Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Rock and Roll Spring Break," or My First Time at SXSW (Day 3 cont)

(Day 3 begins here)

DAY 3 (continued)

7. Portastatic
Portastatic is the prolific side project of Mac McCaughan, whom you may also know as one of the main guys in Superchunk. I'd heard of him from that but more so because my dear friend Margaret White, fiddle-player extraordinaire and all around great dame, played fiddle for them over the years (and Cat Power...and The Comas...and 66489685 other bands). Margaret said she wasn't playing SX this year but that Mac was playing an acoustic set and to go check him out, which I did as the first slot of the Merge Records showcase at the Parish.

Now, I'd heard of Portastatic but not *heard* them, and I was pleased to find the same great quirky pop lyrics of love and yearning that permeate so many of Superchunk's songs. McCaughan started out with a Doug Sahm cover that I think is called "Live in Texas Anymore" (I think). Which was a weird kismit as I was finishing up the book Learning How to Die, a book about Wilco and the band that led up to Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, which is how I first heard of Sahm because he played and sang on one of my most favorite Tupelo songs, Give Back the Key to My Heart. (WHEW, that was a long sentence.) So in addition to writing great stuff, I had to give big props to Mac for having stellar choice in covers.

It's tough work I think to command a large room with an acoustic guitar, but McCaughan did it beautifully. Later on I picked up a few Portastatic cds and found it was a full band. Of the two, I think I liked the acoustic more...something about stripped down music with fab lyrics that just gets me...but that's just me. But if like Superchunk but none of the fuzzy guitars, or just dig something acoustic that's smart lyrically with edgy pop sensibilities, I highly recommend checking Portastatic out.

Download: Getting Saved-Portastatic.mp3 (MP3)

8. Driving By Night
In trying to learn from my previous mistakes due to misjudging the distance in between venues, I tried to make the next three bands in the general vicinity of each other (my mama didn't raise a dumb girl you know...). I ran late leaving the Parish after Portastatic so I was only able to catch a few songs from Driving by Night. I really liked their submitted mp3, and they're out of Belfast so you know, the cute Irish boy factor which is always a plus. What came to mind upon hearing the lead singer was a more ethereal version of Julian Casablancas of the Strokes. Song wise, and you'll prolly be like, "Are you high?" but think Arcade Fire meets Big Country....no really. Now, I've never seen Arcade Fire, Big Country, or the Strokes live, and I'm pretty sure I've heard that Julian Casablancas just stands around on stage, but that's more animated than DBN was....But hopefully they're a young band so maybe that will change. But the music, of that I liked what I heard.

Download: Fears of Men-Driving by Night (MP3)

9. Mario Matteoli
While the boys were off seeing Chris Mills, I decided to go check out this guy whose mp3 I loved, Mario Matteoli. I knew nothing about him so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was, in a word, rather shocked but not in a bad way: the mp3 was quiet; at Lambert’s, he was playing with a full band doing a bluesy stomp….think Professor Longhair meets Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street, with a trombone and a kick ass drummer (no offense Skillet heh). I’d read later on Matteoli's website that he often plays solo or with a band called The Weary Boys, so I’m guessing that's who I was seeing. (Although based on this photo here, the band at Lamberts had other members so who the hell knows…Matteoli’s an Austin local, so maybe he just grabbed a bunch of folks and said, “Let’s play”….) I’d book this guy for my backyard in July and throw a party, or use his music for a long drive up US 1 in California, it just sounds like summer to me. Matteoli’s lyrics are reminiscent of Ryan Adams-full of guitar-driving melancholy and observations from a bar stool perch. Of course I can’t put my hands on it, but they did an incredible song that I think was called, “You Follow Yours/I’ll Follow Mine.”

The one downside to the performance was that the space upstairs at Lamberts was small. Matteoli’s electric guitar player was fond of shredding solos, which, while showing his talent, did nothing for the ear drums in a place that small. Much like bag pipes, some things should be done over a hill and far away.

Download: United Nations - Mario Matteoli (MP3)

10. Watershed
John, Sean, and I reunited for Watershed at this scary little place called “Wave” (aquatics-themed, it’s layout was like a long bowling alley. It also had an upstairs and for some reason, they chose to place the band right next to the stairway for a nice clogging of people trying to get upstairs to see a different band).

Watershed is a great bar band with tons of energy and very catchy songs. My first thoughts were that they had a cool straight-ahead rock sound in the tradition of Cheap Trick meets Dash Rip Rock. Much like Dash, these guys are funny as hell onstage while rocking the place (the lead singer goofing on Paul Stanley of Kiss was worth the price of admission alone). This band has been around awhile, still making fans outside of the Midwest one show at a time I’m sure, but they’re really, really good at it, and really, really talented musicians.

Later, I discovered my ears were dead on in my initial assessment: their Midwest sound is because, like Cheap Trick, they are out of the Midwest (Cleveland, OH), and Dash Rip Rock, another band of road dogs, have long played many shows with them over the years. In fact, I got talking with the lead singer afterwards and when I mentioned I’d never heard Watershed before but how I immediately though of Dash, he damn near fell over in shock, and was super-psyched to hear it. He’d said DRR are basically their big brothers and mentors, and Bill Davis, DRR leader, really helped them along over the years, so the comparison was awesome to hear.

