From Punk to Parent: At the Drive-In Grows Up

”It’s so much bigger than rock n’ roll”

Twenty years ago, drummer Tony Hajjar joined up with four other musicians based in El Paso to form the post-hardcore band At the Drive-In. The group quickly developed a cult following, and became one of the definitive sounds of the genre; after they split up in 2001, band members went on to form Sparta and The Mars Volta.

Now 41 and a married father of three, Hajjar is getting back together with his bandmates for a reunion tour. But the mood behind this tour is much different than their original rebellious, fuck-the-man performances: Proceeds from their second show, held at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, went to Smile Pediatric Therapy and Diagnostics, the nonprofit that Hajjar and his wife, speech therapist Nicole Hajjar, started in 2008.

Smile provides “speech therapy, occupational therapy, feeding therapy, nutritional support services, also autism services, and parent training,” says Nicole, and in August, the organization will move from its current home in Hollywood to a new location in Echo Park.

We caught up with the Hajjars a few hours before At the Drive-In’s March 23 show at the Fonda, and talked about their work in the nonprofit world, getting the band back together, and going from 20-something punk to 40-something parent.

Tell me why you started Smile.
Nicole Hajjar
: It just started with a dream that we were able to materialize. Tony had been traveling pretty exclusively and extensively, and throughout that time, I was going to grad school. Even then, we knew that starting my own place and a clinic where we could really help others was one of our goals.

Tony Hajjar: We know how hard it is to raise a child, and if there’s a child that needs more help than others, we know how difficult that is as well. It’s so much bigger than rock n’ roll and all that stuff. It’s like, you realize that this is seriously helping a child be able to be part of society a little bit better.

You deal with kids whose parents are concerned that they’re not hitting certain milestones, or want help in a given area. Is part of what you do kind of sussing out whether a child is autistic?
NH: Part of what we do is we assess a child and see where the child is at, where they’re developmentally presenting, and then from that point, design a treatment plan and a program alongside the parents. Then we just take it from there. We really do believe each child is fully equipped. They’re beautiful diamond stars, and all we do is help them fly.

I don’t like to say it’s just for children with needs. I feel it’s just for exceptional children, and all we’re doing is helping them release their full potential.

TH: When people visit our clinic — whether it’s a businessperson, or just one of my friends — we bring them in, and they just hear people giggling and laughing. The kids think they’re just playing. That’s the greatest part about it.

It seems like part of it, too, is training for the parents.
NH: Well, anyone who’s ever had a child knows that you’re scared out of your mind. Especially with your first child, and you don’t get a manual. Pediatricians are wonderful. Grandmas are wonderful with their great advice. But just being able to give [parents] an idea of, “This is where your child is now, and this is what we can do to help them get to the next step.”

Those step-by-step, specific instructions that we give a parent really does enable them to become the child’s primary facilitator.

You have three sons. Did this idea kind of take off for you after you had kids?
TH: It was always her dream, but we kind of said, “Okay, we’re going to do this,” when we had our first child. I had stopped touring with my band, Sparta.

NH: And I didn’t have a job.

TH: We weren’t sleeping, we were insane, and we were both unemployed. We always laughed that we’d do these massive endeavors at the worst time possible — we’re going to start a demo, or I’m going to go on tour.

To talk a little bit about the merging of your two worlds, what made you guys decide to do this fundraiser at this particular moment?
: She sat me down one day and said, “You’re in charge of fundraising.”

NH: I said, “You are one of the most humble, strong people that I know, and you can do it.”

TH: Before the band got involved, it was going to be a much smaller venue. The idea was to have this house band, all these different musicians that would just come in and play, and then a comedian, and kids authors and Nicole. My idea was [to play] the Roxie or something like that.

That was the goal. In that process, we were talking about doing more stuff with the band and getting really excited about all these ideas that we were passing around, musically. We had this meeting in El Paso in October, and I wasn’t going to ask. Most people feel really weird asking people for anything — I’m very like that. Our bass player, Paul, goes, “You better bring it up. Everyone’s going to want to do it.”

Even…these were my brothers. I felt weird asking, but I just brought it up. Omar and Cedric were immediately like, “First show.”

That they were on board for the first show, you mean?
TH: They were just like, “Let’s make [the fundraiser] our first show.”

It’s the first time ever that I’ve brought both worlds together. People that know me from the band never knew I had this, and vice versa. We have some therapists [at Smile] that were fans of the band but just didn’t recognize me.

NH: They didn’t see you when we hired them, then they saw you about two weeks later and went, “Oh my gosh, that’s Tony from At the Drive-In. I’ve had a poster of him in my room since I was a teenager.” Then for tonight, so many people too have just come forward and volunteered their time and love and talent.

TH: We’ve got The Butcherettes. We’ve got Tony Kanal from No Doubt, and Davey Havok [from AFI]. Dallas Clayton, the children’s author, is going to read something. A friend of mine, Troy Sanders from Mastodon, sent me one of his custom basses to give away the raffle.We had people just say, “Whatever you want.”

This all kind of feels like, this world that launched At the Drive-In is kind of growing up. Everybody gets what you guys are doing because they have kids, or they’re going to have kids, or their friends have kids.
: Yeah, exactly. That’s a perfect way of putting it. We also wouldn’t have been able to do this if we weren’t in this time of our lives. Mentally, you’re not there at 23.

Everyone is at the same time in their lives again. They just want to do good for this kind of stuff because in the end, there’s nothing more special than these amazing things that pop out of your body, and you love them to death, and you’re like, “Oh my God, I’d do everything for you.”

Will you be performing any new stuff on tour, or is it going to be some more familiar stuff?
: Tonight, no. Tonight we’re kind of building up. There’s this very detailed plan, and tonight will just be stuff that we’ve never played live in our whole careers, but have been on our records, but now feel right. That’s been really fun. We call it “2.0 versions,” and we’re just having fun with the arrangements.

NH: Cedric said it best yesterday. He said, “This isn’t a reunion. It’s more like a re-ignition.”

Do you think there’s another album in the future?
: Absolutely.

Can I ask if there’s a timeline?
: No, there’s nothing like that, but there’s a lot of stuff going back and forth with music, and as these songs become these 2.0 versions, that I’m saying. When they just start becoming old habit, besides all the work we’ve already done on some stuff, sound checks will be writing sessions. That’s how we’ve always done it, so that’s what I’m really looking forward to.