“If a girl calls out The Dickies and The Dickies end up calling her a cunt, because she's speaking her voice, then that's fucking wrong.”
Cedric Bixler-Zavala is in Austin, Texas at the time of our chat and says he's spent the last couple of days "hanging out with [his] kids and just being a dad". On whether becoming a dad has made him more conscious of the type of music he wants to put out into the world, Bixler-Zavala muses, "It just sort of made me wanna put out even more of the kind of stuff that, I guess, rubs people the wrong way [laughs]. I just mean that in giving people an alternative to what is being marketed as rock'n'roll right now… Having kids, I know that when they get old enough I want them to look back at what dad was doing at 42 years old so that they understand that being young is just a frame of mind and that, even at 42, I had a bone to pick with the world, hahaha." So do they reckon their dad's badass? "Well, they're four, but I'm sure with hormones that'll change," he assures.
When asked whether he feels a sense of responsibility, as an artist, to address injustice and call out bullshit, At The Drive In's lead singer posits, "Sometimes it is and sometimes, especially lately, I just wanna have a good time and I wanna use some of it as escapism... Just because I think lately there's an overflowing sort of funeral march of armchair coaches that are really chiming in after the battle is lost, politically speaking, and I guess I'm just part of a group of people that has always known shit was broken.
"You can't travel America without noticing that racism has always been there, you know? I always use the term, 'Never get off the boat,' just like in Apocalypse Now when the chef gets off to take a leak and he gets attacked by a tiger - that's the South, you know? And that's certain parts of America, and it's broken. So sometimes I feel like last thing I need anyone to feel from me is me being on a pulpit talking down on 'em about politics. But sometimes there are days where shit gets to you, and you say something, and you want people to wake up, you know? But then you always run the risk of saying some of the important things that are not very popular, and then you're not very popular and you're considered a conspiracy theorist - or you're considered part of the Right... In no way do I condone or promote the current status quo with running the country, but we live in a very dangerous age where the Left seems to be very irresponsible in their rhetoric, and doesn't wanna really listen to what the fuck's going on, and it can be disheartening. And it can be really soul-shattering, you know, when people wanna fuckin' namecheck George Orwell knowing full well that if you actually READ 1984 it was about how the Left was in charge and how shit got fucked up on their dime. So I just want to be able to have moments where I can provide a little bit of sanctuary for somebody who feels alienated by any fuckin' political view.
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"If someone's out at our show and they're transgender or they're gay, I want them to know that they're more than welcome to be at our show." After pointing out that "some serious weirdos" have always come to At The Drive In shows, Bixler-Zavala quickly clarifies, "They've always been called weirdos and I don't see them as weirdos".
Circling back to the original question regarding issues he typically feels compelled to tackle through song, Bixler-Zavala states, "I don't wanna be Rage Against The Machine, that's Rage Against The Machine, you know? I don't wanna be Los Crudos, Los Crudos did a good job of doing that shit, you know? And, for the most part, I like to write cryptic riddles that'll affect you years down the line. And maybe I take my cues from David Lynch, especially all the modern episodes that've been comin' out with Twin Peaks and stuff, you know? Someone called it, ah - I read someone described watching Twin Peaks as like fishing, and it's very true! Because when the big fish bites, boy does it fuckin' bite but you gotta be fuckin' patient and you gotta sit through some fuckin' weird, mundane shit, and then you gotta sit through some weird, macabre, avant-garde shit - and that's the beauty of it... But I always contradict myself and I wanna say shit, but sometimes the truth - it doesn't set people free, it hurts people's feelings. So a lot of the time I just take the back seat, and I perform the way I perform, and I hope I can just provide that sanctuary - that breath of fresh air - 'cause people are gonna have to go back to reality right after the concert's done."
When told about the Camp Cope-spearheaded It Takes One campaign designed to improve safety and encourage audience members to speak up and call out antisocial behaviour at gigs, Bixler-Zavala extols, "Thank god, that's an important thing to have. It was only when we had written the song Invalid Litter Dept for, it was on Relationship Of Command  - Juarez in Mexico hadn't had a rape crisis centre there and they barely had a rape crisis centre probably three or four years prior to that song even coming out; that has nothing to do with the song's impact on it, but that just shows you, like, the climate that I lived around in El Paso, being the way it was. There was some elements of a super-Catholic, macho way of life especially in the '80s, late '70s and most of the '90s - that was the way El Paso was for me growing up; what I fuckin' saw.
