Steven Chen and Anna Bulbrook entertain the all-ages crowd at Amoeba Music, in honor of the release of Dope Machines. Photo by Danielle Karagannis.
It’s been an okay week to be a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event, eh?
A week ago, we didn’t think we could get any more excited than we already were for the release of Dope Machines. And then came the wonderful, shocking announcement that the band had a 10-song surprise up their collective sleeve, a second album called Songs of God and Whiskey, to be released at the same time. And then came news of a North American mini-tour that begins in a mere fortnight, with some extra special plans that are sure to make it a tour to remember.
So yeah. We have a lot of news to get to.
Word of the unexpected album was received ecstatically by TATE fans the world over (duh!). And the record itself has been universally acclaimed by those who have listened to it. Seriously: I have yet to hear one negative word about the material on Songs of God and Whiskey from any fan of The Airborne Toxic Event.
So one would think that everyone’s happy in TATE nation these days, right? Not so fast. There’s a significant contingent of fans who are unhappy that Songs is only available with purchase of a physical copy of Dope Machines from TATE’s store. This hasn’t sat well with many who had already pre-ordered the album from other sources.
I totally get it: not everyone can afford to buy an album twice, and even those who can afford it may very well not want to. Though I personally have no self-control whatsoever when it comes to shelling out for anything and everything that The Airborne Toxic Event cares to release, I don’t want to minimize the legitimate concerns of those who do. The following comments are not intended as a shot at those who have aired objections.
I do wonder though, would the reaction have been different had Songs been released in a vacuum? That is to say, if the band had announced out of the blue that they were releasing a surprise album at a price point of $18.99 (which is the cheapest of the packages available), with no ties to Dope Machines, would there have been so many complaints? Sure, it’s a bit steep for an album these days, but it seems to me that the vast majority of established TATE fans (who are the target market for Songs, after all) would have lined up around the block to jump on board that train. Instead, the inclusion of Dope Machines created a perception problem.
Seeing as though it’s coming from a band that routinely sells concert tickets for less than the cost of this album, and whose merchandise is priced lower than any other major artist that I’m aware of, I have no complaints about the value I’m getting out of this relationship. In fact, I think they undersell themselves more often than not. As far as I’m concerned, I paid $19 for Songs of God and Whiskey; the fact that it came with a second copy of Dope Machines (or in my case, fourth) is just an added bonus, allowing me to keep a copy in both our vehicles, or give one away to a friend who needs some TATE in their life.
I also wonder if there is a business angle to this story that we haven’t considered. (Disclaimer: this is 100% speculation on my part, which could very well have zero basis in reality. So take it for what it’s worth, which may in fact be very little.)
Imagine you are Epic Records, and you have just signed a band to a new contract and invested heavily in their soon-to-be-released album. Then imagine said band comes to you with a plan to release a second album on the same day, with absolutely no involvement and no profit in it for you. How do you react?
It wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that perhaps Epic wasn’t exactly thrilled with this idea. And perhaps in order for the band to even be able to offer this gift to their fans, certain conditions were stipulated. Such as: no announcing it in advance, so as not to detract from pre-sales of Dope Machines. Or such as: selling it in in tandem with Dope Machines. (Note: Amanda Keelor of AXS has now confirmed some elements of this theory. Though Epic was very supportive of the second album, which was not completed until the day it went on sale, they did in fact require that it to be bundled with Dope Machines. See her comment on this post.)
At the end of the day, I really don’t care what the back story is. Any way you slice it, it was twenty of the best dollars I ever spent.
Hell of a surprise, TATE. Thanks for giving us Christmas in February.
With the album release behind us and a European tour scheduled for early April, we had given up hope of a North American tour until later in the spring or summer. Wrong! In another curveball, The Airborne Toxic Event announced a limited U.S. tour starting in just two weeks. This one comes with a twist: not only will Dope Machines be performed in its entirety each night, but the band is promising that it will be a very special audio/visual experience with additional surprises. Though there will surely be more North American dates later in the year, the announcement was enough to set me to groveling to my wife to let me jet down to San Francisco for a night next month.