What was it Bono said in that movie, “Rattle and Hum,” “All I need is my red guitar, the three cords and the truth”? That’s these guys in a nutshell (minus the Bono-pomposity of course.)

Download: Obvious-Watershed (MP3)

11. Nicole Adkins
I made it a point to see Nicole Adkins because a friend whose taste I respect saw her in Boston and raved, raved, raved. She wasn't really what I expected; I guess I was thinking she would be more bluesy ala Marcia Ball....but Adkins is all driving pop. She reminded me of an early Chrissie Hynde for some reason...maybe it was the bangs...but her voice is like syrup, smooth and sweet, and goes over you like lapping waves. There is a rather interesting quality to her voice and then it hit me: She's like a female Jeff Buckley.

Overall, I enjoyed her, and her band was great (although the mix for the lead guitar was WAY too jarring...jarring like dogs nearby were howling jarring). The show was crowded so Adkins' name is definitely out there. Rather odd venue for a rock show though...couches...bottle service....weird. And I was really glad I had sprung for a badge versus a wrist band once I saw the line (and at one point, this guy in the wristband line was complaining how "wristbands should have some merit" as badges got to go in first, and should the place be at capacity, wristband holders may not get in at all. Sure badges are expensive but for the three things a wristband holder gets shut out of, there's a bunch they get into as well, which is pretty good considering they paid $150 and we paid $600. And even with a badge, I got shut out of Nada Surf AND missed the first four Lucero songs, so you just gotta roll with it I guess).

Download: Party’s Over–Nicole Adkins (MP3)

12. Somebody Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin seems to play DC so much that I thought they were from here (and yet, I'd never seen them previously). But I'd heard they were decent so I decided to finally catch them halfway across the country. They started late, and I had a date with Lucero in 20 minutes, so I only got to catch a couple of songs, but I dug them...which is saying a lot because they were playing in Habanna Calle’s basement, the Bermuda Triangle for band vocals. Yeltsin's members looks like they’re 12 but they rock like they’re 40, especially the drummer. These guys are guitar-driven power pop with really good hooks.

Boris Yeltsin also played the Paste/Stereogum showcase at Volume earlier in the day (where I saw The Weakerthans and part of The Whigs set). That's where I had intended on seeing Boris Yeltsin but remember how I told you how the depths of hell were cooler than Volume that day? Yeah, so thankfully they played someplace else. (However, NPR endured the heat and produced a copy of Yeltsin's Paste/Stereogum show here).

Download: Glue Girls--Somebody Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (MP3)

13. Lucero
For the first time all trip, I got stuck in a line waiting outside a venue due to overcrowding, even though I had a badge. John and Sean had ditched any 9:30 act to go to Red Eye Fly early for just this reason. While I could hear some of the songs from the outside, it was KILLING me because for one reason or another, I’d always missed DC Lucero dates.

Lucero cites their influences as The Pogues, Springsteen, and The Replacements, among others...so the perfect band for me essentially, as those are three of my all-time favorites (remind me to tell you about the time I got to slow dance with Westerberg). Plus, lead singer Ben Nichols is hot as hell, which always helps, and has a songwriting style similar to Paul Westerberg. His vocal style well...imagine Tom Waits gargling with razors before going onstage, that’s about what Nichols sounds like.

Apparently, Lucero also shares a hard drinkin lifestyle like the Westerberg and the 'Mats too. That’s why I laughed when I ran across this quote recently: “Lucero….is the sound of the Replacements, 20 years later, a little more sober, and from Memphis instead of Minneapolis.” I think "slightly more sober" is up for interpretation, or the author of said quote has never seen Lucero's live show. At the Red Eye Fly show, Nichols was barely standing and admittedly obliterated...and this wasn’t the worst shape my friends had seen the band in (though usually it's the members falling down, not Nichols). I was really enjoying the show and slacking a bit on note taking, but John captured some essential quotes from the stage and the overall essence perfectly, so I'll defer to his take:

I’ve been a fan of Lucero for some time now (having first seen them at South-by a few years back), and while I’ve seen them in various states of inebriation, I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Ben Nichols, their fearless leader, utterly bombed onstage. Until this night, that is.

It’s funny ‘cause Nichols walked into the club right behind me and, upon recognizing him, I took the opportunity to ask if they might be adding a D.C. date to their Spring tour And while the answer was “not in the spring, but probably summer,” it was the rest of the conversation that proved most prophetic. Nichols went on to say that they’d played a party early in the afternoon and “that was a mistake, ‘cause we’ve been drinking since 1 … so we’ll try to be good.” I countered that there seemed to be little cause for concern given the various states of drunkenness in which I’d seen the band play –and acquit themselves admirably– in the past. Nichols appreciated the encouragement, but clearly seemed less certain of their abilities on this particular night.

