16 years is a long time for a band to spend apart before making a comeback by any standard; such a long break can lead to a dangerous level of anticipation among nostalgic fans. This is even truer when your band has the legacy of being regarded as a legendary genre-defining act. In 2000, At The Drive-In cemented their place in music history as the rejuvenators of post-hardcore with their iconic album Relationship of Command before breaking up the following year.
Now they’re back with the promise of new music which fans might hear at their upcoming Splendour appearance and sideshows (although recent setlists from their international tour don’t make this look particularly promising as yet). For a lot of fans there’s probably a romantic eagerness to hear new At The Drive-In material after nearly two decades, but also that cynical recollection of countless other disappointing band comebacks that warn you to lower your expectations. Yet there’s still reason to expect At The Drive-In to deliver something incredible…
Since calling it quits at the height of their popularity, everyone in At The Drive-In has undertaken an eclectic range of musical endeavours, pushing the collective creative genius of their band far and wide throughout the musical landscape. The bands and projects they’ve all played in actually make for an interesting sort of family tree, all spawning from the one seminal post-hardcore band.
Anyone who knows anything about At The Drive-In is aware that frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López would eventually go on to form The Mars Volta. In fact the pair have worked together in several projects in all kinds of styles with a partnership seemingly more sacred than most modern marriages.
However those more interested in the pair’s post-hardcore days are probably just as aware of ? and maybe more fond of ? the band formed by the other members of At The Drive-In. Given that Cedric and Omar’s unreciprocated desire to push in a more experimental direction was credited as a factor of At The Drive-In’s split, it’s not surprising that guitarist Jim Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos, and drummer Tony Hajjar went on to form the highly regarded, if less pioneering, post-hardcore band Sparta. As the first band that fell from the At The Drive-In tree, it seems appropriate that Sparta inherited much of its predecessor’s post-hardcore traits.
Meanwhile, Omar and Cedric’s response to the At The Drive-In demise was to work on a fairly unknown dub reggae project called De Facto. It might seem odd at first to think of the post-hardcore bandmates taking a step away from thrashing about alongside angular guitars and shouted vocals, into spaced out dub that toyed with latin rhythms and sound manipulation. But when you consider that this was the last step before undertaking their journey with the beast that was The Mars Volta, it starts to make sense. In a way, De Facto simply grew into The Mars Volta. New members were added to the De Facto line up and rotated again and again, so that eventually the group really was more like a huge family than a band. This is probably why it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes The ‘Mars Volta sound’, with such a cacophony of layers blended in with Cedric and Omar’s post-hardcore roots and the trippy, groovy echoes of De Facto still audible in their songs.
If Sparta was the first child born from At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta became its sibling. But from there, a number of side projects from ex-At The Drive-In members also arose. Omar’s Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group metamorphosed through a process of shifting members into the experimental art-rock act Bosnian Rainbows.
Cedric’s project, Zavalaz saw him performing acoustic ballads, whose recordings still haven’t been released. Tony very recently formed the rock supergroup Gone Is Gone with members from Mastodon and Queens of the Stone Age. Paul was involved with various collaborations including playing bass for rapper Hyro Da Hero. Finally, Jim also became an impressive creative force in his own right, producing a number of solo acoustic rock releases and forming his alt-country band Sleepercar.
Of course there’s also the extended family of the At The Drive-In descendants to consider as well. Red Hot Chili Peppers for one could basically be considered the cousin of The Mars Volta after John Frusciante and Flea’s falling into the Volta Family. At least one of those two Chili Peppers members made studio contributions on all but the last Mars Volta Album, with John joining them for a stint of touring as well. This Chili Peppers cross-pollination definitely made for an important piece of the Mars Volta musical amalgam. If that’s not immediately apparent just listen to the two very obviously John Frusciante guitar solos in ‘L’Via L’Viaquez’, it’ll make sense.
Flea also recently recorded bass for Cedric and Omar’s newest project Antemasque, the newest descendant of the At The Drive-In lineage. Since recording their first album with Flea and Mars Volta drummer Dave Elitch, the dynamic hispanic duo have swapped out the bassist and drummer with Omar’s brother and, of all people, Blink-182’s Travis Barker. If Red Hot Chili Peppers was a cousin to The Mars Volta then this must give Antemasque some kind of stepfamily relationship with Blink-182. Yet considering the raw, sometimes punk-rock, sometimes Zeppelin-esque folk-rock approach that Cedric and Omar have taken with their latest outfit maybe it’s not so surprising they’ve teamed up with the famous pop-punk drummer this time round. Antemasque is almost as honest and unadorned as The Mars Volta was eccentric and overwrought, a sun-beaten dusty road trip soundtrack next to a collection of schizophrenic LSD powered Latin spaceship noises. If nothing else, it’s nice to see Cedric and Omar have spent some time reacclimatising themselves to the crunchy, in-your-face guitar side of their musical palette which brought them their first major success.
At The Drive-In have now been born again, right at the bottom of their own family tree, as a product of all the groups they’ve each been involved with since their breakup. Of course, as was revealed earlier in the year, this is with the exception of Jim. Yet it’s worth pointing out that they were never going to be the same band anyway.
The creative minds behind the music have undergone 16 years of evolution since their last effort, intermixing ideas and drawing upon influences from incredibly diverse range of creative experiences. But if I learnt anything from the one biology class I took at uni, the diversity of At The Drive-In’s musical genes just makes their potential for producing some quality stock of the post-hardcore persuasion that much better. So it wouldn’t be naive to expect the post-hardcore icons to deliver everything you’d hope for with their return to music. That is, as long as you hope for them to do something new, combining unusual influences in new ways like they did the first time they were together, and not to remake the same music they were making 20 years ago.