Taken from Las Vegas Weekly (May 24, 2018)
The Weekly interview: At the Drive-In frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala
by Annie Zaleski
Bixler-Zavala, second from right, leads ATDI into Punk Rock Bowling. Courtesy
In 2017, post-hardcore luminaries At The Drive-In released inā¢ter aā¢liā¢a, their fourth album and first LP since the landmark 2000 record Relationship Of Command. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala called up the Weekly from Los Angeles to chat about making a new LP and why heās so stoked to be headlining Monday night at Punk Rock Bowling.
The Mars Volta played in Vegas a few times, but I donāt think At the Drive-In ever has. Is that correct? I thought maybe we played there once a long time ago. We didāwe played the Huntridge Theater opening up for A.F.I.
Was that a memorable show for you guys at all? The tour was, just simply because it was our introduction to what itās like to play to an established audience that does not want to have anything to do with anything different. Everyone hated us, and by the time the tour sort of reared its head back in some form, then it seemed likeāall ego asideāpeople started dressing like us. (Laughs.) And it was almost like their girlfriend said, āHey, babeāI like this band.ā And they were like, āOh, okay.ā Itās different from what they were listening to at the time. I saw that, but Iām not really trying to claim we invented anything. Once youāre like an old-school politician, and youāre going door-to-door, people are going to take notice, and youāre going to maybe make some fans.
Absolutely. And a tour like that, it just toughens you up. But then when you actually see the manifestations of things youāre doing, thatās cool. Yeah, especially when the bands weāre playing with are so inviting and so nice, and theyāre going out of their way to have you on the tour. And they know what their audience is like. Itās just par for the course to get that experience and count your bruises as experiences. I think the white hair on my head is from those shows, or opening up for Rage Against the Machine. Those are some hard audiences. I donāt think there was a night that didnāt happen where someone wanted to physically fight us and made a whole ordeal about it.
At the Drive-In is in a much different position now than you were when opening for Rage Against the Machine. What is the biggest difference now for you, touring and recording? Now that we can sort of breathe a little bit more and do things at a pace where weāre not completely rushed. Prior to [2000ās] Relationship of Command, everything was like, āThis is costing moneyāletās go, letās go, letās go.ā So once we got to something like Relationship of Command, it was like, āOh, we can spend more than two weeks doing this? Cool.ā
Now we can live out the fantasy of people in the band hightailing it to some secret location and living in that location and making a record. Itās nice to be able to experience that, and thatās what happens when you knock door-to-door constantly. Thatās the biggest effectāwe have the luxury of being able to do that. And the funny thing is, you find yourself going, āOkay, now letās rebel against that,ā because that can work against you, because thatās going to make you soft.
What was the most fun you had making inā¢ter aā¢liā¢a at the Sound Factory? What was the most gratifying part for you? It used to be run by Tchad Blake. Iām a huge Tchad Blake fan. I mean, Swordfishtrombones [by] Tom Waits, and the Latin Playboys records. I feel like those are really criminally underlooked by the mass culture. Those sounds are just undeniably cool. Thereās that. And so Iād get to walk down that little [studio] hallway, because itās tiny, and see the CDāit wasnāt even a record that was put up, it was a CD of all the bands that had played thereāI would get lost and be like, āIf youād have told me I would be recording here where they recorded ā¦ā That would get me excited.
And then the other thing is that it was just absolutely small, so thereās nowhere to run, really. Youāre having these moments of any form of writerās blockāweāre all right there, and weāre all right there to pick each other up. We forced ourselves to be in a situation where we were going to apply what it was like to be family. Thatās just really, really exciting. That was part of our inner therapy, I guess, going back to a situation where you make a record, and sometimes you have to say uncomfortable things about ideas that you can be too emotionally attached to.
That just means at the end of the whole process, youāre going to come out having learned something about yourself and the dynamics of your traveling family. Thatās really important, and itās something I can apply to my kids now, you know?
It was the first record At the Drive-In made in 17 years, too. Was there any kind of stress, or was that any kind of consideration, as you were making it? I think just in, like, a couple of conversations getting this whole thing off the ground, really. And then after that, it was something more for [other] people to talk about, not really us. After awhile, it was like, if we talked about that, then itāll affect the music making, and we all were very conscious of it not getting to that point. It was just like, āLetās figure out whatās going to get us back to the place that would make a hardcore At the Drive-In fan excited.ā And by hardcore At the Drive-In fan, thatās someone whoās aware of the other records besides Relationship of Command, you know? (Laughs.)
