20 Years Ago, At the Drive-In Kicked Against Punk Norms on 'In/Casino/Out'
2000's 'Relationship of Command' cemented the band's place in history. But their 1998 album saw them honing their powers as a musical force.
The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.
For many people, At The Drive-In’s career starts and ends with 2000's Relationship of Command, and it’s easy to see why. The band’s third album shot them into a new orbit, one that saw their song “One Armed Scissor” get radio airplay and slide into regular rotation on MTV2. Eventually, it’d achieve even further ubiquity, as “One Armed Scissor” would earn a coveted spot in both Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games. That sounds awfully quaint now, but those games were a major cultural force in the mid-2000s, and it did wonders for a band that broke up just as they were crossing over into the mainstream. Yet, despite Relationship of Command’s legacy, it was 1998’s In/Casino/Out that laid the groundwork for all of it, remaining a document of the moment when one of punk’s most exciting bands discovered what they wanted to be.
Though At The Drive-In formed in 1994, it’d take a few years for anyone in the punk scene to take notice. The band’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, lacked a punk scene of much renown, and their early material was energetic, yet largely unremarkable. The band’s two main players, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Jim Ward, anchored At The Drive-In, and for a couple years the rest of the lineup swirled around them.
At the time, their influences were equally fluid, as early At The Drive-In releases flipped between may of the sounds that were gaining a foothold in punk. At various points, it was easy to hear a bit of Lookout! Records-style pop-punk, but Bixler-Zavala and Ward were equally as taken with the ambition of bands on Dischord Records as well as the spastic chaos of the San Diego bands populating the Gravity Records roster. They’d manage to meld these things into a good song here and there, but never did they become more than the sum of these influences.
It wasn’t until 1996, when the band added guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, bassist Paul Hinojos, and drummer Tony Hajjar, that At the Drive-In would begin to settle into itself. Ward took a brief sabbatical from the band that same year, but when he returned to At The Drive-In a year later, it was with a newfound vigor. As a live entity, Bixler-Zavala and Rodrigues-Lopez turned At The Drive-In into a peerless act. They flailed around stages with no regard for their bodies; swinging microphones, bashing guitars, and climbing anything that could hold them. On the other hand, Ward, Hinojos, and Hajjar planted their feet and plowed through the songs, keeping the train on the track while their other members ran wildly through the cars.
While plenty of punk bands were renowned for their live sets, it was rare that a band captured that on record. But just as At The Drive-In became the talk of punk circles on the strength of their performances, they also finally synthesized their influences into a sound that was distinctly theirs. At The Drive-In became less referential by the time they began writing what would become In/Casino/Out. Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics became more impressionistic, skewing away from traditional punk song fodder and embracing a kind of linguistic splicing that bordered on the nonsensical. Similarly, Rodriguez-Lopez would take his love of salsa music and encourage Hajjar and Hinojos to incorporate the sounds that permeated El Paso, no longer relegating them to simple, four-on-the-floor beats.
Recorded in four days with minimal overdubs, In/Casino/Out was the product of a band that was locked in as a unit. Instead of laboring over tones, the band ripped through the songs as if they were playing live. Though Bixler-Zavala would go on to say that the rushed recording forced them to omit 30 percent of the ideas they wanted to execute, it felt like their live shows. It was speedy and chaotic, with the band sounding as if the entire house of cards would come tumbling down at any second. But for all the excess energy, their songwriting had sharpened, to the point where it was no longer possible to dismiss them as a band only worth seeing live.
When In/Casino/Out was released on August 18, 1998, the record made an immediate declaration. “Alpha Centauri” cut in with harsh harmonic tremors, as Ward and Rodriguez-Lopez placed their fingers over the strings to ring out dead chords at the song’s start. It evoked the feeling of walking into a VFW Hall midway through a band’s set, the chaos having already enveloped the room, and getting immediately sucked into it. This din lasted only a few seconds, as Hajjar smacked his snare drum and corralled the band into action. When they started the song in earnest, Bixler-Zavala rushed through phrases like he wrote too many words for the song but didn’t want to cut any of them. And when the band slipped into double-time in the chorus, it showed that At The Drive-In finally figured how to jump between styles without stumbling. It was enthralling, as At The Drive-In took recognizable component parts and spit them out the other side as something totally new.
What followed next was “Chanbara,” full of Latin grooves, bongos, and Bixler-Zavala trilling consonants in a way that few other punk bands had. That’s not to say that punk and hardcore didn’t have a rich history of involvement from Latinx bands and artists. Dating all the way back to the late 70s, bands such as The Bags, The Plugz, and The Zeros were foundational to the early LA punk scene, and running concurrent to At The Drive-In were acts like Los Crudos, Sin Orden, and Spitboy, to name just a few. Yet, while those bands were a part of progressive hardcore scenes, At The Drive-In was lumped in with emo. Aside from a handful of outliers like Chinchilla, Rainer Maria, and Franklin, the emo scene was dominated, largely, by white dudes. With Bixler-Zavala incorporating Spanish phrases and pronunciations, and Rodriguez-Lopez bringing his love of salsa music into the band, they bucked back against the scene’s homogeneity and carved out their own space inside it.
