[April 11, 2016]
by Spencer vH
In 1995, a young band just out of high school from El Paso, Texas played in a Los Angeles, California bar to nine people. They left the show with their first record deal. After forming in 1993, At The Drive-In self-released two records themselves and toured thousands of miles in a 1981 Ford Econoline, playing mostly houses and underground venues. They established themselves as one of the premier rock bands in the country, released three full-length albums, broke up, formed other influential bands, reformed and the rest is still-happening history
When their first label, Flipside, signed the band after the Los Angeles show, they immediately sent the band on a month long tour that scheduled them to arrive back in Los Angeles in time to record their debut full-length. Recorded for only $600, ‘Acrobatic Tenement’ features eleven songs that at the time provided sustenance for fans desperately awaiting new material. The band mixed their penchant for masking serious subject matter over complex musical rhythms, but the ‘Acrobatic Tenement’ songs remain the band’s most upbeat entries in their discography.
The band’s popularity swelled with continuous tours criss-crossing the country, with dates like popular bands like AFI, Still Life, Karp and Face to Face. More importantly than the songs on the record, the tours following ‘Acrobatic Tenement’s release saw the band’s line-up solidify after some early switches in the band’s career.
With the line-up set and opportunities continuing to arise for the band, their meteoric rise to popularity continued. Despite the folding of their first label, the band quickly found a new home with Fearless Records in 1998, who teamed with the band for their second album ‘In/Casino/Out’ and an EP, ‘Vaya’. The band toured with bands like The Get-Up Kids, Knapsack and Rage Against the Machine. The band’s sound continued to evolve, taking darker and darker turns without losing their trademark aggression or solid melodies. In 2000, the band recorded what would end up being their final album, ‘Relationship of Command’, with involvement from Iggy Pop. They played on late night television shows Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Show with David Letterman. Their music video for the single ‘One-Armed Scissor’ received airplay from MTV and college radio stations nationwide. ‘Relationship of Command’s success as a cohesive record and the individual popularity of songs like ‘One-Armed Scissor’ and ‘Rolodex Propaganda’ have it remaining the band’s most popular effort. Despite a still ascending trajectory in their popularity, the band’s penchant for non-stop touring eventually caught up with them. During a now-infamous performance at a festival in Australia, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala had an onstage meltdown which saw the entire band leave the stage after only three songs. After cancelling the remainder of their tour dates, the band dissolved quickly thereafter.
The band’s members didn’t stay inactive for long. Taking blame for the end of At The Drive-In, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez quickly formed The Mars Volta, a critically-lauded progressive rock group that allowed them the desired opportunity to work on music outside of the punk style. The remaining three members of the band formed Sparta, a rock band that released three records in the early part of the new millennium.
At The Drive-In’s legend grew more after their passing. Their second and third records reaching near-classic status, ‘Acrobatic Tenement’ an interesting footnote near the beginning of their career. The band’s 2005 retrospective compilation album features no songs from the band’s official debut, and only the song ‘Embroglio’ ever made it on to later setlists. The Mars Volta eventually dissolved themselves in 2012 while Sparta technically remains active, with years of inactivity at a time.
In 2016, At The Drive-In announced their reformation and plans to tour and record new music.
As is the case with many debut records, the songs of ‘Acrobatic Tenement’ don’t necessarily find themselves in the ears of every At The Drive-In fan, but the songs provided an early look into a band that would go on to make arguably some of the most creative, chaotic rock of the 1990’s and 2000’s. If the band continued the poppy, garage rock sounds of their debut, a record like The ‘Relationship of Command’ and also a band like The Mars Volta probably wouldn’t exist. The changes in their music led to the envelope being pushed further – maybe not just of their band itself but also of their peers.