Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event: No summation needed
Rock critics in L.A. quickly praised native sons The Airborne Toxic Event as soon as the band issued its 2007 self-released debut, Does This Mean You’re Moving On? Now, several studio albums later, the band’s hymns have caught on with the rest of the nation. The group’s new album, Such Hot Blood, is an expansive and emotionally rich release that recalls the finer work of acts like Springsteen and U2. Singer-guitarist Mikel Jollett, who, after a couple of months on the road (“I’m all for paying dues but two years in a van is rough,” he said), was resting at his L.A. home before the band heads out on another round of tour dates, spoke with us via phone about the new album.
Talk about what it was like to initially make the transition from writer of essays to writer of songs.
I don’t know if it was conscious and I woke up one day and decided to do that. It was an evolution. I had taken a year off to write a novel and in the course of a year, I realized I hadn’t written a novel, but I had written songs. I had written songs every day. By the end of the year, the songs were where I was at. They felt honest to me. The novel was getting dusty.
Had you been a songwriter prior to that?
Not really. The first song I ever wrote was “Wishing Well.” I’m trying to think of when I started thinking of the experience as a listener and what it meant to take a listener through the journey of a song as opposed to this idea that you just express what’s within your soul. I’m not saying they’re totally different but it’s a different orientation.
You initially met drummer Daren Taylor. What did you two have in common?
I don’t know. Before him, I had met a lot of people who were session people who were hired guns and didn’t have a particular orientation; they were just kind of lame. Daren liked to play music and had always wanted to be in the kind of band I wanted to start. He had grown up on The Cure and The Pixies. We lived in the same world aesthetically. We met and I played him some demos and he liked them and it all clicked. We spoke a similar language about music. It was great. In the summer of 2006, the two of us were locked in this sweaty warehouse and playing songs from the first record and working out parts. We were almost a two-piece, but then that changed.
To what extent did living in Los Feliz and Silver Lake in Southern California help nurture your creative impulses?Yeah, there are so many musicians and people in bands. You put yourself in that context and it matters. There was a sense of being part of a larger community with The Henry Clay People and Beck was from here and Elliott Smith was from here. You feel like everyone is working toward similar goals. It’s not as competitive as Williamsburg. I have friends in that area and they’re much more intense. There is more of a sense of community here and not as much out and out competition. People are willing to help one another and that’s nice.
It seems like there are so many bands in L.A., it would be hard to get noticed. Yet the band got great press locally right from the get-go. What do you think it was about the band that stood out?
I don’t know. We just recorded some songs and people liked them. There’s probably more to it than that. The band had a strong identity from the start, and the first recordings were really thought out. It’s a snowball thing. If one person writes about you, someone else does. It’s almost like that idea from [the novel] White Noise that you’re not writing about the initial entity but you’re writing about the phenomenon and then you’re writing about the phenomenon of the phenomenon. It becomes the simulacra of a simulacra. And eight iterations later, someone sees through the lens of that and someone wades through the miles and miles of things written about you. But I don’t think that stuff is that important. At the end of the day, it’s just music. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t. That part of it is all a mystery. There’s nothing anyone can write that will make me like one type of music or dislike certain type of music.
There are often strings on your albums and you’ve performed with orchestras. Talk about what you like about string arrangements.
I think having a larger palette is a key to that. Sometimes you say things best by whispering and sometimes by screaming it. Sometimes, what you need is an oboe. [The song] “The Fifth Day” is a good example of that. The last three minutes of the song is a really good example. It’s part of the story. I can’t make it explicit what that is but the whole point is if I could write that down, I wouldn’t need to write the song. The whole purpose of music is to communicate something you can’t quite communicate in words. Having a larger palette to do that works to your benefit.
I’ve read that the new album is an attempt to be “a little smaller” and “more personal.” Is that accurate?
