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Airborne Toxic Event develops songs while performing on stage

Band live is different from recording

Thursday, June 20, 2013
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Airborne Toxic Event plays tonight at Upstate Concert Hall.
Airborne Toxic Event plays tonight at Upstate Concert Hall.

Watching The Airborne Toxic Event perform live is always a much different experience than listening to one of its studio albums.

“There’s always like no relationship between what’s on record and what’s live,” singer, guitarist and main songwriter Mikel Jollett said recently from Los Angeles.

“On record there’s no limit; live we just have five people, and we won’t play any prerecorded tracks. Everything is made onstage; we’ve never had the benefit of a laptop onstage, so we have to figure out all the different pieces. The record is much more involved, but it will work live.”

The Airborne Toxic Event, with Leagues

WHEN: 8 tonight

WHERE: Upstate Concert Hall, 1208 Route 146, Clifton Park

HOW MUCH: $20 (doors); $18 (advance)

MORE INFO: 371-0012, www.upstateconcerthall.com

For Jollett, who formed the quintet throughout 2006 and 2007 around a batch of songs that eventually made up the band’s self-titled 2008 debut, live performance is primarily what the group is about. At this point, the band has logged close to 900 performances, ranging from electric club shows, to stripped-down acoustic performances, to dates with full orchestras.

Bridging gap

The band’s latest album, “Such Hot Blood,” from April, bridges the gap between the band’s energetic performances and more carefully crafted recordings. Producer Jacquire King, known for his work with Tom Waits, Modest Mouse, Of Monsters and Men and Kings of Leon, helped the band capture a more live-oriented sound on the album’s 10 tracks.

“He’d done ‘Swordfish Trombones’ by Tom Waits and the Modest Mouse record ‘Good News For People Who Love Bad News’ — he was the only guy we ever worked with that actually made a record that I obsessed over,” Jollett said.

“He was the right guy for what we were doing for this record, which was much more about concentrating in a room and recording the band playing, with less production. But doing that requires its own sort of production — we did a ton of rehearsals. It was actually a lot harder.”

The marathon touring behind “Such Hot Blood” has already begun. Tonight the band plays at Upstate Concert Hall, part of the first round of shows behind the album. If past album cycles are any indicator, the band will probably be on the road for the next two years, with dates looming in Europe.

The band — featuring Jollett, bassist Noah Harmon, violinist Anna Bulbrook, lead guitarist/keyboardist Steven Chen and drummer Daren Taylor — is also continuing its tradition of performing with orchestras.

On Tuesday the band performed at Central Park’s Summer Stage in New York City with longtime collaborators The Calder Quartet and Ensemble LPR. In August the band plays with the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa, Calif.

“Playing with an orchestra is challenging for me, because I can’t read music, so I spend a lot of time counting measures,” Jollett said. “It’s a pleasure to have your songs reinterpreted, reimagined with a massive group of musicians. . . . These shows really are challenging, but then Noah and Anna are very — Noah is the bass player and Anna is the violin player, and they’re very well-rehearsed and well-schooled on classical music.”

Personal experience

“Such Hot Blood,” despite the live nature of the recording, continues the band’s penchant for lush orchestrations found on the debut and 2011’s “All at Once.” Jollett, who wrote the band’s earliest songs after a messy break-up, his mother’s cancer diagnosis and his own diagnosis with an autoimmune disorder, once again drew from personal life in the songwriting process — lead single “Timeless” finds Jollett making sense of numerous deaths in his family.

“I spent a lot of time on this idea that life is grounded in the finite and that we’re all going to die,” Jollett said. “I really let myself up into the poetry and kind of bleakness of it — I was obsessed with the idea for a long time and it kind of drove me. Then, when it actually happened and I had people close to me die, I found myself not caring about any of that — all I cared about was that I was sad and angry, and suddenly all that esoteric stuff went out the window. I was simply left with this raw feeling of wishing they were still alive, so the song was about that.”

The band is continuing to experiment with the songs in the live setting. As with the two previous albums, the band has released videos online featuring acoustic versions of songs from the album — quite opposite of the panoramic versions of the songs the band does with orchestras.

“Sometimes it’s just fun to unplug and play acoustically,” Jollett said. “A good song is a good song — it will work as punk, it will work as polka, it will work as an EDM [electronic dance music] track. . . . Lately we’ve been doing a live version of ‘Wishing Well’ [from the debut album] where the whole middle section features a dance beat with all these extra keyboards on top, with looping envelopes. The idea is just to have fun, to reimagine the music.”

 
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