The post-hardcore veteran explores new vistas with Gone Is Gone and retools his technique for an album and tour with the rejuvenated
At the Drive-In.
Story by Ben Meyer
Photos by Paul La Raia
After spending a few years building his résumé as a film composer, Tony Hajjar is back at home with the post-hardcore favorites At the Drive-In.
The El Paso, Texas, band released three full-length albums and several EPs before calling it quits in 2001. But its influence would be felt long and wide, not least via outfits that were subsequently begun by its former members.
While Hajjar, guitarist Jim Ward, and bassist Paul Hinojos achieved success in the somewhat more accessible Sparta, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez founded the wildly progressive Mars Volta.
But rekindled friendships among the original members resulted in a series of ATDI reunion shows in 2012, which led to further bookings a couple years later and planted the seeds for a new recording.
According to Hajjar, closeness among the bandmates was as key to At the Drive-In’s comeback as it was to its original success. “In 2009 we started hanging out and talking more than usual,” the drummer says. “That was an exciting time for us. We were letting go of a lot of old skin and just remembering what we loved about each other. In 2012 we had the privilege of doing ten shows, which were really fun. Around October of 2015 we met and decided that we don’t just like this band, we love it. It’s where we all cut our teeth. We’ve all been lucky to do a lot of different projects and be successful in them, but this is family. This is home.”
The band members insist that they’ve found a new creative fire in their strong, time-tested relationships. Says Hajjar, “When people ask me, ‘Are you enjoying the reunion?’ I say, ‘I’m enjoying the re-ignition,’ because that’s what it feels like. We’re starting over. People who’ve seen our recent shows can feel it. [Fans] are smart, and they know if you’re cashing in. They’ve seen our shows and say, Oh my God, these guys are all in. And we are.”
In recent years Hajjar has focused much of his creative energy on composing music for the film industry, working with multi-instrumentalist Mike Zarin of the production company Sencit Music. The two have collaborated on several projects, including trailers for Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Zero Dark Thirty. “Mike and I met in 2008,” Hajjar says, “and back then I didn’t even know that music was created specifically for movie trailers. I thought it was just taken from the score. Mike showed me that there’s a whole industry around that, and I started getting into it when he first began writing material with that use in mind. I played drums on all the songs, and our relationship quickly expanded into composing together. We were lucky enough to have a lot of success in that world, and now we’re taking it to another level. This all happened after Sparta; it was kind of a time when I needed to stop touring for my mental health. It was the perfect time for me to be locked up in the studio and then go home every night, but still be artistically [active].”
Today Hajjar’s artistic voice is being expressed in numerous settings. Besides writing material for the next At the Drive-In release, the drummer has been producing and tracking drums for the West Coast band New Language’s forthcoming debut album, and he and Zarin have founded the powerhouse modern-rock unit Gone Is Gone, featuring Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and Mastodon singer/bassist Troy Sanders. While the band’s self-titled eight-track debut EP finds Hajjar slamming as passionately as ever, it also features a couple of instrumental tracks that would sit comfortably on a documentary or feature-film soundtrack.
“This project includes members of three hard-touring bands,” Hajjar says, “so the goal was never to tour for six months out of the year. The idea of the band is to be able to play a show or a festival and then go back into the studio and work on a score for a film, a video game, or a documentary. And we have a lot of new ideas that will hopefully show off our work outside of music. The band needs to live in every kind of format. And that’s the most exciting part for us. Everyone composes, and the EP is just the beginning. There’s a lot more from this band that we’re looking forward to announcing.”
Recently Hajjar undertook the daunting task of overhauling his technique to help heal the physical repercussions of years of touring and self-described poor technique. Attacking his kit with reckless abandon night after night with At the Drive-In took its toll. “I used to play like a caveman,” Tony says, “so I have a lot of tendon issues in my right arm and shoulder. It’s mostly on my right side. I’m left-handed, but I set up like a right-handed player. My right side has really taken a beating over the years. One of my friends saw us recently and said that I was still hitting as hard but I’m mostly using my wrists now. I was glad that someone finally noticed! During the last At the Drive-In tour in 2000, I was getting a cortisone shot every few days and a steroid shot in my right arm just so I could play the shows. I learned my lesson, and to have any real longevity I had to make changes.
“Last year I made the recording of the New Language album my challenge to play full-throttle, as hard as I always do, but to do it with my wrists,” Hajjar continues. “It was a hard adjustment, especially in the studio. You’re trying to be you. But because I was at the helm, I could kind of do it at my own speed. It ended up working out great. I actually began thinking about this in 2008, but I wasn’t really [fully] doing it. Now I feel like I’ve finally achieved it. I’m still in pain, but a lot less.”
This, of course, is good news, especially with At the Drive-In once again in working mode. According to Hajjar, the band has fallen easily into its well-established pattern of writing together collaboratively. “The process is like it always was,” he says, “which is go, go, go! Everyone has ideas. I’ve been lucky as a drummer in that I’ve always been in bands where my ideas count. I purposefully put myself in situations like that. Everyone is writing. Sometimes one of us takes the lead. It could be Paul or it could be Omar. It bounces around depending on who has the vision, then everyone throws in their thing. We have the same respect now for each other that we did back then, if not more. When you have respect for each other when you’re writing, it can only go great.”
With genuine excitement for their current material, the members of At the Drive-In are committing to supporting a new album properly—and reasonably, in terms of accommodating the players’ family commitments—but they aren’t taking anything for granted. “The touring that we’ve been doing is to earn our stripes again,” Hajjar says, “and we’re going to do a whole record cycle. We’re ready to give a lot every night to make sure that each show is special.”
Tools of the Trade
Hajjar plays a Tama Starclassic Bubinga kit in a custom flat black finish, including a 9×13 tom, 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and an 18×24 bass drum, with a 6.5×14 S.L.P. Black brass snare. His Zildjian cymbals include 14″ K Custom Dark hi-hats, a 22″ K ride, a 20″ K Dark crash, a 19″ A Custom Medium crash, and a stack composed of (from the top down) a 6″ FX Zil-Bel, a 6″ Rezo Pang, a 10″ EFX splash, and a 16″ A Custom EFX crash. His Tama hardware includes a Camco single bass drum pedal, an Iron Cobra HH905 hi-hat stand, an HTS108W Star single tom stand, four HC83BW Roadpro boom cymbal stands, and an HS80LOW snare stand. He uses JH Audio JH 11 custom-molded in-ear monitors and a ButtKicker LFE transducer, Remo heads, and Vater Nude 5B sticks.