We’re a week and a half into the Dope Machines/Songs of God and Whiskey era, as fans of The Airborne Toxic Event bask in the glow of the unexpected double album release. Favorite songs are starting to feel like old friends, lyrics are being memorized, and tour plans made.
Toxicity 64 might as well have been named Toxicity 63, Part 2, because what we’ve got for you this week is an extension of last week’s TATE news: more tour information, more behind the song insights from Mikel Jollett, and many more Dope Machines album reviews. Let’s get to it.
(More) Dope Tour
Just like that, we’re only a few days away from the start of The Airborne Toxic Event’s Dope Machines Tour in Brooklyn. After the first Boston date quickly sold out, a second gig was added on March 15 – this one an all ages show, by popular demand.
As always, This Is Nowhere will be your source for tour coverage, with reviews in the works for Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as the April 4 radio show in Columbus. If you’re attending one of the other shows (in North America or Europe) and are interested in writing a review, please let us know!
(More) Dope Stories
Mikel continued his “story behind the songs” series on Facebook this week, working his way through Dope Machines after posting the first three songs late last week. Really hoping he keeps it going for Songs of God and Whiskey, as his eloquent explanations are often as poignant as the songs themselves. In any case, here are the last seven tracks from Dope Machines.
I wrote this song with Linda Perry one afternoon in her studio in the Valley. She was super cool and very talented. We talked about Betty (my ’66 Chevelle) and Rhonda (the ’74 Honda CB 750 — she was into old bikes and muscle cars too).. Then we went inside and started working on other things in the big room: songs that had parts she would sing and I would sort of sing back and we tossed ideas around but nothing really came of it. I got dizzy so we went to the kitchen. She said, I have this little idea and she sang a piece of a melody about California and I thought, “whoa there. That is something.” So we spent the rest of the afternoon writing the song. She mostly wrote the melodies (though I had some ideas). I mostly wrote the words (though she had some ideas) and we both walked away feeling like we had captured something about the state where we live.
I grew up here. My folks were big hippies. I was born on a commune in California and raised by very idealistic people who didn’t have a penny to their names but believed strongly in their children, you might even say their country. I feel very tied to this place and very resistant to its cliches. The SNL skit on Californians is funny and I wonder sometimes if that’s what the rest of the world thinks of us: dithering, spoiled people obsessed with their appearance. I understand it because most of what California exports (besides food) is the culture of white people who moved to Hollywood to get into films and yes many of those people are dithering, spoiled and obsessed with their appearance. But outside of maybe 10 square miles in the heart of Los Angeles, you don’t find many people like that here.
People have always moved to California to find a a new life. And always they have run up against a hard reality. The idea of Utopia always always begs the question of Dystopia. Whether it was migrant workers in the 30s escaping the Dust Bowl only to find a harsh world of shanty towns and corporate farms completely disinterested in their well-being… Or Berkeley hippies (like my folks) in the 60s protesting the war and Governor Reagan (Until I was 12, I thought Reagan’s first name was “That Bastard” since that is the ONLY way he was ever referred to in my house) who found that dropping out of society only created new, sometimes harsher societies as communes became cults and high ideals failed under the weight of so many corruptible human impulses.
People still move here to find a better life. And it only takes one look into a migrant shantytown outside the polluted fields of the San Joaquin Valley to know it is still a harsh life.
I don’t have a point I’m trying to make. Of course California is also the stuff of dreams, of aspirations, an oasis for high-minded people who live in a multi-cultural soup on the borderlands of the future. In this way, it’s more like Hong Kong or London than Chicago. Everyone is from everywhere else. And there are only a few of us who are from here. And everyone thinks we’re simple. And white. And we’re not. We’re complicated (And Mexican. Mostly.)
So I guess I could just say, as Jackson Brown once said of America: I love it here because my family is here and because it’s all I know.
I once wrote a song about Lady Gaga and Freddy Mercury entitled, “Stefani, I’m Tired of Taking Chances.” It was a kind of torch song with lines like:
“And some day, they would all go rather gaga, as you danced on the stage without clothes,
so much like Old Madonna, With that crimson in your cheeks and that nose.
