Interview – Airborne Toxic Event’s Anna Bulbrook
– by Shawn Conner/photo by Sandra Minarik
The story behind Airborne Toxic Event: family and personal illnesses and relationship bust-up drive frontman Mikel Jollett to write songs instead of fiction, and form a band with a name taken from Don Delillo‘s novel White Noise. The dark-night-of-the-soul song “Sometime Around Midnight” generates buzz for the L.A.-based quintet, followe by a notorious 1.6 Pitchfork review and a serious-minded reply from Jollett.
The group’s debut album nevertheless packs a punch – though that’s nothing compared to the group’s live show, which aims for the all-in emotive territory of a Bruce Springsteen or U2, and succeeds more often than not.
This is in no small part due to Anna Bulbrook, the band’s classically-trained-viola-player-turned-rocker. I chatted with Anna from a Seattle tour stop a couple of days before the band’s Feb 18 Vancouver show, which was moved from the comparatively tiny Media Club to Richard’s on Richards due, as they say, to popular demand
Anna Bulbrook: It’s been a really happy surprise. We were really looking forward to doing this headlining tour, our first in North America, and so, it’s nice to know people hopefully want to see you play.
Shawn Conner: On Letterman, the band played with a classical quartet, The Calder Quartet.
AB: My brother [Andrew Bulbrook] is the second violinist. They’re incredible – Carnegie Hall’s commissioning a piece for them, they’re doing really well in classical music, and they’re nice enough to play with us for shows like that that are special occasions. We’re just lucky to have an incredible string quartet which I’m related to.
SC: Did the two of you grow up in Los Angeles?
AB: No, in Boston. I actually moved to L.A. by accident. I’d finished college and I was working at a music festival in Colorado. I spent the summer there, and at the end of the summer I wasn’t ready to go back to New York, which is where I’d gone to school.
Someone offered me a ride to L.A. so I took it, and I showed up at 2 in the morning—my brother was living there – on his doorstep.
I’ve been there four years now. It’s all been a series of happy accidents. I almost immediately fell in with a group of people who went to shows, and I wasn’t playing classical music very much, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I met Mikel [Jollett] through that group of people, and I got more and more into the indie-rock scene, and now here I am, playing in a band, traveling around the world with these four other trained monkeys.
SC: Who from your past would be most surprised to see you onstage, rocking out?
AB: Oh wow. I think it would actually be my old violin teacher. He was always pushing me – actually, I had two, but I count them as one, because one was the student of the other. But they were always trying to get me to step out on a limb when I was playing classical music, and I always used to be so precise. I never really went there, and I know they’re very tickled that I get onstage, and run around.
SC: Did it take you awhile to become uninhibited when performing?
AB: I think with rock music it was pretty immediate, just getting up and doing something you’d never done before. It’s already so foreign. It felt so insane anyway, it was sort of an immediate click for me: “Oh wow, I’m playing in a rock band, I can do whatever I want on stage. I don’t have to wear certain clothes, there are no formalities.”
SC: Do you still sneak a few listens to Bach on the tour bus?
AB: I think there are some really incredible things in classical music. The level of nuance in your volume changes when you’re playing an acoustic instrument – your highs are not as high, but the detail and range…
It’s like looking at a Dali painting versus a Jackson Pollock; the level of detail in a Dali painting is insane, but you have to get close to see it. Whereas a Pollock is like an epic explosion and it’s awesome, and you can understand it from a little further away.