Upon taking the stage a short while later, the first words Nichols uttered were, “SXSW stresses me the fuck out…goddamn.” Then the set took off like a rocket with an opening threesome including “That Much Further West,” “I Can Get us Out of Here Tonight,” and their scorching take on Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle.” Three songs later, following a raucous performance of “Tonight Ain’t Gonna be Good,” Nichols explained to the crowd, “I’m way too drunk to play this … let’s play something easy.” In response to a shouted request for “All Sewn Up,” Nichols agreed, “that’s cool,” but following a somewhat shambling version, he quipped, “we need to play an easier one, don’t we?”

A few songs later in the set, an honest-to-god mosh pit broke out during “Tears Don’t Matter Much,” which was, admittedly, extremely cool to see at a Lucero show. Following that always-cathartic song was “Drink ‘Til We’re Gone,” after which Nichols helpfully explained, “this is what I play like drunk. Rest of my band? Sober. Me? Hammered.”

Nichols went on to apologize, saying that if there were any representatives of influential record labels present, it was all his fault. At which point, one wag in the crowd shouted out, “if you play ‘The War,’ I’ll sign you!” By now, the rest of the band had packed it in, but Nichols was still strapped and, with a wry grin, launched into a solo electric version of the requested song. And he even made it through two full verses before packing it in himself, explaining, “it’d be worse if I played the rest of it … I’m done. I like Austin, but … this is tough on me.”

And that concluded the highlight of my Friday night. If you’re wondering how such a sloppy, damn-the-torpedoes drunken performance could be the highlight of a night filled with (other) great bands performing soberly and without any handicap … well, have I mentioned that the Replacements are my all-time favorite band?

Afterwards, I spoke to the lead guitarist briefly, and told him how I was going to review this first show of mine for my site, to which he began to apologize profusely about how bad it was. I said, "No, no, really, it was fantastic, I'm a huge 'Mats fan.." and before I could finish my sentence he said, "Oh thank god," which cracked me up.

Here is a rough interview with Nichols the next day with the kids from Muzzle of Bees

Long story short: Do not miss these guys if you ever get the chance to see them live if you love music in any way, shape, or form. The show may go off the rails, but I promise you, you'll enjoy every minute of it.

Download: Kiss the Bottle--Lucero (MP3)
Download: Tears Don’t Matter Much--Lucero (MP3)

Day 3, Total Bands Seen: 13

Day 4 coming up...

SXSW, Day 1/Part 1
SXSW, Day 1/Part 2
SXSW, Day 2/Part 1
SXSW, Day 2/Part 2
SXSW, Day 3/Part 1

Monday, April 28, 2008

Goodies for the next week (or so)....

Who knew a 4 hour interview could take so much out of a girl! Chart your courses and mark your calendars, upcoming goodies for the next week or so here at BL&L include:

-Completing my SXSW 08 experience report
-Sound and Vision: My Interview with The Red Romance
-Show reviews of Eels, Jens Lekman, and by that time, The Redwalls.

You know you want it...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Old 97s were supposed to do Mermaid Avenue with Billy Bragg??

My dear friend and SXSW travel partner John sent this to me today. John and I don't 100% agree in all of our musical choices. But he too loves the Old 97s as much as I (well ok, probably not as much as I'm rather certain that I am alone in my naughty Rhett fantasies), but he's stoically endured the "whither I'm a flower" mess I become in Rhett's presence more than once hence....a true blue friend. AND he sends me things like the video you see below.

For the life of me, I can't determine if Rhett's saying the Old 97s were supposed to tour with Billy Bragg in place of Wilco for the Mermaid Avenue tour, or they were supposed to record with Billy Bragg for Mermaid Avenue II...but still, it's rather neat to know they were supposed to be part of it. (If you don't know the backstory there, Billy Bragg and Wilco were supposed to tour behind the first Mermaid Avenue record (I think it was the first one), but they started to squabble and Wilco wound up turning the whole thing down. But then they did another Mermaid Avenue record, so you can see my confusion regarding Rhett's statement here at the beginning of the video).

ANYWAY, here's Stewart Ransom Miller doing an acoustic version of Wilco and Billy's Bragg's "California Stars."

All I ever wanted was to be your spine...

After getting turned on to Travis Woods cool music blog, Web in Front, I got itchin to hear some Archers of Loaf. So I tinkered around on the Hype and found this great solo acoustic Eric Bachmann plus interview link. Amazing...I had to chuckle though, I'm 99% sure he no longer lives in the Triangle area, prolly hasn't in years, but he's still on Merge and has those specific and wonderful Triangle inflections in his voice when he says certain words.

Then there's Crooked Fingers...I was introduced to Crooked Fingers kind of late via the ReservoirSongs EP a couple years after it came out, then Dignity and Shame around the same time. Dear God, what a beautiful duo. "Reservoir Songs," consisting of 5 covers,(you've probably heard Prince's "When You Were Mine"), didn't leave my cd player for months. Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" just tears me up. It's a melancholy song to begin with, but Bachmann's voice with it, you feel in your bones how lonely a Sunday morning can be. That's an element I've always loved about him in Crooked Fingers, his voice always gets me in this odd in-between place of extremes where you feel both at the same time....heartbreak and your grandmother singing you to sleep, the sadness of losing of a friend and the tingle of meeting someone new, death and life, all at the same time.

