This past Cinco de Mayo represented the closing of a 17-year gap between At the Drive In albums as the band released in • ter a • li • a
, the long awaited follow up to 2000’s Relationship of Command
The band, which includes singer Cedric Bixler, singer-guitarist Omar Rodríguez, bassist Paul Hinojos, drummer Tony Hajjar and singer-guitarist Keeley Davis, sounds better than ever as snarling guitars rip through tracks such as “Governed by Contagions” and “Pendulum in a Peasant Dress.” The album represents a terrific return to form for a group once heralded to be post-punk’s next big thing.
Hajjar joined the band in 1996, shortly after its inception. A senior in college at the time, he was studying to get his degree in organic chemistry and math when the guys recruited him.
“I was looking for an excuse to get on the road, and in El Paso, it was hard to find anyone who wanted to give everything up,” he says via phone from his El Paso home. “Omar and Cedric literally snuck into my university and came to my lab and said, ‘Let’s do this and play together.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ It was that easy in the sense that we were all ready to just go and see what happens. I joined the band and was the business dude. Sometimes, I was ‘dad’ but not in the best way.”
Hajjar says the group toured with punk bands even though its musical peers didn’t entirely accept the act as one of their own.
“If you recall, in 1996, ska was big again,” he says. “All the shows we got onto, God bless them, were all ska shows. We were either the first band or the last band after everyone left. The punk rock community wasn’t that loving to us for many years. I can’t exaggerate enough that we would get beer bottles thrown us, and no one would let us stay at their house. To become the sweethearts of the community was a shock. No one was preparing us for it, and we never got used to it.”
After releasing three albums and taking its explosive live show to stages all around the world, things came to an abrupt halt in 2000.
“We talk a lot about our past to learn from it and not go back to it,” says Hajjar. “Could it have been deterred? I don't know. We got off the stage at Groningen in the Netherlands and we said, ‘That’s it. We’re taking a break.’ No one had a good show. It was like we were zombies. We went home and rested up and then thought that everything was good. We should have taken six months off because we didn’t realize how burnt we were. If we had taken a longer break, I think we would have still been a band. But, as Omar would say, we would not be here
. We wouldn’t have been at this place where we’ve been through so many things.”
The band would reunite in 2012 to play Coachella, but the rebooted version of the group proved to be short-lived.
“Reuniting was a big change for everybody,” says Hajjar. “It wasn’t what it was supposed to be, but it was another growth. We’ve all been in relationships, and it’s one of those things that you learn from as an adult. I will take things as I go and don’t wish that some things had never happened.”
When the band reunited to tour last year, it traveled with an engineer and set up a studio backstage, so it could work on new material.
“The songs [on the new album] are united by a theme of crazy At The Drive-In times,” says Hajjar. “Were’ lucky to have great chemistry. If you think about it, we put these songs together [at a festival] in Seoul. We had North Korea right over us. We went to the DMZ and witnessed that connection between people who actually want to be together. That was a theme, and the shroud of religion is a theme. We were also experiencing Trump in the U.S. All these themes were above us. We watched the movie THX 1138
a bunch together and that was the catalyst for the record.”
The band emphasizes the prog rock side of its sound, and the guitars in the song “Governed by Contagions” coalesce to make it resemble a Discipline
-era King Crimson track.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard the comparison to Crimson, but I love it,” says Hajjar. “It was created in Philly. It was Omar and Paul and I. Paul had that bass line. It had this [indie rock group] Brainiac vibe. Omar and I were all about the bass lines that Paul had. I started hitting the toms that became the rhythms. That become the chorus. I think that song is a big bridge from old At the Drive In to new At the Drive In.”
“Incurably Innocent” takes on the theme of sexual abuse.
“We were talking about how people report things like this and then it gets swept under the rug,” says Hajjar when asked about the song’s theme. “It was another vibe we talked about in our meetings. Our meetings are dark sometimes. I think that’s the way it was in Cedric’s head, and it’s an amazing song.”
When asked if they thought the band would continue to record and tour, Hajjar says he’s not sure what the future holds.
“I anticipate only tomorrow,” he says. “And that doesn’t just for At the Drive-In. That goes for my life. We have a ton of plans, and we’re very excited, and we’re the most focused we’ve ever been. I’ve been in this band when it was ultra-focused between 1996 and 2000, and we’re more focused than that. We have a lot of announcements coming up. We’re very excited about the whole thing.”
At the Drive In, 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 21, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $39.50, agoracleveland.com.