Drive Away

Tony Hajjar is in Vancouver, recording a new album with his band, which is exactly where he should be and not where you'd expect.

Let's back up. In 2000, At the Drive-In, an El Paso quintet featuring Hajjar on drums, released Relationship of Command, the group's fourth album and the first that most people heard, the one that raised the band's profile and bridged the gap between "obscure" and "of course." Or it was beginning to, at any rate. They were employed by the Beastie Boys (Relationship of Command was released on their Grand Royal label), and they had recorded with Iggy Pop (he sang on Relationship's "Rolodex Propaganda"). Their songs were on the radio, on MTV, on your mind, maybe. Even after six years together, it felt like At the Drive-In was only at the beginning.

And then they were gone.

"After a nonstop six-year cycle of record/tour/record/tour, we are going on an indefinite hiatus," guitarist Omar Rodriguez said last March, after the band canceled a handful of European tour dates and suddenly disappeared. "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." As far as Hajjar was concerned, however, the band was over. It wasn't a break or a hiatus or a rest stop or whatever anyone else wanted to call it. It was the end. Of At the Drive-In, at least.

"I mean, we knew," Hajjar says on the phone from Vancouver. It's late February, and Sparta--Hajjar's new band with two of his ATDI bandmates, guitarist Paul Hinojos (who played bass with At the Drive-In) and singer-guitarist Jim Ward--has been here since the first week of January, recording with Jerry Finn, who's worked with Sum 41 and Green Day, among others. "Paul came out to L.A.--he'd moved back to El Paso--in May of 2001. We knew it. He came up and we had a long talk, and we knew we were going to play together still, and we didn't know if he was going to play guitar or bass, but we knew we were going to play together. That was a given. And when he went back to El Paso, he talked to Jim, and Jim was really into it. Then all of a sudden, I flew to El Paso, and there we were," he says, laughing at how easily it all happened.

"You know, the hiatus thing was, to me, just press crap," Hajjar continues. "You know what I mean? You're supposed to stay quiet, you're supposed to not say anything, but you know what? A hiatus for everybody else is my life. And my livelihood. And I'm not going to live on a hiatus. I think it's absolute bullshit. So we knew we had to get going and work our butts off, and that's what we did. We're enjoying exactly what we're doing. Officially, I guess people still think we're on hiatus, but there's no such thing. That's the funny part. I think all five of us are having a great time, and that's the best part of it."

While the hiatus technically remains in effect--the group has never officially broken up--there isn't much reason to wait on a reunion. Former bandmates Cedric Bixler and Rodriguez have already gone on to release records with Defacto (the dub side project that was up and running before At the Drive-In limped to the sidelines) and their new rock outfit (The Mars Volta) since the split. And Hajjar, Hinojos and Ward have been just as busy: They began rehearsing together in June and played a handful of shows before the year was out, stopping by the studio whenever they could to mark their progress. And somewhere in there, they signed a contract with DreamWorks Records, which just released a four-song EP by the group (Austere) and is set to put out a full-length later this year.

It's a bit surprising how quickly the members of Sparta were able to regroup, especially since Hajjar lives in L.A., while the rest of the group (including bassist Matt Miller) remains in El Paso. But maintaining the long-distance relationship has never been a problem, according to Hajjar: "OK, well, there's meetings, so, of course, meetings are going to be in L.A. with labels, so you guys come up," he explains. "Or, we're practicing--I'll go down." Coming up with songs wasn't a concern either, since they hadn't stopped writing during their time apart; they may have taken a break from At the Drive-In, but they didn't take a break from music.

"Paul and I were sending MiniDiscs back and forth to each other, so we already had a few songs going between us," Hajjar says. "I had written, Paul had written, Jim had written, and then all of a sudden, we got together. We practiced for eight days, and on the ninth day, we went into the studio and demoed nine songs. We were doing 11 hours a day, 12 hours a day of practice. The performances weren't even close to perfect or anything like that, but it was pretty incredible."

It's not terribly surprising, given the trio's history together, that most of Austere sounds very much like songs At the Drive-In probably would have gotten around to eventually. Or already got to: "Cataract" is more or less a companion to Relationship's "Invalid Litter Dept," and Ward's vocals are, occasionally, almost indistinguishable from Bixler's audio acrobatics. Yet Austere is a slightly more accessible version of ATDI's angry and angular prog-punk; the songs are as anthemic as ever but also more focused, with less salt and more sugar. You still can't hear why Ward calls Billy Joel's Piano Man one of his biggest influences, but he comes a little closer.

The real difference is the last song on the EP, "Echodyne Harmonic (D-Mix)," with its ticklish drum 'n' bass bottom and Ward's distorted distress signal ("I'm fading out," he repeats over and over). It's less song than sound, although there's a melody in there somewhere, an electronic excursion that draws a line in the sand, steps confidently away from ATDI's past and into Sparta's future. It wasn't a conscious reaction against their former band, Hajjar says, though he doesn't mind much if people hear it that way.

"One weird thing that happened with the other band is, for some reason, since we recorded with a heavier producer and some of our songs came off really, really powerful and heavy, we were starting to get associated with metal bands and nü-metal bands," he explains. "And that was everything we weren't. That's not for it or against it, it's just everything that we really weren't or weren't trying to be. So that was weird for us. We love people coming to our shows in general, and we always have, but at the same time, we were like, 'Whoa, these guys want to kill each other.' We're not about that. We're, like, wimps." He laughs. "We couldn't jump into a crowd and hurt anybody, even if we really tried, you know? The whole association thing was weird in that respect, and now with this band, we don't have any expectations of ourselves or the product that comes out of this studio. And I think that's the best thing to have. We're not expected to do anything, and we're not trying to do anything. And if you're that free in your spirit, then it's OK."