Monday, September 6, 2010

Airborne Toxic Event


Indie rock band Airborne Toxic Event calls in the Calder Quartet for backup

When the Los Angeles-based indie-rock band Airborne Toxic Event pull into the Somerville Theatre this week, don’t be surprised to find an array of classical instruments on stage. The band, which is touring in support of its new DVD “All I Ever Wanted: Live From the Walt Disney Concert Hall’’ will have a string section, the Calder Quartet, in tow.

Then again, fans of the ambitious band may have become accustomed to their keeping rather musically refined company. After completing a run of 354 traditional rock show dates on the back of their breakout 2008 self-titled debut, and the overwhelming success of their single “Sometime Around Midnight,’’ the band wanted a final performance that would break the mold of what fans have come to expect. The DVD captures the preparations and rehearsals leading up to a December 2009 show that incorporated a high school marching band, a children’s choir, Mexican folk dancers, visual artists, and more into their anthems of indie-rock grandeur.

There was a time not long ago when Mikel Jollett, the band’s songwriter and frontman, didn’t feel like they could, or perhaps should even be able to pull something like this off. In an interview in the film prior to the oversize performance he says: “We’re not an important enough band for a gig like this.’’ Was the widely lauded musician merely being humble? “I meant it. It felt kind of daunting.’’

“I was feeling overwhelmed before the show. It was so much work, it felt very much like an ambitious undertaking to be doing such a large show with 100 different performers, and playing a world-class concert venue.’’

He still can’t believe the show was sold out. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it. We only have 39 minutes of recorded material. Our first record is not even very long. It seemed a little bit absurd, but once we got into the planning of it, the point was, for us, our ability to marshal some of the local Los Angeles resources and tap into the talents of the community, and if we could spearhead that effort, then we saw ourselves as servants of that cause.’’

The original idea, when they were approached by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to perform at the venue, was to play as part of a celebration of Los Angeles indie-rock culture. Jollett, a native of the city, didn’t want it to be focused solely on bands like his. “We felt that having a bunch of bands that came up playing [local rock venues] like Spaceland playing at Disney Hall seemed kind of silly.’’ Instead they called upon the area’s high school bands, folk performers, classical musicians, and visual artists to help out. “That was our understanding of Los Angeles culture.’’

Andrew Bulbrook, a Weston native who plays violin in the Calder Quartet, says working string arrangements into the band’s darkly uplifting rock wasn’t too much of a stretch, for both the Disney Hall show and the tour on which his group will support. Bulbrook’s sister, Anna, plays viola in Airborne Toxic Event. His quartet has been playing with the band, whether formally or informally, almost since the beginning.

“The quartet was out in LA, and my sister had started doing this band, so I was going to the shows when it was first starting and they were getting their momentum going. One day they were recording for their first album and they did a set of acoustic videos,’’ he says. Jollett soon asked if they’d like to accompany them. “At the end of the night everyone was buzzing. No one could go to sleep. Something special and magical had happened.’’ It kept growing from there, he says, with the quartet performing with the rock band on multiple television appearances.

While the Calder Quartet is primarily a classically trained group that usually sticks to the likes of Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven, as well as more experimental classical pieces, this partnership provided a new set of creative rewards.

“It always seemed like it would work,’’ he says. “Afterward it was evident that it made a big impact in the way the songs are written. The strings added a lot, probably because there was a viola player in the band already. By adding a quartet behind that you could fill that out and accentuate that.’’

The groups will attempt to re-create some of that magic when they come together on Wednesday in Somerville, albeit on a much smaller scale. “The idea is to take the Disney Hall show on the road,’’ says Jollett. “We put so much into playing that one night, we practiced for it for so long, and we never toured for it. I think this is just trying to re-create it on tour.’’

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