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Geeks Bearing Gifts

Entering the rock arena in a Trojan horse, At the Drive-In is out to conquer the status quo. What they're offering: ferocity--and modesty.

October 15, 2000|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin is a Times staff writer

It's not supposed to end this way for rap-rock, the chest-thumping top dog in the battle for rock supremacy. All that testosterone-fueled aggro-rock seemed invincible, with its muscular, angry leaders presiding over the moshing legions.

But look what's slipped into the stronghold.

"We have always felt like the five guys in the Trojan horse," says Tony Hajjar, the drummer for the band At the Drive-In. Meaning that they're out to get you, and they might not look like a threat until they show you what's really there.

Their target is the rock status quo, and they confront it directly. Before their shows they go onstage and, like their role models in the punk band Fugazi, ask the audience to refrain from slam dancing or stage diving or crowd surfing, or else they'll stop playing. A simple gesture, but one that strikes at the heart of the Limp Bizkit constitution and offers a blueprint for a kinder, gentler but still fiercely rocking world.

"As far as I've learned growing up in the punk community, new ideas should always be embraced and old ideas should always be ditched out the window," says singer Cedric Bixler, wearer of one of the band's two trademark Afro hairdos. "And that is an old idea.

"I guess sometimes we have to play the role of the principal in high school, but it's for good reason. I don't want it to be a predominantly boy-oriented show with a big circle gap in the middle of a crowd where the violence is taking place.

"I don't want people floating on each others' heads and knocking people around because that's what's normal and acceptable on the television today and that's what kids are learning from. They should be doing their own thing."

There's no guarantee that At the Drive-In's challenge will prevail, but until recently, few people would have even noticed this voice from deep in the American rock underground.

At the Drive-In was one of those bands on an eternal no-budget tour, five kids from El Paso, Texas--not even a speck on the rock map. They had no career strategy beyond touring and then working menial jobs so they could record a few more songs to sell on the next road trip.

What they did have was an uncommon and unmistakable intensity, and a bond forged by their isolation from rock's centers. Gradually their audiences grew, and suddenly they are being shepherded by the people who do (or did) the business for Nirvana and Beck, Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys--all examples of underground figures who became cultural movers.

Now there's a new album, "Relationship of Command," on the Virgin-distributed Grand Royal label, and with word-of-mouth and rock press coverage snowballing, At the Drive-In is one of the most buzzed-about bands in rock.

It might still be David and Goliath, or the geek facing down the football team, but it might not be wise to bet against them.

"I think they're one of the truly brilliant live bands that I've seen in the last decade," says Gary Gersh, a partner in Grand Royal with manager John Silva and the Beastie Boys. "When you see somebody who's powerful as they are live, and if your belief is they'll continue to make better and better records, then it's only a matter of time until a large audience catches up with that.

"I continue to say this to everyone that will listen--I just think they're gonna be one of the biggest, most important bands in the world."


Ground zero for At the Drive-In's insurgency is a cluttered rehearsal studio in Gardena, a spot they picked because it's midway between the Long Beach storefront Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez share and Hajjar's and bassist Pall Hinojos' homes in the Hollywood and Los Feliz districts. Guitarist Jim Ward still lives in El Paso, but the other four moved west a year ago.

"We needed new inspiration," explains Bixler. "A change of surroundings helps musically, and I needed to get out of El Paso. I walk around Long Beach and people will crack jokes, but"--he reaches up and gives his Afro a little shake--"I find a lot more black people come up to me and they're like, 'Right on.' I'm a little more at ease here."

At the Drive-In formed in 1994, and the current lineup has been together since late 1996. There were no tricks or shortcuts in their progress--a combination of tireless touring and independently released EPs and albums expanded their audience slowly and steadily, and by the time the major record labels came sniffing in the spring of '99, the band was selling out such clubs as the Troubadour in West Hollywood.

Grand Royal's band-friendly offer, along with Gersh's and Silva's record of working with such esteemed acts as Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Beck, put Grand Royal in the driver's seat, and the label signed At the Drive-In in July 1999.

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