Download:Sunday Morning Coming Down-Crooked Fingers.mp3

On the other hand, with Archers it was more like they, not Yo La Tengo, should have named an album I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass because the sort of energy in that statement is exactly what they sound like, but with really cool lyrics (Youre not the one who let me down/But thanks for offering,Its not a voice and Im not around/But thanks for picking it...)

So without for further ado...Icky Mettle
1. Web in Front
2. Last Word
3. Wrong
4. You and Me
5. Might
6. Hate Paste
7. Fat
8. Plumb Line
9. Learo, Youre A Hole
10. Sick File
11. Toast
12. Backwash
13. Slow Worm

Download:Icky Mettle-Archers of Loaf.zip

New Death Cab!

Props to the person who goes by, "I have mono," over at Sometimes I Tape Stuff for a listen at brand new Death Cab for Cutie tracks from the forthcoming Death Cab record, "Narrow Stairs," out May 15th.

DCFC, Live at McDonald Theater, Eugene OR, 4.19.08

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sound and Vision: My Interview with The Airborne Toxic Event (Act IV)

(Old photo "disappeared" so....new photo via Modelography)

Act I of IV
Act II of IV
Act III of IV


"No matter how long it holds me if it falls apart/or makes us millionaires/We'll go through this thing together/and on heaven's golden shore we'll lay our heads"-Golden, My Morning Jacket (File taken down per request of a threatening entity)

Mikel and I reconvene a day or two later, again via video conferencing, to tie up some loose ends.

Me: You guys only have an EP out but are looking to put out your first LP. You have gotten some label interest. Say you get a lot of interest but no one you're really knocked out by. Would you ever consider putting it out yourselves?
MJ: Yeah absolutely, we have extensive plans for that. We've gone pretty far down that road already thinking about it. We just made the record ourselves at the first of the year, and then it was, "Well let's find a way to put it out." And we knew we were going to be in front of labels and all that kind of stuff in January and to some extent, February. What we decided is that we want to do whatever makes sense. And what makes sense could be a 360 deal on a major--we doubt it but it could--that's one extreme, right? Then there's the other extreme where we just put it out ourselves. We'd have a proper release for it, but it's just whatever makes sense.

We've been like...I dunno if "disillusioned" is the right word, but the fucking major label system is broken for a reason. It is just...I do not understand how those people think, at all. (laughs) It's like a sinking ship.

(From here, we start discussing the book about Wilco, Learning How to Die, which covered the band and their trials and tribulations with the whole record label merger mess that took place around the time of their seminal record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.)

Me: But it's exciting because people are starting to put stuff by themselves and such, ala Radiohead.
MJ: Yeah, one of the cool things about all this is that the distribution channels are no longer guarded by these huge corporations. It's like well, the whole thing is fucked anyway. KROC [a major radio station in LA] for example, they added us even though we're unsigned because they're like, "Fuck it, this whole thing is going down." And all those indie rock promoters of the '90s promoting major radio, that's all dead with that huge lawsuit. And no one is making money on cd sales….Except indie rock. Do you know that indie rock sales are actually up 8%, and country and hip-hop have taken the hardest hits? It's like heyday for indie rock right now. We think it's because it's lean years now but indie rock bands are used to being lean. It's like, "Fuck we have to be in a van? We've been in a van for 20 years, who cares."

Me: I'd asked you before about why you didn't study writing in school versus the science stuff you did study, and you answered briefly, but we had to break at that point so things got a little garbled. Basically your life/training had been veering towards science at that point; being a writer was a big switch. Why and how did it happen?
MJ: Well, I decided to become a writer when I was 26 or so, and I moved up to a horse ranch, as I think I mentioned. And I've felt all my life that the smart people in this society were the writers, those were always the people that I respected and admired. So whenever I thought about becoming a writer, I'd get a little tingle in my spine, you know, kind of nervous and excited. Whether I had any proficiency at it is another question. (laughs) But I certainly was interested in it.

So I decided that's all I wanted to do with my life, and for a long time, that's all I did. All I did was write, write, write, write. for years. And then I had this big turning point with music where I was working on a novel. I had a story go up the ladder at the New Yorker but then they ended up not taking it--that's the one coming out in McSweeney's next month. And I got into Yaddo [an artist colony and residence in Saratoga Springs, NY] that same month, which is a huge honor for an unpublished fiction writer. So I got in there and I got the prime spot in the summer, they gave me 2 months. I had a really good literary agent I'd landed, and I had a novel that was just about done that he was really excited about. That same month, I met Daren. And I remember my parents, my friends, everyone I knew, were like you've got to take this. I had to make a decision…if I went to Yaddo, I wasn't going to be able to start the band. And suddenly, it was "Am I a writer or am I a musician?" I remember telling my folks, because they'd seen me struggle for years and years trying to establish some kind of writing career and working on the novel forever, and they said "You're out of your mind!" They thought I was nuts. And I was like, "But I met this drummer and he's really good, he's a great drummer," and they were like, "Who cares!" (laughs) But then I chose not to go [to Yaddo] and instead, I locked myself in the warehouse with Daren for a few months, played music, and started Airborne. And we haven't looked back. My parents, they understand it now I think. At the time they didn't get it, they were like "What are you doing??" But now they seem to get it, that we had some real clear ideas of what we wanted the band to be, and we didn't want it to be the run of the mill whatever.
Me: Wow man, that'll either be an inspiration to a lot of people or piss a lot of people off. (laughs)
MJ: But then it's funny because now I've been doing music and I'm finally getting published as a fiction writer.
Me: I guess the question I have of that is, what, Daren wasn't going to stick around? Was he shipping off to sea or something? (laughs)
MJ: That's a good question…I guess I really understood that it was a crossroads. I think at the time, I really understood that [if he went to Yaddo] I would have had to finish the book, and then go and become a writer. And you know, Daren might join another band before then, and he was the first drummer I'd met that I was like, this guy's great, I gotta work with him. We just clicked immediately; we knew we wanted to be in the same kind of band. We lived and died by it and we knew this was going to be a thing for us. I guess I knew it was a crossroads.