"And so I particularly have a bone to pick with shit like that and so I hope no one acts up like that at one of our concerts, because if I ever found out I would probably be very violent to the person [laughs]... My wife has gone through some crazy shit with sexual assault and so it hits home really, really close. And so I really try to look out for my fellow audience members and my fellow band members... I see a band like War On Women play at the Warped tour and at first I think to myself, 'Why the fuck would you play the Warped tour?' And it's like, 'Oh, it's actually genius! You're not gonna go and tour on your own and preach to the converted, you're gonna go to the heart of the lion's den and you're gonna call out muthafuckers; and muthafuckers like that need to be called out.'
"So you have a band like The Dickies playing and The Dickies who, you know, for all intents and purposes have made a career out of, like, you know, adolescent humour and it's funny when you're 14, it's funny when you're 13, and then you kinda grew up and grew out of it. And you always see like, 'Oh, ok, it's The Dickies!' And if a girl calls out The Dickies and The Dickies end up calling her a cunt, because she's speaking her voice, then that's fucking wrong. It's like a grown man can't have a fucking woman call out his fucking age-old bullshit and misogyny, and so that issue really hits home to me; you know, it's not even an issue of whether you're being politically correct, it's like, 'Can't someone speak up without you losing your shit and being a fucking asshole?'"
After considering what the future holds for bands such as The Dickies and Steel Panther, Bixler-Zavala concludes, "I think everybody should be able to have a choice to see that. I mean, I grew up thinking GG Allin or The Mentors were funny when I was younger and then something snapped in me, and I fuckin' faced reality and I thought, 'Jesus, why was I ever fuckin' thinking that shit was funny? It's not!' you know? And so it just depends on the individual. I don't think you should ever outlaw it, I don't think you should censor it, but I do think you should have the right to be able to call bullshit on it, you know? Like, if you're gonna play some fucked-up shit and have a fucked-up message then you're gonna have to expect someone to challenge you on it. And do I think it should be done away with completely, censorship-style? No, I don't think that. People need to be able to have that choice, people need to grow on their own, you know; no one likes to be told what to like or what to listen to - that makes it even more alluring."
Bixler-Zavala puts forward Geto Boys as an example of a band he "absolutely loved" back in the day, before admitting, "Now when I listen back to it I cringe at some of the fuckin' shit that they're saying, you know? But we live in a time and age where they should be able to handle if a woman comes up and says, 'Why are you talkin' this stoopid fuckin' shit? Why are you making rape funny?' you know? That should be a legitimate conversation without someone feeling like," he pauses to laugh, exasperated, "hurt over it. That's what's amazing: there's a lot of males who just can't handle a woman talking back to them, you know? And that's what's amazing to me is: that's when you see the mark of a true man is to see 'im crumble under any kind of a - just being challenged, really.
"But at the end of the day, you don't wanna live in a fascist society that tells you what you can or can't want, you know? I, for one, would never support something like Neo-Nazis or fuckin' NAMBLA, you know? But I'm not about to say, 'You can't fuckin' live here,' 'cause that would be super-hypocritical of the actual idea of what it's like - at least for me living where I live, which is like, 'Come one, come all'. It's the moment when someone gets in your personal space and makes it violent - or makes it so that their message incites violence, and hurts people, and death is the end result - that's where I draw the line. So if anything ever takes that, you know, route, then I say like, 'Yeah, get the fuck out! Your group doesn't belong here,' you know?"
After announcing their re-formation back in January 2016 via a banner on At The Drive In's website - which featured a row of the band member's faces, mug-shot style, above text that read, "At The Drive In. World Tour. New Music" - the band barged back into our eardrums with Governed By Contagions, a brand new song and our first taste of new material from the fivesome since their Relationship Of Command album (2000). On how this mighty song featuring sporadic handclaps, and riffs so conversational you'll swear the axes are on the verge of spitting out actual words, came together, Bixler-Zavala recalls, "There was this 2016 [tour] run in the States, and around the world, and we had brought a bunch of recording equipment with us. There was one particular day in Seattle and we were trying to put an idea down, and in between one of the ideas, like, a mistake came out, which was the chorus - dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, it was a mistake - and Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez, At The Drive In guitarist/producer of their latest album in.ter a.li.a], screamed out loud, 'That's it!' And the end result of it is what sparked that excitement in him, but he heard something out of that mistake; that just sorta became the one we all gravitated to.
"And he started really fooling around with his - what I call 'John Schmersal influence', which is the guitar player from Brainiac - and the things that came out of that were this sort of invitation to become a lot like the way my four-year-olds are, which is colouring outside of the lines of stuff, and I think you can hear that when I'm doing a little more of the spitfire, rapid, screamy kind of spoken word stuff about 'the man behind the dresser giving Zodiac advice'. As soon as I tracked that, I remember Omar jokingly saying, 'There he is!'" [laughs]. "He hadn't seen that in me in a long time so that was really cool. But it's really borne out of a mistake and we just sort of rolled with it, and then that hook and that chorus are just borne out of something that can only be accomplished by being in At The Drive In - that's part of that chemistry."
