Cedric Bixler-Zavala On At The Drive-In’s Relationship With Australia & Being A Musical Outsider
by Riley Fitzgerald
At The Drive-In @ Splendour In The Grass 2016 / Photo: Maria Boyadgis
Speaking with At The Drive-In and The Mars Volta frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala impresses the idea of an individual possessed of a relentless energy. While he’s well known for his eccentricities on stage, it’s no persona or put-on. Bixler-Zavala has a drive and a spontaneity that leaks outward from the world of performance and into seemingly every aspect of his life.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when the conversation turns to music. A self-confessed record nerd, he’s consumed by an obsession with pop culture’s musical outsiders. Groups like CAN, Fela Kuti, Flipper, Tiny Tim and The Birthday Party are but the tip of the iceberg.
Yet for a man as talkative as Ced, these bands are but one of the many topics of discussion. He pours enthusiasm upon ATDI’s latest album in.ter.a.li.a –, a follow-up to 2000’s Relationship of Command, 17 years in the making – but would just as readily discuss long-defunct American cable TV series Night Flight. Jumping with effortless clarity, he zips between musing upon the impact of his father’s decision not to take him see Rick James as a child to grim reflections on the circumstances which left ATDI living off Taco Bell on their ’97 tour. Taking his ambitions further into the future, Bixler also shares tentative plans for juggling both ATDI and a fully revived Mars Volta.
Music Feeds: Relationship of Command was and still is a landmark album. When it dropped in 2000 it was a flash of energy which catalysed a generation of bands and artists. Is there an album which has had a similar effect on you?
Cedric Bixler-Zavala: I think there’s too many to name just one, which is always par for the course for people who are obsessed with music, y’know? One minute I’ll wax philosophical about one record and then the next minute I’ll get burnt out on it. It really depends day to day, but there’s so much.
At that time, we were recording Relationship of Command, we were listening to a lot of Fela Kuti. I remember Omar [Rodríguez-López] had a CAN record and a Suicide record in his bunk. I had never heard of those bands before so I remember being like, “What the fuck is this?” This was towards the end of recording the album because then I remember feeling like, “Shit man!” I hadn’t heard those bands before, but that sound had been in my influence. I didn’t know they’d already done it before me! I was like, “Argh!” I was over the relationship our band had already and wanted to move into these other guys’ direction. My tastes, always, are fleeting.
MF: What was the first concert you ever attended?
CBZ: Well my dad was going to go take me to see Rick James, but then, at the last second, he realised all of Rick’s content was super sexual so he said I couldn’t go. Then I remember – because I was heavily into skateboarding – I heard that this band was going to play at the ditch where we all skated. This ditch sort of hugged the base of the mountain where Omar lived. It was a band called Uglor. It was like a three-piece at the time and they bought a generator.
It just blew my mind because I had only watched stuff like Night Flight [a cable TV music show in the US popular in the ‘80s] and when you’d watch Night Flight they would play a documentary called ‘Another State of Mind’ which followed Social Distortion and Youth Brigade on tour. That was my introduction to punk rock and then I got to see the real thing: These three scary guys playing at this ditch where we were skating! The drummer had grown dreadlocks but then he had shaved it all off and superglued them back onto his head. I just remember looking at him. I was just dressed like a skate kid you know? I was probably only like 12 or 11 maybe. I just remember seeing him and being like “Whoa, that’s that ABC-special- after-school-shit!” I got to see it and it was the first time I got to slam dance. I got really hurt. And that was it, that was all I wanted to do. Those people in that band, they were named after a villain from that cartoon Space Ghost. I just remember how it struck me like, “You can call your band Uglor?” That was just it, I wanted to do that.
MF: Earlier this year ATDI released its first new album in 17 years. A lot has changed since Relationship of Command. Had the creative dynamic changed when it came to recording?
CBZ: I think it just took a couple of months to figure it all out again. ‘Figuring it out’ means that there’s a certain speed at which we travel and there are certain ways we talk. We kind of had to figure out how to have these conversations again. It took a couple of months. We had a lot of moments of having some serious heavy talks about personal stuff which is all really super, super tangled in the DNA of that process.
So it just took a couple months to sort of really be around each other. We’d kinda already gotten our feet wet by doing the 2012 reunion, but this was a time where we really, really tried it. It was still there and it was great and we moved at a high speed. When it got cookin’ it got cookin’. It was fun.
MF: Before we get more into the new album, I’d like to mention that it’s also the 20-year anniversary of a little DIY EP you did back in 1997 called El Gran Orgo. Do you ever look back on that period or is it old news to you?