So I know you love David Bowie, because you told me one night in my dreams,
And I wished someday you could know me, we would stay up and listen to Queen.”
That was before I heard the a cappella version of “Under Pressure” that changed my life (at least for awhile) and made me want to make big music about big populist ideas and abandon any pretense that I too didn’t love “Another One Bites the Dust” or “We Will Rock You” or like 10 Billy Joel songs that you’re supposed to hate if you’re a Serious Artist (Summer Highland Falls, anyone?) in favor of obscure tracks by Townes van Zandt or Neutral Milk Hotel.
But I do. I love them. (I mean, I love Colorado Girl too but I’m just saying) I love those big pop songs. I probably don’t love the modern equivalents much (except Adele, of course. Anyone who says they don’t like Adele is lying). Most other modern pop sounds like soda commercials to me. That’s another rant.
The point is I wanted to make some music that was more spiritually similar to Freddy Mercury than Robert Smith or Bruce Springsteen. It’s fun. It sounds huge. It’s catchy and a little weird and there is a sense of abandonment to it. You get to have samples of choirs and you get to equate manhood with honesty and the ability to see past the darkness that can envelope your life in favor of the light you can bring others. And then when you sing it, you feel like Freddy and you can embrace your inner Freddy-ness and God Damn this song makes me want to stand on stage in a skin-tight onesie with a thick-ass mustache and just belt.
I’m not saying that will happen (though you never know, I mean why start a rock band if you’re not willing to put on your mother’s dress and dance around onstage?) All I’m saying is the trappings of pop music are no better or worse than the trappings of “art” music and the main thing is to not feel trapped. I think Freddy could get behind that.
I wrote this song for the Dallas Buyer’s Club. At the time, I’d only heard a description of the plot and watched a trailer. But the melody and general idea for the song had been stuck in my head since I’d taken a motorcycle trip (on the Lucy, the Harley, not Rhonda the vintage Honda — that would’ve just been dangerous) from Eastern Nebraska to Los Angeles. I’d camped along the way with an old Mexican blanket and a $30 tent from K-Mart strapped to the sissy bar. I would sit there in my helmet humming the nah nah nah’s and painting a picture of a journey involving damsels and devils and angels and tears — it was all very relevant at the time.
I decided to put the song on Dope Machines because I like to think of records as collections of music that is either thematically or temporally similar — that is, music about a set of ideas generally made in the same time period. In a way, this was the first song I wrote for Dope Machines since it was a kind hybrid (never say mash-up, never) of a country swing and something sinister and electro. This aesthetic contrast went on to infect the entire next record. You know: left hand electronic, right hand rock and roll. Or something.
Thematically, the idea of a journey that changes you was laced throughout the record. And, as it turned out, the people from Dallas Buyer’s Club thought it worked for them too and they used it as the single for the entire soundtrack. This song and experience was one of the most surprising and just downright pleasant moments in the entirety of the band’s existence for me.
I’ve always liked working on songs with Steven. He has great ideas and more than anyone I’ve ever worked with, walks in the door with a very complete idea of how he wants something to sound. Plus it’s just cool to do something you are proud of with a friend. This is how we wrote the music for “All I Ever Wanted” and most of “All at Once” — we’d both have ideas then we’d sit in a room with guitars throwing riffs at each other, or bits of keyboards or harmonies or whatever—until one or the other of us would say, “Oh hell yeah…” Then we’d be off to the races.
So on this particular day, Steven walked in with about five pieces of through-composed music with keyboards and drums and whatnot. It was really cool stuff — sounding to my ear something like LCD Soundsystem or Pulp (Steven is a massive Jarvis Cocker fan). And then there was this one weird little track that had some hand claps on it and some simple chords and maybe one little melody line and I thought, “Now we’re talking.” It sounded like a song to me — as if the lyrics and vocal melody were aching to be written. So we spent some time locking in the music together and then I got down to writing lyrics.
