AT THE DRIVE-IN: WE REACT TO IT
illustration by nathan morse
At The Drive-In slashed a hole in rock ‘n’ roll when they came out in the 90s, and for a few too-short years, they were as hot as it got—but in 2001, they split, exhausted in every sense of the word. But now they’re back, and not just back to perform, as they’ve done before. Now they have a new album of new music, and it’s as fiery as anything they’ve done. Their brand-new full-length in * ter a * li * a is out now and they perform on Sat., May 13, at the Shrine Expo Hall, and you can win tickets here! This interview by DJ Nobody a.k.a. Elvin Estela.
I always wanted to know if it was an urban myth or if it was true … does the name At the Drive In come from the Poison song ‘Talk Dirty to Me’?
Tony Hajjar (drums): I think it’s true! Yeah! I mean … it’s super ironic but yeah, pretty positive it’s true! I’ve been asked that question once before but it was literally like 1998 that someone asked it, so I’m glad that someone is asking it again!
Congratulations on the new record—I’ve been really soaking in the new songs. I figured out that the name means ‘among other things.’
Tony Hajjar: I think for everything that’s going on right now in this world—our election status and everything else that’s happened—whatever you’re into and whatever you’re fighting, there are other things. There are worse, there are better. The way I’ve always lived my life is that if something bad happens to you, just remember, it’s always worse for someone else. And there’s always other things that you have to battle against. And I think that’s really the meaning of the record: there’s always something looming, and you have to try your best to think positive in this crazy, negative world.
Does At the Drive-In consider themselves a political band? You have songs with such deep messages and comments on things that are happening at the time in history when the songs are being made. Is that the intent? Or does that come about naturally?
Tony Hajjar: I think that’s natural—that’s just the way this band has always flowed. Words pop into his head … it’s in the times but I’ve never considered us a political band. We’re not the band that screams anti-anybody chants at our concerts, we’re living in our times and we react to it. I think being called a political band sometimes narrows it down and I don’t think we’ve ever been that kind of band that wants to be narrowed down.
I feel the same way—like the way Public Enemy was a political band, or NWA. They wouldn’t tell you ‘think this way,’ but they would comment on things going on. Do you think right now is a good time for bands like At the Drive-In to return to music?
Tony Hajjar: I think it’s a great time for rock to come back. It’s been … not dead, because it’s never been dead, and there’s always been great music the past few years. But now at least a lot of friends I know are releasing records and it’s going to be a great year for rock. And I know the kind of band we are … it wasn’t a plan to get together in these times. It just worked out on a personal level and we were ready to do this 100%, and that’s why it worked out. And it’s kind of ironic that it worked out at a time that maybe needs rock ’n’ roll a little bit more than other times.
I agree! I think the past year the first time I was ever streaming music in my life. And it’s a bit shocking to look at the top 100, and there’s not a single guitar song in the top 100. Even the guys who are ‘rock’ are singing over beats now as well.
Tony Hajjar: It’s so true. What happened to being a rock band? I’m super excited about this year because I feel like that’s going to happen in a big way.
I feel the same way—I know bands are still making rock music, but you just don’t hear about it as much as when rock was at the forefront. I know you had a jam room backstage—I saw that when I was at the last show at the Palladium. Did you guys come up with new material for the album mostly on the road?
Tony Hajjar: Yeah! We just decided to have that jam room every night. There were some nights all five of us were in there and there were some nights no one showed up. It was about when everyone was feeling it and when everyone was ready to put things together. I would say like seventy percent of the record—or maybe a little more—was created on the road. And then we got all those ideas and we would listen back to them when we were in Seoul for those thirteen days and we put all those songs together. Some made it and some didn’t but it was at the forefront of our writing.
Is that how you wrote in the past? Or was it a new formula?
Tony Hajjar: Definitely a new formula. We rarely wrote on the road back then. We’d actually … the first time we were around, we would write and then go tour on those songs. This was the first time we had the capability to write and do that anywhere we wanted.
I read your tour schedule from back then and it’s shocking!
Tony Hajjar: It was pretty crazy. The way we toured … I always felt we made it harder on ourselves on purpose! Nowadays we’ve learned from that. We know when to enjoy it and when to struggle a little bit.
What’s the main difference between recording the older records versus now?
Tony Hajjar: We kind of kept the aesthetic of how we recorded those records on this record. It was about quickness, quick takes, not overthinking it, playing at full throttle … I say this story a lot: we had finished the first take of ‘Governed By Contagion’ because that was the first song we were releasing, and [producer] Rich Costey was on the side of the glass just shaking his head to engineer and I was like, ‘Whoa … my take must’ve sucked!’ I didn’t know what he was shaking his head at. And he presses the button to the mic and he goes, ‘I just wanna know what you guys are still so angry about!’ We all started laughing because it’s like … we even realized we’re playing with such ….. AGHHHHH! Like angst, you know? It made me feel really good. In my head, that’s how I’m tracking, and I guess it was coming off that way. And that’s how we tracked the whole record. Really quickly—we didn’t overthink anything. Even vocals! Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] was tracking like full takes here and there like the rest of us. It was pretty intense how fast we recorded that record.
So it’s performance driven?
Tony Hajjar: It was very performance driven. We had the budget to take our time, but we refused to because that’s not what At The Drive-In is.