CBZ: It really is old news and it’s funny because that’s what we recorded just before we’d made a really serious commitment to go on a six-month tour. It’s kind of like bittersweet memories. We had recorded that EP and then the guy who was supposed to put it out, didn’t get it out in time. We’d completed about 4 months of that tour and the guy still hadn’t released it! We were touring with a new lineup playing Acrobatic Tenement all across America, everywhere! It’s sort of a snapshot of a band just living off of Taco Bell and no one listening to us really. By the time it did come out we had gotten even tighter with who we were – Jim [Ward] had gotten back into the fold. By then we didn’t even play that music anymore. We played like maybe one song after a while.
Whatever his excuse was, the guy who put the EP out sort of just dropped the ball. We were out there broke! We needed something to sell. I remember at the time we were going to Mexico and buying hundreds of dollars’ worth of wrestling masks and cheap cigarettes called Delicados, which are like cheap filterless cigarettes. That’s what we would sell at our merch table because everyone would come up and they’d look at the merch and go, “Footside Records? What’s Footside Records?” Even though it was a monumental punk magazine from LA! But then they’d be like, “…but I like those wrestling masks.” That’s how we ate! Selling those wrestling masks! That’s what El Gran Orgo means to me. It means being shit poor.
MF: Are you happy with the reception of in.ter.a.li.a now that it’s been out there for a few months?
CBZ: I’m very happy because I think everyone had been judging us for, in their eyes, trying to relaunch the band in 2012. That’s not necessarily what we were trying to do. We were trying to get to know each other and be human, you know? Personal friendships are involved in this band, it’s not just a brand. We don’t just get up and play then walk away. Everyone judged us on 2012 and they saw that we weren’t really firing on all pistons. There was a lot of personal, heavy shit happening at the time.
It took an additional five years to get our relationship really back and cooking. I’m really stoked that people who write for the music magazines seem to like it and I think people, for the most part, really like it but I don’t know. I think a lot of the time I am dealing with some younger people and then also older fans who are like “Wah! I want to hear older stuff.” But at the same time, it’s like this is a band now and this is how it is. But I don’t know. You’d have to ask a fan and it’s always subjective. It depends on personal taste.
MF: Having that feeling in your mind, maybe that you weren’t firing on all cylinders, was that something that motivated you to record again?
CBZ: No that wasn’t part of the reason. Then it was just like, “Okay, we’re back in the saddle here people.” If there was one thing we were good at it’s…just give us 30 minutes and let us make this little fucking explosion happen, we’re going to remind you right there! That’s kind of the way the record was. We had conversations where we said we needed to get back to what we were. You’ve got to get rid of all the rules you’ve accumulated and you’ve got to be able to channel those primordial teenage hormones. Even when you’re in your twenties, the hormones are fucking crazy. They make you want to blast off and improve yourself.
But then we had our personal reasons for doing it. We were channelling our families and doing it for ourselves. When our kids can see that dad is up there on stage, and he might be 42 but goddamn he acts like a 12-year-old, then I think I’ve proven my point. Age, it’s really just an idea. God bless that I’ve got this outlet because I think I’d be arrested in any other circumstances if I acted the way I did on stage.
MF: Is there a track on the album that transports you back into the headspace of this twentysomething drunk on hormones?
CBZ: I think ‘Governed By Contagions’ because it’s born out of a mistake and I think a lot of great moments in rock ‘n’ roll happen from embracing your mistakes and hidden intentions. We were travelling on a 2016 run and we had brought all this stuff to record with us. Everywhere we hit we would be recording backstage prior to the show. We played Seattle and we were putting ideas down and I remember walking in and they’d finished the song. [Paul] Hinojos and Tony [Hajjar] came up with the drum lick that became what’s in the chorus and it was a mistake.
I remember Omar jumped up and, having completely forgotten his intuition – which is why he is one of the producers on the record and why he is one of our fearless leaders – he’s like, “That’s it right there! There’s something about that.” Everything just kind of built around that mistake and that was, for me, what it’s like to be a kid. I just love that one.
MF: It’s interesting that you guys write and record when you’re on the road because not every musician does and many can’t. Is it something you’ve always done?
CBZ: We started doing it in Mars Volta a-LOT. I was just like, “You can play video games, you can fuck off, rest, sleep, nap or you can do what you were meant to do, what you were put on earth to do.” That sort of work ethic was always there. We’ve just applied what we were doing in Mars Volta, that work ethic. People in ATDI are more than happy to work like that.
MF: Being the ones coming from Mars Volta, are you and Omar the guys cracking the whip?
