A lot of weird stuff happened yesterday: Megan Mullally confirmed the Party Down movie. Common confirmed his beef with “hoe ass n-----” Drake. Jay-Z released a song dedicated to his newborn daughter, featuring his newborn daughter. But by the end of the afternoon, for me, it was all white noise. At the Drive-In — the one band I’ve ever cared about reuniting — announced they were reuniting. First we got a tweet: “ˇATTENTION ! To whom it may concern: AT THE DRIVE-IN will be breaking their 11 year silence THIS STATION IS …NOW…OPERATIONAL.” Then we got the Coachella lineup featuring, oh hell yes, At the Drive-In. And just like that, they’re back.
As the band's, um, excitable fans will readily tell you, At the Drive-In — who formed in El Paso, Texas, in 1993 — broke up right as they were really getting big. The split came in 2001, roughly a year after they released their breakthrough third album, Relationship of Command. After a string of indie releases that flashed progressively more promise, ATDI dropped a bomb with Command. Part of it was the larger recording budget; mostly, though, it was the band locking firmly into their face-punch sound. They’re usually called “post-hardcore,” which I guess is a not-unhelpful music writer-y term to throw around. But what you really need to know is that they were massive, muscular, breakneck. “Arcarsenal,” the first track on Command, starts off with a maracas shake, then a swirl of feedback, a teasing guitar line, a bare-bones rolling drum fill. For just a few seconds, everything drops out except for a scuzzed-up bass line. And then, boom, the whole band is back, bashing, and front man Cedric Bixler-Zavala is wailing: “I must have read a thousand faaaaceeeesss.” For the rest of the way, they don’t really let up.
(For the record, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez hates the album! “People think that was a raw and energetic record, but what they’re hearing is nothing compared to what it truly was before it was glossed over and sent through the mixing mill … [the record label] had dreams of it being this grandiose thing, and being played on the radio, which it was, [but] that record was ruined by the mix. I just find it the most passive, plastic. … It’s the one record [I played on that] I still to this day cannot listen to.”)
When they broke up, the statement read: “After a non-stop six-year cycle of record/tour/record/tour, we are going on an indefinite hiatus. We need time to rest up and re-evaluate, just to be human beings again and to decide when we feel like playing music again." It turned out later that Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez (the Afro’d contingent of the band) wanted to push ATDI toward its more experimental edges. And they certainly got to do that with the batshit-crazy Mars Volta, a band I just could not ever, as much as I tried, get into. Meanwhile the rest of the band — drummer Tony Hajjar, bassist Paul Hinojos and guitarist/vocalist Jim Ward — formed Sparta, which borrowed ATDI’s straight-rock stuff. (I never really got into them, either). It was a weirdly transparent split, with all creative differences present and accounted for, almost like a rock band breakup presented as a controlled science experiment.
I never saw At the Drive-In live. The closest I came was 1999, my sophomore year of high school. They were playing the giant Worcester Centrum as an opening act for Rage Against the Machine on the Battle of Los Angeles tour. We got there super early, but one of our friends lost his ticket and we had go through a series of Detroit Rock City-esque machinations to land another one. We did catch the other opener, Gang Starr; all I really remember, though, is that they had a couch on stage. And so my primary interaction with At the Drive-In for over a decade has been through YouTube.
(Well, OK, one time in college I interviewed Jim Ward for the school paper. I got really high beforehand, for some reason, and my first question was about the At the Drive-In, even though he was famously irritable about the whole thing, and we were supposed to be talking about Sparta. He waited, like, 45 seconds before responding. That was an awkward interview!)
By all oral accounts, At the Drive-In absolutely shredded live. All I have is their video footage: grainy VHS-recorded clips of late-night appearances, shaky live festival appearances. But take a look for yourself. YouTube corroborates the story. The manic energy shines.
And, I have to assume, it’s not just me that knows At the Drive-In primarily through their YouTube exploits. The site started in 2005, four years after At the Drive-In died, and roughly that same span of time into the careers of Sparta and Mars Volta. It was the perfect timing for all the kids late to the party, the Sparta and Mars Volta fans hearing about some legendary band their favorite rockers used to be in. If you were obsessing over the band for the second half of the last decade, you were doing it on YouTube. So the band stayed alive. They just did so on YouTube.
Relationship of Command is a jarring album. Live, via YouTube, its songs are constantly about to fall apart. It might sound at first like you accidentally started playing a YouTube clip while your iTunes was still on. Give the cacophony a second. It will all make sense soon.
There are the leaps off the drum risers, the spastic dance moves, the mic twirls, and it's all great. And sometimes, the dudes just seem so amped up they don't know what to do with their bodies. Check out the 3:13 mark below, where Cedric decides, for some reason, to scream through Omar’s shirt.
I’m sure a lot of you will watch this stuff and shrug. “Why are these skinny dudes screaming at me?” you might wonder. That’s OK. I get it. But if you are wondering why so many people have been so rabid for an At the Drive-In reunion for so long, here it is. Were they an amazing band on record? Yes they were. Were they even better live? Absolutely.
I think. I’ve only seen them on YouTube.