At the Drive-In's Frontman Opens Up About His Former Mentor, U.S. Senate Candidate Beto O'Rourke

At the Drive-In frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala performed at the band's surprise show at Club Dada in March.EXPAND
At the Drive-In frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala performed at the band's surprise show at Club Dada in March.
Mike Brooks
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At the Drive-In plays South Side Ballroom on Monday, June 12.

Many people are excited about the return of El Paso-based punk band At the Drive-In, which released in*ter a*li*a last month. Yet frontman and co-founder Cedric Bixler-Zavala says he's fielding just as many questions from fans and reporters about another band: one he used to play in with Beto O'Rourke.

O’Rourke —  a former El Paso city councilman and now U.S. Congressman who is running for the Senate opposite Ted Cruz and gaining both attention and ground — used to play bass in the band Foss with Bixler-Zavala, who credits O’Rourke with teaching him how to book shows and tours and make music a lifestyle.

“The way I make art, I learned it from Beto,” Bixler-Zavala says. “He was learning as he went along, too, but he was sort of my older brother/mentor.”

Partly because of O'Rourke's influence, Bixler-Zavala was inspired to tour his five-piece band, At the Drive-In, outside of its hometown of El Paso. Early on, the band went through numerous lineup changes, but things were solidified just before its second release, 1998's In/Casino/Out. With that album, At the Drive-In began to take off. The follow-up, 2000's Relationship of Command, had people saying the group could be as influential as Nirvana.

But that didn’t happen. In 2001, as it was still on its way up, At the Drive-In went on indefinite hiatus. Bixler-Zavala and his bandmate Omar Rodriguez-Lopez formed the Mars Volta while the rest of At the Drive-In — drummer Tony Hajjar, bassist Paul Hinojos, and guitarist and vocalist Jim Ward — formed Sparta. Both bands had great runs with multiple albums and tours, yet fans of At the Drive-In always hoped the members would get back together someday.

In 2012, the original lineup reunited for a run of shows surrounding an appearance at the Coachella music festival. Then the trail went cold again. Bixler-Zavala says there were many baby steps required to get At the Drive-In back together in full force. He and Rodriguez-Lopez formed another band, Antemasque, in the meantime.

“It’s really hard to get five different people and their wants, needs, concerns and doubts,” Bixler-Zavala says. “It’s really hard to organize it.”

Finally, last year, At the Drive-In announced new music and tour dates. Co-founder Ward was listed in the lineup, but before the first show came up, the band announced that Ward would not be involved after all, and the decision was permanent. Keeley Davis, who had played in Sparta, replaced him.

Many people were disappointed by Ward's absence. He brought order and a pop music aesthetic to the band. Without his contributions, the sound is more chaotic. Bixler-Zavala says the new album and tour couldn't be delayed any longer, and Ward simply wasn't ready.

"His head wasn’t there,” Bixler-Zavala says. “His head wasn’t trustworthy. Because of the way Omar and I exploded [with Mars Volta], I completely understood that. You know, you either let it go and keep going forward, or the train goes on without you. We have to honor what is happening now, which is age and the want to do it.

“I love him,” he continues. “He’s a beautiful human being. A beautiful artist. I just wish he would remember that he’s an amazing guitar player. I don’t know if he does.”

Under these circumstances, Davis has proven to be a suitable replacement. And for fans who discovered the band with Relationship of Command and were disappointed to see it come to an end so soon after its release, this postscript is better than none at all.

At the Drive-In, 8 p.m. Monday, June 12, South Side Ballroom, 1135 S. Lamar St., $36.50, livenation.com

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