Laying it bare: The Airborne Toxic Event
As they bring their acoustic sessions to Britain, the LA band discuss laying themselves on the line, their new DVD and maturing for their second album.
The Airborne Toxic Event don’t do aloof. The ballads that dominated their self-titled debut album – charting frontman Mikel Jollett’s breakup with his former girlfriend – are honest and forthright. Why would the band be any different?
Returning to the UK to celebrate the release of their first DVD- All I Ever Wanted- the Californian quintet could be forgiven for feeling a bit more like rock stars. They’ve built up a strong following of committed fans both sides of the Atlantic and have just played one of America’s finest music venues.
But, after two years of relentless touring as their self titled debut album went viral, they are used to talking about the trials and tribulations of their progression from touring in a transit van to hosting the British premiere of their first documentary at one of the country’s top independent film festivals.
The Pleasance is the perfect setting for first night of their maiden acoustic tour in Britain. In August, it is the hub of the world’s biggest arts festival, hosting some of the biggest names on the comedy circuit on an hourly basis. For the rest of the year, it is a students’ union, hosting sports science students nursing a cheap pint after a days work. It’s not especially glamorous, but it’s both intimate and welcoming.
This brief visit is about going back to basics, offering something different that reflects the setting. The band’s followers will be well accustomed to the high-octane intensity that has come to personify their shows. But more versed fans will also know about their youtube acoustic sessions- one take, one frame, unplugged versions of the tracks on their album. This foray is about bringing stripped down musical talent to the fore.
“It’s different,” says Mikel. “You can say things with a whisper or a shout. It’s easy to slam on a distortion pedal and just scream, but not so much to have a song that doesn’t require tones of production.
Among their five members are Anna Bulbrook and Noah Harmon- both classically trained musicians – Anna normally found playing violin or viola at the band’s shows, whilst Noah switches between bass guitar and acoustic double bass.
“I’m really fond of being able to have these quiet moments where Anna will play some beautiful lines on viola and we get some upright bass going- I really missed those moments on two years of crazy loud Airborne touring.”
Crazy and loud may be the thing they are best associated with (if you’ve been to an Airborne Toxic gig where one of the band didn’t jump off an amp, you’re in the minority). But this tour and the show that is the focus of their new DVD are quite different.
It was two years of touring on the back of their first album that persuaded the band to delve deeper into their bag of tricks. On returning to Los Angeles in December last year, their homecoming show had to be a bit different.
They got to work on preparing a show that would bring what Mikel calls “something special” to the newly refurbished Walt Disney Music Hall- east LA’s grandest music venue, which recently underwent a multi-million dollar refurbishment. Used to hosting the LA philharmonic, it is considered to have among the best acoustics in the world. That one concert, drummer Daren Taylor says, “took more work than any other show.”
Mikel continues: “The fact that our stupid little rock band was asked to play it was a huge honour. We really wanted to live up to it- we had one fucking record, how were we gonna play a gig of this magnitude?
“We decided to involve as much of he local community as possible- we had a children’s choir from East LA, we got dancers from LA, and we got a marching band from a high school down the street.
“We tried to turn it into something that wasn’t really about us, but just kind of about our ability to create an event for the people that were there. It wasn’t so much a question of ‘come look at us’, but ‘here’s what we can all create if we work at it.”
The Calder string Quartet playing the intro to ‘Wishing Well’ and the two-minute brass band build-up to ‘Does This Mean You’re Moving On’ show how well the band’s tracks work with wider musical accompaniment.
Combined with the striking reality of ‘Sometime Around Midnight’ and ‘This Losing’ (I admit to them that I feel like we’ve all been through the same break-up), the DVD is a showcase of the Airborne Toxic’s diverse talent and their ability to sing about young relationships as well as anybody else.
But there’s also that something new that they need to do for themselves. In contrast to the appealing reality of the first album, the past two years have been spent together on a bus. How will they keep that emotion, so characterizing of band, alive for their second album?
“I felt very conscious that this wasn’t going to be some stale second record that isn’t moving,” says Mikel.
“The title track is about dying and losing family members. We have two songs about being on tour; the sense of displacement and how you really long for things you never thought you would.
“There are some very strong ideas and passions to be found in these things as much as there is in a really though break-up with a girl. I agree with you- people like the Airborne because of that sense of connection and hard times, being honest with yourself about how difficult things were is really refreshing. The new record does that in spades.”
Darren chips in: “The new album is sort of a step in the way of maturity I guess. It’s a step away from what we did on the first album, but still related.”
And it will be accompanied by another acoustic series- the band are already planning how to keep the raw edge with their new material.
“We’re going to do a project called the bombastic which is going to be a series of web videos- one frame, one shot. There’s something honest about it. The hard thing is to just stand there and play your song.
“Everybody fakes it and you live in a world where everyone is faking it really well. So we’re like, let’s do something you can’t fake and one bombastic we’re going to do the same thing as the acoustic series, but larger productions.”
The band’s name is taken from the second part of Don DeLilo’s ‘White Noise’, a novel where there is so much information in society, it’s not clear what is real. For Mikel, their routes won’t be forgotten.
“The reason we called ourselves this is because of the cloud in the novel that comes in and is a metaphor for the oversaturation of information and simplification. In the face of that, we’re just trying to sing some honest songs.
“We’re not about posturing but much more just serving music and sharing a moment. That’s always been the idea.”