Here are the dates, which go on sale this morning:
Wed March 11 – Brooklyn, NY – Warsaw – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Fri March 13 – Cleveland, OH – Trinity Cathedral – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Sat March 14 – Boston, MA – Paradise – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Tue March 17 – Chicago, IL – Metro – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Thu March 19 – Denver, CO – Sherman Event Center – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Fri March 20 – Denver, CO – Sherman Event Center – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Sat March 21 – San Francisco, CA – The Regency Ballroom – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Sun March 22 – Los Angeles, CA – Tower Theatre – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Tue March 24 – San Diego, CA – House of Blues – ON SALE FRI@10AM
Late last summer, Mikel Jollett shared insights into every song from the band’s first three studio albums in a wildly popular Facebook series, leading up to the Fillmore residency. Now, he’s doing the same for Dope Machines (here’s hoping Songs of God and Whiskey will follow). Here are the thoughts he’s shared thus far.
This was the first song I wrote for Dope Machines. I wrote it in a very specific situation with a very specific person in mind. I guess I see it as an Ode to Insecurity, though I think the speaker conflates his doubts with his rejection of social mores. Meaning: he chooses to be wrong. He doesn’t care about the values others may want to impose upon him. He makes his own sense of the world, fully aware that it is based upon partial/biased/incorrect information and he’s fine with that, since he’s wrestled with that damaged information and come to an honest conclusion: “I don’t care if we’re ‘WRONG.’ We’re staying here together, eyes closed in our ignorant, blissful embrace.” To put it bluntly: “Fuck ‘em. I choose you.”
One Time Thing:
This song developed out of two situations: one of which happened to a good friend and one of which happened to me. I love how he’s quite playful in his insouciance about the fling, while acknowledging (later, begrudgingly) what a massive event it actually was in his life. He kids about all this moonshine and cheap ass wine, meanwhile he can’t sleep, laying awake instead, wondering if he’s lost a chance at something great.
It’s fair to say this song is a companion piece to One Time Thing, filling in the gaps of a particular kind of fling: so many pictures and texts — the digital detritus of attraction and flirtation in the modern world. Camera phones. Social media—we’ve taken all these things that are central to what it means to be human and digitized them into simple binary equations, algorithms and questions. Things like: Who do I like? Who likes me? What group(s) do I belong to? All these buggy little programs create a digital self that is a (mostly) polished reflection of our actual selves. And they’re addictive because they take the important questions, the ones we obsess over as humans, and quantify them into digestible bytes. Our social instincts, insecurities, and ambitions are primed and we are all over that shit.
On balance it’s all pretty stupid, because we know that we are far more complex than these silly little brands we turn ourselves into online. But if you consider for a moment how this entire thing is just a metaphor that we’ve agreed upon: that websites are “places” (which they absolutely are not, they’re programs), that these pictures and quotes are “people” (which they’re not, they’re like little magazine ABOUT people) — it’s fascinating. Two billion (or some number) people have all agreed upon one system of metaphors, these images on screens that we decipher in our brains and codify into massively complex virtual societies. What a bunch of brainy schmucks.
And if you happen to be reading this on some such device, in a metaphorical “space,” well then allow me to simply say “hello and I hope your life brings you joy and that we can meet some day and have a coffee perhaps, or a pint.” Since that was the point of this whole thing anyway: to make us feel connected when we are in the lonely metaphorical spaces of our minds.
Release week was marked by a number of interviews with the band, who provided lots of insights into the new songs, the thinking behind the dual release, and plans for the future.
First up was USA Today, who sat down with the lead man and even invited questions from fans. Some highlights:
Q: You wrote about 40 songs while working on the album. How did you choose the songs that were put onto Dope Machines?
A:There’s no particular dogmatic approach to it, it’s just these songs seem to hang together in a way thematically or I just liked them for the most part, for different reasons. Each song had a reason where you hear it and you’re like, “Yeah we like this song.” You hear something special in it. Some of them I really loved. You know that expression in writing, “Murder your darlings?” Yeah, there were some that I really worked hard on and I loved and we couldn’t put on the record. It’s always a sad day when you have to murder one of those things.
