The Airborne Toxic Event is coming to the Majestic Theatre on Friday. I saw them a couple of years ago at St Andrews Hall and while I don't remember who they opened for, I do remember enjoying their music. I recently had the pleasure of talking with keyboardist/guitarist Steven Chen.
We are basically a "rock N roll band with viola" states Chen, the viola belonging to Anna who brings in a nice contrast to the guitar and bass of typical bands. With all the emo and indie bands out there on the market, I feel Airborne has a nice sound and good lyrics which make them stand out a bit from the sameness of a lot of the other bands out there. Musically, the have Anna who is classically trained on the violin (her brother shows it runs in the family as he plays with the Calder Quartet, who frequently play with Airborne) and the jazz influenced Noah on bass. While I’m not sure how much it affects their sound, having such backgrounds usually bears well for a band as it allows them to expand beyond the average range of musicianship. They also challenge themselves by performing concerts with Louisville Orchestra. Chen admits it is intense working with such professionals as each member will deal with different parts of the orchestra. “If there is a keyboard part, I have to adapt it to more of a piano part” and then wonder “how the hell it came to this” when creating something that sounds so wonderful. I did ask and he admits there have been talks with other symphonies but for now we can just see them in their indie glory. I myself would enjoy seeing them with the Detroit Symphony (hint hint) so here’s to wishing.
Chen was introduced to lead singer/guitarist Mikel through a mutual friend and hit it off. It seems that both guys started off as writers with Chen working for different magazines writing about film, food and architecture along with some fiction. Chen admits he was the type to “sit in a room which had something solitary and exploratory about it” constantly consuming info and sometimes obsessively. With Mikal, despite having different styles, they could relate to each other and would frequently stay up all night talking about some inane topic. It was about 5 years later when Mikal came up to Chen and asked him if “don’t you play keyboard or something” which Chen did. They put together the song “Innocence” at this point but Chen preferred guitar and pursued this within the confines of the group.
For two literary guys, one would expect their name to be based on some highbrow novel and while I’m not sure how highbrow the novel “White Noise” by Don DeLillo is, it did win the National Book Award in 1985 and was considered one of the best English Language novels between 1923 and 2005 (and I just got this from the local library to read). It was the 2nd section of the novel which talks about a derailed train which releases a toxic chemical into the air (hence the Toxic Airborne Event). The characters are used to just hearing about such incidents being far away but this event puts everything into perspective for the town folk. Chen feels the band was born “out of this urgency” and the songs from the first album had this “anything can happen” vibe. Here was the chance to do something new that they had never really dreamed of and were not sure where it would take them.
Dorian Lynskey recently wrote a great book called "33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday through Green Day" so when I was listening to some of there songs, I did catch a couple of songs in their catalog that got me thinking about what I read. When asked about these songs, Chen replies simply that songs are "not about preaching but telling stories". Most of their songs, esp the first album, are about relationships (like "Gasoline" or "Does This Mean Your Moving On?") but a few songs stand out for those looking for more depth from a band. The first one was a single release called "Neda". With most protest songs, it comes from seeing something that sets you off (like Neil Young seeing the photos from Kent State for the song "Ohio") and in this case it was the seeing news footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman who was killed during the disputed 2009 presidential election of Mahmoud in Iran. Chen says "everyone in the band was profoundly impacted"as you could see "the life blood going out of her eyes". The "people are like us but under a crazy regime" and this song was a reaction to the personal connectivity they felt. They even worked with Amnesty International to put up a website (http://nedaspeaks.org/) where people could show their support and compassion. Esp moving was seeing pictures of her (Neda's) fellow Iranians, most of who felt the need to obscure their faces for fear of their own life as Chen fond the contributions "very moving" as he was trying to imagine being in a situation where he would have to hide his identity.
On the new album 'All At Once' are a few songs which talk about social issues like the destructive punk impulses looked at in "Kids Are Ready To Die" but the best song is "Welcome to Your Wedding Day" which was penned in response to the Deh Bala wedding party bombing by US fire. They feel some people might feel the song is anti-US but it really is about wondering if actions like the bombing can ever bring peace. It helps to talk about it and one needs to hold oneself accountable for every action, even the bad ones. This is definitely a powerful song and a highlight of the new album. Where they look at their debut album as "a greatest hits of their live songs" since they were performing a lot of songs prior to releasing the album so they were able to mine the best for the album. This time around they were "more purposeful and explored bigger themes". Chen says it was important to have a real album that is connected and tells a story. It is up to the audience to see if this worked.
The band is looking to tour the next 5 months with lots of summer shows. The band really enjoys touring and meeting with their fans so make sure to let them know if you appreciate them. Chen mentions that they are always looking for new places to play and that if they see a lot of requests for a particular area, they will look into playing there. Just one of the perks of the computer age! As I cut the interview short, I did ask Chen if the band does like to get out and see the towns they play in. They said they try, esp in Europe where a recent concert in Amsterdam allowed him to see the Anne Frank house. The band seems well-rounded enough to have some staying power and are grounded enough to keep it real for their fans and connecting with them. Feel free to checkout more info about the band at http://www.theairbornetoxicevent.com/ and make sure you take the opportunity to see them this Friday at the Majestic.