And music suddenly felt way more real. Like the writing of the novel, which had been the focus of my life for years, suddenly seemed really academic and almost, like I was an imposter because all I did was play music, like all day long. And that's what ultimately helped me make my decision. I couldn't imagine literally going to this place and writing because I had literally been playing and singing for 8 hours a day for the previous 8-9 months, ever since the whole thing with my folks and my disease and everything. It just seemed stupid, like this isn't me anymore.

On working with Filter*/industry folks he knows:
(*Ed. note: If you're coming in late to our interview here, Jollett used to be Managing Editor at Filter)
MJ: We won't work with them. You know how like in the Senate you can't just avoid a conflict of interest, you have to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest? Being in LA and an indie rock band in LA, Filter's a big part of the scene here, so we've just avoided it at every turn. It's important to us; we don't want to look like we're cheating.
Me: That's interesting. When I was doing my research on you guys, I guess I'd come across some comments and such that went like, "Oh they're just industry people, they're getting big because they're using their connections."
MJ: Yeah I actually didn't mention it to Daren for the first 6 months. I didn't mention it to club promoters because I just didn't think it was relevant. And also, nobody fucking cares. (laughs) I mean, people are going to come see your band or they're not. If I said to you, "Hey let's go see this show, there's this Fader writer playing," you'd be like, "Who fucking cares!" (laughs) Same thing with us. And also, if you're a writer, you don't have any connections, you know publicists, you don't know anyone else. It's like, "Hey you're a publicist, I have a band," and they'd say, "So what, I know 5000 bands...and I'm in a band too." The whole thing is kind of silly.

I try not to read press because it just makes you super-self conscious all the time. But I feel like it's sort of part of it, slagging off bands. I used to like to slag off bands, it's fun to slag off bands, it's part of the sport of it. If you can't handle people having strong opinions about what you're doing, then you shouldn't be a musician....that's part of the sport of rock and roll. I mean you're putting yourself out there for it, and you have to take it all with a grain of salt, the praise and the derision. 95% of our press has been extremely positive so we're very spoiled....but it [bad press] is all part of the sport, it's part of being in the mix….it's awesome. It's more fun being in a band and making music and being part of it all, you know?

On doing videos:
MJ: Yeah it was fun. It was a big group of people, everyone contributed. My friend Jason Wishnow directed, and he's just an amazing director, he just put the whole thing together. And we did it on a shoestring budget...the "crew" was us and our friends, and we just kind of did it.

We're doing another one pretty soon for "Midnight." We were going to wait a little while but I think we've decided it's time to just make a video…we don't care. We have some good ideas for what we want to do with it. I think the important thing is to have a good idea and then try to execute it, I mean how much was that OK GO video, which cost them what, 1000 bucks? (laughs) But it was super smart.

On the all black wardrobe the band often sports onstage:
MJ: Yeah, that's on purpose. The idea, at first, was we wanted there to be a certain anonymity to what we were doing. The original idea was something like mirroring the static of a television…we didn't want it to be a question of what's cool, but more to serve the artistic purposes of the band. Like dealing with a world so saturated with media and trying to cut through it by doing something that's really not.

About the name "Airborne Toxic Event":
MJ: The name The Airborne Toxic Event made a lot of sense to us for a few reasons. The cloud itself is formed in "White Noise" when an explosion at a chemical plant releases this enormous black cloud into the atmosphere. It's deadly, or at least reported to be so. The protagonist, Jack Gladney, gets exposed to it and thus spends the entire rest of the book thinking that he was going to die. It made him confront his fear of death. The Airborne Toxic Event was literally a symbol of his own death, floating out on the horizon somewhere.

I wrote a lot of the music for the band in a very dark period after my mom got diagnosed with cancer and I got diagnosed with auto-immune disorder. It basically made me feel very mortal. I guess it was the first time I really realized, in a powerful way, that I was totally going to die someday. And at that point, with that realization, suddenly all I wanted to do was play music. So I guess the name made sense since it literally symbolized that idea.

