Music interview – At The Drive-In: ‘All we ask is for 15 minutes to be like “check this out”’

At The Drive-In.
At The Drive-In.
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Those looking for clues about the themes addressed on At The Drive-In’s latest album inter alia will find a few in its cover artwork.

In it a wild dog is depicted amid the smouldering ruins of a cityscape.

The influential art-punk band’s vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala describes the record as “a strange, childlike interpretation” of the tumultuous events of 2016.

“I think the album in a way dabbles with hiding in the areas of the unpopular belief of having to see the point of view from both sides as to what makes us so broken. When you see the album cover and you see the rubble and you see what might in my opinion be a very rhetorical and typical accepting alternative universe of post-apocalyptic times I think that’s definitely what it is.”

Lyrical allusions to the work of sci-fi author Philip K Dick suggest a band tapping into contemporary paranoia. Bixler-Zavala agrees. “In a weird way there’s a sense of all that coming to life now so what better way than to use this as a way of talking about that? I never think my lyrics are so black and white, but sometimes they are. If you listen to No Wolf Like The Present and you read the lyrics you sort of understand the kind of sentiment behind the average taxpayer questioning whether or not the police work for you or against you which is a hard thing to talk about because when you grow up you realise law enforcement is closer to home than you would like to admit. Everything is connected and it’s a difficult thing to see black and white in 2017. You can say f*** the police if you’ve grown up in a certain ethnicity, I don’t blame you for that, but nothing is ever so black and white. But I hope people can at least walk away seeing that it’s an important subject to discuss. I always grew up with albums that put that right in front of your face and made you have those uncomfortable conversations.”

The album comes five years after At The Drive-In’s reformation. Bixler-Zavala says despite the lengthy lead into writing new material it took “just one conversation” to decide on inter alia’s direction.

Everything is connected and it’s a difficult thing to see black and white in 2017.

Cedric Bixler-Zavala

“It was a very important conversation to have and it was a very good thing ego-wise and directionally for Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez] to say ‘It’s great everyone’s expressing themselves but that’s not the direction it needs to be; this is the direction it needs to be’.”

Rodriguez-Lopez said he prepared himself for writing and recording by going back to old mixtapes the band used to listen to on their tour bus and rewatching old films. Bixler-Zavala sees the merits of the process. “I think I don’t ever leave those kinds of mixtapes alone and if I don’t listen to that exact mixtape I’m always finding myself looking back at some of the stuff that sparked so much wonder. That’s his way of method-acting in a weird way but I don’t want to sort of throw it under the bus and say that’s all it is. I just think there’s a great way of reminding yourself by watching an old movie or listening to an old tape that helps you access that personality because that’s kind of what you do as musicians, you access these different facets, and especially as you get older you realise they’re still there, they don’t really ever go away, they just take a little break.

“We just had a day off in Sydney and I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the original Blade Runner in all the different cuts yet there’s a certain 15-year-old in both of us that said ‘they’re showing the original without thee narration, let’s go see in the theatre’. That really brought me back as well, not just the camaraderie of seeing something so mind-blowing as that movie with your best friend but it also reminds you of do you remember what it was like when you first saw that? Do you remember what you were feeling? Do you remember how much your hormones confused you and how much they were the catalyst and the little bad guy on your shoulder going ‘Throw the brick – do it’.”

For songs to make the cut on the new album Bixler-Zavala says they had to pass the test of “whether they felt like an authentic child’s voice in very aspect”.

“In their delivery where there weren’t so many accumulated rules, at least I’ve accumulated so many singing-wise which are just part of my ritual which were great to let go of. It was great to access the old personality.

“As far as the idea bit, I think there’s a certain kind of fan of At The Drive-In that was there when all we were begging for was 15 minutes or 30 minutes, that was what we excelled at, and I think that’s what we wanted to look for in sonic ideas. In Governed By Contagions the main hook that is the chorus that comes out because it’s a mistake but that’s the mistake that Omar jumps up and says ‘That’s the idea right there’.”

As for what he feels Keeley Davis has brought to At The Drive-In since replacing founder member Jim Ward, Bixler-Zavala says: “He’s brought this sense of melody and also this eager sense of being willing to drop everything and do it, which is what it took to make this a workable band in the first place.

“With as much owed respect as possible, that’s something Jim didn’t have this time around. We turned, at least to me, to what was a total stranger and they were like ‘I’m still a kid and I would love to go do that with you guys’ and so he brought a lot of that youthful energy back. Maybe it’s because he grew up in skateboard youth culture and all the gateway drugs that provides for you as far as like influence. We could see eye to eye on a lot of the stuff. It formed a lot of people in my age group and he still brings that to this day. He’s the guy that’s still falling down literally and figuratively and going ‘I meant to do that’. That’s great because he applies that musically too and performance-wise.”

At The Drive-In might have sold hundreds of thousands of records but Bixler-Zavala says he’s looking forward to supporting Royal Blood on their UK arena tour. “Being in these arena situations is a lot like we were when we were coming up,” he says. “We did gigs in front of Arches of Love, which is a big audience, for 15 minutes, we did gigs in front of Rage Against The Machine during their last album, for 15 minutes or so. That’s where we excelled, when could make a whole bunch of people really upset and maybe their girlfriend or their younger friends or one person in the audience said ‘Wow, what was that?’ That’s all it takes.

“So we can be in our forties and go in front of Royal Blood’s fans, who are going to be younger obviously, we can show them there’s this other way of doing it and check this out. That’s all we ask, is for 15 minutes to be like ‘check this out – you don’t have to like it but there is an alternative out there’.”

At The Drive-In play with Royal Blood at First Direct Arena, Leeds on November 17. www.atthedriveinmusic.com