TONY HAJJAR Talks About The Creation Of AT THE DRIVE-IN’s First Album In 17 Years

AT THE DRIVE-IN (Live at the O2 Academy, Newcastle, U.K., March 10, 2018)
Photo: Mick Burgess

It’s taken 17 years between albums but At The Drive-In are firing on all cylinders. Mick Burgess called up drummer Tony Hajjar ahead of their UK tour to talk about the new album and forthcoming tour as well as discussing his involvement in the Smile and Wonder children’s charity.

You’re over in the UK in March for your latest UK tour. Are you looking forward to getting back over here?

Yes, I definitely am looking forward to it. We’ve been on a break since November and we’re really excited to be playing again. We just want to get back at it and play some shows especially those cities that we haven’t been able to hit on the road yet.

You were here last year opening for Royal Blood playing arenas but you’re back in the clubs for your own headlining tour. Do you find the atmosphere in the clubs generates more of an atmosphere for your shows?

I think it depends. Sometimes they can both be good or they can both be bad. To headline our shows though is a great feeling and we can play the sets that we want to play to our own fans.

It’s been a long time since we saw you headlining a UK tour. What can your fans expect from you on this tour?

We want to go out and play our full show. We’ll play some from our new record Inter Alia and we’ll do one or two from our new EP, Diamante. We’re excited at having new stuff to play while at the same time we’ll hit the old stuff too, so there’ll be a good mix of songs in this set.

Do you still get a buzz from touring?

We love travelling. For us it’s not just about playing shows, you have to love the travel too and living out of a suitcase. To hit a new place is always really exciting for us.

Do you get much time to get out and have a look around while you’re here?

It really depends on the day, what’s going on and how tired you are from the night before but I try my best to get out and search for good food or something to see. I try my best to be a tourist when out on the road.

Your latest album Inter Alia was released a few months ago. Are you pleased with the reaction it’s received?

We’ve been able to release a full-length record and an EP in 2017 so we’re really proud to have been able to release both things in less than a year. We’re definitely excited about the reaction. Inter Alia has been received really well by our fans. We worked really hard on that record so it’s nice to know that the fans really liked it.

It’s been 17 years since your last one, Relationship of Command. How does At The Drive-In 2017 compare to that of 2000?

I think we’re still the same band. Our personalities haven’t changed and I think the only thing that has really changed is that we play our instruments better now. We still have the same passion for our music. We’re still lively, powerful and energetic on stage and I think for the most part that’s all that matters. We really enjoy being together and I think that really shows on the album.

Why did you decide now was the right time for a new album?

I think everything just fell into place. When we met up in October 2015 we said that whoever crosses the line is committed to touring and to recording as much music as possible and we have accomplished that goal of that one talk back in 2015. It’s exciting when you can make a plan and see it through to fruition.

It’s the first album done with Keeley Davis on guitar. Why did Jim Ward decide to leave the band?

To be honest with you, I don’t know what happens in people’s lives at times but sometimes people just don’t want to do something any more. We were lucky enough to record music with Keeley, who is just as passionate. I’ve known Keeley for many years so when we needed someone to come in and step into Jim’s shoes, I knew Keeley was right for us.

How has he fitted in to the band since he joined?

He’s been so natural in sitting back and figuring things out in a project that he hasn’t been a part of until recently. To have that ability to come into an established band and work in this way is very special. He is totally unique. Keeley let us be who we are but really gave his heart and soul into the writing and recording of the music. That’s a very fine line to walk in a band where the other four people have been together forever.

Does having a new member change the dynamics of the band?

It does shake things up a bit and Keeley is a naturally excited guy so sometimes that rubs off on us too and we think, hey, this is awesome. To have that energy is sometimes much needed. We come with a lot of baggage but he knows how to fit in with that. We’re having so much fun together and I think that seeps through into our record.

Has he changed your approach to songwriting?

No, not really. He’s pretty much fitted into our way of writing. The only thing he’s really had to adjust to is that we work extremely fast and we almost read each other’s minds and that’s difficult for someone coming into this band as we were writing a million miles per hour because we have that innate communication but by the end he had it figured out.

What issues have happened during that time that have inspired you to write?

At The Drive-In have always adopted a subliminal message in general where we might broach four or five subjects in one song and you won’t even realise it. On Inter Alia, in our own way, we talk about politics, organised religion, we talk about abuse and we look at things that we never hit upon in our old records. It’s almost like science fiction meets reality and the Diamante EP is a continuation of that.

Was Diamante a collection of outtakes from the Inter Alia sessions or were these new recordings for this EP?

They were literally fresh, written and recorded on the spot for the EP. They were really spontaneous and were all done really quickly. We tend to work on our ideas quickly. If we haven’t worked an idea through in a few days we throw it away and move onto something else. Why waste time on an idea that doesn’t work. We just make a decision and go.