No. I stopped reading reviews. I find them vulgar. A lot of times, people aren’t even really listening. I think they’re participating in a test of their own virtue and a test of their own identity. I find you make take a lot of time making something with nuance and it’s not about an idea. It’s about ten thousand ideas. Somebody writes something really reductive because they’re on deadline. It’s vulgar. You don’t sit down as an artist to write something that specific. It used to be a function of critics to be gatekeepers. Now, that’s not true. That function doesn’t make sense. Someone hears ten seconds and it’s filtered through something else. If you told me to check out the new Vampire Weekend album I wouldn’t read about it. I would just go listen to it.
What’s behind the album title, Such Hot Blood?
We were trying to figure out what was the thing that connected the songs. It’s a reference to a song from the first album. What I like about it is that it connects the dots between the songs. There’s some songs that are slightly electronic and sometimes folky. What do they have in common? They’re all hot-blooded. There’s anger and lust and lots of passion and sex and loneliness that accompanies loss. These are hot-blooded songs and themes and it made sense to give it a title that exemplifies that. It’s a way of formalizing that idea. We’re hot-blooded people making hot-blooded music.
Talk about how you turned to Bruce Springsteen’s music for inspiration when you were recording the new album.
I liked the idea of presenting your struggles to people without presenting conclusions. There doesn’t need to be some kind of summation. You’re struggling with some kind of idea in your head and listeners are just looking to be in the room with you. You need to put listeners on your shoulder and right in the middle of your skull if you’re struggling with an idea. There’s a bit of a catharsis and a moment of recognition and almost a relief. When I heard “The Battle of Hampton Roads” by Titus Andronicus, I thought, “Oh my God.” The song ends with a devastating final line that I totally relate to. That shock of recognition is a relief. It’s empowering and makes you think that what is going with your life is like some kind of big drama or some kind of farce. There’s a common thread between you and your audiences. You’ve been given an opportunity as a storyteller and it’s important to not let that idea go to your head. You’re given an opportunity to pursue these stories with vigor. It’s also fun, too.
The song “Timeless” is a about a singular moment that leads to a greater realization. Was there something in particular that inspired the tune?
It’s a defiant song and an angry song. [The narrator] doesn’t quite believe the chorus. He’s saying it because he wants to believe it. He’s screaming it to the heavens. He’s alone and sad. I guess I wrote it at a time where a bunch of people in my life had died. I was fascinated with these poetic and esoteric ideas of death. These ideas kept me up at night and really drove me and were really powerful and then a bunch of people died in my family – five people – and I didn’t care any more. All of that didn’t matter and I just wanted them back. I didn’t want that to happen to them or to me. I was surprised by how I felt about it.
It’s so hard to sustain a musical career through album sales. Do you feel like that your live show gives you an advantage?
Yeah, it’s weird. I feel like we started off with these punk old school rock ‘n’ roll values. We just wanted to get out there in the van. I was shocked because these shows have been intense and the fans were really intense and knew every word to every song, even deep album cuts. To be a band on our third record and have that kind of following is really tremendous and intense. Everyone has Airborne tattoos and lyrics written on the side of their bodies. People are throwing flowers. I didn’t expect that kind of following. We’ve played almost 900 shows at this point so that has something to do with it. I’m in the center so it’s hard to have too much perspective. It’s fun and completely fucking weird and disorienting but it’s artistically where it’s at. That’s the whole point.
Upcoming 2013 Tour Dates
Sat., June 1
Sat., June 8
Sun., June 9
Mon., June 10
Wed., June 12
Thurs., June 13
Fri., June 14
Wed., June 19
Thurs., June 20
Visalia, CA – Fox Theatre
Orlando, FL – The Beacham (w/Leagues)
St Petersburg, FL – The State Theatre (w/Leagues)
Jacksonville, FL – Freebird Live (w/Leagues)
Cleveland, OH – House of Blues (w/Leagues)
Louisville, KY – Headliners Music Hall (w/Leagues)
Indianapolis, IN – The Vogue (w/Leagues)
Providence, RI – Lupo’s (w/Joy Formidable)
Albany, NY – Upstate Concert Hall (w/Leagues)