CBZ: No, no! We don’t crack the whip at all. If anything, I can identify when today is the day when it’s just not going to be happening. That’s a really important thing to have because there are moments when we push each other if one of us isn’t feeling it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s always important to keep in mind that people don’t have to be happy all the time.
But we’re not whip-crackers at all. If anything, everyone in the collective is a whip-cracker which is why everyone who is in the band is in the band at the moment. Everyone’s headspace is like, “What? Jump? How high? When? What? I’ll do it! Ha!” It’s just like that, so that’s why it’s working right now.
MF: Did you feel you were you bringing in more melodic and progressive elements into the ATDI sound on the latest LP or were you accentuating something that was always there?
CBZ: I think it was always there we just didn’t know how to get to out, we had yet to get to it. Before we did the band just exploded. Those kinds of cravings were always there. I still have boxes of mixtapes from tours in 1995 and on those mixtapes is everything from Flipper to King Crimson, Unwound, and Galaxie 500.
That’s always been there, this craving for anything that’s really outside the box. When it’s outside of the box people call it progressive, but we always had a craving for shit that was just a little bit outsider. Even though we were experimenting with this language of post-punk or hardcore or whatever you want to call it, we always had our fingers in that pie. We wanted to push it a little and always had conversations like, “Hey man, shit’s a little vanilla what can we do to make it a little more dark chocolate?”
MF: Who has the craziest taste in music out of all the band? It seems like you’re all really into some crate-digging stuff…
CBZ: Geez! Everyone brings something strange every once and a while. It’s a cultural thing too. Omar will be talking about something then I’ll be here talking about Barnes & Barnes – if you hear the songs you’ll know why they’re important – and then you’ll have Tony, who’s Lebanese and grew up with all these other influences.
So yeah, there’s going to be a lot of weird stuff floating around prior to us playing but everyone has a wild hair as far as crate digging goes. It helps for me that I was born in 1974 and grew up watching The Gong Show [a US TV show akin to Australia’s Red Faces]. Everything on that show seemed normal to me. The show was held up as having all these weirdos having their Tiny Tim moments, but for me stuff like Tiny Tim is just as important, culturally speaking, as punk rock, The Circle Jerks or The Saints. It could be any one of us that brings some strange shit really, you would be surprised.
MF: in.ter.a.li.a has done really well in Australia and ATDI has a huge following down here. What is it about Australians that possesses us with such an affinity for, and I do apologise if I’m dumping you into a box here, post-hardcore music?
CBZ: I don’t know what it is. I think you guys gave birth to The Birthday Party and even though they didn’t live there I think they had roots in some dissident structure. You also have Warren Ellis who really thinks outside of the box with his instrument. Even though in.ter.a.li.a is popular I couldn’t tell you either. I think we shared a really pivotal moment with Australia back in 2000. When ATDI played their first Big Day Out you guys got to witness some interesting moments. You really got to see the last embers of the engines firing at the time because we would break up shortly after.
MF: Is creating awareness and continuing the musical inspiration of all these lesser-known acts you’ve mentioned something that motivates you as a musician?
CBZ: Well I’m not afraid to talk about it because I’m a nerd about this stuff! But I want the focus to be on us walking away from that, carrying all of it with us, influence-wise. It’s always been nice to speak about the people who haven’t gotten the public view like we have. I’ve always personally felt it’s important to say, “So you liked us? Well, check these guys out when they’re around because it’s important!” Maybe they’ve just put only one thing out, which is so typical in indie rock, but they could have been incredible and amazing. But it is what it is you know?
MF: What can fans expect on your Australian tour? What’s it going to be like?
CBZ: We have a history with Australia. For us, Australia is symbolic of the first time we got to have our own hotel rooms and people were actually craving to come see us. There’s always been this undying spirit of like, “Okay last time was fun, how much more fun can we make it?” It’s always a challenge you know? It’s always a challenge so I’m just going to try and bring my best. I think you can count on the fact that it’s going to be a good time because you guys never disappoint either.
MF: Once the Australian gigs wrap up what’s on the cards for you individually, ATDI and Mars Volta in future?
CBZ: I couldn’t tell you specifically because it’s under wraps but there’s stuff coming up through the pipeline. ATDI is a full functioning band now. It’s not trying to capitalise on anything, reunion-wise, there’s more stuff to come. If we play our cards right we’ll be able to do two years one band and two years the other, back and forth until we’re elder statesmen.
MF: Could you see yourselves playing when you’re 80 or 90? Is that the goal?
CBZ: I hope so! If they have to wheel me out, if the only way I can perform is if they wheel me out, then fuck it because I’m going to make some sort of chaos happen.