You’ve seen the name but never heard the band. In Starting Points, The A.V. Club offers an introduction to a band with a catalog worth exploring.
At The Drive-In, from El Paso, Texas.
1993-2001, a reunion in 2012, and a second go-round in 2016.
Outside of Fugazi, few post-hardcore bands were as effortlessly inventive as At The Drive-In. Which makes it all the more upsetting that once the band began hitting its stride, it fell apart just as quickly.
But At The Drive-In was never built to last. Though it wouldn’t become fully pronounced until it broke apart in 2001, the band was built on the delicate balance of two opposing halves. At the forefront was the two-headed beast of vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. The pair brought a chaotic flair to the band’s live shows, most notably when, during a performance on Later… With Jools Holland, their manic flailing would see Rodriguez-Lopez knock his guitar out of tune mere seconds into the song. The unpredictable nature of the pair is what led to the rest of the band (guitarist Jim Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos, and drummer Tony Hajjar) becoming the group’s grounding force.
That said, when each side played nice, the results could be astounding. Starting with In/Casino/Out in 1998, At The Drive-In became one of the most manic bands to tour throughout the loose network of underground music. It also became an antidote to the overwhelming whiteness and homogeny of the punk and hardcore scenes at the time. So the band’s dissolution—after its best record, 2000’s Relationship Of Command—was a dramatic loss. But with a world tour that’s already selling out venues and the promise of new music on the horizon—though it appears this will all happen without Ward’s participation—it’s a good time to acquaint yourself with a few highlights from At The Drive-In’s catalog, both for the uninitiated and for those fans who eagerly—and perhaps cautiously—await new music.
In many ways, “Give It A Name” is the culmination of At The Drive-In’s early days as a scrappy punk group. It’s far better than the band’s full-length debut, the half-baked 1996 album Acrobatic Tenement, even if it was recorded during Ward’s first lapse in membership. It’s as close as the band would ever come to writing a straightforward pop-punk song—its intro could easily pass for something on a Screeching Weasel record—though the band’s sideways take on the style shows just how inventive it could be even with the simplest of material. “Give It A Name” proves there was always potential in the El Paso five-piece, even if it was often hiding below the surface.
In/Casino/Out is most notable for the band’s decision to record it as if it were playing a live show. The gambit works in some respects—it’s a great record, after all—but the production often forgoes aural clarity in the hopes of capturing the energy of At The Drive-In’s live show. The album’s closing track, “Transatlantic Foe,” captures that lightning in a bottle while simultaneously marking the point where At The Drive-In left behind its punk fascinations for grander aspirations. It shows each member turning in an all-star performance, built on the back of Hajjar’s off-kilter drumming and the back-and-forth interplay between Rodriguez-Lopez and Ward’s lead lines. It’s as close to perfect as any song as the band ever crafted, with the lo-fi production of In/Casino/Out capturing the moment that a young band found its identity.
Much of At The Drive-In’s legacy is tied to Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez, for good reason. With their giant afros, boundless energy, and open embrace of their Hispanic heritages, the pair became the band’s most identifiable members. But they alone couldn’t carry the entirety of the act. Guitarist and sometimes-vocalist Jim Ward was often more understated in his songwriting and stage presence, but that didn’t make his contributions any less worthy. “Hourglass,” In/Casino/Out’s penultimate track, sees Ward take over vocal duties and offer up a ballad that is an underrated classic in the band’s catalog. Its embrace of drum machine, keyboards, and all-around subtlety hinted at influences that would become more prominent on the releases that followed. With Ward absent from the band’s upcoming reunion, it certainly raises questions of how grounded the band will be moving forward.
While it would have been easy for At The Drive-In to repeat the success of In/Casino/Out by offering a new batch of supercharged post-hardcore, the band opted to push itself in a new direction. The resulting EP, Vaya, would see the band’s salsa influences seeping further into its creative process, making use of danceable rhythms and refined arrangements in equal measure. Awash in electronics and delicate guitar lines, “198d” allows Bixler-Zavala space to shine, with his voice nearing its falsetto peak and bouncing off Ward’s simple screams in each chorus. In many ways, “198d” is the moment where At The Drive-In’s found ways to make its opposing halves unite, presaging the band’s crossover into the mainstream music world just a year later.
If Vaya teased At The Drive-In’s new sound, Relationship Of Command is the record where the band would codify its forceful songwriting. After being picked up by Grand Royal Records—the major label imprint run by the Beastie Boys—At The Drive-In took to making the most ambitious record of its career. Though it’s debatable whether “One Armed Scissor” is Relationship Of Command’s best song, it encapsulates everything that made the record so vital. From its first notes—which sound as if the band pushed Hajjar’s drum kit down a flight of stairs—Rodriguez-Lopez and Ward offer up the most memorable riff of their respective careers. Even Bixler-Zavala’s nonsensical lyrics weren’t enough to put the masses off, as “One Armed Scissor” would become the band’s biggest hit—even if it was only a minor success by industry standards. Though it failed to establish the band as a viable commercial entity, “One Armed Scissor” sent shockwaves through the underground. Nearly two decades later, those reverberations can still be felt.