Pierced: The Bird and the Arrow

Posted: April 17, 2014 in A Little Less Profound
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TATE BirdBy Glen

More than almost any modern day band that comes to mind, The Airborne Toxic Event has become synonymous with an unmistakable graphic image – and an unsettling one at that. A bird, blood spewing forth from a wound where an arrow has pierced its side, bravely flying on… at least for now.

The injured fowl made its first appearance on the cover of the group’s self-titled debut album, in the empty sky over a decrepit tree that is itself seemingly hovering somewhere between death and life.

On album two, All At Once, the bird is consigned to the inside of the liner notes, where it can be found in a happier state: no arrow or blood to be seen. And indeed, TATE’s bird is not always depicted in a state of near-death; numerous band t-shirt and poster designs (not to mention a huge tattoo on the singer’s arm) feature birds in full flight and apparently in the prime of life.

But in early 2013, the release of the death-tinged single “Timeless” heralded the return of the iconic bird-and-arrow. In fact, it would come back more prominently than ever, featuring not just in the cover artwork for “Timeless,” but also the teaser, 4-song The Secret EP and the album, Such Hot Blood.

And then came the doomed bird’s shining moment: the Such Hot Blood tour. Not only was the familiar logo emblazoned on the primary tour t-shirt, but it was also brought to life as a massive, haunting presence poised above the musicians as they performed, supplemented by barren trees placed around the stage to bring the band’s defining visual aesthetic into the live show in a way that hadn’t been done previously.

The Bird and the Arrow. Photo by Gail Lichtman, 2013.

The Bird and the Arrow. Photo by Gail Lichtman, 2013.

Much like early Christians adopted a grisly tool of execution as their chosen symbol, fans of The Airborne Toxic Event have embraced this unlikely, macabre image as their own identifying mark, proudly wearing it on clothing, painting it on umbrellas and faces – and for a few brave souls, even inscribing it permanently on their bodies. Nothing says “I’m committed” like tattooing a huge, bloody bird on your bicep.

But what exactly does it mean, this gnarly icon? Is it a symbol of death, life, hope, hopelessness, struggle, perseverance – or all of the above?

One might think that a band as exacting as Airborne would have a clear interpretation in mind for an image that has become so foundational to the identity of the group. But if they do, they’re keeping it to themselves. In numerous interviews and fan Q&A’s with various band members, they have consistently shied away from assigning a definitive meaning to the logo. Mikel once explained that they thought it was a really cool image, but we (the fans) have to tell them what it means.

It’s similar to the approach they’ve taken with their name, about which guitarist Steven Chen says, “I like the idea of our name. I’d like our band to be like that – an event. Not in terms of fame or anything like that, but just this thing, this event, that happens, and what it means isn’t entirely clear at first. Something that intrigues you and grows in meaning the more you think about it.”

One would imagine that the bird does in fact mean something to them, but it seems they are content to let us interpret it for ourselves. And we fans have been more than happy to do so, positing a number of theories on message boards, Facebook threads, and in countless GA line discussions.

One key to discerning the meaning is to know that the bird is a raven – an artistically stylized one, but a raven nonetheless. Given that information, TATE forum member Pink postulates, “I feel pretty certain that it references Edgar Allen Poe’s poem (“The Raven”) where the protagonist is lamenting his lost love. Maybe Mikel is saying that by forming the band and writing about lost love, he is killing the raven, ending its hold on him.”

Forum member JoeWhiting, meanwhile, provides some context for this choice of bird: “The raven is a harbinger of death, as when Lady Macbeth says ‘The raven himself is hoarse who croaks the news of Duncan’s fatal entrance under our battlements.’ I see the image of the arrow as ‘killing death.’ By writing about death as he does, I see Mikel immortalizing life.”

Others get less hung up on taxonomy and focus on the bigger picture, as when blogger Julie Stoller suggests, “Those leafless winter trees and the injured bird who flies bravely on despite being pierced through by one of life’s arrows are a metaphor for the band’s central theme of enduring hardship and dancing through disaster.”

In parsing what it means to me, I begin with the themes that swirl through the band’s work. Singer/songwriter Mikel Jollett explains what they’re all about as a musical entity:

I was living in a really dark time – it’s weird. Being in a rock band, or at least one like Airborne, you’re sharing with everyone your psychic life or your dream life, and I had a lot of things to worry about. My mom getting sick pretty much scared the shit out of me. But at the same time, when I started coming around, I had that moment where you realize that, you know, “Life is short and I’m going to die, but I’m alive now!” You know? “I’m in a rock band! I wanna sing, I wanna jump around. We’re all gonna die, so let’s get drunk and dance.” Life’s sad, it’s beautiful, it sucks, it’s awe-inspiring, all at the same time, and we just try to reflect that or capture that in our music and our live shows.

So much of Airborne’s music is about what it means to live in light of the certainty that we are going to die. Human beings are unique among earth’s creatures in our awareness of our own mortality, and that colors how we approach life.

I think of all those other TATE images, where the bird is alive and well – and completely unsuspecting of the fact that it will soon be struck by an arrow. Unlike that blissfully ignorant bird, we know that day is coming for us, sooner or later. We might forget from time to time, even for long periods of time, but the inevitable tragedies of life provide a stark reminder. What difference does that make in how we live and love today?

When I gaze upon the arrow extruding from the bird’s flesh, blood raining down around it, it’s a reminder of how the story ends, and the bumps along the way. In truth, we will be pierced many times throughout our lives – by sickness, by troubles, by loss. Most of the wounds aren’t fatal, but they all leave a mark. And one day, that final arrow will fly. Whether it will find its mark tomorrow or 50 years from now, I can’t say, and I can’t control.

But what I can control is how I live today – and tomorrow – and every day until that day. And today can be a party – a dance – a rock show – if I choose to make it one.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic Event Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.

  1. I’ve always wondered about the origins of this little bird. I was going to get it as a tattoo last year, and I’m still considering it. A wonderful insight, thank you.

    I’m a huge fan of TATE, and I’ve just recently discovered this gem of a website. I’m looking forward to reading way back!


  2. […] idea of living with an awareness of death is arguably the thematic core of The Airborne Toxic Event’s early work. Those of us who are […]


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