Speaking of which—Cedric’s Instagram is filled with old gig pictures and it seems like El Paso was so fucking crazy back then. Like it wasn’t just you guys at a venue—it was always in some weird park, someone would just have no clothes on … what is it about El Paso? There’s a natural rebellious spirit down there?
Tony Hajjar: I think you got it. Back in the day and to this day, man—no one comes through El Paso. People go through El Paso when they have to practice for a tour, or they’re like, ‘Oh—let’s not have a day off. Let’s play El Paso between Austin and Phoenix.’ It’s one of those places. So our scene and the bands that started there had this ‘fuck you!’ attitude towards it all. You don’t wanna come through? So we weren’t really influenced by anybody. We had the bands we loved, huge bands and little punk bands—we loved them all. But we weren’t overly influenced by them because we didn’t see them all the time! If you lived in L.A. or D.C. or Seattle or Austin, you saw every band every single time. El Paso lacked that. And because it lacked that, it created this weird push-and-pull of music that a lot of cities didn’t have. You’re right—we didn’t have venues. We played that guy’s basement, and that guy’s garage for like three hours because we had to close it down. ‘Oh, there’s a show? We have to move it to the park—bring the generator.’ It was always that kind of story in El Paso. Everyone was always ready for the worst! That’s how we all grew up. And we still have that attitude. It’s kinda weird but we still have that attitude to this day, even though we shouldn’t—we still have that attitude.
That’s badass, man. You guys literally had to create your own culture from the little bits you would get.
Tony Hajjar: Absolutely. That’s what all the El Paso bands did.
I always joke with Marcel [Rodríguez-López of Zechs Marquise] like, ‘Dude, all you guys look like you’re from the 70s?’ No matter who the fuck I’d meet from El Paso, it’s like … goddamn!
Tony Hajjar: I don’t think I look very from the 70s so maybe I’m the exception because I live in L.A. now.
It’s just dope—it seems like it’s a lot more passionate because of that. Like ‘This is our shit.’
Tony Hajjar: I totally agree. I think it still has that, too. It’s a working class population, and it comes off in the music and all the art—everything.
So let me ask since you’re a drummer: who is your favorite drummer?
Tony Hajjar: My drummers have shifted but when I was growing up it was metal guys and rock guys. It was like … when I was a little kid in 4th grade, it was Tommy Lee! Then it was Lars Ulrich. Then I figured out, ‘Oh shit—it’s Bonham.’ That’s where all these guys got it from, all my favorite drummers. I was into a lot of prog metal so I liked drummer like Dean Castronovo. Now it’s … my contemporaries are drummers I love. I love Atom Willard from Against Me—I think he’s got a great pocket. I love Joey Castillo. I love solid hard-hitting drummers. Our contemporaries are amazing and I get to learn from all of them and see what everyone else is doing and learn from it. We’re in a great time right now. There’s so many great drummers and great musicians all across the board right in front of us. And hopefully a lot of the classic cats will live a lot longer and still be doing what they’re doing to teach the rest of us what’s going on.
How important is it for people to age as musicians and age as artists and not give up their art or music? Especially in L.A.—it gets financially trying to try to survive. How important is it to keep going as you get older?
Tony Hajjar: That’s a great question. I’ve had a few times in my life that I should’ve … something was telling me to quit. After having success in At The Drive-In and then in Sparta, I went through a big lull and thought I was never gonna play music again. That was actually like … looking away from music for the first time in my life in my mid-30s. Then something popped into me that popped into me when I was 23 and joined At The Drive-In and said that I was going to give up my degree, my job, the place I lived to go start with these guys. That attitude—even though I was in a different situation and had started a family and all that stuff—I remembered that attitude. And when I remembered that attitude I said, ‘It will all come if I continue working on it.’ Even if I have to take a break for a little bit—if it’s still in the back of my head that I’m going home and turning on my computer and making beats for electronic stuff I do or trailer stuff or if I was auditioning to do music for a commercial …. Or whatever it is! However small or however big! If I’m still creating, then I’m still on the right path even if I have to do something else to pay my bills. And that’s what I did for a little bit in my life, and it all came back around because I never let it go. That’s what I always do. If I’m not beating on the drum set in a rock band, I’m on my Octatrack, I’m on my Virus, I’m creating for the other stuff I do musically. I don’t ever ever let it go from the back of my head.
What should we expect at the show at the Shrine? The last time there was no new record so it was mostly old stuff.
Tony Hajjar: It was all old stuff last time you saw us at the Palladium. This time it will be probably half of the new record if not less and of course we’ll be pulling stuff out of the old catalog. And we’re working on a production right now for the show. It’s a completely different show. We’re super-excited about it and we’re super-excited about the new record and we hope people can join us at the Shrine. L.A.’s always been our second home. It was probably the third place that kinda embraced us. Austin first, then L.A. and then El Paso—so it’s really exciting. Even though it’s L.A., it still feels like a hometown show for us. It’s a very exciting place for us because they embraced us really quickly when we were starting up.
AT THE DRIVE-IN WITH LE BUTCHERETTES ON SAT., MAY 13, AT THE SHRINE EXPO HALL, 665 W. JEFFERSON BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 9 PM / $43.50 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! AT THE DRIVE-IN’S in * ter a * li * a IS OUT NOW ON RISE RECORDS. VISIT AT THE DRIVE-IN AT ATTHEDRIVEINMUSIC.COM.