So thatās what we did. A lot of that has to do with [guitarist] Omar [RodrĆguez-LĆ³pez] as a producerāOmar being able to come in and objectively remove himself as a guitar player and say, āThatās a cool idea, so-and-so, but thatās not At the Drive-In. Thatās At the Drive-In if we try to redefine what we are now.
It was amazing to be able to have that communication from him, and let it sit inside you and go, āOkay, leave those egos at the door. This motherf*ckerās right; he knows what heās doing. Heās been making movies, making records, for well over 10 years now. Heās got an artistic intuition that moves at an insane pace.
And it really takes a special mind-set to be able to have that perspective to be both in and out of an artistic project like that. Thatās so difficult to do. It really is. Luckily, there is some partāat least for me as a frontmanāthat is almost, like, professional wrestling, where Iām trying to sell you whether the hit looks real. What do they call it in professional wrestling? Kayfabe, which is really the term wrestlers use to stay in character. Thereās a certain kayfabe involved, where Iāve got to be able to sell it.
Thereās this whole list of old personalities that I can act, as corny as that sounds, or as method actor as that sounds. Itās like, once someone says a key phrase, like, āDo you remember what it was like here, before you were teaching yourself how to sing properly?ā Or, āRemember when you would do this, and the melody was implied?ā
Omar would always come out with this suggestion of going back to what it was like to be the primordial kid that had no rules, and just threw the idea against the wall and said, āF*ck it, thatās it,ā and people go, āOh, wow, youāre right. I love that.ā Thatās what we were trying to get back to. It took us a couple conversations and directions from him to do that. Thatās specifically why we had him as that producer, because he has the ability to do that. Itās an amazing gift he has.
And itās so true that once youāve done a lot of music, and done a lot of things, trying to recapture that mind-set and be like, āOkay, what was I like two decades ago?ā Thatās so challenging. It is. And I always laugh about the male life experience, [but] I feel though, starting from 14 years old until youāre maybe around 30, your hormones are dictating the classic phrase of, āI donāt know what I want, but I want it now.ā As soon as I can access that, I can go, āOh, yeah, a certain sort of dumb rock ānā roll.ā
But then [inā¢ter aā¢liā¢a co-producer Rich] Costey would come in and be like, āSometimes when Iām hearing what youāre saying lyrically, itās like youāre telling me about something that I think I want to know about, that I donāt know about, but you know the secret about it.ā And Iām like, āOh, okay, I know that. I know how to do that.ā Because that was his take on what I do lyrically. That was fun to have him request that, because thatās essentially what Omar was getting at. Putting both of those guys together is amazing. Itās like a holistic doctor and a plastic surgeon going to work on some sort of body that theyāre creating.
How did Keeley Davis being on the record change or influence the music? Well, Keeley comes from that same school of bands that we would tour in back in, especially the late ā90s. He had that Rolodex of guitar writing that really stuck with us. On top of that, his personality is amazing, and heās experienced a lot of what we had experienced as well. I donāt think thereās one venue weāve hit in Europe where he [hasnāt been] like, āYeah, I played here with Engine Down, I remember that. Yeah, we used this van company from the Czech Republic, I know so and so.ā We have the same experience.
It added to our vocabulary, because he has been through a lot of stuff, and thereās certain phrasing in his guitar playing that is like what [former guitarist] Jim [Ward] does. And he was in Sparta, and he would do a lot of vocals that would have to mirror what Jim does. So it was sort of a no-brainer to have him in there. For me, I didnāt even think of that until [drummer] Tony [Hajjar] was like, āLook, Iāve done time with this guy. Heās an amazing guy. Heās got his sh*t together.ā He was willing to do this full-time with us, which was really what we needed. And heās been perfect ever since.
Do you miss playing with Jim at all? I miss playing with the Jim Ward that I remember, which I havenāt unfortunately had the pleasure of being around in a really, really long time. The only way I can describe it is thereās a person that I used to know, and heās not that person. And thatās okay, you know? People grow and change, and their considerations of what they need and want out of life, they differ from year to year, and itās not always what the group wants.
But, yeah, thereās a certain persona, and as an artist, that Iāve not seen in a really, really, really long time. We started the band in a ditch in El Paso. My other band that I was playing with [Foss], with Beto OāRourkeāwe were on tour, and that band wasnāt that serious. I knew when I came home, I wasnāt going to have a band. And the only person I knew who was serious that wasnāt already taken was Jim Ward, and Jim Ward had that same thing of, like, āLetās get the f*ck out of our hometown.ā Which anyone in their teenage years is gonna do, unless maybe you grew up in New York or California. We didnāt have that luxury. We had El Paso, so you see what you donāt like about it, and you want to get out. You want to see the world. And I just knew he was the only person that was serious like that.