Q: Where did the name “Dope Machines” come from?
A: There’s a song on the record called Dope Machines, and it’s kind of a little story about your basic digital romance (in the) modern world, how texted pictures are exchanged, lots of sort of flirtation. … Just the term “dope machines” kind of had this double, triple meaning — on the one hand, a lot of the record is these kind of coy songs about what it’s like to be lost in the sea of just (expletive) social media, endless Internet, all this crap that distracts your attention, so it’s all these dope machines that turn you into a dope. … And at the same time, these machines are DOPE! They … save your life! … And I think that to me is the most poignant thing because these things are addictive, and the reason they’re addictive is because they are sort of extensions of the things that make us humans.
Q: Why did you choose the song Wrong as a single?
A: I don’t know, I’m crappy at choosing singles. … Like, the idea of a single, it doesn’t make much sense. Our biggest single (Sometime Around Midnight) is a song that has no chorus and no hook, and then our second-biggest single is a song that is massively hook-y, Changing. And then our third biggest hit was the song Hell and Back, which was kind of electronic. The whole thing doesn’t make sense to me.”
Q: You’ve mentioned that you’re partial to the song Something You’ve Lost. Why? And why wasn’t that the single?
A: I don’t know. It’s just this big, super sad ballad about kind of the ontological state of longing … when you sort of love someone and you don’t want them to ever die. To some extent I think it’s about this personal journey I went on to arrive at that point because at some point, if your life’s not working for you, you have to make a lot of changes and there’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into that for the sake of even having that love in the first place.
Q: It was announced without much explanation that bassist Noah Harmon was fired in August, and fans are wondering if he’ll come back or if he has anything to do with this album.
A: He has nothing to do with this record. I really doubt he’ll ever come back. The thing with Noah is we let him go for a reason, obviously, and we feel like it’s disrespectful to give (that reason) a public airing. It just disrespects his contributions to the band, and I respect the contributions he made to the band too much to drag out something. … Obviously he was let go and that’s all anybody needs to know about it. We wish him well and it’s actually totally like an amicable thing, everybody nodded heads and it’s fine.
KPCC Radio interviewed Mikel on release day; the full audio can be found on their website. Some of the key takeaways:
On “California,” co-written by Linda Perry: We sat in this big huge studio for a while and we threw melodies back and forth and nothing really stuck. And then I got kind of dizzy because I was feeling light headed, because I didn’t eat or something. And so we went into the kitchen… and she like offered me some food and we sat. And then she’s like, ‘Well what do you think about this?’ And she played this little, I wanna say eight seconds of a melody that had a little line about California. And it was like, oh we got something there!… And we just sat there in the kitchen. Multi-million dollar studio and of course we’re in the kitchen writing… I wanted to write a song that kind of dealt with this daydream of a place that kind of turned into a nightmare, then existed simultaneously as both.
On “The Fall of Rome”: It’s a very personal song. It was written for a person who I was with for a long time, and kind of about what it’s like to try and have a relationship in the midst of a rock and roll life style where you’re gone at a year at a time. And there’s so much headiness to it. It’s romantic… I think she really liked it. I would write songs about her. Or write songs that she particularly enjoyed. And she hated that I’d be gone. And there’s all kinds of stresses that are put onto the relationship… You say the fall of Rome about things that are these massive events… And you know, I think in the song it’s used as a device to, this sort of emotional weight that a relationship can carry in your life… You look back on certain points in your life and you’re like, oh my god, that was a whole thing and when it ended, it was like the fall of Rome. Like, everything in my life changed overnight because me and this person were no longer together.
Last but certainly not least was Tuesday’s Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, in which Mikel, Anna Bulbrook and Steven Chen fielded questions from fans. The biggest news to emerge was the promise of future bombastic videos to come. Read a full recap here, courtesy of Tim da Monkey.