This song probably has my favorite line in the whole record: “Now we stare at each other…” I love the stereo, the sheets, the intimacy between the people. It’s something like a shared secret, this love they have, as if nobody else was in on some breathtaking elaborate joke. Which is the best way I can describe true love. A secret joke two people share, a knowledge that somewhere in this very very hard world there can be true comfort, warmth, belonging, friendship — a gentle sharing of burdens, secrets and sweat — that no one else could imagine except the person under the covers with you listening to the stereo.
I love the idea of the map, with every detail, every signpost laid out: you know, life is supposed to go like this. You’re supposed to fall in love with someone like X. And we’ve all been told our whole lives that this certain X has certain attributes and those are the ones we’re supposed to want. But then love comes along it surprises you. The map fails because in reality, you fall for Y or Q or Z — and X seems like something from a fucking magazine: an airbrushed, two-dimensional version of love that has nothing to do with the shocking reality of falling for someone flawed and exciting and cool as shit. Because that’s love: something cool as shit and scary that you just can’t stay away from.
And everyone wanted you to fall for X. And here you are with Y (or Q or Z) and maybe nobody gets it, maybe you don’t even get it. So you’re forced to change, to soften your position, to feel around for a new self— because you are never going to end up with X and lets face you can’t wait to jump under the covers with Q.
I have no idea what the deal is with this song. I wrote it a year ago and never planned to put it on a record. I liked the Wurlitzer and the beat and that moment when the beat stopped and the piano came in.
Dreams don’t follow any sort of logical pattern (it’s more of an attempt by your brain to create something logical out your spinning stream of unconscious emotions and images, short and long term memories — or so I’m told by the New York Times).
I had a recurring dream when I was kid about flying. I would be standing on the sidewalk with huge ears, like an elephant— and simply flap them and I’d be airborne. I remember thinking “Why do I keep forgetting that I can fly? This is so easy. I have to remember this when I wake up.” As if the only thing stopping me from flying in reality was a mental block I’d acquired from living too long on a planet that told me I couldn’t.
So many dreams are like that: memories of a time when you didn’t so thoroughly know the limitations that life imposes on you. That’s probably why they’re important. Because unlike flying, many of those limitations don’t actually exist.
This song was just a way to wave across the abyss to a memory of something that once made me feel limitless.
This is all so vulgar. You know, the business of music, this business of discussing it — the point at which the dream life of the song butts up against the day-time reality of logic and punctuation and “analysis” (don’t even get me started on “awards”). I don’t like any of it. Because the whole point of the song is to express something that can’t be expressed any other way. That’s why you have to make it in the first place.
I’m glad we get these moments to share our thoughts, you and I. And I’m enormously grateful there are people who will hear these songs. But there’s a contract here that begins and ends in the song. Meaning—I don’t know how to say what I want to say most of the time, except by singing and writing and scoring and recording something. So I’d rather just get out of the way.
There are a lot of big ideas in this song about isolation and fear, about connection and distance, mortality and fate. But if you’re reading this, it probably means you have already figured that out for yourself and with any luck the song has already taken on a life of its own in your own mind. I’d rather my thoughts remain anonymous behind the veil of the song itself here and wish only for you that if you get this song that you are able to hold on tight to what you have and maybe some day a million trillion heartbreakingly endless amount of time in the future—our ashes will commingle on some distant star and we can both know that for a very brief time we were the luckiest bits of dust in all creation.
(More) Dope Reviews
Reviews continue to pour in for Dope Machines; not so much for the harder to obtain Songs of God and Whiskey. Dope Machines, which debuted at #56 on the Billboard Top 200, remains divisive, with critical response all over the map. Here’s a sampling of the mixed reactions; it goes without saying that we strongly disagree with some of them.
Sputnik Music: “Whether it’s choruses backed by artificial drum machines or lush synthesizers that help to set a nice atmosphere, The Airborne Toxic Event manage to make this album sound like a breath of fresh air rather than a sellout move.”
