El Paso quintet At the Drive-In have returned. Again. Four years ago, they played a short Texas tour (including a memorable stop at Trees) and then played Coachella. Now they’re touring the US and Europe between March and June (no Texas dates have been announced), and they have teased new music to come out at some point this year.
From a superfan’s perspective, I should be all about this in 2016. But there’s a huge elephant in the room, eating peanuts and shaking its tail.
Back in 2001, the band went on an “indefinite hiatus” after touring overseas. On the tour leading up to this break, the band was often sloppy and chaotic instead of chaotic and anthemic. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez quit the band right before founding member/guitarist Jim Ward got married. As shitty as the timing was, the band was OK to be finished, given the state they were in personally.
As Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez channeled Mahavishnu Orchestra and Santana for many years with the Mars Volta, Ward, along with Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar, carried on with Sparta. Plus, Ward worked on his country-tinged band Sleepercar, a project he's still affiliated with. Throughout these years, Rodriguez-Lopez repeatedly dismissed At the Drive-In, likening the band (and their commercial breakthrough Relationship of Command) to looking at an old picture of yourself with green hair and wondering what the hell you were thinking.
So when the band first reunited earlier this decade and played some great shows, it remained a mystery how long this reunion would last and if any new music would surface.
Seeing At the Drive-In in 2012 was certainly better than seeing them in 2001. A lot of people noticed Rodriguez-Lopez was not jumping around and ripping his side of the stage apart, but the guy still hit every note and sang every note. The band played well, focusing on their best-known material from In/Casino/Out, Vaya and Relationship of Command. In many ways, the 2012 tour was a way of making up for some pretty rough shows as the band fell apart during its original run.
The idea of seeing At the Drive-In in 2016 seems like watching Super Bowl champions play an exhibition game for charity. There’s nothing wrong with them doing this, but the power and drive to succeed dissipated many years ago.
At the Drive-In came from a town that most eagerly leave if they have any interest in alternative culture. El Paso was an unlikely place to breed a band some considered the next Nirvana, but that’s what happened. After a few singles, an album and an EP, the band’s lineup was solidified by the time of In/Casino/Out. Blending the intensity of Gravity Records bands like Antioch Arrow and Angel Hair with pop song structures (Ward is a huge Billy Joel fan) resulted in a sound that was refreshing and rip-roaring.
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When the band toured in support of Jimmy Eat World (who had just released their landmark third album, Clarity), they often stole the show. The tour hit Rubber Gloves on a frigid night and it remains one of the best shows I have ever seen. The venue’s stage was half the size of what it is now, and At the Drive-In destroyed the audience with their performance. Rodriguez-Lopez could hardly stay in one spot without bouncing off the walls, Bixler-Zavala got into people’s faces and played with their hair, Ward screamed his voice out while playing like he wanted to break his guitar, and Hinojos and Hajjar kept things tight and firm with the rhythms. Jaws dropped that night, and Jimmy Eat World was pretty good, too.
A year later, the band got a lot of praise from people who had previously ignored them. Working with some of the same people who helped Nirvana become a cultural touchstone, many people in the press thought Relationship of Command would be the Nevermind to nu-metal’s reign. It actually happened, but not to a great degree as the band broke up before they could reap the rewards. A chance to synchronize jaded, 30-something music fans with 15-year-old, budding music fans had passed.
As a result, the music industry went for bands like . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, the Strokes and Interpol while the Warped Tour audience got bands like Saosin, Vendetta Red and Story of the Year. At the Drive-In was asked to reunite many times, but it never happened. Both Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez, speaking through the press, made it sound like it would never, ever happen. Alas, it did in 2012.
Now in 2016, it would be great to see the band play again and hopefully release music that is as strong as what they’ve done before. But if you were to ask me to book a flight and a hotel all for the sake of seeing the band again, I would pass. Sometimes great things only happen for a short time, and it’s important to live in the present instead of longing for a past that has come and gone.