The Airborne Toxic Event: Hell and Back

In storytelling, it’s all about the secrets. If you start with, “it was a rainy day at the beach,” I will just fall asleep. I want to know what happens at the bar when it’s 1 a.m. and you’re five pints in and telling your best friend about something that’s really happened. That’s where the good stuff is.


I like Mikel Jollett’s description of the “good stuff” and where it comes from. The lead singer of the Airborne Toxic Event is no stranger to plumbing the depths of souls and surfacing with a story — before he became a songwriter, he was a Stanford psychology major and a writer (with a short story published in McSweeney’s). Three albums in, the Airborne Toxic Event has shown what kind of magic can happen when a wordsmith starts a rock band with his drummer friend (Daren Taylor), a classically-trained violinist (Anna Bulbrook), a jazz bassist (Noah Harmon), and a guitarist (Steven Chen) who Mikel met when both lived in San Francisco. Even before delving into the songs, you get a sense of the literary cred from the name of the band — it’s out of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (and I think this is inspiration, not pretension).

Steven's guitar pick and my battered copy of White Noise.
Steven’s guitar pick and my battered copy of White Noise.
At the 9:30 Club on May 9, 2013 -- the second of two sold-out shows.
At the 9:30 Club on May 9, 2013.

I’ve seen the Airborne Toxic Event twice (the first time at the 9:30 Club, when Kodaline opened), and I still can’t get enough of them. Their biggest hit is “Sometime Around Midnight,” a heart-on-sleeve song that sweeps you along in its currents of emotion. (I find myself posting acoustic versions of songs, but the official music video is here.)

Anna’s violin and Noah’s bass (which he plays with a bow) provide an introduction that communicates a yearning — the initial upward stretch in the notes is quickly pulled down to earth, and the strings seem to sigh before fading out (the very beginning made me think of a Beethoven string quartet). The scene opens: “As you stand / under the bar lights / and the band plays some song about forgetting yourself for a while / And the piano’s this melancholy soundtrack to her smile / And that white dress she’s wearing, you haven’t seen her for a while.” (I keep wondering if there’s some self-referential dark humor here — allusions to real-life situations when this song comes on in the background at the moment you accidentally bump into your ex at a party.)

The song and story unfold, each verse accompanied by another layer of instrumentation and more pronounced percussion, and the energy builds until Mikel’s singing reaches a point of irrepressible passion, giving voice to all the memories that “come rushing like feral waves through your mind.” The next lines — “And she leaves / With someone you don’t know / But she makes sure you saw her, she looks right at you and bolts” — are delivered with a trace of a growl, the aggression crackling beneath the surface. The song reaches an apex when the strings and drums and bass and vocals converge in a feverish swirl of sound: “You walk under the street lights, and you’re too drunk to notice that everyone is staring at you / You just don’t care what you look like, the world is falling around you.” Unlike typical rock hits, “Sometime Around Midnight” does not have a chorus or a “hook” — but it hooks you nonetheless. How Airborne Toxic Event manages to craft a song that is so epic in sound and vulnerable in sentiment — it’s some sort of voodoo with sound waves.

Noah and Anna
Anna and Noah, Ram’s Head (Baltimore, MD)
And you feel like something / Is about to begin / But you don’t know what / And you don’t know when… — Wishing Well (Mikel’s first song)

I could go on for pages about my favorite songs, but “Hell and Back” is the one I’ve picked for today, because it’s Halloween and the devils and ghouls are out. I like the harmonies and the fact that Anna’s voice is more prominent. And it somehow makes sense that the song is built around a melody that got stuck in Mikel’s head during an 1,800 mile ride from Omaha to Los Angeles — I’m picturing the Rockies, going 90 mph on a bike, nights sleeping in the dirt on BLM primitive camp sites. The song has a raw quality and pulsing energy, offset by the instrumental break around 1:28 — there’s something oddly catchy in that high-pitch, slightly distorted synth.

“Hell and Back” doesn’t really need explanation — haven’t we all been there, giving someone just one more chance, even though we know it will end as it always has before? “I felt the stinging ragged cold of the devil’s hot embrace / And I knew it well …”

The song is on the soundtrack to Dallas Buyers Club, a movie based on the true story of the struggle to get HIV treatment in the 1980s and one man’s creation of a drug-smuggling ring to import medicine. The movie looks terrific and the soundtrack promises to be fun (in addition to Airborne Toxic Event, there’s Fitz and the Tantrums, The Naked and Famous, Cold War Kids, AWOLNATION…) So listen to the song first and then go see the movie, which opens nationwide tomorrow.

The Airborne Toxic Event sounds great recorded, but their live shows blow me away. Mikel climbs things (tall things — dangerous things). Anna hops onto Noah’s shoulders while shaking a tambourine. The encores are rollicking good fun, usually including some mashup of “Missy” with Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues”) and/or the Clash (“I Fought the Law”) and/or Springsteen (“Born in the USA”) and/or whatever strikes their fancy. So do yourself a favor and see them live sometime. In the meantime, happy listening, and Happy Halloween — these guys are a real treat.

Addendum: It’s now November 1, but I’m going to count this as a Halloween post. I’m up at 3:30 a.m. because my building fire alarm keeps going off. Bugger.

Author: Vivian Wang

A gal with a camera and a penchant for deconstructing lyrics. Know of a band I should be listening to? Need press or concert shots? Let's chat: [at] gmail [dot] com.

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