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 in•ter a•li•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 he’s so stoked to be headlining Monday night at Punk Rock Bowling.
The Mars Volta played in Vegas a few times, but I don’t think At the Drive-In ever has. Is that correct? I thought maybe we played there once a long time ago. We did—we 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 it’s 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 like—all ego aside—people started dressing like us. (Laughs.) And it was almost like their girlfriend said, “Hey, babe—I like this band.” And they were like, “Oh, okay.” It’s different from what they were listening to at the time. I saw that, but I’m not really trying to claim we invented anything. Once you’re like an old-school politician, and you’re going door-to-door, people are going to take notice, and you’re 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 you’re doing, that’s cool. Yeah, especially when the bands we’re playing with are so inviting and so nice, and they’re going out of their way to have you on the tour. And they know what their audience is like. It’s 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 don’t think there was a night that didn’t 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 we’re not completely rushed. Prior to [2000’s] Relationship of Command, everything was like, “This is costing money—let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” So once we got to something like Relationship of Command, it was like, “Oh, we can spend more than two weeks doing this? Cool.”
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. It’s nice to be able to experience that, and that’s what happens when you knock door-to-door constantly. That’s the biggest effect—we have the luxury of being able to do that. And the funny thing is, you find yourself going, “Okay, now let’s rebel against that,” because that can work against you, because that’s going to make you soft.
What was the most fun you had making in•ter a•li•a at the Sound Factory? What was the most gratifying part for you? It used to be run by Tchad Blake. I’m 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. There’s that. And so I’d get to walk down that little [studio] hallway, because it’s tiny, and see the CD—it wasn’t even a record that was put up, it was a CD of all the bands that had played there—I would get lost and be like, “If you’d have told me I would be recording here where they recorded …” That would get me excited.
And then the other thing is that it was just absolutely small, so there’s nowhere to run, really. You’re having these moments of any form of writer’s block—we’re all right there, and we’re 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. That’s 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, you’re going to come out having learned something about yourself and the dynamics of your traveling family. That’s really important, and it’s 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 it’ll affect the music making, and we all were very conscious of it not getting to that point. It was just like, “Let’s figure out what’s going to get us back to the place that would make a hardcore At the Drive-In fan excited.” And by hardcore At the Drive-In fan, that’s someone who’s aware of the other records besides Relationship of Command, you know? (Laughs.)
So that’s what we did. A lot of that has to do with [guitarist] Omar [Rodríguez-López] as a producer—Omar being able to come in and objectively remove himself as a guitar player and say, “That’s a cool idea, so-and-so, but that’s not At the Drive-In. That’s 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, “Okay, leave those egos at the door. This motherf*cker’s right; he knows what he’s doing. He’s been making movies, making records, for well over 10 years now. He’s 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. That’s so difficult to do. It really is. Luckily, there is some part—at least for me as a frontman—that is almost, like, professional wrestling, where I’m 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. There’s a certain kayfabe involved, where I’ve got to be able to sell it.
There’s this whole list of old personalities that I can act, as corny as that sounds, or as method actor as that sounds. It’s like, once someone says a key phrase, like, “Do you remember what it was like here, before you were teaching yourself how to sing properly?” Or, “Remember when you would do this, and the melody was implied?”
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, “F*ck it, that’s it,” and people go, “Oh, wow, you’re right. I love that.” That’s what we were trying to get back to. It took us a couple conversations and directions from him to do that. That’s specifically why we had him as that producer, because he has the ability to do that. It’s an amazing gift he has.
And it’s so true that once you’ve done a lot of music, and done a lot of things, trying to recapture that mind-set and be like, “Okay, what was I like two decades ago?” That’s so challenging. It is. And I always laugh about the male life experience, [but] I feel though, starting from 14 years old until you’re maybe around 30, your hormones are dictating the classic phrase of, “I don’t know what I want, but I want it now.” As soon as I can access that, I can go, “Oh, yeah, a certain sort of dumb rock ’n’ roll.”
