“You’re a robot. Your’e a sheep. Maa! Maa! Maa!” – Cedric Bixler-Zavala.

Photo by “Roel” – ATDI’s last show, at Vera Groningen, Netherlands, 2001.

This morning I stumbled across the fact that At the Drive In’s “One Armed Scissor” was the first song announced for Guitar Hero IV (due out in October). Co-incidentally, last night, driving through the city, I heard the band’s magnum opus, Relationship of Command again.

What an amazing fucking album! As urgent now as the day it was written. But, apparently, that was all just “kiddy shit,” according to guitarist Omar Rodríguez-Lopez at least – “it’s like seeing an old high school picture, where you have a mullet. And you’re like, what was I thinking?” They can criticise it all they like. But to me, listening to it again now, Jim Ward’s post At the Drive In band Sparta, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-Lopez’s medicated looney tunes, The Mars Volta, don’t even come close. They sound like two incomplete parts of a greater whole, crying out to be re-united. Ward and Cedric’s voices were meant for each other – Ward the anchor, Cedric the entertainer, the madman, the raving lunatic.

It all started in El Paso, Texas, in 1993, with teenagers Jim Ward and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (then both members of punk band El Paso Pussycats). At the Drive In played their first show on October 15, 1994. Guitarist Omar Rodríguez-Lopez joined in 1996, and in 1997, the band settled on the core lineup of Omar (guitar), Cedric (vocals), Jim Ward (vocals, keyboard and guitar), Paul Hinojos (bass), and Tony Hajjar (drums). And, on the back of a reputation for mad, intense, and aggressively-energetic live shows, hard work, and a rabid-tooth for touring, they soon built up a loyal following of supporters. The band’s first nationally-televised performance was minor radio hit, “One Armed Scissor”, on the short-lived American music show FarmClub, in 2000.

Click here to watch the montage music video for “One Armed Scissor”

And here to watch ATDI’s first nationally-televised performance – “One Armed Scissor”, on FarmClub, in 2000.

But already, an in-group out-group dynamic was developing within the band. At the Drive In were becoming well-known as the band with the crazy afros. But Jim Ward didn’t have an afro. He wasn’t involved in the early incarnation of The Mars Volta, Cedric and Omar’s experimental dub/reggae project De Facto with Jim’s cousin Jeremy (who would later play a major role in The Mars Volta, with both his music and his fatal overdose). It almost seems like Ward, and At the Drive In, just weren’t “weird” enough for the drug-taking, increasingly-eccentric pair of afros.

Click here to watch a funny home video featuring Omar and Cedric

In January 2001, At the Drive In traveled to Australia, to play the Big Day Out festival. 15 minutes into their Sydney show, Cedric started asking the crowd to calm down and observe the safety rules, “I think it’s a very, very sad day when the only way you can express yourself is through slam dancing”. The crowd refused. “You learnt that from your TV. You didn’t learn that from your best friend. You’re a robot. You’re a sheep. Maa! Maa! Maa! I have a microphone and you don’t. You watch TV way too much,” shouted Cedric, and the band walked off stage. Later that day, 16-year old Jessica Michalik was taken to hospital, after she was crushed during Limp Bizkit’s set (she died five days later).

Click here to watch Cedric’s full sheep rant

Soon afterwards, after completing a successful world tour, and at the height of At the Drive In’s fame and popularity, the band broke up. They played their last show at Vera, in Groningen, Netherlands. The split was initially called an “indefinite hiatus.” But Cedric soon went public, taking the blame for the breakup, and explaining that he felt At the Drive In was holding him back, that the post hardcore, hardcore, and punk labels thrown at the band were restricting his creativity and limiting the music. He wanted to make more experimental, more against the grain, more progressive music. Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez said, in interviews, that they wanted their next album to sound more like Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Click here to watch an interview with Cedric about selling out, radio, and “letting your freak flag fly”.

Jim Ward has stated in interviews that he was happy with the breakup. That he started the band when he was 17, and, in ATDI, always felt 17. Back in 1994, Ward used the money from his college savings to fund Western Breed Records, just to release At the Drive In’s Hell Paso EP. After the breakup, At the Drive In drummer Tony Hajjar and bassist Paul Hinojos formed the band Sparta. Hinojos got in contact with ex-ATDI bandmate Ward, and convinced him to become the band’s frontman. In 2005, Ward walked out on the band mid tour, stating, “I needed to get away from everything and everyone. I wasn’t enjoying myself at all, and I didn’t feel my life or the band was where I wanted it to be… I needed to step back and reassess everything.” During the hiatus Hinojos switched sides, and joined The Mars Volta. In 2006, Sparta reformed, and released the album Threes. Ward has also released several solo albums, most recently, 2007’s Quiet EP. He also has a new album out called West Texas, with his new project, Sleepercar.

Click here to watch the amazing music video for At the Drive In’s “Invalid Letter Dept.”

I’ll never understand it. Maybe we’re just not supposed to. But just watch the video above. It’s amazing. Breathtaking. One of those great songs to be remembered forever. With no evidence of the “limitations” that drove the band apart. The Mars Volta’s De-loused in the Comatorium (2003) is a great album. Parts of it almost sound like the natural progression of Relationship of Command. But (because I’ve heard Relationship of Command) I just can’t shake the feeling that without Omar and Cedric, Jim Ward’s just too dry and sane. And without Ward, Omar and Cedric are just plain nuts.

Click here to watch The Mars Volta debuting their 2008 album The Bedlam in Goliath on The Tonight Show.

Click here to watch the video for “A Broken Promise” by Jim Ward’s Sleepercar

Click here to watch Sparta’s “Erase It Again”. Listen to Ward’s shouting 1:05s in, and imagine Cedric was backing him up. Oh well…

At the Drive In’s Discography:

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