I miss that person, because I have not seen that person in a long time. We tried to get that person involved, but heās no longer there. Heās just a different type of person now, and what he wants, and the amount of touring he wants to do, and what his vision [is] for At the Drive-In now, is just not the same with us. And we have to respectfully move on. Thatās sort of what it is.
I think Jim is an amazing f*cking person. He just has different wants and needs in life, and those wants and needs arenāt what At the Drive-In could necessarily provide right now.
What youāre describing is so much about adulthood, too, and losing track of friends from high school. Itās so hard. It doesnāt get any easier, no matter how old you get. Itās not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Everyone can hold the record and watch the video, see the show, and does not understand that there is life back inside the van. Iāve said this many times: Rock ānā roll is this magnet for dysfunctional people who only know how to communicate through the medium of a live show. So someone may be kicking over something, or throwing a guitar or jumping in the audience or breaking their toe by mistake or somethingāthatās how boys communicate, I guess. (Laughs.) Theyāre dysfunctional.
Rock ānā roll says, āHey, man, this is where you can be normal,ā and then after a while you grow up and you go, āWait a minute. Oh, by the way, I learned how to do these cool things, but I never learned how to speak my mind. I never learned how to express myself emotionally. I should have been paying attention more.ā And thatās been the most rewarding and amazing part of all this process, is usāespecially meāgoing, let me be humbled about your point of view, and letās move on and think about the greater good of this beast called At the Drive-In.
You mentioned [U.S. Representative] Beto OāRourke, who youāve known for so long. What has been the most gratifying for you, seeing his national ascent politically? That heās one of the real ones, thatās whatās gratifying about it. When I see him going door-to-door, waking up at 4 a.m., jogging with his constituentsālike, going for it, speaking his mind, standing up for veterans, standing up for immigrantsāthatās the person I grew up with and toured with. I get very teary-eyed when I see how amazing heās doing, because heās one of the good ones. I definitely am of the mind-set that a lot of politicians are f*cked. And itās usually because of the money they take from other people. You know? And thatās just not the case with Beto.
Iāve ridden in one of those family wagons on a tour with him, and thatās the Beto I know. A completely grassroots individual who is down for the human raceānot just one tax bracket or one gender or one ethnicity over the other. Heās down for human beings. You can see that. All you need to do is follow his social media or read an interview with him or go, if youāre in Texas, to one of his town meetings. When I see him on TV or when I hear about him, or someone says, āYo, youāre in a Newsweek article because you played with Beto,ā I get really proud, because I know what heās about, and I know heās one of the good ones.
This is for Punk Rock Bowling, so I was wondering: Is anybody in the band a bowler, and if so, whoās the best? Iām going to say Tony [Hajjar]ās the best because heās got the arm.
And, on top of that, I believe the festival is run by Shawn Stern from Youth Brigade. I mean, the reason why I do what I do is partly influenced by a [punk rock documentary] movie that Shawn Stern was in called Another State of Mind. I used to watch it with my parents, because it would come on Channel 19 USA, the program called Night Flight. And the theme of the movie is, āF*ck everythingāgo see the world.ā [The documentary features] Social Distortion and Youth Brigade [touring], and basically forging the road that exists now in the United States for punk rock music. [At the Drive-In] almost got signed by Shawn Stern a long time ago, so for me, Iām like, āThatās cool. Letās do Punk Rock Bowling. Shawn Sternās cool.ā
In fact, I went to a Murder City Devils reunion show in 2008. Unfortunately, my hair was rather Ronnie James Dio-long. And I see Shawn Stern coming up the stairs, and Iām like, āShawn Stern. Hey, man! Itās me, Cedric, I sing in At the Drive-In.ā And he looked at meāyou know, Shawn Stern is still 1983 Shawn Stern, he had a shaved headāand he was like, āMan, cut your f*cking hair,ā and he walked away.
There was an instant where I could have been offended, but I knewāI knewāthat I would not have wanted it any other way. āCause thatās what inspired me, was that guy, and that brazen, all-or-nothing, this-is-the-new-thing [attitude]. I just laughed hysterically, like, āOh, wow, he thinks Iām, like, some hesher guy.ā Like, āNo, motherf*cker. Iām here because of you,ā but he Shawn Stern-ed me, and it was pretty amazing.
Punk Rock Bowling May 25-28, for times & ticket prices, visit punkrockbowling.com.