Though they've become something of a big deal in the indie-rock world, the members of the Airborne Toxic Event talk in a way that's disarmingly humble. When we met over beers at the St. Felix Bar in Hollywood one recent afternoon, bassist Noah Harmon wryly noted, “Don't quote me on this”—which we will of course now quote—”but I think our fans imagine that we're sort of like The Partridge Family, that we all tuck into one little bed at night.”
“Good night, John-Boy,” quotes front man Mikel Jollett.
“Nah,” Harmon replies. “That's The Waltons.”
Sitting demurely enough next to the guys while sipping her Bass ale is violinist/keyboardist/rock-chick extraordinaire Anna Bulbrook, who chimes in, “It's like Party of Five. Except it's like Party of 2,505. Our fans expect us to live up to a certain level of civility.”
Their sense of civility as a rock band is sure to reach a new plateau on Friday, when the Silverlake-based quintet take the stage at the Pacific Amphitheater, accompanied by the 88-piece Pacific Symphony. To casual Airborne fans, that may seem odd. Especially since their best-known hits—such as 2011's sprung-rhythm track “Changing” or the romantic desperation of “Sometime Around Midnight,” which catapulted them to major-label status in 2008—don't have a symphony in sight.
Then again, you can't pigeon-hole this band. Jollett, one of the best rock lyricists of the past 20 years, leads with a full-throated baritone scream on fan favorites such as “Half of Something Else” and the poignant, starkly beautiful “The Graveyard Near the House.” And though their sets are full of tortured, sweaty passion plays including “Innocence” or “Papillon,” their playing is precise, their solos proficiently melodic, their musicality so professional they required just one rehearsal with the Pacific Symphony.
“They're tremendous artists with an appreciation for collaborations with classical musicians,” John Forsythe, Pacific Symphony's president, says.
“It's not easy for a touring rock band to join an orchestra onstage in a single-show format,” adds Steve Beazely, the show's producer, “but not only have Airborne played often with the Calder Quartet, but they've played many symphony shows in the U.S.” The Calder Quartet, incidentally, is one of America's premier classical string ensembles; not so incidentally, one of its members, Andrew Bulbrook, is the brother of Anna, who adds her own classical touches to Airborne's sound.
Give a listen to All I Ever Wanted, Airborne's live recording of a 2009 Disney Hall show they performed with the Calder Quartet. The band integrate classical arrangements without tamping down their rock energy or succumbing to pretentious bluster. And now, they have two albums' worth of new material to draw from. Expect them to play “All At Once,” Jollett's elegantly passionate meditation on the consolations of love in the face of death, as well as tracks such as “All I Ever Wanted” and “The Secret,” the opener from their latest album, Such Hot Blood.
Jollett explains the record's titular subject: “Everybody is walking around with a secret, and the big secret is that they have a secret, and they think that nobody knows, and they're terrified that people are going to find out . . . and they will be exposed for being the fraud they are. And everybody thinks they're walking around with these big secrets, but they're not. 'Cause we all share 'em.”
What you shouldn't expect during their set is any whiff of rock-star horseshit. Maybe it's because they're educated folk (Stanford, Columbia, Cal Arts), or because they were nearing or into their thirties when they hit it big. But what's clear is they're a decent bunch—good-humored, level-headed about fan adulation, and grateful to be able to do what they do.
At the bar, guitarist Stephen Chen further distills the whole civility idea we've been discussing over beers. “Some people worship bands as these sort of rock gods,” he says. “We were always just people who told stories that people could relate to. They feel a connection to us, so you can't go out there and be a jerk.”
Jollett nods in agreement. “[We've] got a role to play and a privileged position in someone else's life,” he says. “You can't fuck that up.”