At the Drive-In

El Paso punks get groomed for stadium stardom

AT THE DRIVE-IN, with MURDER CITY DEVILS and the (INTERNATIONAL) NOISE CONSPIRACY, Tuesday (October 24) at the Reverb (651 Queen West). All ages. $12. 870-8000, 504-0744. Rating: NNNNN

What in Hell Paso is up with At the Drive-In? Taste-making heavy rock rag Kerrang! is calling them “the most exciting American underground band since Nirvana,” while the UK’s New Musical Express recently ran a front-page stroke piece calling them the best new rock band on Earth!

SPIN has chimed in with the audacious claim that the group’s ferociously pummelling new Relationship Of Command (Grand Royal/Virgin) is “the most intense album of the year.” That’s just the beginning of the media blitz.

On Halloween, At the Drive-In make their network television debut on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, followed by a Late Show With David Letterman appearance slated for December 15. TV commercials are in consideration.

It’s a miraculous turnaround for five skinny-assed El Paso hombres who at this time last year were still tooling around in a creaky Econoline van and living on Taco Bell bean paste. So how did these ‘froed border-town fuds — having toiled in relative emo-core obscurity for the past four years — suddenly become the next Nirvana?

There’s no denying that with microphone-swinger Cedric Bixler pinballing off guitarists Omar Rodriguez and Jim Ward like some rubbery mutation of Iggy Pop and Zach de la Rocha, At the Drive-In make for an awesome spectacle.

But their quick ascent has more to do with the assembled dream team of Nirvana strategists led by Nirvana manager John Silva and former Geffen A&R boss Gary Gersh, now co-chairmen of the Grand Royal label, working behind the scenes to orchestrate the campaign.

“Since we played over in England and had UK press like the NME and Kerrang! come to the shows, and with the help of John Silva and Gary Gersh hyping it all up, people have been coming out more,” explains Bixler with stunning candour from the New Jersey turnpike. “But we’ve been doing this for a while now. There’s a lot of word of mouth, and I think it’s finally coming around.”

Coincidently, Sonic Youth, who originally tipped Gersh to Nirvana, provided the same talent-scouting service in alerting him to the punkish charm of At the Drive-In after seeing the band tear up the This Ain’t No Picnic festival. Upon hearing the raucous Vaya (Fearless) EP — still At the Drive-In’s most musically adventurous recording — Silva and Gersh decided to sign the group to their ill-fated DEN Records start-up.

That neither partner had seen At the Drive-In play a show didn’t raise any red flags amongst the naive group members, nor did the fact that Silva and Gersh had never run a record label before or had any other bands on their roster.

If At the Drive-In knew that DEN Records was an offshoot of soon-to-be bankrupt Web entertainment pioneer Digital Entertainment Network, it was even less of a concern. They were eager subjects for whatever experimentation their new label had in mind.

“There was something about being the guinea pigs that really made us go for it,” recalls drummer Tony Hajjar. “We’ve always been the band to take chances. Good or bad, it has always worked for us.

“When we talked to Gersh, he let us know right away what he wanted to do. We got something in our contract that you’d never get with any other deal — we split everything 50-50 and we get full artistic control.

“They’ve always stuck to what they said they would do, and only came to the studio to hear our record after all the tracking was done. They listened to what we did, said ‘OK, we love it’ and walked out. The great thing is that they trusted us.”

Bringing in rap-metal dude Ross Robinson to produce Relationship Of Command and having Nirvana’s Nevermind mixmaster Andy Wallace sprinkle some fairy dust now seems like a shrewd move, but At the Drive-In took some convincing.

Robinson, the architect of the chart-topping Limp Bizkit crunch as well as the brains behind Vanilla Ice’s laughable Hard To Swallow comeback bid, was not high on At the Drive-In’s producer wish list.

“I was turned off by the past projects he’d worked on because I’m not into any of that music,” snorts Bixler. “I never have been into KoRn and Limp Bizkit and I never will be. But we’ve always had this unspoken rule about keeping an open mind.

“The people at our label said, ‘We’ll give you some free studio time, why not try him out?’ When we got with him, he really lit a fire under us and showed us how to do what we do better.

“He’d try all different things to get the right vibe, like driving Pall (bassist Pall Hinojos) in his car at insane speeds, blasting loud music and shaking him around. It worked for some takes, but on others a little too much emotion would come out and we’d have to stop.

“When he started busting light bulbs in the studio, we were like, ‘Whoa, what’s up?’ But it put us on edge and that’s what we needed.”

When DEN collapsed under the weight of its own hype last May, Silva and Gersh quietly slipped over to Grand Royal and assumed co-chairman titles, bringing DEN Records signees At the Drive-In (and Bran Van 3000) along to continue the multi-platinum make-over.

To assist in At the Drive-In’s transition from playing squats to concert halls, ARTISTdirect booking wizard Don Muller, who formerly represented — you guessed it– Nirvana, just took over At the Drive-In from indie agent Tim Edwards at Flower Booking. So it’s goodbye all-ages matinees and hello hockey arenas.

Yet At the Drive-In’s stadium trial opening for Rage Against the Machine — who happen to be managed by Silva through G.A.S. Entertainment — didn’t turn out to be the thrill of a lifetime they may have anticipated.

“I dunno,” sighs Bixler. “Playing stadiums? We never had goals like that. Speaking for myself, that’s a scary situation. Opening for Rage, we got the feel of what it’s like, and a lot of those kids were really closed-minded. They were booing us and calling us faggots before we even plugged in. There was this whole Fred Durst ‘let’s break stuff’ mentality that is not what we’re about.

“I got into the punk thing watching a movie called Another State Of Mind, where Social Distortion goes on tour with Youth Brigade. At the end, they come home without breaking even. Right then I knew that’s what I wanted to do — make records, get in a van and play shows to communicate with kids. There’s a whole underground network. That’s where we’re from.”

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