In/Casino/Out used much of its A-side to establish that At The Drive-In had found a clearly defined approach to post-hardcore. Songs like “Hulahoop Wounds” and “Napoleon Solo” each showed a different pathway for the band. Ward and Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitars dueled in the channels, rarely synching into one conceivable part but instead splintering into different directions at the end of each measure. Similarly, while Bixler-Zavala would often get dismissed for being obtuse with his lyrics, “Napoleon Solo” showed his ability to transform his personal experiences into something universal. The song detailed the experience of him learning two of his friends, and former bandmates, were killed in a truck accident before having to play a show in New Orleans. At The Drive-In would be mercilessly heckled during that set, and Bixler-Zavala took that feeling of loss and dehumanization and turned it into invective of living in spite of genuine loss, which showed emo was more than a place to immortalize minor slights.
But as remarkable as it all was, it was the album’s final third that showed At The Drive-In’s true potential. “Lopsided” was a quasi-ballad that, had it been cleaned up, could have had a home on alt-rock radio. And in the case of the electronic-laced piano ballad of “Hourglass,” which was sung entirely by Ward, At The Drive-In showed they could write an emo hit while still subverting the genre’s norms. Yet it was “Transatlantic Foe” that would point the band forward. More than any other song on In/Casino/Out, “Transatlantic Foe” best captured the band’s infectious giddiness, the kind that would inform “One Armed Scissor” just a couple years later. Each chorus was uproarious, the sonic equivalent of watching the band hurl themselves against the crowd at a show, but with an airtight construction full of little drum fills, guitar noodling, and Bixler-Zavala’s voice breaking up on his emphatic, throat-shredding screams. It was the sound of the band achieving their intended goal, of making a record that encapsulated all their assorted interests while setting a bar that everyone else would need to clear.
Touring in support of the record, they’d open for bands like The Get Up Kids, Knapsack, and Jimmy Eat World, blowing each one off the stage with relative ease. Even when At The Drive-In's shows devolved into actual messes, it was always compelling. The following year, At The Drive-In would release Vaya, an EP that streamlined their songs even more and saw them stretch out a little bit. They incorporated even more complex rhythms and stronger electronic elements without cutting out their feral qualities. This would ultimately be what led to them getting signed to Grand Royal and being able to make Relationship of Command with a sizeable budget. And while those records had plenty of influence, the way that In/Casino/Out trickled through the punk scene could be felt almost instantly.
In many ways, what people pulled from At The Drive-In after In/Casino/Out was not sonic, but spiritual. It was partially because no one could recreate this unique brand of controlled chaos, even though many would try. There would be bits of At The Drive-In in acts such as …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, a Texas band that would cross post-hardcore with indie, and even acts like The Blood Brothers, but neither were exact soundalikes. Instead, At The Drive-In’s descendants would take their fashion, such as skin-tight pants and t-shirts, and their combustive live energy, and stretch it even further. Though At The Drive-In would balk at the idea of punk and hardcore as a playground for masculinity, often by chastising their aggressive male fans, they’d open the door for others to push even harder against the genre’s accepted norms.
At The Drive-In broke up in 2001, and their legacy warped all the more as the band members quickly formed new projects. Just as Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez began exploring their prog-drenched fascinations with The Mars Volta, Ward, Hajjar, and Hinojos would form the straight-ahead Sparta. Each group would shit-talk the other and distance themselves from At The Drive-In, making it so that their former band was shrouded in mystery. As a result, and as is the case for so many bands that broke up before prematurely, their legend began to grow bigger than they ever really were. It would allow all manner of post-hardcore bands to cite them as an influence, from mid-2000s scenecore-adjacent acts like Underoath and The Fall Of Troy, to modern post-hardcore bands like La Dispute. Much like Fugazi, At The Drive-In would become a stand-in for an ideology more than a sound, and it’s a fact that, even after their reunion, still holds true.
In 1998, plenty of punk bands were getting weird. It was a time when bands untethered themselves from the genre’s past and let themselves explore the fringes a bit. But while many of those records still resonate, few sound as outright joyous as In/Casino/Out. Though Relationship of Command is the record At The Drive-In’s legacy hinges on, In/Casino/Out perfectly captured them as five kids from El Paso who dared to challenge conventions without taking themselves so seriously. They left their border town inspired to create something no one else could, and the result is a record that suggested they could take over the world. Two decades later, In/Casino/Out sounds like maybe they still could.