Friday, August 26, 2011

Airborne Toxic Event interview

courtesy Big Hassle Media

A version of my story originally appeared at 

Upcoming tour dates:
Aug. 26 - Del Mar, CA - Del Mar Racetrack
Sept. 1 - Anchorage, AK - Bear Tooth Theater
Sept. 18 - Austin, TX - Austin City Limits Festival
Oct. 9 - Denver, CO - Fillmore Auditorium
Oct. 10 - Fort Collins, CO - Aggie Theatre
Oct. 12 - Houston, TX - Warehouse Live
Oct. 13 - Dallas, TX - South Side Music Hall
Oct. 14 - New Orleans, LA - Howlin Wolf
Oct. 16 - Pensacola, FL - DeLuna Fest
Oct. 21 - San Francisco, CA - Fillmore
Oct. 23 - Los Angeles, CA - LA Weekly 101 Fest - Gibson Amphitheatre

The Airborne Toxic Event is a band that could definitely be called road warriors.

Over a 16-month period, the Los Angeles alt-rock group did 354 shows to support its impressive self-titled 2008 debut album.

That time frame included a run of 30 consecutive U.K. concerts and culminated with a special hometown performance at LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in December 2009, featuring guests from the local Latino and classical communities. The proceedings were detailed on last year’s excellent, beautifully shot documentary “All I Ever Wanted” and accompanying live CD.

Exhilarating sophomore studio effort “All At Once” arrived this past spring to an equally ambitious schedule: three multiple venue residencies in London, LA and New York.

“Doing it all in one week was surreal,” admitted TATE guitarist/keyboardist Steven Chen in a recent phone interview. “It was really satisfying to go through that whole thing, but grueling.”

“We must have done 25 shows in a row without stopping,” he continued. “It was a crazy experience.”

Formed five years ago, the band came up amid the close-knit and thriving Silverlake music community. After recording several songs earmarked for the first album, “Sometime Around Midnight” found its way onto the playlist of KROQ/106.7 FM (rare for an unsigned group) in early ’08.

Once the powerful L.A. station added it and others around the country followed suit, TATE “got a crash course in music that you have to learn quickly.” U2 bassist Adam Clayton was an early supporter of the single, which went onto sell more than 400,000 copies here and the debut disc moved half that.

Friday, the quintet – also comprised of singer/guitarist and sometimes literary writer Mikel Jollet, bassist Noah Harmon, violinist Anna Bulbrook and drummer Daren Taylor - arrives at Del Mar and performs after the horse race. Do they plan on a few wagers?

“Whenever we play Vegas or Reno, Mikel will either stay longer or go on a run at the tables. For a period of time, he supported himself playing poker. I don’t trust myself with gambling. I play it too safe in all the wrong ways; he’s reckless in all the right ways. He’s really good. I wouldn’t be surprised if he put money on some horses.”

It’s a safe bet to assume fans will be enthralled with “All At Once,” which boasts a more expansive sound and continues to provide major competition for Arcade Fire. The album title refers to Jollet’s losing grandparents and an uncle during the creative process. He wrote several songs revolving around how your life can change in an instant.

From the electronic textures in “Numb,” spirited early Johnny Cash-styled rockabilly of “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing,” quirky high energy stomp “Changing” (think Modest Mouse) and breezy, poppy “Strange Girl” (where Jollet name checks a classic Cure album) to the searing, politically-tinged “Kids Are Ready to Die” (which revisits “Joshua Tree”-era U2 territory) and fiery, accordion-led war denouncement “Welcome to Your Wedding Day,” the band sharply explores different sonic terrain.

The latter tune was inspired by The Clash and news of Afghan nuptials turned deadly via an accidental American Predator drone attack.

“Mikel was writing towards a theme and purposeful in trying to create an album that was cohesive,” explained Chen. “There’s no reason why we wouldn’t continue playing with rhythms and genres. In that way, the second album feels more versatile to me.”

The Calder Quartet, frequent collaborators on stage with TATE, finally provided string section enrichment of three new album tracks. “The more we played with them, the more integral they became to certain songs…watching them in the studio was amazing.

“We knew we had to have them on there,” affirmed Chen. “The songs are beautiful.”

Producer D. Sardy (Oasis, Bush) almost had a “Phil Spector” moment with the guitarist during a minor disagreement. “For some reason, he had a switchblade [knife] lying there. He picked it up and said, ‘the first song; let’s do that one.’ It was a total joke and hilarious, but it made me wonder why he had a switchblade in the production room.”

TATE can be heard doing "Wishing Song" on "Muppets: The Green Album" (Walt Disney Records), covering tunes by the beloved children's characters alongside a stellar crop of contributors (My Morning Jacket, Weezer, OK Go, Alkaline Trio, Matt Nathanson and others). 

"When we first heard about it, we wanted to do it immediately," said the guitarist. "The Muppets are such a part of childhood. If you go back and listen to their songs, they’re funny. From an adult perspective, the comedy holds up." 

Earlier this year, the band appeared in an episode of WB drama “Gossip Girl.”

According to Chen, none of the musicians had any idea what that show was about and hadn’t done anything like that before. After it aired, their popularity among young girls – and previously oblivious relatives - suddenly increased.

“I have cousins who knew I was in a band, didn’t really follow us and all of the sudden were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re on ‘Gossip Girl.’” 

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