The word reunion is a loaded term in the life cycle of a band. Often times it’s simply an attempt to bask in the glow of an album anniversary or cash in on nostalgia by playing the hits. So when At The Drive-In decided to announce to their return to the world, drummer Tony Hajjar says the band wasn’t just coming back for a victory lap. They hit the road with the intent of writing a new chapter in their history that could be just as powerful, progressive and pissed off as those that came before it.
“We’re not the band that got back together and we’re playing all our old songs and hopefully they don’t suck,” Hajjar says. “We crossed the line and now we’re a current band and it’s a new challenge for us.”
Even before the word spread about the release of their new album in•ter a•li•a (out tomorrow on Rise Records), the band was more than ready to take on the challenge. Last May, a sold-out crowd crammed into the Observatory in Santa Ana to witness the band’s first show back since their bumpy year 2012 when the band came back for a tour just prior to the death of Rodriguez-Lopez’ mother,
“Back then we immediately went into ‘take care of our brother mode,’ Hajjar says. “But we had 10 shows still scheduled. And we did them and he did them even though it was really hard for him because we all wear our hearts on our sleeves.”
Fast forward to the Observatory in 2016, crowds were looking at a re-energized version of ATDI. The seething intensity behind Hajjar’s drumming, the steadfast growling bass of Paul Hinojos, the intense axemanship of Omar Rodriguez and the high-flying, serpentine charisma of Cedric Bixler-Zavala made their return to form self-evident. Even former Sparta guitarist Keeley Davis, the the last minute replacement for co-founding member Jim Ward who bowed out right before the tour, felt less like a sideman and more like an integral part of ATDI’s complex, battle-tested chemistry.
The seeds of the successful return were actually sown a year before the tour, in 2015 in a hotel room back in their hometown of El Paso, Texas. Hajjar flew out to ATDI’s hometown to meet with his bandmates and discuss the business of being in a band together again.
“We said “Okay let’s cross this line,’” Hajjar remembers. “‘If we cross this line we’re in, if we’re doing this, we’re doing it right. We’re writing a record on the road and we’re doing a bunch of shows, not just 10, we’re doing it right.’”
At that point, the band dropped the idea of doing a reunion and simply focused on a successful union. A few months later, they embarked on a three-month tour, writing songs on the road before going into the studio in late November. Throughout the process, the band did their best to put zero pressure on themselves, except for the times right before it was time to play a show.
“The only thing that hasn’t changed about us is that we always feel like the world is against us. That’s how we get on that stage,” Hajjar says.
Obviously 16 years of artistic and personal growth has had their effect on the band, not to mention how individually prolific each of them have been in that amount of time, with each member creating exhaustive amounts of music in the post-ATDI era. The discography of Sparta and The Mars Volta and Rodriguez-Lopez' solo work is enough to overwhelm any avid ATDI fan, let alone stints with acts like former dub side project Defacto or Hajjar’s work scoring film trailers and his band all-star band Gone is Gone featuring members of Mastadon and Queens of the Stone Age.
Yet even after all the time between albums, in•ter a•li•a (a Latin term which means “among other things”) feels like a natural continuation in ATDI’s discography, full of explosive rhythms and hyper literate angst. Artist Damon Locks, who also did the cover art for their last full length album Relationship of Command in 2000,signed onto create the artwork for the new album as well as the videos for lead singles “Governed by Contagions” and “Incurably Innocent.”
Part of recapturing their former essence was also writing songs together as a unit. Hajjar takes pride in the fact that both of singles were created while on the road. The chorus for the “Governed by Contagions” came about during a jam session fluke that struck a chord with Rodriguez Lopez.
“Paul wrote the main riff for that one that we were all jamming off of,” Hajjar remembers. “But the main chorus came from me actually making a mistake into the next part so I started playing a tom part and Omar was like ‘Fuck! That! That! That!’ that’s how that one came out,”
The basis for the sound of “Incurably Innocent” was written by Davis, who was hand picked by Hajjar to fill Ward’s slot after their co-founder bowed out of the tour, leaving the band without a vital member and writing partner. However, Davis—who’d just gotten out of surgery due to a horrible motorcycle accident that almost forced him to amputate his foot—was able to get in the groove seamlessly, just as he did when he stepped in to join Sparta in 2006.
“When we had to make a very quick decision to bring someone in or cancel another tour it was kinda hard and the guys asked me who should we call,” Hajjar says. “I said hands down it should be Keeley...I thought of anyone coming in and making the situation a little more positive, he was the first person that came to mind. I love how he plays, I love how he plays on stage I love him as a person off stage.”
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In the studio, ATDI relied on producer Rich Costey to capture their current sound, which Hajjar says takes a little bit of aural influence from Relationship without sounding like a rehash.
“I think the chemistry of the record is different,” Hajjar says. “It’s not gonna sound like Relationship of Command. If anything I think the record is darker. It’s not necessarily heavier or fast, I think it resonates because of where we are right now as citizens of the US and this crazy time.”
Though they didn’t exactly plan for it, the band’s union seems like diving timing that will likely garner them plenty more material before they’ve exhausted the in•ter a•li•a tour cycle should their station continue to remain operational. As of now, Hajjar says, all systems are go.
“What gives me hope is our union as a band has never been stronger and that’s a great thing to have. That’s what gives me the most pleasure that we’re gonna work our hardest at the playing the old songs and the songs we have now.”