ABC News: “In the attempt to make a journey into neon club-land, the Airborne Toxic Event have accidentally made an overproduced, monochromatic collection. It sounds uniform and ends up sounding rather sterile and surprisingly boring.”
Ultimate Guitar: “The absence of these instruments on ‘Dope Machines’ doesn’t leave the band’s sound hollowed out, though. Employing proper layering and nuanced progression, TATE capitalize on the spanning potentials of synthetic sound – whether it be the gritty analog bassline balanced with dreamy synth leads in ‘Wrong,’ the throbbing acid synth rhythm that drives the smooth synth-pop cut ‘One Time Thing,’ the chop-happy ‘Time to Be a Man,’ or the shoegaze-inspired ‘Something You Lost.'”
Cityview: “The 2015 version of events falls flat because the band’s heart does not seem to be into it.”
Badger Herald: “By deviating from their previously indie rock style, the L.A. foursome resorts to music made for the masses, perfectly average and altogether lacking in any notable qualities. While past albums have a unrefined, raw sound, Dope Machines is 10 tracks of refined mush — lacking in originality, creativeness or notability.”
My Inside Voice (covers both Dope Machines and Songs of God and Whiskey): “Admittedly, the shift takes a little getting used to — and it doesn’t help that the majority of the material on Dope Machines cannot be counted as some of the band’s best and frequently falls flat. But there are enough moments when frontman Mikel Jollett’s pained loser persona cuts through the synth pads and drum machines to connect with the listener to make it worth checking out… Songs benefits from a fair number of good old-fashioned breakup songs (some of which have been available on YouTube for some time), which few singers can deliver as convincingly as Mikel Jollett, and some lovely (and missed) viola work from Anna Bulbrook.
Our Spanish readers may also be interested in checking out LA Pop Life’s Dope Machines review.
It’s disheartening to see so many reviewers picking on the lyrics. True, the first half of the album is more lyrically straightforward than what Mikel has typically been known for, but his insights above amply demonstrate the depth of care that went into crafting each and every song to convey exactly what he wanted to say. And even a cursory listen to the second half of the disc – to say nothing of Songs of God and Whiskey – should be enough to convince one of the skill of the lyricist. No wonder he dismisses the whole enterprise of analyzing and passing judgment on music as “vulgar.”
A Synth Revolution?
In previewing the latest album by Mumford and Sons, F&F Presents draws attention to what they term, ‘the synth revolution.’ The Airborne Toxic Event is cited as one of several traditional artists who have turned to electronica of late:
In recent months bands such as Milo Greene and The Airborne Toxic Event have all but abandoned their classic sound and elected to push out electrical beats instead. Although Mumford & Sons, The Airborne Toxic Event, and Milo Greene are three very different acts, the one thing that they all have in common is the desire to try something new. As Marcus Mumford points out to Rolling Stone “None of us had really any interest in doing a sort of Babel 2. It was always going to be different.” We have been hearing similar sentiments from a lot of the artists we speak to and although some fans will not be happy, isn’t that what being an artist is all about.
I don’t subscribe to the popular conception that TATE is merely going with the flow of what’s popular; Mikel has explicitly denied this angle, and we know that he has been into this type of music since before the band formed (Exhibit A: his love of Passion Pit). But it is interesting to think about the band’s transition within the context of a larger movement.
At the end of the day, any artist who is more concerned with fulfilling expectations (be it those of the music industry, radio, critics, popular opinion or even their own fans) than about following the muse in whatever direction inspires them, is really missing the point of the whole thing.
Best in Studio
Proving once again that Airborne fans are the best fans, The Airborne Toxic Event’s 2009 studio session at Radio 104.5 FM has been voted the best studio session of that year. The winning performance included “Missy,” “Sometime Around Midnight” and “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”
Seven years before it was renamed “The Lines of the Cars” and released as part of Songs of God and Whiskey, a White Noise inspired song by the name of “Waves and Radiation” was performed by Mikel at the Bordello in Los Angeles.
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.