for five years straight. We didn’t live in our homes, and it was time to take some time off. That’s what we (Omar Rodriguez and Baxter) wanted to do but no-one else in the band really wanted to do that so we didn’t feel like we were listened to at the time and we wanted to explore other avenues that we didn’t think could happen with At the Drive In so we decided to leave. It was the scheduling of some of the people that were trying to steer the ship outside of the band that really started taking advantage of how young we were, and they worked us too much to the point we HAD to take a break. The success was nice; it was the icing on the cake and the fruition of all our hard work. It was the fact that when success came, you couldn’t take even a small fucken break that killed it. The people behind the scenes were saying we had to hit it hard or our fans would forget about us and the irony is seventeen years later nobody has forgotten (laughs).”

After breaking up in the aftermath of that fallout, Baxter and Rodriguez went on to form The Mars Volta while the remaining members formed Sparta. While both of these bands enjoyed varying degrees of success, neither could shake the stigma that was attached to At the Drive In and after getting back together briefly and unsuccessfully in 2012, it was only a matter of time before the creative influences that were behind the advent of this centuries biggest punk rock band reunited.

“I think it was the life cycle,” Baxter pondered over what changed to get the gang back together in 2016. “Death and birth. The death of Omar’s Mother and the fact that Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos were Fathers as well and already had kids and were super patient with what I was going through with Omar and our disagreements. We’d had a falling out but had been friends since we were kids, so that was our one major falling out for all of five weeks or something. I don’t remember exactly how long it was, but you just realise life is too short, and you also realise that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how many white hairs are on your head, being young is as simple as hearing the opening chords of one of our songs and that makes me feel like age is not a consideration. So when you think that way once again you apply zero fucks given and you say now or never, who’s in? Raise your hand… everyone in this room who wants to be in At the Drive In raise your hand, and everyone you hear on the current record are the ones who raised their hand and wanted to do it. Raising your hand meant your actions followed as well, so everybody that is here now is here for a reason.”

If it sounds like Baxter is enjoying the new coming of the band, that’s because he is.

“I’m having a blast!” he exclaimed. “Even when the shows… not everyone has a great show all the time and even when we don’t have a great show there’s no other place I would wanna be right now. These guys are my old gang from El Paso.”

 

AT THE DRIVE IN TOUR DATES

Thursday, 28th September, Festival Hall, Melbourne

Friday, 29th September, Hordern Pavilion, Sydney

Sunday 1st of October, Yours & Owls Festival, Wollongong

Monday, 2nd October, Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane

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