A week from now, or a week ago, people would be staring. The suit-clad, tie-loosened 9-to-5ers bellied up to the bar at the other end of the room would give each other getaloadofthesefuckinguys smirks and elbows in the ribs. The out-of-towners looking for a little companionship and maybe a bowl of peanuts would eye them suspiciously, wondering just who these young punks thought they were, being in here, looking like that. The hotel staff would circle the wagons around their table, you know, just in case.
Right now, however, no one in the lounge at Austin's Driskill Hotel seems to notice the members of At the Drive-In, not even the pair sporting puffy, Billy Preston 'fros, singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez. It's the week of the annual South By Southwest Music Festival, and At the Drive-In is just another band being interviewed in another hotel lounge, another group of scruffy, frayed-at-the-seams musicians talking to another writer about bad facial hair and Iggy Pop. They leave, someone else takes their place--rinse and repeat. You want a second glance? Takes more anachronous hairstyles and boys-being-boys boisterousness. Tom Waits walked around this same hotel last year and got less attention than the doorman.
Not that anyone in At the Drive-In wants people to recognize them, to whisper to each other when they enter a room, to stop and stare. They've already had quite enough of that, thankyouverymuch, after being handpicked by Rage Against the Machine to open for them on a short tour late last year, which was like handpicking the band to stand in front of a firing squad. And they know that it's only the beginning: Last night, they played to a packed house at the Flamingo Cantina, even though it was raining cats and dogs and various other household pets. Tomorrow afternoon almost every journalist in town will squeeze into Emo's for another showcase. Come September, when Relationship of Command, their first effort for Grand Royal Records, hits stores, everyone will know who At the Drive-In is. For a band that was based out of El Paso until a year ago, that's quite a feat. But make no mistake--they worked for it.
Drive-In with Murder City Devils
"Bands would come and go, and we had a lot of bands that toured and came over, you know? That helped us," Bixler explains. "We would set it up, or we would do the flyers, or we would house the bands or feed them. Stuff like that. It's a little weird, because all the bands break up. They don't take themselves seriously. You know, they see how hard it is. And the bands that have toured, I think they get a little discouraged. They kind of think it's going to be all fun and games, when it's really not."
You can see the effect on the band's two-dimensional torsos, more bones than skin. Now, all the work, all the touring is starting to pay off. Everyone knows about At the Drive-In's follow-the-bouncing-band live show, the way they throw themselves into each song, literally. Trading in-jokes and insults like baseball cards as they sit in the Driskill's dim lounge, Bixler and the other members of the band hope that most of the attention will be positive, that they can add new fans without alienating the old ones. Their new friend, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, won't be around to help next time.
"The second night we got Tom to announce us, 'cause he saw we were having a hard time," Bixler remembers. "He told us how they took The Jesus Lizard out and how the same thing [happened] with Jesus Lizard. Can you imagine kids being like, 'Fuck you!' to David Yow?" He pauses, letting you imagine the outcome of anyone confronting the cantankerous Yow, known to toss anything handy--full cans of beer, mike stands, himself--at unruly patrons. "No way, but they did. So we got him to announce us, and after that, it was cool. You know, they have some intelligent fans, and they have intelligent lyrics. But for the most part, knuckleheads are attracted to them, so it kind of ruined it."
At the moment, only four of the five members of At the Drive-In--Bixler, Rodriguez, drummer Tony Hajjar, and bassist Pall Hinojos--are present, along with longtime manager Blaze James and his girlfriend. Guitarist Jim Ward left a few minutes ago to explore the streets of Austin with some friends. The current situation mirrors the band's living arrangements: The rest of the group moved to Long Beach, California, last October, while Ward chose to remain in El Paso, where they'd all grown up. Though he's not here, you would imagine Ward would nod right along with the others as Bixler recalls the tour, playing to more people than ever and fewer fans. Knuckleheads, as he says.
