At The Drive-In are the most hyped band of the year. Fact. They’ve been hailed by NME as “the new Nirvana”, despite bearing absolutely no similarities musically and ideologically, and they’ve even gone so far as to say they’re the, “best new band in the world.” Suffice to say that when I popped over to Manchester Uni to see them the gig was sold out, full of expectant punters eager to witness their legendary live show.
After support band Murder City Devils 100s of young people heaved to the front of the MDH in anticipation at the ‘rock stars’ that were to ostensibly stride onto the stage looking miserable & arrogant and blast them away with their epic rock prowess and God-like poses. Imagine their surprise, then, when five people who look like ATD-I wander round the stage while the main light’s are still on and backing music still playing, setting up their equipment and audibly tuning their instruments. Looking at the blank faces of younger members of the crowd, you can read their minds -–"but… they’re not meant to do that. They’ve been on TV and magazines and the radio and they’re famous and American and… and…”
“I don’t think any of us can fully grasp why people think that way”, ponders the small wirey El Pasoan guitarist Omar backstage before the show. “Don’t get me wrong – it’s totally flattering and we totally enjoy it & respect it. But we try not to pay any attention to it and it’s no disrespect to the journalists but I don’t think we quite get it and we don’t want it to change or corrupt what we’re doing.”
After all, these are just five friends who’ve been doing this since they were 12 or 13, sitting around drinking beers, coming up with songs and talking about what they wanted to accomplish, which at the time was just to put out records and tour. But even during this early period they were sowing the seeds for the ground breaking music they make today.
“We just wanted a driving sound, and not necessarily 4/4 punk but to go off in different areas and not be afraid to experiment. We definitely wanted to keep the power as the premise.”
Do you find it difficult to explain your DIY punk ethics to interviewers who don’t know much about punk?
“No, I find it fun! I think it’s the funniest part, because I think it’s cool to expose interviewers who don’t know about DIY & punk to the fact that there’s a whole new thing going on that’s nothing new. We’re not doing anything new or different, we’re just part of a whole underbelly that they don’t know about. It’s like, we put out our own records, we put on our own tours and we’d be gone for months at a time and we did the work. That’s one thing that separates us from other bands maybe. Also at the same time it gives us the ability to appreciate everything that’s happening that much more, because we’ve slept on park benches & slept on roof tops.”
And don’t forget Italian squats, which not many bands on Jools Holland’s show can admit to. Isn’t there a kind of like facist DIY punk ‘rules’ thing that runs throughout a lot of those places in Europe?
“It’s just all the limitations. You can come from a punk background and you can be punk but only if you follow those rules that we’ve all stood up for. Which is bullshit because we all know that the aesthetic behind it is that there are no rules, that you should constantly be changing & pushing boundaries and keep doing new things and outside opinions don’t matter. For those people to say ‘yeah that’s cool. You’re trying to spread a collective message but you can’t do this, this, this or this’, that’s bullshit.”
I guess you could count something new as a punk band signing to Grand Royal, the Beastie Boy’s label, although the Beasties were a punk band originally weren’t they?
“I think they totally respect us and they work for us. It’s a team effort, it’s cool. I mean the people who run the label are artists also and they [Beasties] totally understand when we don’t wanna do something or when we’re upset about something. It works.”
Do you think ATD-I’s popularity has been aided somewhat due to the backing of Grand Royal? I mean, the music hasn’t changed that much since the releases on Flipside and Fearless.
“It’s fair to say that at this point we have more opportunities maybe. But our fanbase has been growing over the years, maybe not so much here but at least in the states. First we played to 2 people, then 20, then 100, and then we went back and there were 800! It’s been pretty steady but England and Japan have been the two exceptions where it’s kinda been this massive leftfield thing.”
[At this point the Murder City Devils start firing up their engines so we have to move rooms]
As mentioned briefly at the start ATD-I were guests of a Mr Jools Holland! So what did they think of his show?
“I thought it was really cool. That whole concept was really cool because we played TV shows in America and music isn’t the emphasis. It’s more like stars and actors and comedy sketches and then they have a band play. This was totally interesting coz it was all in on us. We’d never heard of it before.”
What was it like playing alongside Robbie Williams?
“I don’t really listen to his music but, he was nice to us. I understand he’s pushing buttons and I don’t get upset about it because that’s his thing. It was cool tho, coz the premise was music. There were all these bands in a circle and you’re forced to watch each other whether or not you like it, and they’re getting into something new. None of those bands had heard of us before, with the exception of Gura, because we had toured with Gangsta in the states. For us, watching Gura and Herbie Hancock was awesome!”
So you didn’t have a l’il jam with Jools?
“Nah, nah. But you know how it’s a jam session at the beginning? I think when they edited it they took us out of the mix because I just turned my amp to 10, stuck my guitar there and it was pure feedback. So there were all these bands playing and I was just sitting there going ‘eeurrr!’”
Despite such immature behaviour [;o)] ATD-I are quite intelligent chaps, as you can tell. Maybe a little too intelligent as anyone trying to make sense out of their lyrics will tell you. It’s as if they purposely set out to write the most abstruse song titles with as many possible semantics as possible.
“Well, for some bands they’ll have a song that’ll go like [shouts] “It’s my fucking life!”. And the song’ll be called ‘It’s My Fucking Life’. It’s pretty boring. Or you could play with the words and have song titles that have nothing to do with the song per say. As far as the lyrics I think it’s just about being creative and expressing yourself and also I think he [Cedric] uses a lot of William Burrough’s writing like ‘Naked Lunch’. He [William Burrows] wrote it by taking all these different papers he had and he would cut them up and then he’d shuffle them up and then put them back together randomly. I think there’s a type of method. I guess it is on purpose like ‘oh OK, I gotta make it as obscure as possible’”.
