- by Christophe Vanheygen
Earlier this year, At the Drive In announced and subsequently released their new album, “in•ter a•li•a”. It’s the band's first new album in 17 years, following 2000’s “Relationship of Command”. We recently had the chance to sit down with drummer Tony Hajjar to talk about the new album, past regrets and the future.
PRT: First of all, the new album is out. Reviews have been kind of mixed, but I thought it was really good and that it sounds very focused.
Tony: We just made a record. And we worked really hard on the sense of it, just being At The Drive in. After you have a record like “Relationship Of Command,” which we are lucky enough to have, I don’t care what the fuck you are gonna put out. Reviews are going to be mixed (laughs). We are very proud of the record. The songs play well live, people seem to enjoy it live. And eventually people are going to have to get over it that we have to do other music.
PRT: I totally agree. I feel the main different is that the songs are catchy, almost pop-oriented.
Tony: That’s neat that you say that because after listening to it… just, like a person listening to a record… I thought to myself ‘these choruses are really catchy’. I didn’t even notice that before. If I could compare them to anything older, I’d say like the chorus of “Pattern Against User,” which you can almost sing along to. But it never entered my skull while we were making the record.
PRT: I remember seeing you back in 1999 or something and thinking ‘what the fuck is this?’. But with the new album, you sound like a different band. It’s still the same vibe, but you matured.
Tony: Yeah. Thank god we have (laughs). If we hadn’t matured, then people would complain we did the same record. All of us have always been fans of bands that mature, move on and take chances. If you don’t take chances, you can still be a band. You can always get a festival booking. You know, show up every other year and people will be excited to hear that one song from 1994. Obviously, you will still hear songs from our past. But when we decided to do this band again in October 2015, there was a line in the sand and we said: if you cross this, you tour. You write a record the whole time you’re touring. You record the album at the end of the year. You release it and you tour again. And so here we are. We wanted to push our boundaries. And if you think we’ve changed, get ready for whatever is next.
PRT: So it was the idea from the start to not just play shows, but do a new record as well?
Tony: Yeah, it was the idea from the get-go. In 2012, we did exactly ten shows. The idea there was ten shows and that’s what we did. And then in 2014, we got back together and just wrote for about three weeks. That kinda fell through. Not in a bad way, it just didn’t feel like 100%. But we were still getting along. And then we decided in 2015 to write while we were touring all over the world so that when we got to the studio a year later, we already had demos of a lot of the songs that made the record.
PRT: Were you afraid about the expectations that people had about At The Drive In making a new record? Because people were waiting for it.
Tony: But also not waiting for it (laughs). Because they were scared to hear it. I know every musician says this, not just me. But you can’t be worried about people’s expectations or there will be a million Chinese Democracy’s. That’s the last thing you want. You want to be a band that creates and moves on. And maybe people won’t love the first new record after ‘THE BIG RECORD’ as much or maybe they will like it more. But then the record after that... if you continue putting music out, people will adjust to your sound. Whatever that sound is. If you do it from the right place, people are going to like it. Maybe less, maybe more. But people will like it. And if not, if not. I mean, you can be an engineer, a doctor, a musician or a businessman, you will do things that people aren’t going to like and things that people do like. That’s just how life is.
PRT: Did you yourselves have any expectations at all going into this again?
Tony: About the record or the touring?
Tony: No (laughs). We really didn’t.
PRT: Short answer.
Tony: I can explain. The touring, we were so excited about. We couldn’t wait to start doing shows in 2016. And the record? We were just excited that we could still write. That we could get in a room and just produce, just go go go. We still have that mentality where we can write songs in a couple of hours. Like, top to bottom. Some with lyrics. A great example is “Governed By Contagions”. We wrote that song and had lyrics for it at the end of that same day. “Hostage Stamps”, the last song on the new album, was an electronic track that I turned in and then Omar added a bunch of stuff to it like that main riff. In the studio we decided not to touch it until we were almost done with the record. And then when we were almost done recording, we all went into the live room and told everyone to leave us alone for three hours. We wrote “Hostage Stamps” there and then told the producer to come back and then we recorded “Hostage Stamps”. So that was literally created in a matter of hours in the studio. It was that kind of vibe the whole time, which just keeps it really exciting.
PRT: Did you miss that all those years?
Tony: You can never replace your first love. I starved for those guys. I fought for those guys. We shared the last piece of bread together. We slept on every floor together. We got booed together. We got thrown stuff at us together. We became a big band together. So yeah, of course I missed that. We didn’t talk for a lot of years. And we regret it. We really, really regret it. Omar and I were just talking about when The Mars Volta and Sparta both played at Lowlands in 2004, on separate stages. I hadn’t seen them at all and then all of a sudden they were watching us from the side of the stage and I remember my first though being ‘what the fuck are they doing here’. But then later I realized that it didn’t matter. They are my brothers. We hung out the whole night. Omar even jumped in the Sparta bus and went with us to Amsterdam. It just shows you that can argue with your brother and hate him for ten minutes, but he is still your brother. That’s how we feel about each other. And now you can add a lot more maturity and love… we are getting along better than we ever have.
PRT: So this is a long-term engagement?
Tony: Yeah, for as long as we can do it. Even back then, I would never say how long we could do it. We have always been like a chemical bomb. Our live shows today are more crafted in the sense that we play better. But we’re still like ‘oh, let’s see what breaks today’. It’s always a guessing game and that’s what keeps it fun for us.
PRT: And what are you wary of? Like things you don’t want to have happen again?
Tony: We have those conversations a lot. We make sure our communication never wavers. If three of us are in a room and we have a conversation and the other two aren’t there and don’t know what we are talking about, the first thing we do is bring them in so everyone knows. Communication, communication, communication. All the time. From the smallest things like which waters do we want backstage to what’s the next year going to look like. Every decision is a band decision. Paul pushes that the most. He’s always the one to say oh, we haven’t talked about that yet. He always keeps us very aware that you need to communicate. When you are in a relationship… whether that’s a band or with your boyfriend or girlfriend… and you communicate, then you are solid.
PRT: Is that where it went wrong the first time?
Tony: Oh yeah. That and exhaustion. When a band breaks, they break in the US or wherever they are from. And then slowly they break in other countries. When we broke, we broke all around the world at exactly the same time. And we were exhausted. And no one was smart enough to tell us ‘hey guys, I know it’s going great but we are going to pull you off the road for a month. You’re not even going to do an interview. It will still be there when you get back’. No one did that because they were all tasting money. That’s what we regret.
PRT: What has been the highlight since getting back together?
Tony: I’ll keep it personal… kicking back in the bus and sharing stories. Or ‘hey, let’s go watch this show but we can’t go unless we are all together’. I mean, to feel that way about each other in our forties… you can’t beat that. Let’s just hang out. After we’ve played a show, it’s not like ‘see you later’ and then you go over there and I’ll go over here. We go eat together, watch shows together. We realized we made a lot of mistakes in the past and ended up in those situations. And maybe we shouldn’t have. Who knows? But we wouldn’t have been able to have what we have now. Very few bands in history have had this luck that we have now. To disappear for so many years and then come back and still have people think your albums are cool. They passed them on to their little brother or cousin and here I am playing the drums and there’s this eight-year-old singing along to “Sleepwalk Capsules” (laughs). I never forget or lose sight of how lucky we are.