Influenced by the likes of Pink Floyd, Fugazi, Bad Brains and The Smiths, the band was founded in 1993 by guitarist Jim Ward and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. At the Drive-In's first studio recording was Hell Paso (Western Breed), an EP issued in 1994. They played their first live show on October 15, 1994 at the Loretto High School Fair in El Paso, Texas. The band's reputation for hard work, the release of their album Relationship of Command, and their minor hit radio single "One Armed Scissor" (which had a music video in circulation on MTV) gave the band positive attention in the rock press towards the end of their career. The band's first nationally televised performance was on FarmClub, a now defunct television show which aired late at night on the USA network. After that performance they also appeared on Later with Jools Holland, Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Late Show With David Letterman, performing "One Armed Scissor" on national television.
At the Drive-In were noted by the music press for the afros of Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López. The hairstyle became synonymous with the pair's image, which was aesthetically reminiscent of late sixties group The MC5. However, the two have been very vocal about image: Cedric once explained to a crowd, "I'm not the only guy in the band; you don't have to take pictures of me all the time. There's Jim, there's Paul, there's Tony. Just 'cause they don't have curly hair doesn't mean they're not important."
According to some sources, At the Drive-In struggled to recreate their intense live experience in the studio. At one point they tried to circumvent this problem by recording their second album, In/Casino/Out (1998), as a live studio album.
In January 2001, At the Drive-In traveled to Australia for the Big Day Out. While performing in Sydney, they left partway through their set after telling the spectators in attendance to calm down and observe the safety rules against moshing. After the refusal of the crowd, frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala told the crowd, “You're a robot, you're a sheep!” and bleated at them several times before the band left the stage around 15 minutes into their set. "I think it's a very, very sad day when the only way you can express yourself is through slam-dancing," he proclaimed. Later that day, teenager Jessica Michalik died of asphyxiation during a crowd surge in the now infamous Limp Bizkit Big Day Out set.
Later in 2001, at the peak of their popularity and following a world tour, At the Drive-In broke up, initially referring to the split as an "indefinite hiatus." The band played their last show at Groningen's Vera venue on February 21, 2001. A combination of excessive hype, relentless touring, artistic differences, and Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala's drug habits all contributed to the demise of the band.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala took responsibility for the breakup of the band, saying repeatedly in interviews that he felt almost as if At the Drive-In was holding him back, and that he didn't want his music to be confined to 'punk' or 'hardcore' – that it should encompass many different genres and be even more progressive, alternative, and "against-the-grain." Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez had stated that they wanted their next album to sound like Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, while the other members of the band were intent on progressing in a more alternative rock direction.
Following the break-up of At the Drive-In, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez started The Mars Volta. This project was a departure from their previous work, as it pursued the progressive rock sound that they had been interested in. Meanwhile, the other members of At the Drive-In – Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos, and Tony Hajjar – started the more traditional band Sparta. Hinojos has since left Sparta to join Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez in The Mars Volta.
Although heavily influenced by post-hardcore in the vein of Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, and particularly, Nation of Ulysses, there is a strong progressive rock influence as well. Additionally, ethnic musical styles such as Latin Salsa and Lebanese Chaabi also feature heavily into At The Drive-In's sound. Furthermore, on the Vaya EP and their album Relationship of Command, the band incorporated elements of electronica and dub into their sound. Like At the Drive-In, contemporaries such as Les Savy Fav and The Dismemberment Plan were also experimenting with those same sounds within the context of art punk around the same time. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala's lyrics are renown for their surreal, cryptic quality and usage of a wide vocabulary. Although At the Drive-In's lyrics have been interpreted as political, specifically leftist, in nature, Bixler-Zavala has been quoted as saying "We're not Communists, we're not pinko... we can't be, 'cause you pay to come and see us and we sell t-shirts at our gigs".