In light of the release of their new album, Dope Machines, Craig Roxburgh got to talk to The Airborne Toxic Event about the indie scene, what it means to be indie rock, their new album, and their upcoming visit to South Africa for Freedom Festival.
The Airborne Toxic Event were born on the tail-end of an age where indie rock was in-fact independent and truly underground. Despite coming into the scene at a late stage, The Airborne Toxic Event is still hailed to be pioneers of modern indie music. How does it feel to be regarded as one of the leading bands in indie rock?
Honestly I’m not sure what the term means anymore. I think it used to mean bands that eschewed the major-label marketing machine in favor of DYI band ethics and a sense of freedom in terms of songwriting and production. For awhile I think it actually had something to do with clove cigarettes and The Smiths. These days, I see very well art-directed, squeaky-clean bands on huge labels describe their sound as indie and I don’t even know what they mean except that perhaps someone is wearing plaid.
It feels good. We’ve played 1,100 or so shows and we’ve met many people and the DYI ethic has given us an incredibly fortunate road to follow.
With regards to being at the forefront of the indie scene, with such radical shifts in the climate of modern music and the explosion of popularity of indie music – has there been a sense of isolation as your music so strongly contrasts what is being created by the newer bands, and by the older bands that decided to adapt to the changing climate?
Not really. We stomp and scream and holler and chant in big rooms with crowds and on good nights it feels like something special has happened. A catharsis, perhaps. Or a celebration. A connection. The rest of it is just so much heavy breathing about aesthetics and marketing.
With the distinctive shift in the sonic quality of what is considered to be indie, has there been pressure on you, as a band, to move in that same direction and create music that is slightly more palatable for commercial radio play?
No. If anything, you just focus on songwriting, playing great shows, connecting with fans, thinking hard about your struggles and making art about them.
With regards to sonic shifts, your new album Dope Machine is a step in a direction that is the complete opposite to all your previous work. What inspired this desire to create an album that was built around synths and electronic elements?
James Murphy. Also Radiohead. Also dancing around the house at 3 am with a brandy snifter and a smoking jacket thinking “well this is all really fucking fun.”
Dope Machines is interesting as it comes off as tongue-in-cheek commentary about the effects of technology on human relationships, yet the entire album was constructed through the use of electronics. Was this blatant sense of irony deliberate, and if so, were you worried that it may be construed as hypocrisy?
It was deliberate. We can’t deny all these buggy little machines have changed our lives: heart monitors and laptops and apps and artificial lungs and smart phones and drones. It’s all so terrifying and exhilarating, like we have one foot in the future and one in the deep past, like a billion cavemen standing around an enormous fire as a big as a mountain, trading stories and singing songs.
So our little tongue-in-cheek commentary on all this was to take these terrifying and exhilarating little machines and use them to make a record.
You guys must have been faced with a similar problem that Linkin Park is often faced with when recording new music: the possibility of losing old fans due to your music taking such a rapid departure from your old sound. Did this ever cause you to stop and worry about whether the new album would be a good idea?
Of course not. I always forget anything else exists outside of the song, alone in a room with a guitar or a synthesizer composing for some long lost idea of myself or others. That’s all that matters in that moment: capturing the fleeting thought, the overwhelming idea. Then the record is done and it’s like, “Oh yeah, people have opinions.” It’s always a shock.
The interesting thing about the release of Dope Machines is that Mikel took to Facebook to explain each song in excruciatingly great detail – which is rare from bands, especially one of such magnitude as The Airborne Toxic Event. Why is it that more bands don’t do this? Is it perhaps the fear of no longer truly owning a song, emotionally, if you so deeply divulge its meaning?
Once a song is done it belongs to the world. They go out and they occupy the minds of others. The song is no longer ours. It interacts with the memories and emotions and events unfolding in other people’s minds. This is good and appropriate. The song notes are more like origin stories than anything.
You’re going to be performing your debut show in South Africa soon. What attracted you to the idea of performing in South Africa, at Freedom Festival?
The utter awesomeness of being 17,000 miles from home playing music for people. What an amazing world we live in.
What can the South African fanbase expect from the show? Will you be performing more of the newer material, or will you focus on the older songs that they’re more likely to know?
We’ll be jumping, screaming, stomping, clapping and wailing our way through our set. We will flirt with disaster and seek communion.
Finally, what else do you want to do when you’re down in South Africa?
Go on a safari. Meet people. Discuss “the world.” Drink.