Politically Indirect

Eschewing overt dogma, Texas rockers At the Drive In don't encourage riot, they embody it.

It gets so you don't even read the adjectives in the press releases.

Week after week, brown envelopes full of this typescript hooey come sliding through the mail slot, each one painted in the broadest histrionic strokes: "a band to make even the most jaded postpunk listener pump his fist in uninhibited joy," "might just reinvent the very notion of power pop in this arid musical era," "wakes the listener up to the powerful urges stirring somewhere deep within the subaltern rap-metal Weltanschauung," and blah blah and so forth. God knows it's a cold and inhospitable world, and having the services of a PR commando unit can be a necessary evil, but sweet baby Jesus, how it all sounds alike after a while.

Which is not to say that those in the music-scribe biz are entirely free of guilt. Often, it's from the press packets that lazier writer types pull the "hook," that single identifiable image or icon specifically associated with a band or artist. Once you pull the hook, you can run with it, waste reams of copy vibing on it, come up with idiot puns related to it...that part's easy. And with the critical community being somewhat, um, incestuous, even on the highest levels, and with writers mercilessly ripping each other off, readers often end up seeing the same worn phrases as they follow the trail of stories on any given hyped-up band.

The buzz surrounding the El Paso quintet At the Drive In borders on deafening.
The buzz surrounding the El Paso quintet At the Drive In borders on deafening.

So when you read all those dozens of articles on At the Drive In and their big-ass MC5 Afros, remember that you were warned, in these pages, to give that noise a pass and listen to the album. Because if ever a band deserved better than getting aggressively hyped (which they are) and being stereotyped by the press (which they're in danger of), it's these five El Paso musicians whose new Grand Royal release, Relationship of Command, is a hard and complicated album that blows most squalling rock offerings off the map. Seriously.

At the Drive In has been the recent subject of a lot of hand-wringing and happy squealing in New Music Express, Spin, Alternative Press, Rolling Stone, Billboard and a host of other publications, mostly in regard to its blistering live show, which is by all accounts entertaining, earsplitting and "exciting," times ten. Such attention, however, hasn't always been the greatest thing for the group, for the reasons noted above. A case in point is the MC5 comparison, which shouldn't be made lightly but for some reason pops up all over At the Drive In's press packet. This name-drop occurs mostly in superficial reference to the coifs of two of its members (about which, honest to God, no more will be said in this article), but occasionally it implies an activist politic akin to that of the Motor City's hard-rock sons.

It's a comparison that Lebanon-born Tony Hajjar, ATDI's drummer, is quick to downplay.

"Only a couple of us are into the MC5," he says. "As far as the political side goes, I think we're the last band to sit there and preach politics to anybody. We're five people with five different views. We discuss everything with each other -- everything under the sun -- but politics is a very dangerous topic for five people to push at once. When you have an agenda, you're limiting yourself as a band that stresses this one thing. It's called a script; you're just limiting your directions and your options for the future, for further development.

"The only time, really, that we do make political statements -- I guess you can call it that -- is when we ask people not to stage-dive or slam into their neighbors. Wanting to maintain a safe space for people to come out and see the show...that's the only thing we're really political about."

That's not precisely true -- or rather, the stage-dive comment is only one facet of a larger philosophy. The longer Hajjar talks, the more you realize that ATDI does, in fact, operate from a coherent agenda, in the sense that its approach to making music is based on a defined ethic (more about that later). What the bandmembers don't do -- emphatically -- is "preach," which is a term Hajjar only employs in a pejorative sense, softly spitting out the word as if he can't abide the taste of it.

For example, ATDI is from El Paso, a border area fraught with the troubles endemic to most border areas. When you ask Hajjar about the influence of El Paso on the group's music, what you get is a small disquisition on social and political conflict along the U.S.-Mexico border:

"Only Jim [Ward, guitarist] was born in El Paso; the rest of us moved in when we were small, but we all grew up there. And when we were young, listening to punk, Dag Nasty and metal, there was a lot of other stuff going on: salsa music, Mexican radio -- it was all around. For us, at the time, like for a lot of kids, the border town meant a place where you could go over to the other side, drink under age -- it's kind of a thrill. And when you come back across the border into the States, you forget about it.

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