About his disease:
MJ: In a way, it makes you grounded because I'm never going to be like, pinup rockstar guy. I never wanted that anyway, but that's just not an option so I better really, really mean it. And I can't get vain because in the next couple of years I'm going to start looking really funny. It's already kind of started. But you know, shit like that, it's just hair...I have a funny peanut head so I'll probably just shave my head at some point. We talked about it in the band. Noah's like, "When the day comes and you just got to shave your head because you're on nothing left, we're all gonna do it, we're all just going to shave our heads, an act of solidarity in the band." (laughs).
Me: Even Anna?
MJ: Oh I dunno about Anna. (both laugh)

About being so forthright and honest in his songwriting:
MJ: I feel like the best thing you can do is invite people into your life. I mean, you go to an Airborne show, you know a lot about me because all these songs are about real things that happened.

It's sort of appropriate, like a deal with the devil in some weird way. You're going to have this band of great musicians you get to play with, and out of nowhere you're able to write songs, but you're gonna start looking funny in the next couple of years so you better not let it get to your head, you better not become an asshole. You have to actually mean it. You have to be in it for the right reasons and not for vanity and stuff like that."


5 days prior to the initial publishing of this interview, I came across this. When Jollett and I talked that weekend, I inquired about it. He said he couldn't dish, it was a PR thing, but that they were officially announcing their plans on Thursday. That Thursday, I received this:

From: AirborneToxic@aol.com Sent:Thu 4/17/08 1:16 PM
good morning, We are thrilled to announce that we have officially signed a record deal with Majordomo records. Majordomo is a new, independent, west coast label made up of refugees from both major and indie labels including Rhino records, Warner Brothers, Mute, V2 and many others. The situation (and the deal) combines the tenacity and dedication of an indie with the large scale distribution (Majordomo is distributed through the enormous Sony/BMG network), meaning our record will be everywhere records can be. When we looked at the options and considered who and what we are as a band, the state of the music industry and the intelligence and innovation of Majordomo, there was no doubt in our minds that this was the right home for us. The deal is a partnership arrangement, very similar to that which Radiohead signed with TBD Records, that we feel allows us to control our destiny as artists while benefiting from a large and dedicated team at our label. It just felt right. Our self-titled debut record will be in stores on July 15th. We will be touring extensively in support of the record, announcing all those dates very soon. One date we can announce now is June 7th on which we will be playing BFD, Live 105's summer music festival at Shoreline Amphitheatre in lovely Mountain View, California. Can't wait to play that one. Also, we'll be playing Last Call with Carson Daly on Tuesday, April 22nd on NBC. Big day for us. more soon... we miss you and love you, more than you know, more than we could ever begin to tell you-- Mikel, Daren, Noah, Steven, Anna the Airborne Toxic Event myspace. com/theairbornetoxicevent --- a new, a very extensive interview with an East Coast music blog, published in four parts (this is I and II): http://betweenloveandlike. blogspot. com/2008_04_01_archive. html

On this, the virtual eve of their signing to a major label, I asked Jollett how he defined success. He said it wasn't so much about the money and whatnot, it was more that people (about a million in fact) discovered and appreciated ATE's music. New people that is, not people who already knew them or had a vested interest already, but people they'd never met, people who didn't know them, but who just got the proverbial "it." He told me a funny story about how he'd met a guy named Ray after a show one night, and how psyched Ray was that Jollett had written 'Sometime Around Midnight,' as Ray had been through something similar with an ex-girlfriend of his. With this signing to Majordomo and SONY/BMG's distribution muscle, Jollett should expect to hear something similar from Rays in Kentucky and South Carolina and Boston and... in the not too distant future.

After the many hours of us talking and pickling our livers, I think I gained more than a few insights about ATE... Like they're each absolutely whip smart. Very, very funny. Look out for each other. And universally dedicated to making their band succeed. The optimist in me thinks that while that book of Crash Davis idioms might be necessary for some bands, I don't believe it is for these guys. The record industry is a tough bully sure, but Jollett and Company are like a brainy family of siblings whose dad taught them to fight; they may seem small, but if pressed, none of them are afraid to throw that left hook to a jaw and leave that bully bleeding in the corner.

Travis Woods, an LA writer whose work has been in Prefix Magazine and the LA Times (as well as a great interview with ATE back in Sept 2007), picks up where I leave off here. His interview includes the band's outlook after signing, information about the new label, AND the mp3 of a great song ATE plays live, "I Don't Want to be on TV." Go check it out...
Web in Front, Featured Artist: The Airborne Toxic Event

Monday, April 21, 2008

Kids, it's ok, Blogger and I aren't fighting, we're just having a little disagreement is all....

RSS feeds and all that shite. Screwy Blogger XML code. Me sporting very short hair as I've pulled all mine out. I hope to be back up here by tomorrow with more SXSW postings, a tricked out Angela Davis wig, and the last act in the Airborne Toxic Event interview series, maybe even with additional info regarding the label signing, keep your fingers crossed....

Friday, April 18, 2008

Danny Federici, Springsteen Keyboardist, Dies at Age 58

Oh man...so sad. I was at one of the last couple of shows Danny played (Albany) last fall and the first one at which they played "Sandy" and "E Street Shuffle" in something like 98787678575 years. He truly was an amazing talent.

From Pitchfork:

Danny Federici, Bruce Springsteen's longtime keyboardist, died yesterday, April 17, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The 58-year-old E Street Band member had been fighting melanoma for three years.

