For the past half a decade or so LA’s The Airborne Toxic Event has been making a name for themselves with a brand of Rock’N’Roll that is equal parts punk angst and infectious pop (In addition to a well-honed literary background… hence the Don DeLillo-inspired moniker.) and a live show that is just as successful as a rock spectacle as it is a daringly improvised assault of the senses (a balance I’ve only seen executed more expertly by Jane’s Addiction)… I once described the band as the A Clockwork Orange Droogs, as conducted by Butch Walker. The band has garnered the fandom of both the casual, suburban radio listener and the Smiths-obsessed, clichéd music aficionado alike. I recently got a chance to chat with guitarist/keyboardist Steven Chen about the band’s current tour (which includes a May 12th stop at the Susquehanna Bank Center, where they are going to be playing alongside Phoenix, Paramore, Passion Pit, Silversun Pickups, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones for WRFF Radio 104.5’s 6th Birthday Show), along with their third studio LP, Such Hot Blood, which comes out this Tuesday, April 30th, on Island Records.
It’s no surprise that the most impressive thing about The Airborne Toxic Event is their live show, as Chen would lead me to believe that that’s the band’s primary focus: “We’ve gotten used to touring. At this point we’ve done like 800 shows and been in every city.” And when I ask him what he’s most excited about in 2013, he tells me, “We’re looking forward to staying out on the road and getting in front of as many people as we can.” We spend a good deal of time discussing these live shows, what inspires them, and how the best ones seem to play out, which I can tell still thrills the band: “There has to be some element of chaos, like it could end in a disaster, or it could be amazing. You want to keep people dancing and the element of chaos unpredictability. That’s what makes a good rock show.” Chen tells me of the excitement of seeing TATE frontman Mikel Jollett “climbing balconies and scaffolding,” and even of a gig they played on a beach, when Jollett, mid-set, ran into the ocean, followed by 50 or 60 fans… who later followed him back out and back to the frontlines of the performance. Chen admits that they’ve gotten their inspiration for these explosive performances earnestly: “We’ll watch stuff on YouTube all the time of different shows we’ve heard about. We’ll watch old Clash videos and it’s just amazing to see an iconic band do what they do well.”
Chen tells me that the band definitely enjoys both the experience of headlining a sold-out crowd of die-hards, but also playing larger bills, alongside bands they might not otherwise find themselves sharing a stage with, like their upcoming appearance in Camden.
“Our shows are great. We’re playing to die-hard Airborne fans and the first row, second row, third row are singing every single lyric (and there are a lot of lyrics) and have Airborne tattoos, but both kinds of show are good. I think they’re both interesting experiences. This (May 12th) is a great bill. And, in terms of playing with bands that you might not otherwise, it’s a great feeling to have a sense of community, even if you’re not from the same neighborhood, you’re from the same kind of place. You feel like there’s a greater force at work.”
Finally, Chen and I get around to discussing the band’s new album. The album would seem to maintain the band’s “a-bit-heady-but-quite-popular” aesthetic, however a bit more mature and a bit less sassy and playful than earlier releases. He tells me that it was recorded in a very raw manner, much like their debut: “There were a lot more similarities to the way that we recorded our first album, with a band in a room together just playing.” But the biggest change in the band has more to do with their existential outlook. Chen tells me that Jollett, a writer and essayist, known for his, I’ll just say… academically afforded pessimism in regards to humanity (something I’m often accused of), is gaining an at-least-slightly sunnier outlook: “Mikell said he felt less like looking into the darker recesses of his mind… There’s a hopefulness in this album that may have not been in past releases.”