How did your producer, Rich Costley, who’s worked with the likes of Muse, react to the speed at which you work?

Rich was surprised at how quickly we work. He’s used to spending 7 or 8 days getting the drum sound right. I like to have all of my drum parts recorded and done in that time. It became our joke, let’s just do it. After all, what do you remember about a record? Is it that there’s 8 mics around the kick drum or is it the passion and feel of the music? That’s really what matters. I’ve been lucky enough to work with like minded people and of course we want our records to sound great but I like to work with people who want to start something and finish it and this way works for us and we still of course get the sound that we want, we just don’t spend all our time getting it.

As a band you split originally back in 2001 then reunited in 2012 before splitting again. Why did you decide to get back together again in 2016?

When we did the shows in 2012 we said we’d just do 10 shows with no pressure. People thought that we only did 10 shows and didn’t get along but that was the complete opposite. We did 10 shows then stopped, but not to stop forever but reassess what we were going to do. That’s what we did but at that point there was some inner turmoil between Omar and Cedric that we didn’t proceed further at that time but the door was always left open. Then in February 2014 we were all back on the same page and we jammed for two or three weeks and we recorded a whole lot of stuff that never got released and none of those songs were part of Inter Alia. Jim at that point wasn’t ready so we stopped again. Fast forward to October 2015 Cedric called me and asked what it’d take to do this again. I just said dedication and that was it. Everyone was of the same mind except Jim who didn’t really want to go forward with it but we were lucky that we had Keeley who did and we were back on track although we were nearly derailed again but worked it through.

Do you think that friction gives the band its creative spark?

I think that’s definitely a vibe we give off but I think there’s always something different about us in a room together compared to us in a room with different musicians. There’s a positive anxiety that is there when we record and when we play live and it’s a driving force behind our sound and gives us that edge.

You’ve been back together almost 2 years now and recorded a new album and toured a fair bit. Do you hope that this time At The Drive-In remains a long-term prospect or will you just see how it goes?

The way we look at it is exactly the way we are doing it. It’s not just a go and play some shows then go home type of thing. We are starting year three of this now so after this year we’ll take a break and hopefully get back together with some new music and continue like that. We’re really enjoying each other and we’re excited to continue.

You’re closely involved in the Smile and Wonder charity. How did you first become involved with them?

In 2008 my wife and I were about to have our first son. The band was on a hiatus at that time and I asked my wife what she would like to do. She is a therapist and she wanted to start her own company. I said I’d figure out the business end and let her do something she was passionate about. We started with one client now we have grown to 400 clients. Almost 10 years later we’ve been able to help thousands of children. We’ve helped children with many issues from mild stutters or where they can’t say the letter “r” right through to more extreme cases. Even though I don’t come from that world I am a firm believer that amazing therapy can shape a child’s life so that they don’t have issues when they’re older. Being an outsider to this world, I help when I can. It’s so gratifying to see all the therapists giving so much help to these children. We cover speech therapy, occupational therapy and autism services. It’s a big project and we believe in it and it’s a real passion of ours.

A few days ago, there was a major art event in aid of the charity. How did that go?

That was great. I’m so lucky to play in two bands that are willing to give their time and effort to my other passion. At The Drive-In, in 2016, donated the proceeds of a show in Los Angeles to Smile and Wonder. This year Gone Is Gone, a band I’m in with my great friends Troy Sanders from Mastodon and Troy Leeuwen from Queens of the Stone Age, did a very atmospheric and cinematic set at the latest event. This event was based around art. We got a whole load of great artists to donate and there was some beautiful work. It was a wonderful night and we raised a lot of money for the charity and I can’t thank my bandmates, artists and all of those people who were involved and gave their time enough. We’ve done it every other year so far but I’d really like to do it every year if I can. It’s really neat when artists, musicians and actors put their life to one side to help out such a good cause. I challenge myself every year to do something interesting to help the project.

Outside of At The Drive-In and your charity work do you have time for any other projects?

I compose for a lot of movie trailers and I’ve done music for video games too. I did the music for a game called Splinter Cell a few years back. I love composition and it keeps me really busy. I try to do something creative as much as I can but with At The Drive-In and Gone Is Gone as well as working with Smile and Wonder they take up much of my time so I try to still make time to be a decent Dad and a decent husband.

Your tour ends on 15th March in Glasgow is that you finished in Europe for now?

We’ll be back in July to do some festivals and we’re all really excited about that but we’re really looking forward to these upcoming UK shows first. We’ll be touring a fair bit but not as much as last year which was a really intense year of touring and work for us.

At The Drive-In tour the UK starting on 9th March at the Brixton Academy in London and ending on 15th March at the O2 Academy, Glasgow.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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