Posting about Federici's death on his website, Springsteen wrote, "Danny and I worked together for 40 years - he was the most wonderfully fluid keyboard player and a pure natural musician. I loved him very much...we grew up together."

It was also requested that donations be made in Federici's memory to the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund.

Federici, who also played the organ and the accordion, began working with Springsteen in local Asbury Park, New Jersey bands in the late 1960s. He was one of the founding members of the E Street Band, and stuck with the group until Springsteen disbanded it in the late 1980s. When Springsteen reunited with the E Streeters in 1999, he was back on board, and remained in the group until taking time off in late 2007 to undergo cancer treatment. Federici's last performance with the band took place on March 20, 2008 in Indianapolis.

Federici's playing can be heard on Springsteen classics throughout his career, from Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town through Born in the U.S.A. and Tunnel of Love to The Rising and Magic. He also recorded as a solo artist. Springsteen and the E Street Band have postponed their concerts in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando tonight and tomorrow, but promise to replace them soon.

A friend whom I had emailed with the news said it best:
i'm tired of this...
it's not right...
in the immortal words of Lewis Black...
'the good die young...but PRICKS...they seem to live FOREVER!!!'...
i hope he's wearin a cool hat right now...
and playin a Hammond B3...
rest in peace Vinyl Dan...


Great post about Danny over here at Deeper Shade of Soul with some of Danny's best songs via mp3.

Sound and Vision: My Interview with The Airborne Toxic Event (Act III)

(Photo via Modelography)

Act I of IV
Act II of IV


"The hope I had in a notebook full of white, dry pages/Was all I tried to save"-Via Chicago (Live, 2.18.08 at The Riv, Chicago)-Wilco

(We pick up the interview where Act II closed. Steven is in another room playing guitar.)

Me: Has there been one writer whose books you collect/always pick up when they put one out?
MJ: Yeah, probably Fitzgerald, Phillip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Alice Munro are ones I like.
Me: And in terms of music?
MJ: I've always followed the career of Eric Bachmann pretty closely….Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers, his solo stuff, I think he's this misunderstood musical genius. He's almost a morality tale in terms of why you not only have to be serious about your songwriting, but serious about what it does for your life. He's an extremely talented guy and I've always looked up to him and admired him, my whole life. I've always felt he was a very important songwriter that's been kind of overlooked. But yeah, pretty much anything he does I'll follow. For years and years I followed anything The Cure did, though I lost track of that bit a little while ago.

But I'm more of an archive person, I more discover things and follow their catalog for awhile. I don't read books, I read authors. I find a book that I like and I want to read every book by that author, the same thing with bands. So I have these seminal bands that I've listened to every one of their songs and tried to absorb some of what they were doing I guess.
Me: I ask that because I know some friends who are also writers and really, really into music, but they'll follow a certain band and then say "Oh they put out a shit album and I'm not going to follow them anymore." I just disagree with that.
MJ: I agree with them, you shouldn't put out shit albums, because you can lose the plot as an artist. You stop working as hard, you stop trying as hard, or you start taking shortcuts with what you're doing. And so it's perfectly appropriate for them to say, "Yeah they kind of lost the plot with that record." It's true, it's abso-fuck-alutely true, they did lose the plot, and you know why, it's because they weren't paying that much attention. You gotta pay attention as an artist because that's your job. So I agree with your friends on that. I mean, what, you're supposed to just absorb everything someone does just because they happen to be a musician? Who cares, write a good song, you're a songwriter, that's your job.
Me: But it's not so much that. If a certain person originally reached out and grabbed you in some degree, I think it could still possibly be there…We can agree to disagree I guess. (both laugh)

Now books…some books I've gone back to multiple times even though I have brand new books sitting on a shelf. Name two like that for you.

MJ: Tender is the Night and Lolita.
SC: (from the other room) John Grisham's The Summons.
MJ: (laughs) Steven's making a joke. "Tender is the Night" I've read probably 12 times, and "Lolita" I've read probably 10-15 times.
Me: And yet you're complaining you have only 16 year-olds coming to your shows? (laughs)
MJ: No, I think people misread "Lolita." There's that Vanity Fair quote about "Lolita" that it's the only honest love story of the 20th century. It's not a love story; it's a story about obsession...
Me: (interjects)...and lust
MJ: I don't even know about lust, lust is this other thing; I think it's actually just about obsession. Really what I admire about "Lolita" is the story-telling, watching him literally be conspiratorial with his audience. Half the time you read Nabokov, you're caught up in the story, and half the time, you're just admiring this man who can tell this fucking story so beautifully and so perfectly…..
SC: (from the other room) In his second language.
MJ: In his second language, that's right, it's not even his first language! It's his fucking second language and it's just unbelievable to me. And also, obviously White Noise, I've read quite a few times. So I'd say those three are the books I've read the most. (Starts scanning the walls of the room) I'm looking up at the books taped to my wall...I've got The Trial by Kafka taped to my wall, Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky, American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Laughter in the Dark by Nabokov and strangely enough, Steinbeck. I actually like Steinbeck quite a bit, I think he's actually a really good writer. He's like a bull with his characters. He has a really repetitive voice, and he's not particularly interested in diction, but his way of telling a story is "Here are these characters, now watch me push these characters through a series of really, really bad things." And so, it's hard to turn away.
Me: But that's a lot of what the songwriting is with you guys, it seems, hard to turn away. A lot of these situations people have endured and yet, they're being spoken of in a way that's very forthright, very vulnerable, very Westerberg-esque if you will...heart on your sleeve sort of stuff.
MJ: (laughs) Well it's not on purpose.

