Off the Cuff: The Airborne Toxic Event Embraces Electro-pop with “Wrong”

Posted: October 3, 2014 in A Little Less Profound
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From The Airborne Toxic Event's Facebook page: Anna Bulbrook and Mikel Jollett in studio for the world premiere of

From The Airborne Toxic Event’s Facebook page: Anna Bulbrook and Mikel Jollett in studio for the world premiere of “Wrong.”

By Glen

Continuing in our tradition of quick, off the cuff reviews of new music by The Airborne Toxic Event, here are some (relatively) brief thoughts after the world premiere of “Wrong,” the first single from TATE’s fourth album, scheduled for an early 2015 release. The track debuted today on Philadelphia’s Radio 104.5.

Let’s back up a bit. Earlier this year, in an interview with Darren Rose, Mikel Jollett made some strong claims about where the band was headed next:

A lot of the things that I put on for Airborne is a certain aspect, or a certain type of music. I’ve generally written massive stuff, from bedroom pop to acoustic ballads, to huge rock songs, to straight up dance songs. With Airborne I tend to take a slice of this and put it out. On this next record, I think we’re going to be sort of widening the breadth of that, to put out a wider array of music. I guess I feel like it doesn’t matter as much to me what we sound like. I kind of want to destroy the sound of the band. That’s kind of my goal on this next record, is just completely explode any expectations we or anyone else has about what we sound like… I feel that way right now about Airborne… If people aren’t mad about this next record, I’ll feel like I failed.

Everything’s in tune… I think our core fans that are really familiar with the breadth of things that we’ve done won’t be terribly surprised. They’ll be like, “Oh yeah, it’s just a little bit more on this front, and a little bit more on this front. But, I think, to have a whole record that really goes there. I think it’s going to be a much longer record. We’re always like, “10 songs and that’s an Airborne record,” and each song is really meticulously crafted. I’m trying to meticulously craft a really large amount of music right now for this next record… I really want to bury the past…

When I sit down to write something, in a few days I can get really close to what a finished product is gonna sound like. And doing that has forced me to make a lot more choices that I used to leave up to chance… I’m producing the next record, completely; I’m not even bringing in another producer at all, and it’s forced me to make choices that I wouldn’t normally have had to make. It’s also massively meticulous, every single effect, every single thing, trying to get it right. But then what’s good about that is I really have to own it; I really have to think through what I want this thing to sound like. And even the really weird stuff… when you want something to be really weird, if something’s going to work, the details have gotta be fucking right, because if they’re not it just doesn’t. And sometimes translating that to other people or to a producer can get in the way of that… This is all kind of an experiment; it’s unfolding in real time…

I want it to sound like how I want it to sound, ’cause whatever decision I made at 3 am after ten hours of wrestling with how a kick drum should sound at this part of a song, or how much reverb the vocals should have or what the compression rate should be on the fuckin’ keyboard or whatever it is, I trust that decision. I don’t want to redo it later, and I don’t want someone else to redo it…

I’m going through the same process now, and I didn’t on the last two records, that I did on the first record, except for with a ton more tools. We didn’t have a producer, so I just produced it… And I didn’t think that much about what our sound was, because we weren’t known for a sound… And that’s kind of where I’m at now, where everything’s in play. I don’t care: if I like it, it’s in play. We might have pop songs on the next record. I wrote one yesterday – I don’t know if I’ll put that one on – but I don’t care. Whatever works. And sometimes it’s a country shuffle, and sometimes it’s a rock song, and sometimes it’s a dance song, and sometimes it’s kind of a low-fi… I’ve been using a lot of boutique 78 beats and 808’s lately, but I’ll do things to them so they sound kind of cool. There’s not going to be a ton of drumming on the next record. I mean, Daren’s gonna definitely play a bunch of stuff, but we’re gonna sort of mix it together with stuff that’s programmed… I just don’t care. I don’t care about protecting a particular aesthetic…

Fan reaction at the time ranged from trepidation to unbridled enthusiasm. Some wondered how seriously to take this, and how different the next record would truly sound.

Some light was shed in August and September with the live premieres of three new songs: “Dope Machines” and “California” at Boonstock and other festivals, and “Wrong” on the first night of the San Francisco residency. In all three cases, what was presented on stage was a step away from the traditional sound of The Airborne Toxic Event, but not so large a step as to be unrecognizably TATE, and certainly not enough to make anyone mad, as far as I’m aware.