But then [in•ter a•li•a co-producer Rich] Costey would come in and be like, “Sometimes when I’m hearing what you’re saying lyrically, it’s like you’re telling me about something that I think I want to know about, that I don’t know about, but you know the secret about it.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay, I know that. I know how to do that.” Because that was his take on what I do lyrically. That was fun to have him request that, because that’s essentially what Omar was getting at. Putting both of those guys together is amazing. It’s like a holistic doctor and a plastic surgeon going to work on some sort of body that they’re 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 ’90s. He had that Rolodex of guitar writing that really stuck with us. On top of that, his personality is amazing, and he’s experienced a lot of what we had experienced as well. I don’t think there’s one venue we’ve hit in Europe where he [hasn’t been] like, “Yeah, I played here with Engine Down, I remember that. Yeah, we used this van company from the Czech Republic, I know so and so.” We have the same experience.
It added to our vocabulary, because he has been through a lot of stuff, and there’s 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 didn’t even think of that until [drummer] Tony [Hajjar] was like, “Look, I’ve done time with this guy. He’s an amazing guy. He’s got his sh*t together.” He was willing to do this full-time with us, which was really what we needed. And he’s been perfect ever since.
Do you miss playing with Jim at all? I miss playing with the Jim Ward that I remember, which I haven’t unfortunately had the pleasure of being around in a really, really long time. The only way I can describe it is there’s a person that I used to know, and he’s not that person. And that’s 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 it’s not always what the group wants.
But, yeah, there’s a certain persona, and as an artist, that I’ve 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 O’Rourke—we were on tour, and that band wasn’t that serious. I knew when I came home, I wasn’t going to have a band. And the only person I knew who was serious that wasn’t already taken was Jim Ward, and Jim Ward had that same thing of, like, “Let’s get the f*ck out of our hometown.” Which anyone in their teenage years is gonna do, unless maybe you grew up in New York or California. We didn’t have that luxury. We had El Paso, so you see what you don’t 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 he’s no longer there. He’s 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. That’s 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 aren’t what At the Drive-In could necessarily provide right now.
What you’re describing is so much about adulthood, too, and losing track of friends from high school. It’s so hard. It doesn’t get any easier, no matter how old you get. It’s 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. I’ve said this many times: Rock ’n’ 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 something—that’s how boys communicate, I guess. (Laughs.) They’re dysfunctional.
Rock ’n’ roll says, “Hey, man, this is where you can be normal,” and then after a while you grow up and you go, “Wait 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.” And that’s been the most rewarding and amazing part of all this process, is us—especially me—going, let me be humbled about your point of view, and let’s move on and think about the greater good of this beast called At the Drive-In.
You mentioned [U.S. Representative] Beto O’Rourke, who you’ve known for so long. What has been the most gratifying for you, seeing his national ascent politically? That he’s one of the real ones, that’s what’s gratifying about it. When I see him going door-to-door, waking up at 4 a.m., jogging with his constituents—like, going for it, speaking his mind, standing up for veterans, standing up for immigrants—that’s the person I grew up with and toured with. I get very teary-eyed when I see how amazing he’s doing, because he’s one of the good ones. I definitely am of the mind-set that a lot of politicians are f*cked. And it’s usually because of the money they take from other people. You know? And that’s just not the case with Beto.
I’ve ridden in one of those family wagons on a tour with him, and that’s the Beto I know. A completely grassroots individual who is down for the human race—not just one tax bracket or one gender or one ethnicity over the other. He’s 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 you’re in Texas, to one of his town meetings. When I see him on TV or when I hear about him, or someone says, “Yo, you’re in a Newsweek article because you played with Beto,” I get really proud, because I know what he’s about, and I know he’s 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, who’s the best? I’m going to say Tony [Hajjar]’s the best because he’s 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, “F*ck everything—go see the world.” [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, I’m like, “That’s cool. Let’s do Punk Rock Bowling. Shawn Stern’s cool.”
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 I’m like, “Shawn Stern. Hey, man! It’s me, Cedric, I sing in At the Drive-In.” And he looked at me—you know, Shawn Stern is still 1983 Shawn Stern, he had a shaved head—and he was like, “Man, cut your f*cking hair,” and he walked away.
There was an instant where I could have been offended, but I knew—I knew—that I would not have wanted it any other way. ‘Cause that’s what inspired me, was that guy, and that brazen, all-or-nothing, this-is-the-new-thing [attitude]. I just laughed hysterically, like, “Oh, wow, he thinks I’m, like, some hesher guy.” Like, “No, motherf*cker. I’m here because of you,” but he Shawn Stern-ed me, and it was pretty amazing.
Punk Rock Bowling May 25-28, for times & ticket prices, visit punkrockbowling.com.