Complete Guide: At The Drive In

The station remains triumphantly operational...

At The Drive In’s blazing energy was never designed for the long-haul. Like a meteorite shower, it was always going to burn bright and fast before crashing to the ground.

On the cusp of major label success in 2001, the band imploded. They left behind a back catalogue their hordes of copyists would kill for, and a somersaulting, Afro’d live rep bordering on mythical.

Earlier this year though, ATDI returned with ‘in.ter.l.ia’, a belter of an album and their first new material for 17 years. The station is operational again and to mark their comeback and main stage appearances this weekend at Reading and Leeds festivals, Clash has put the spotlight on their immense discography.

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‘Acrobatic Tenement’ (1996)

At The Drive In were formed in El Paso in 1994 by vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Jim Ward. After several line-up changes and following a slew of scrappy, 80’s emo-charged EP’s, At The Drive In finally released their debut ‘Acrobatic Tenement’.

It was recorded on a budget (a rumoured $600) and it sounds like it too. Cedric’s breathless, frantic howls are as fully formed here as anywhere later in their catalogue and ramshackle energy abounds through jarring riffs but 'Acrobatic Tenement’s cheap, hollow production stifles its bite.

Even so, in ‘Schaffino’s wiry guitar that recalls Fugazi and Rites of Spring, the sparring yells from Cedric and Jim on ‘Ebroglio’ and in the fragmented reflection of ‘Starslight’s shifting riffs, you can glimpse hints of what ATDI would later become. 

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‘In/ Casino/ Out’ (1998)

Following another EP, ‘El Gran Orgo’, the band’s second full length ‘In/ Casino/ Out’ marked the beginning of the classic ATDI line-up, Cedric, Jim and Omar Rodríguez-López on guitars, bass player Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar.

It was a step forward from what's come before; complex, emotional and barely controlled, while in ‘Napoleon Solo’, ‘Lopsided’ and the incendiary ‘Chanbara’ it spawned some of the bands best songs. Recorded live, it proved ATDI’s live hunger could translate from the stage into record and that they could direct their music around hairpin bends and into all manner of dark corners.

Lyrically too, this was the moment when Cedric began his tumble down the rabbit hole – “parkas worn in summer apparel/ sweat lodge comatose of broken arrows” anyone?

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‘Vaya EP’ (1999)

By now, you could visibly and sonically see ATDI were revving up, building steadily towards a crashing apex. Cedric’s lyrics had moved firmly into the space between pretentious and ridiculous – “Poured salt on these slugs/ mugshot fatigue / shimmering” – while musically, although their acrobatic musicianship had tightened, Omar and Jim left room for both bedlam and melody to bloom between criss-crossing guitar rhythms.

Each of the EP’s seven tracks are muscular, full-bodied and energetic. Tracks like ‘Rascuache’, ‘Helitrope’ and ‘198d’ are among the most memorable tracks in ATDI’s arsenal and in that sense, ‘Vaya’ worked almost as a warm-up for the masterpiece that came next.

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‘Relationship Of Command’ (2000)

The album that introduced most of us to ATDI. ‘Relationship Of Command’, the band’s Ross Robinson produced, breakthrough record was lightning-footed, intelligent and electric. It cut through a scene inhabited pretty much solely by nu-metal like a knife through butter.

The lyrics were almost completely nonsensical by this point – the band’s biggest song to date, ‘One Armed Scissor’ included a shout-along hook that went: “slithered entrails in the cargo bay/ mummified circuitry.” It didn’t matter, we bellowed along anyway.

From intense opener ‘Arcarsenal’, to the strangely alien landscape painted on ‘Invalid Litter Dept.’, to Iggy Pop’s mysterious cameos on ‘Rolodex Propaganda’ and ‘Enfilade’ and the full throttle fury of ‘Cosmonaut’, from beginning to end, ‘Relationship of Command’ is a relentless, seminal masterpiece chock full of sharp, unpredictable hooks and rhythms.

It seemed the years playing basements in their hometown of El Paso and slogging across the US in the back of a Ford van were about to pay off. Yet just six months after releasing the greatest post hardcore album ever, At The Drive In were over. Cedric and Omar went on to form the proggy, and at times utterly baffling, The Mars Volta, while Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar formed Sparta.

The band died as it had lived: explosively and perennially on the edge of chaos.

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in.ter (2017)

A rather bloodless live reunion in 2012 meant that last year, when the band announced they were recording new material, no-one expected them to even remotely recapture their previous, turbulent magic. Furthermore, founding member Jim Ward had refused to be involved and had been replaced by Sparta guitarist Keeley Davis.

What a surprise then that comeback album 'in.ter’, is an absolute beast, picking up pretty much where ATDI left off after 'Relationship Of Command'.

To record it, the band spent a lot of time revisiting their old material, books and films to recapture that fiery mind-set of old, and it worked. 'in.ter' is wired with bendy, entangled hooks and driven by white hot rage. At The Drive In are back to continue what they left unfinished.

Other releases of note…

Early EPs, 1994’s ‘Hell Paso’ and 1995’s ‘¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo!’ suffered from the same tin-pot production as debut ‘Acrobatic Tenement’. While both releases were splashed with hints of what ATDI’s later genius, the songwriting is stunted and patchy.

Later, 1997’s ‘El Gran Orgo’ EP was released between ‘Acrobatic Tenement’ and ‘In/Casino/ Out’. Jim Ward doesn’t play on the record yet ‘El Gran Orgo’ has been cited as the “definitive start of At The Drive In” – it’s the moment Omar moved from bass to guitar duties, bringing in that splintered, serpentine guitar work that would come to be one of the band’s defining elements.

A few months before the band released ‘Relationship Of Command’ came a split EP with Czech band Sunshine. Sunshine / At the Drive-In, featured two roaring ATDI tracks, ‘Extracurricular’ and ‘Autorelocator’. Later the former appeared as a bonus track on the 2013 re-release of ‘Relationship Of Command’ while the latter was included on the career spanning ATDI compilation ‘This Station Is Non-Operational’.

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At The Drive In play Reading and Leeds Festivals (Reading, Saturday / August 26th x Leeds, Sunday / August 27th).

Catch At The Drive In at the following headline shows:

13 Cardiff Motorpoint Arena
14 Reading Rivermead Leisure Complex
16 Manchester Arena
17 Leeds First Direct Arena
18 Birmingham Barclaycard Arena
20 London Alexandra Palace
21 London Alexandra Palace
22 London Alexandra Palace
24 Glasgow The SSE Hydro
25 Nottingham Motorpoint Arena
26 Dublin 3Arena
28 Bournemouth International Centre
29 Brighton Centre

Words: Dannii Leivers

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