The band formed in El Paso in 1994. Rodriguez, whose father was a salsa musician who had to curtail his ambitions after Omar's unplanned birth, wanted to be part of a Latin dance band like his old man, until he discovered the Beastie Boys' License to Ill At age twelve, he formed his very first band with future ATDI bassist Paul Hinojos. Bixler, whose father teaches Chicano studies at the University of Texas, was a Misfits fans with an intense admiration for performers like James Brown and Jackie Wilson. Bixler and Rodriguez hooked up with guitarist Ward – who footed the bill for their first single, "Hell Paso" – and later with drummer Hajjar, a student who thought the world of Metallica until Bixler and Rodriguez turned him on to punk's do-it-yourself aesthetic.
In their DIY days, ATDI would wake up at 7:30 A.M. and rehearse for nine hours; they sent every new single and demo to punk labels like Dischord and Fat Wreck Chords, hoping for a deal; and they spent so much time building equipment cases that other punk bands made fun of them for being poseurs because they thought ATDI had bought professional cases. Eventually, the group members signed a deal with a local label, Flipside, without reading the fine print, and had to battle and pay their way out to move on up to a slightly larger label, Fearless, where they released two albums.
Slowly they built up a fan base that included Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. They caught the attention of Grand Royal and Ross Robinson, producer of Korn, Limp Bizkit and Slipknot, who begged to work with them. Reluctant at first, the band soon discovered that Robinson was no new-metalhead with a dyed goatee – he was more like a therapist. He would force Bixler to explain each lyric and make the group regress to childhood memories before recording. When ATDI went to record "Invalid Litter Department," about the unsolved murders of women in Juarez, at the Mexican border, Robinson had them imagine that the kick drum was the heartbeat of all the world's missing mothers. Pretentious, perhaps, but effective.
"I haven't talked about this," Hajjar says, "but in that song Ross brought up my mom. She passed away in 1988, and it was a poignant time. I don't know if I should have gone that far when we were recording. Now, every time we play it, I associate the sonq with my emotions about her."
"For me," says Rodriguez, "the emotional links he made with all the songs worked. I did a lot of camping when I was younger to work on my issues as an incest survivor. And there are plenty of things, like breath therapy, that I learned but had never thought to apply to music in the studio. If we do our next record with someone else, I'm not going to sit there and talk about all this stuff that happened to me. But now that I'm conscious of it, I can use it as a tool for myself." For Bixler, the scabs that Ross picked at were the car-crash deaths of two of Bixler's friends from El Paso, Laura Beard and Sarah Reiser, teenagers who were in a band called Fall on Deaf Ears. "I think about them every night," he says. "It just sticks with us now. We always play that song about them – 'Napoleon Solo' – at the end of our sets. Everything we do is in honor of them."
Hajjar says that the band came out of the studio "stronger and closer than we ever were. It was just an amazing time. I can't believe it happened."
"We had sex," says Rodriguez.
Though the group presents itself as a serious-minded collective, cutting up lyrics like William Burroughs, spitting south-of-the-border politics like Rage Against the Machine and, like Fugazi, lambasting slam-dancers, they are at the same time a bunch of shy, humble, silly guys – all raised by strong mothers, according to Ward.
Rodriguez and Bixler are often compared to Sixties Afro-ed revolutionaries the MC5 onstage. But if you straighten out their hair, they are the Wayne and Garth of rock. They recently moved to Long Beach, near L.A., with two friends from El Paso: Mitch, who bags groceries at Ralph's supermarket and teases the pair relentlessly, and Jeremy, who repossesses cars and plays with Rodriguez and Bixler in a dub side project called Defacto. Rodriguez says he prefers the unreality of their home studio, the House of Anikulapo (taken from the late Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti's middle name, which means "he who carries death in his pouch"), to the outside world.
Backstage at the Universal Amphitheater, three-fifths of the band members lock themselves in their dressingroom enclave and get stoned, pick on each other and sing Captain Beefheart songs. When they open the door to fumigate the room, no one is sure what time it is. Bixler predicts that they will see a janitor in the hallway sweeping the floor as the sun rises outside. But instead, they find the tattooed, sweating spectacle of Coby Dick of Papa Roach, who has just walked offstage. Dick freezes when he sees Bixler and then marches up to him. "You guys play with such energy, heart and passion," he says. "It's an inspiration to us. It's an honor to play on the same stage as you."
Then he walks up to Ward and apologizes about the security guards who attacked him when he was in the audience watching the show. No one said being an inspiration was easy work.
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