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Politically Indirect

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

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.

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.  

"We all grew up either lower- or lower-middle class," he continues, his voice becoming quieter and tensing up, "but there was nothing for us to complain about. Not after we got older and really looked around at El Paso and Juárez. At least we all had a roof over us. There's so much poverty, so much trouble on both sides, political corruption, drug running, all that...and people seem to recognize it and learn to cope with it. Growing up, we ignored it; we never thought about it. But now that we're older and hopefully a little wiser, the dynamics between the U.S. and Mexico sides of that border are very apparent, and we understand how that shaped us a lot better now, even if we didn't see it at the time."

Hajjar stops, then continues more firmly: "If you're not affected by your surroundings, if it doesn't shape you in some way, then you're not really living life there. There's something wrong with how you're living."

Musically and lyrically, ATDI doesn't emerge from El Paso unscathed. Songs that circle around interracial violence, warfare and serial killers, tempo shifts that run the gamut from thrash to salsa, and lyrics that are occasionally esoteric but always evocative (such as the constant refrain "Dancing on the corpses' ashes," from the chilling "Invalid Litter Dept.," based on the true story of a border-zone mass murder) run through Relationship of Command at top volume, stripping the iconography of the border town away to reveal the core problems beneath. There are few moments in modern music as inciting as when singer Cedric Bixler chants, "Temper, temper, temper-a-ture!" on "Rolodex Propaganda." The album is at once hard and harmonious, steeped in the culture of contact that pervades the city in which the band first honed its talents.

But ATDI is gone from El Paso now, having taken up semi-permanent residence in Los Angeles, which puts its members, and whatever axes they might theoretically desire to grind, in touch with a wider audience. When the conversation turns to a pre-Zack De La Rocha-departed Rage Against the Machine, which handpicked ATDI to open for it on a series of dates last year, Hajjar's observations on the meeting of rock music and political activism grow utterly provocative.

"Rage is playing to crowds of 12,000 a night...they're playing in terms that are way outside our experience. The ultimate answer is that when you're playing on that scale, you can achieve anything you want to achieve, politically speaking. Once you're selling records, people are going to listen to what you say, regardless. No matter what it is. It might just be a thought of the day or something, but you're going to have people's attention, and it's something you have to be so, so careful about. It's funny, when you see [Rage] play live, they don't push the activism as much as you might expect. They hold certain political viewpoints, and it's not that they keep quiet about that, but they won't stand there on stage for ten, twelve minutes and yell at the crowd about it. They just play."

For ATDI, "just playing" on Grand Royal has also caused a small shock wave among older fans, the ones whose support goes back to the group's first album, 1998's In/Casino/ Out on Fearless Records. Predictably, the band has been hit with the "sellout" finger-point; but Hajjar's response is neither vicious nor defensive, and it's perhaps more open than he realizes.

"There are bands that have been recording for years, successful bands who've built up a fan base in the thousands, who've never signed a major-label contract, it's true. But every decision we've made has been the result of weeks, months of discussion and thought -- sometimes too long, probably. Releasing with Grand Royal gave us the opportunity to take a lot of time to write and experiment in the studio without feeling the pressures to get X number of songs tracked per day. I mean, In/Casino/ Out was done in three days, Relationship of Command in seven weeks; there are so many bands who don't have that opportunity. We're one of the very lucky ones that did."

Another pause. "I think we've learned to hear that word 'sellout' and just ignore it. It's kind of understandable: People want this band to be their band, the one only they and their friends know, but, you know, I wish I could sit down with each person, each person individually who says it, and explain to them what the process was that we went through. We turned down a bunch of offers because they didn't feel right to us, because they wanted to push us for a single or whatever. This feels right to us. And the only rule we go from is if anything makes us uncomfortable, we won't do it."  

Nor will they tolerate it, apparently. ATDI raised a few eyebrows at a show in Pomona, California, when it publicly asked a club bouncer to remove a guy whose stage-diving antics had modulated from personal fun to reckless endangerment of other patrons, serious boot-in-the-head stuff. Repeatedly, the band will ask its audiences to stop slamming into each other and look out for those up front, where the action can get the most manic. ATDI, whose live performances are already infamous, puts on one of the hardest-hitting shows in contemporary rock; but the chaos and frenzy, so far as the band can control it, is contained to the stage, so that if anyone gets bashed, it'll be one of them. Given the boneheaded antics of performers who seem to gauge their power according to the level of frenzy they can whip a crowd into -- a fascist and inane ego stroke that should never go uncriticized -- ATDI appears to be that rare and powerful group that doesn't need to foment a riot in order to raise hell. They'd rather embody riot than encourage it.

So whether Hajjar realizes it, or particularly wants to claim it, At the Drive In does makes a political statement. Not by preaching, but simply by being what it is: a racially mixed band writing tough and accomplished songs about a racially mixed country that works to protect its audience from damage in every way available to them.

If that ain't revolutionary, then Kid Rock is John Sinclair reborn.


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