The band fully expected mixed reviews for Dope Machines and, well, that’s exactly what they got. Below are the good, the bad and the ugly. (And incidentally, check out our takes on Dope Machines and Songs of God and Whiskey.)
AXS: “Dope Machines, the fourth album from the seasoned LA quintet, is an endeavor that artistically surpasses the group’s previously praised material. It sheds a light on the human spirit in more ways than one, which translates to a listening experience that is as irrefutably enjoyable as it is entirely moving.”
Planit Sauk Valley: “Give credit to The Airborne Toxic Event for the change of direction. But with “Dope Machines” the band has plotted a safe course that doesn’t take the listener anywhere truly awful, but doesn’t take them anywhere particularly interesting, either.”
Substream: “Many may view the group’s abandonment of their indie-rock swagger and layered strings with disdain, but truth be told, the group had worn the sound out. While the TATE of old will be missed, it’s hard to imagine them improving that sound much after Such Hot Blood. The band should be praised for not producing a hollow imitation of their first two albums. After all, what TATE fan didn’t at one point wish the band could take over writing pop songs? Dope Machines may not be quite novel, but when viewed independently of expectations from previous releases the album showcases some decent pop songwriting.”
Buzzbands LA: “On their fourth album, the Airborne Toxic Event continues to commodify mawkishness — no worries, there’s still a big market for it — with 10 earworms about hurting or being hurt, leaving or being left, wanting or being wanted.“
Zachary Houle: “Already, if you were to look at the Amazon reviews for Dope Machines, fans of the band are crowing about the fact that the formerly orchestral group has moved in a much more electronic and synth-pop direction. I suppose it’s like watching your favourite drama suddenly become a comedy. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Dope Machines pretty acutely rotoscopes the sound of the early ‘80s a la Depeche Mode, and just updates it to current pop standards a la a Katy Perry. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’ll concede that this stuff is pretty damn catchy… However, the real surprise is actually the surprise release, Songs of God and Whiskey. TATE wasn’t content with being merely pigeon-holed in the pop bubble, so they went out and made an, wait for it, Americana record and a really good one at that. It’s one with, of course, Biblical overtones, particularly on “Poor Isaac” and “Cocaine and Abel”, the record’s first two tracks. You might find this strange, and it’s probably not because Dope Machines is the commercial record and Songs is not, but Songs is the better album of the two.”
It hasn’t been officially announced, but it appears that “California” will be the next single from Dope Machines. Some physical copies of the album were adorned with a sticker that read, “Includes singles ‘Wrong’ and ‘California,'” and the song started getting added to Adult Contemporary playlists this week (which would be a new frontier for the band). The image seen here, attached to the song on YouTube, appears to be the single artwork.
The Airborne Toxic Event’s official website got a Dope makeover earlier this week, with a clean new look that mirrors the Dope Machines aesthetic and imagery. Content-wise, everything remains the same (including a biography that is at least two years overdue for a rewrite), with one exception: the forum is no more. Definitely sad to see it go, but we can hardly fault the decision with the activity level having dropped dramatically in recent years as fans took their conversations to social media instead.
Several months back, TATE fans propelled Anna to the crown in Radio 104.5’s Best Tambourine Player poll. The station is at it again, this time inviting fans to vote on their favorite Radio 104.5 Studio Session from 2009. The Airborne Toxic Event is in the finals, where it’s locked in a death match with Better Than Ezra. As of this writing, the bands are deadlocked, 50/50. Let’s put our band over the top! Voting closes at the end of the weekend; vote as often as you can.
On Wednesday the band celebrated the new albums with a free show at LA’s Amoeba Music. Check out the photos here.
Dope (Toxic) Gold
Last Saturday night, The Airborne Toxic Event was featured on PromoWest Live, a weekly show that airs in Pittsburgh and Columbus after Saturday Night Live. The segment is not online at this time, but here’s a teaser.
We’ll let you know if the full show becomes available. If you caught the broadcast, we’d love to hear about it!
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.