What today’s premiere makes clear is that the live renditions we’ve witnessed thus far are really a halfway point between the traditional Airborne sound and where they’re pushing things on the new album. While it was obvious that synths will play a much bigger role than we’ve been accustomed to, many fans have been caught off guard today by how truly techno the studio version is. Whereas the live version strikes a perfect balance between synths and guitars, the latter are hard to find anywhere on the single, apart from Adrian Rodriguez’s heavily processed bass on the chorus. And while Mikel’s voice has been gloriously raw live, the recorded vocals play with distortion and layering in ways that the band has typically shied away from. The result gives off a sort of an Airborne-meets-Fitz impression (not surprising given the close relationship between the two bands), though Mikel cites LCD Soundsystem and Blood Orange as comparables.

Mikel’s prediction that fans who are really familiar with the breadth of their work would recognize the roots of the new material holds true, but one must dig deeper than anything the band has officially released to find the strongest connections. The two samples that immediately come to mind are “You’re So American,” a Girls-inspired song that Mikel penned and recorded solo in 2012, and the demo version of “Numb,” which Mikel admits to preferring over the mix that made it on to All At Once. Give these two tracks a listen, and you’ll see the genesis of what we heard today.

Bottom line: Mikel wasn’t kidding around when he promised a sharp change of direction.

So, what do we think? Personally, I shared other fans’ surprise on first listen. Given what Mikel had said, I really shouldn’t have, but having had the live version on loop for the past couple weeks, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so synth-driven, to the exclusion of other elements.

That being said, I am ready for the ride. The more (and louder) I listen, the more it grows. I’m always a proponent of artists pushing themselves and expanding their sound. Though many of the elements that drew me to Airborne and set them above all other bands are nowhere to be found here, change can be refreshing, and I’m thrilled that the band’s catalog will grow in breadth with this next release. The group is gifted with tremendously multi-talented musicians, so why pigeon-hole themselves? Though I may not wish for four albums of electronica, as a complement to the three that have come before it, this will fit just fine, and will make for wonderfully eclectic and dynamic live shows. If what we’ve seen on the fall tour is any indication, we can expect The Airborne Toxic Event to continue to blend the old and the new in ways that satisfy both long-time fans and new listeners alike.

Here’s what Mikel and Anna had to say before and after the premiere:

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic EventGlen 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. Liz says:

    LOVE the new song! And though I am definitely dating myself here, I love it’s subtle nod to Erasure. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Susan S. says:

    While I, too, was surprised by the recorded version, I do like it and I’m very excited to see what’s next. My only hope is that we still get some densely lyrical songs. That’s what grabbed me at first and, for me, that’s what separates them from other artists churning out interesting sounds.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Nick says:

    Here’s to hoping for a 22-track album!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Luv it, absolutely luv it. Mikel is a Feckin Genius!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gary Waldo says:

    Couldn’t agree with you any more Glen. It’s like you pulled all the thoughts right out of my head, but I couldn’t have written it as well as you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. treendabean says:

    Even knowing to expect something different I found my first listen I found a little jarring, but a few listens later I’m embracing it. This will have a home in my already eclectic music library, the kind of music that will both feed my nostalgia for the synth sounds of my youth and deliver some of the best lyrics in the industry with that fervor that attracted me to this band in the first place.

    I’m really glad they’re exploring new sounds as a band, I probably wouldn’t be sticking around if all they did was rest of their career trying to re-create Midnight.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] The band teased big news last Friday, and by early morning the word was out: their new song “Wrong,” the first single from the new album, was to be premiered that day on Philly’s Radio 104.5. The track had barely reached the end of its first play when the interwebz lit up with TATE fans weighing in with their opinions on the eye-opening electro-pop sounds emanating from their speakers (more on that below). We published our first impressions here. […]


  8. […] track appears to be a radio edit, with about 15-seconds cut from the version that debuted 10 days ago on Philly’s 104.5 FM. The time has been cut from the instrumental segment leading into the final chorus. Time will tell […]


  9. […] 3: New single “Wrong” premieres on Radio […]


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