Bixler-Zavala says embracing mistakes is "most definitely" something that has informed previous At The Drive In material. "I mean, I know I'm gonna sound like a complete fuckin' art school tool bag saying this, but... Brian Eno has that little thing called Oblique Strategies, which is like a game of cards. And if there's a stack in the studio, you pick up a random card and it gives you a completely random suggestion. That was always one of my favourite random Oblique Strategies suggestions; I picked up a card once and it said, 'Honour your mistakes as hidden intentions,' and that is very much the formula that makes rock music so interesting, I think, because it's not classical, it's not jazz classically trained, you know. A lotta rock musicians come from just wingin' it and makin' up the rules as they go along, and I just love that sort of non-rule."
After discussing how the same can be said of live performance, Bixler-Zavala concludes, "It's what's the most attractive part about doing music like that - and doing it live - is the total possibility of it being a bad train wreck. And you're so nervous, and your adrenaline's shooting through your body, and your mouth is super-cottonmouth, and all these people are looking at you... And that sort of like, 'Do something,' has always been really appealing to me 'cause it's such an amazing high, you know."
When asked whether there were any offers that came knocking during At The Drive In's extended break that actually tempted the band, Bixler-Zavala reveals, "People always came up to us and did offers, you know - soft, sort of, person-to-person offers - and we would always kind of get, like, insulted in a way, like, 'You gotta talk to five of us and, you know, b) we're doing this band currently called Mars Volta,' you know," he laughs. The At The Drive In lead singer then observes, "You've gotta be able to figure out how to get back to a situation where you can be around friends, and you can be yourself and have painful talks, great talks, money talks, music talks and all that kind of stuff... So sometimes people would make offers and I'd be like, 'Do you know how fuckin' difficult it is to get five of us to fuckin' actually do this?' And then [in] 2015, 2016 we were just finally - us - being like, 'WHY is it so fucking difficult? Like, we're 40! These problems, these imaginary problems, are such bullshit.' We had kids, like, we owe it to our kids - not even financially, but yeah that's part of the trickle-down effect - as an adult to lead by example and be like, 'See? Dad can be a grown-up and get along with his friends,' haha, you know? And put stoopid issues to the side and understand that life is very short, and you should make do right now."
Regarding inter-band beefs, Bixler-Zavala opines, "It may just sound very ephemeral, or just not a big deal, like, 'Oh, you looked at me a certain way on tour' - it's not! You're a gang that grows up and gets discovered, and thrown into the spotlight, and you've been doin' it for years - trying to get to that point - so there's a lot of actual human considerations in there of personality, and just how you handle yourself as a young person. I mean, imagine being 25, or even 30, and magazines throwin' some fuckin' bullshit trip, like, you're supposed to be somewhat near something like Nirvana. I just always felt like, 'Jesus Christ, don't do that to us!' But it was really hard to do that, because then it was, like, everyone's looking at you and you're not allowed to make the mistakes that a normal fuckin' 25- or 30-year-old can make. So we kinda shied away from it. And you back away even though other people are tellin' you like, 'Noooo, you worked so hard to get here!' And it's like, 'No, this is the human quality about the band that you like - is the fact that at any moment it could stop - and we can pull the trigger on it and say, 'Fuck you all. NO!' So, if anything, we kept to our promise to each other that if shit was funky in the band that we needed to take six months off and - once certain people started not payin' attention to that rule then we left, because you just gotta follow your heart. Because fatigue can fuckin' get the best of you when you're 30 or even 25 and people are puttin' such a stoopid, heavy trip on a rock band."
Having risen to prominence pre-internet, Bixler-Zavala bemoans its "shitty kind of cheating elements". "I don't see a lot of hungry, thirsty people and I used to see that a lot before the internet. I saw people out on the road trying to kick and scream to get anybody to hear their band, you know, and we were one of those... I come from an era of having to save phone numbers from people you met in Little Rock, Arkansas... and that was your little underground railroad. And then you depended on things like [radio station] Maximum Rocknroll outta the Bay Area, because they would publish a hard cover book that gave you a list of gigs, cafes, venues, food collectives, places to sleep and shit - this really amazing underground network. And now you can cheat - you have that with internet - but I don't see people doing that so much anymore. I see people being like, 'I'm just gonna post a weird little Instagram flier and then if people don't come then they're the problem, it's not me.' And it's, like, I just don't see people being that hungry or thirsty anymore. I think people cheat a lot now." Bixler-Zavala then shares some sound advice he intends to pass on to his kids to drive the point home: "You have to eat shit before you ever taste caviar, because eating shit is amazing and it builds fucking character and, you know, puts hair on your fuckin' chest and, you know, toughens up those calluses. And it makes you a true pirate of the I-10 highway."