Would you say that a lot of the songs are open to interpretation?
“Yeah, definitely. We’ve all come from different places & we all have different perspectives. We’ve all been raised in different ways and we all have different takes on words. For us we get into bands that try different concepts, like, throughout the history of music like Syd Barretts, Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart and people who just tried to take the extra stuff, whether it be abstract expressionism or just something fresh & new that we can all relate to individually.”
Had you heard of Ross Robinson before you worked with him?
“Not really. I’d never heard of him. I never pay attention to that stuff & when they told us what he had done I was like ‘Oh, forget it!’”.
Over here, there’s this stigma attached to him, that because he’s produced all these pretentious rap-metal acts he’s killed metal that’s not obsessed with making money and created a new sub-genre that’ll do anything to appeal to young kids.
“Well, none of us were interested in him at all, and then he offered, like ‘will you do a song with me, like, I’ll pay for the studio. I just want you to check it out. I don’t want you to judge me on what I’ve done.’ So, our whole thing is we try to be open minded people, so we’d be hypocrites if we didn’t accept his offer. It goes back to what we were saying before about the rules of punk rock. The rules of punk are like ‘you can’t work with that guy. Even if you meet him and he’s actually a very intelligent person & very schooled at music, which he is, you can’t work with him’. Even when we were in the studio we were like ‘fuck it. What artist is going to say no to free studio time?’ Nobody’s that dumb. Our whole thing was like ‘OK, we get free sandwiches, we can hang about and just record with him and keep the tapes and we don’t have to use ‘em.’ We walked in there like ‘Wassup, whatever’ and walked out friends with the guy coz he does have an extensive knowledge of music generally. His method of recording was just… like we hadn’t experienced anything like it before. I mean, it’s easy for people to say ‘oh, they’re working with Ross Robinson blah, blah, blah’, & to us it’s very impersonal. We already had someone close to us who we said 'Yeah you're gonna do this record’ and then we have this guy who we had never heard about, not liked, then met him, blew us away & changed our lives. This is important and we have to do our record with this person.”
Cedric has said that you recorded in the same studio as the one they did the voice-overs for the old American sit-com ‘Alf’.
“Nah, I think that’s a total joke. Although it wouldn’t surprise me coz they do a lotta stuff there. It’s an old studio which this man practically built with his bare hands from nothing. Who? Richard Caplin. Just this old guy with a passion for vintage equipment & music.”
Out of curiosity, how much does Ross Robinson charge?
“I think it’s like $3000 a day. But it’s the perfect environment for recording a record. You have to drive way outta yr way to get there & then off a main road you have to drive a further half hour up a mountain. You’re completely isolated and we lived there for 6 weeks & didn’t leave. During the day you can go hiking to these canyons and you hear wolves at night. It’s like music camp except it’s the camp you always wanted to go to.”
Talk turns to ATD-I’s refusal to allow stage-diving, crowd-surfing or moshing at their gigs.
“I think people can react to it in a certain way without hurting each other. That’s the point. People have been doing that dance for 20 years & punk rock is about changing things & doing something different. At first it was a way of letting out aggression – you go to a punk show and you thrash about or whatever. But I truly believe people can dance, get down & boogie on it & if dancing to you means shaking your head and acting like a donkey, then as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else that’s beautiful. But isn’t it weird that all those jocks who’d pick on you at school and beat you up are now coming to the shows and they think it’s OK to impose their rules. It happened when Green Day got big, people seeing the bands and going ‘oh, that’s fuckin’ cool. We can go there and beat the shit out of someone and we can do it to a soundtrack and it’s publicly acceptable.’ It bums us out man. We’ve seen women knocked out & it makes us not want to play music or write records if that’s how people feel.”
Have you seen a big resurgence in afros in the past year?
“Yeah definitely. On one hand there’s people who grow out big afros coz they feel liberated, which is awesome, coz for me that was the whole reason I grew my hair out. I didn’t know it was gonna become such an issue. It’s not an issue at all. For me it was coming to terms with my roots & being proud of who I am. Anyone who has curly hair generally hates it and spends most of their time keeping it short and straightening it. I would bleach it, dye it green, have a mowhawk, whatever. For me, it was being proud of being Puerto Rican, having curly hair and having dark skin. You only get ridiculed if you grow it out and it’s only coz we’re in this band that it’s become cool.”
I actually know someone with curly ginger hair, who’s grown it out since listening to ATD-I and I’ve gotta say it actually looks pretty cool.
“That’s totally fuckin’ cool man, because we all get into that one band or writer that lets us know that it’s OK to feel different. For me it was someone I met while I was travelling that really got me in touch with myself & said ‘you’re a beautiful person, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.” I’d been touring for a while and the day I went home & my Mom saw me she wept & she hugged me & said ‘you look so beautiful, you have you’re natural hair. You’ve been dying it & I’ve waited years to see this. You look like you’re father when I first met him.’ It’s funny coz anywhere else in the world I get made fun of & laughed at.”
Talk turns to Cedric and Omar’s side project DEFACTO.
“It’s completely different. It’s kind of a roots/ reggae/ dub music mixed with salsa. We actually toured Europe & we went on tour with The Get Up Kids and nobody really knows about it. We have our first record coming out on Jim & Paul’s label & we’re doing a record for GSL that puts out like, The Locust. Then we’re doing a record for Grand Royal. Cedric & I are very laid-back –we’re stoners basically, kinda spacy. It’s a nice break from being on a driving schedule. I was always mostly into salsa music & drum ‘n’ bass & jazz.”
Finally, any bands you wanna plug?
“Sunshine, from the Czech Republic, who we have a split record with, Les Savy Fav, who I believe have made it over here and Dismemberment Plan.”