As Bixler discusses the Rage Against the Machine experience, you can hear something in his voice: Hey, wait, those same knuckleheads might be attracted to us too! And he's probably right, not only because At the Drive-In has toured with Rage (and almost did again, until the planned Rhyme and Reason Tour, which included the Beastie Boys, was postponed), but also because Ross Robinson produced Relationship of Command. If you're keeping score at home, that would be the same Ross Robinson who's produced everyone from Slipknot to Vanilla Ice, as well as Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Sepulfuckin'tura, among others. Ross Robinson, the producer who is Jesus to the OzzFest set and Judas to everyone else. "It's a little more Korn than it is Limp Bizkit," Bixler jokes, referring to Robinson's résumé and its effect on Relationship of Command. "You know, no 'Nookie,' but more Follow the Leader."
But the question remains: Will those same knuckleheads be attracted to At the Drive-In too?
"After they hear it?" Bixler asks. "No."
"We'll get a lot of returns," Hajjar adds.
"It's good for Ross though, because he gets to branch out," Bixler says. "There's so many CDs he gets a day of nothing but rap-metal. It's almost like a slap in the face to him, a big insult. It's tough to see him go through that. But what can you do, you know? It's one of the things he's famous for."
From the sound of it, Bixler's and Hajjar's predictions are right. Whether anyone in the band likes it or not, Robinson's name will attract listeners expecting more new metal for now people, songs with detuned guitars and hip-hop backbeats, melody replaced by malady. But they will not expect the six-minute "Invalid Litter Department," a song that punches one cheek and strokes the other, seesawing between spoken word and shouted choruses, windmilling guitar riffs and cascading piano keys, a fist-pumping anthem and unlikely hymn at the same time. They will not expect the album-closing ballad, "Non-Zero Possibility," with its fragile vocals and eerie effects. They might get closer to what they want on songs like "Pattern Against User" or "Rolodex Propaganda" (which is sort of a duet between Iggy Pop and Bixler), yet even those songs are much more than they seem--intelligent, focused bursts of energy rather than mindless assaults. Relationship of Command is loud, sure, but it has something worth hearing.
Though the band now credits Robinson with pushing them to make the best record possible (the extra time and money helped, too; 1998's In/Casino/Out was recorded on the cheap in four days), they were wary of working with him initially.
"At first, we were like, 'Ah, we're not going to work with this guy. He did Korn and all this other stuff,'" says Hinojos, six months after the initial meeting at the Driskill. He's in Los Angeles now, on his way to meet the rest of the band at rehearsal. "Then we realized how close-minded that was; just because he worked with those bands doesn't mean he wrote those songs or anything."
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Hinojos continues: "I think on this one, we were finally able to capture the energy of how we play live on tape. In the past, we only had a few days to do it, so we weren't even thinking of that. It was just like, 'Better hurry up and record or the money'll run out.' On this one, we were finally able to do it, and I think we were able to do it because of Ross. He taught us how to do it, and brought it out of us. We've always had to do 12 songs in one day, or as many as we could lay down. With this one, we wanted to be able to experiment more, and we actually got to write a song in the studio. That was a lot of fun; we never even knew what that was like. Cedric would explain what the lyrics were about as we tracked each song, so that helped us out a lot, getting on the same page as far as what the song is about and the feeling behind it."
Most important of all, At the Drive-In finally has made an album that not only captures the intensities-in-10-cities feel of its live performances, it expands upon it, energy ramming into technology colliding with possibility. The songs on Relationship of Command are good enough that fans will begin to expect the shows to live up to the records, rather than the other way around. Since the band has proved itself across the country for the past five years, Hinojos hopes so. Building a reputation is one thing; maintaining it is another.
"We're human, you know?" Hinojos begins. "Our live show is not a rehearsed thing or anything. It's just all the day-to-day frustrations and all the things that get on your nerves--that's our time to let it out. We're lucky that we have those 45 minutes to go crazy. But when they tell us, 'Oh man, you better be good,' that's not what it's about. Each show is different to us. And we'd rather people remember us for the music, instead of like, 'That's the craziest shit I've ever seen,' or whatever."
Or, as Bixler explained six months before, "You're sick, or you talked to someone on the phone and you're just bummed out, and you're wearing your grouchy face"--he gestures to Rodriguez, and they all laugh at the private joke--"you don't even wanna get up there and act like a fool. That's what's hard. I hate when people come up and are like, 'I came here just for you, so you better...' I can take 'I came here just for you,' OK, but 'You better knock my socks off like they say you do?' God damn. I'd say don't believe the hype. Just come enjoy some rock and roll."