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Cedric Bixler-Zavala Talks At the Drive-In Reissues, His Real Mars Volta Role

At the Drive-In perform at Lollapalooza 2012 / Photo by Ian Witlen

At the Drive-In’s 2001 breakup was as abrupt and tense as the band’s music — the El Paso, Texas, five-piece, valorized for their volatile post-hardcore sound, dynamic live show, and, sure, mightily impressive Afros, had just released their third studio album, Relationship of Command, an overwhelming critical success and commercial breakthrough. With little word as to why, the band split shortly before a U.S. tour in support of the album. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez went on to form prog-rock monster the Mars Volta (which announced its own demise earlier this year), while guitarist Jim Ward, drummer Tony Hajjar, and bassist Paul Hinojos developed the decidedly more straightforward Sparta.

Almost as surprising as the band’s dissolution was its reunion. After nearly a decade of inactivity, At the Drive-In spent the 2012 festival season gigging in the U.S., England, and Japan. While the reconciliation proved to be short-lived — and did not result in any new music — fans can plug back into the early days via new vinyl, CD, and digital reissues of ATDI’s 1996 debut, Acrobatic Tenement, and Relationship of Command, both out April 30 and both courtesy of the band’s own label, Twenty-First Chapter.

SPIN spoke with Bixler-Zavala, 38, about the reissues, At the Drive-In’s tumultuous career, and his own musical future.

Can you describe the atmosphere around the band when Acrobatic Tenement was released in 1996?
Before the album, the band had broken up. We did a U.S. tour and we decided to split up. I always needed Jim to be there, but he’d had a falling out with Omar. We’d made a bunch of dumb moves at the time — kicked the drummer who was on the record out, and then the other guitar player — but then Tony and Paul came and played. Omar switched to guitar at the time, because he played bass on that album, so when we played live, it was a lot different. Jim had been listening to a lot of jangly indie rock, stuff like Built to Spill, and that’s what that album sounds like.

Have the reissues caused you to think about who you were when At the Drive-In got started?
You don’t understand what you’re angry about as a young man. You have those young man blues. You throw into the mix drug use occasionally, here and there, sometimes extreme drug use, and not having a normal life, always being on the road. I just had twin boys a couple weeks ago, I’m married. I think I used to just hold everything in when I was in bands, just sort of hope for the shelf life to go longer than it should. Now I’m just at a place in my life where I’m expressing what it’s like to be on the lighter side of things.

What do you think the 1996 version of yourself would think of the person you’ve become?
He’d probably be bummed. The 20-year-old version of me had all this energy, and wanted to be obnoxious with his art and wanted to communicate even though he didn’t know what he wanted to communicate. Now I am writing music where I’m very direct. There’s no cryptic messages. There’s no made-up language. I think a lot of people could do with buying a Flying Burrito Brothers record — it does wonders for you. It’s a great gateway drug.

Do you have a sense of why Relationship of Command resonated so strongly with so many people? Or was its success a mystery to you?
There was so much funny stuff going on at the time: You could turn on the TV and Limp Bizkit would come on, then we would come on. I remember doing a lot of English press and people being like, “We think you guys are exotic, the names of the songs and flannel and look is exotic.” I definitely knew what school we came from, and that people like Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu were our strongest influences, but they weren’t exactly huge in Europe. I was always wondering if [the success was due to] the live show, the actual songs, the albums? All I really know is that we were lucky. I’d like to think that us touring so hard left its mark. You could see us everywhere.

It was a relatively short time after Relationship came out that you guys broke up, or went on indefinite hiatus or whatever it was being called at the time. Is there a specific reason for that decision that stands out now?
Well, technically, we just broke up, but it was in the label and manager’s interest to leave the door open [by labeling the split a “hiatus”]. People say that [the breakup occurred at] the peak of this interesting thing that happened, but since I could remember, we were touring non-stop. My home was always someone’s floor. By that point, it was like, let’s go home, let’s rest a little, and let’s start something brand new that shows that this is not the best way.

Was setting off with Omar to form the Mars Volta part of your search for “the best way”?
We were just really close at that time. Creatively we just knew how to finish each other’s sentences. There wasn’t this sense of you can’t do this, that’s too much. Mars Volta was always about embracing what too much was and the excess of it. I never thought there would be an audience for it. I always just thought that we could spend all the money we made in At the Drive-In, and say, “Hey, this is my real passion project, check it out.” At the time, we did it so irresponsibly, and said the worst things in interviews about everyone else in the band. It was the worst thing to do.

Was that an attempt to distance yourselves from them?
Yeah, probably. We were getting a lot of stupid hype, people were calling [At the Drive-In] the next Nirvana and stupid shit like that. I never thought we were the next anything. We were just a bunch of kids from Texas who knew how to really thrive as the underdog. Then when we got on top, it was a weird thing to deal with.

Then why reunite?
I just wanted to make amends to everyone else; really sort of apologize to everyone involved. There was also this sort of unspoken thing about the wives and the significant others who were involved too, who carried the weight of all that negativity for years. Yeah, we got paid money, but that wasn’t why I did it. I did it to rekindle old friendships.

Going back to the reissues, what specific emotions do those albums conjure for you?
It just reminded me of the struggle that we had coming up. Playing to nobody and what it was like. The irony of people singing along to these songs. The reality was there were a lot of years of no one really caring.

But it’s fair to say that At the Drive-In are done for good?
I guess for now, it is. But you should never say never. There’s still a lot of amends to be made and behavior to be accounted for. I know that sounds cryptic, but the reunion wasn’t really the raddest reunion we could have had. I think everyone in the band tried their best regardless of some people not looking like they wanted to be there.

What are you working on now that the Mars Volta are also finished?
I’ve been working on my own record for a while now. What started out as a solo project has sort of formed into this band. We don’t really have a name, but it essentially started off as songs that I wrote, because being in the Mars Volta wasn’t exactly the most nurturing moment to discover that I could write songs, so I had to figure that out. They’re mostly songs that I was writing for my wife, lots of acoustic-driven stuff, lots of lap steel, a lot of Sunday morning stuff.

Sounds like you were eager to stretch some new muscles.
I didn’t write music in the Mars Volta at all. No one was allowed to [laughs]. You’re going to get to hear my version of what a song should be. It’s really, really mellow. It’s really ballad-y stuff. I’ve just always had this thing for ’70s power pop. I don’t know if I should even say that, but that’s what it sounds like to me.