At the drive-in – Retrospective
“We are not a Hardcore band” When I saw At the Drive-In in Bremen, Germany in 2001 at what soon after turned out to be their second to last show ever I was convinced – if only for a split second – that this band had the potential to kick-start a new era for popular music, like I had only seen Nirvana do it before them…
Rewind a couple of years… In late 1998 or early 1999 a promotional copy of “In Casino Out” found its way into my home sweet home. It was probably part of a stack of discs that I reviewed for “Trust” zine in Germany, I don’t remember exactly. What I do remember are the raised eyebrows that it caused after the first spin, and after the second, and after the third… and after the twentieth. Holy motherfucking diamond in the rough! This record was basically every reviewer’s wet dream a.k.a. an album that was actually good. No, it was unbelievably good, something one only comes across every five years, maybe! Long discussions followed with friends and fellow writers about how this band is probably going nowhere and how this album will be completely overlooked by anybody remotely into emotionally and melodically charged high voltage outbursts. Simply because “In Casino Out” was released on Fearless Records, which was not exactly a name many had on their radar when it came to music like At the Drive-In’s. I think it’s safe to say that at that time labels like No Idea, Doghouse, Initial, Revelation or even Burning Heart drew the most attention for this type of music. Well, history has proven me wrong once again. The word about At the Drive-In spread like wildfire, especially after their first European tour in the spring of 1999 during which I got to catch them at UJZ Kornstrasse in Hannover, Germany. It was basically an experience similar to listening to “In Casino Out” for the first time. Their explosive energy blew every other band of their time out of the water, in the studio and onstage. Of course, I like an idiot, was going through one of my moods again where I didn’t want to burden myself with bringing a camera. Naturally this always happened on key nights that one really ends up regretting, like when The Murder City Devils played at the Au in Frankfurt, Germany. But that’s a different story.
In retrospect, I probably missed out on the chance to record the tightest and most astonishing set I have ever seen them play. It wouldn’t be long though before I got a second chance to make up for my fatal decision. The tour’s Poland leg fell through and as a result their booker called me up, asking if I could help them out by setting up a show on a very short notice in Celle, Germany. Read as in “Can you get them a clean place to stay for the night and a couple of meals?” A few phone calls later I had them booked at this neat small bar named “Celler Loch”. “The Loch” as we called it usually hosted free matinee shows and had a capacity of 50 people, if you pack it in that is. This one was no different, only it drew a total of 150, I did a headcount afterwards. It was hands down the most amazing show I was ever involved in, someone even dove off of the bar during the last song. A large part of the crowd was following the show through two huge glass windows while standing outside on the sidewalk. I mean, this place really wasn’t cut out for hosting live shows to start with. It was so small, it was laughable and redefined the term ‘intimate’. Most of the bands that hadn’t played there before as a consequence went straight towards the two doors in the back, expecting to find a bigger room behind them, only to end up in the restrooms. Talk about a running gag.
It was before and after this show that I got to know what wonderful individuals Omar, Tony, Jim, Paul and Cedric are. Not only did they let me shoot any of their shows from there on out, they were also genuinely respectful and thankful for how people were helping them out. I recall walking over to the local guitar shop with Omar, hoping to find some desperately needed gear. There was never a moment of impatience or frustration, even though time was running out and we weren’t getting anywhere.
Fast-forward to the 2001 Bremen show again… The moment the El Paso, TX quintet set foot onto the Schlachthof stage on February 20 the houselights were still on and I could see 1400 people going apeshit at the mere sight of the band. This wasn’t just an ordinary “rockstar” welcoming routine but a transcending expression of “fuck yes, it is happening here and now”. Little did I know that I was actually witnessing the beginning of an end, even though it quickly became apparent that something was wrong. One and a half songs into their set Omar and Cedric for almost no reason, much like a few nights before in Hannover, just flat out lost it over people crowd surfing. Omar smashed his guitar on the stage mid-song and Cedric and Jim both threatened to kick people out if they continue to climb up on top of others. They called this ‘moshing’ and ‘slam dancing’, addressing the crowd with “Why are you flipping me off?… Yeah you! You already have a broken nose. Do you want another one?” or “This is why we turn into fucking assholes.“
To say the least, I was shocked by this toxic overreaction as the crowd’s energy neither in Bremen nor in Hannover was even close to violent. Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok to take a stance against stage diving etc., but the degree of aggression and negative vibes coming from the stage clearly indicated that Cedric and Omar’s outbursts were not just about their disapproval of the audience’s dancing. Something seemed fundamentally wrong and off balance. Drugs ‘might’ have factored into this, as well as possibly the overwhelming attention of media and fans alike, not to mention heavy conflicts within the band itself. Whatever it was that caused this stressed out mental breakdown, it resulted in a total disconnect of band and audience on one hand and an even worse disconnect of the band itself. At the Drive-In literally broke into two pieces, right in front of everybody’s eyes. Only starstruck fans were too blind to realize this…
With a notion of “I told you so” I took note of their final and definite folding a couple of weeks later. What a way to end one of the most promising musical endeavors of its era. But in the end what I will remember them for is neither the way they went out nor the artistic direction they soon after started to pursue. To me this band will always be about incredible song writing, endearing and charming personalities and last but not least about the explosive onstage energy they displayed in the years between 1999 and 2000. Despite large parts of this blurb being mostly about those unfortunate last weeks, in the big picture those events will remain merely footnotes, barely noticeable stains on an otherwise spotless sheet. Therefore, I hope you will enjoy our original and previously unreleased footage as much as we still do.