Me: What the best and the worst part about being a writer of songs rather than a writer about songs, and vice versa?
MJ: Whew, you're going for the big guns here, Erica. (pauses) Well...The worst part is feeling like a fraud. What happens is you listen to a lot of music from people that you respect and you feel like they become these demagogues in your mind....Bob Dylan is a god he's not a person, or Robert Smith, David Bowie, John Sebastian, you name it, they're not people. And so as a songwriter when you start to write songs and people listen to them, you start to feel like you're a fraud, like "Who the fuck am I?" I mean, I went to high school, I've got parents who still think I'm 11, I've got friends who roll their eyes at some of my habits...You feel like you're a complete and utter and total fraud, and anyone who would listen to you is just buying into some persona that you're projecting. And it sucks; it's like a really shitty feeling of just being almost embarrassed by all that vulgar emotion that you're showing. So that's the worst part.

And I guess conversely, the worst part of being a writer when you write about music is feeling like you don't matter. And these people who write the songs are the ones who matter and you're just some asshole commenting from the wings. And no one cares what the fuck you think, they just care about these songwriters.

So then there's the best part of being, I guess, a critic which is that you can tell people when other people are full of shit. You can say, "That record sucks because this guy was just reading too much of his own publicity, and it's crap." And it's fun, it's really fun to slag off on bands. There can be a certain sort of...conspiracy you have with your reader.

And then the best part of being a songwriter is connecting with that audience. It's bringing everybody into your room when you wrote that song. It's like you wrote it, and finished it, and you had this feeling at 1 in the morning, on a fucking Wednesday night, and you're broke, and you're not sure how you're going to pay your rent in 2 weeks...And you're sitting there by yourself with writing all over your arms and your legs and your walls and whatever...And now here's 200 people singing it with you. And it's just really, really affirming where you just feel like..."fuck you loneliness!," this happened, and other people felt it too.

And then I guess the median point between all these things is that we're all critics that suck, and were all complete frauds, and we're all conspiratorial with our audiences, and we're all completely with them while they go through our pain with us. At various times, everybody is all these things; the fun part is being one of them. It's realizing that you can be part of it. And it makes you want to tell everyone you know, "Hey man, quit your job, start following bands or reading books or watching movies or looking at art or whatever it is you want to do that actually excites you or interests you." Because wherever your place is, as an artist or a critic, or appreciator, or as a complete and total fuck-up mess that just goes to museums, whatever, go, be part of it. Just don't be part of some soulless, nameless, credit-driven corporation who tells you what your life should be because THAT's bullshit, that's soulless and wrong. And everything else, whether people hate you or think you're a god, everybody's wrong. Anyone who hates you is wrong and anyone who thinks you're a genius is wrong....At least you're not sitting behind a desk, under a florescent light, pushing papers for a profit margin because that sucks.
Me: (ponders, then calls out to Steven still in the other room) Steven do you agree? (laughs)
SC: Yeah he's right.
MJ: (laughs) He's half passed out on my bed because he doesn't handle scotch.
SC: I drank too much Jameson!
MJ: Tell the truth you can't handle scotch!
SC: (coming in from the other room) I'll handle scotch back and forth across this room, I'll handle it all night!
MJ: Just go lie down you're not doing well. (laughs)

(Steven leaves)

MJ: Erica, when are you going to ask me about my five songs I wish I'd written? I spent some time seriously thinking about this.
Me: Great! (Reading over notes) Well I think we're at that point, so ok, name five songs you wish you wrote and why.
MJ: I wish I'd written “Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen just because I like the part where Cohen says, "We're ugly but we have the music." I love that line. It's about him having sex with Janis Joplin...she gets up and straightens her dress and says,"Well never mind, we're ugly but we have the music." That's after that line where he says, "You told me again you prefer handsome men."
Me: She also preferred women so he shouldn't take it personally. (both laugh)
MJ: Yeah he shouldn't take it too hard. You know, I've got autoimmune disorder and I'm losing all the hair on my head and my face and my body, and I'm losing all the pigment on my body...and autoimmune disorder cuts your lifespan down by about 20 years. This is all the stuff that happened to me when I started writing music. And it's funny because my whole life, I've always been, (pauses) I was like the cute boy in high school and college to some extent, and I started a band not until I was 30 something, and then I got diagnosed with this disease, and it changes the way I look. And suddenly everyone is taking pictures of us, shooting videos of us, and I look at them and go,"Wow, you don't have that much hair," (laughs) or "Your skin looks funny," and....it's really nerve-wracking and weird. When it comes to just the art of it, you don't care, you just want people to care about what you write or what you sing or what your band is doing. But then there's this real thing about being in front of people, and other people telling you, "Hey dude, gosh, you kind of look weird." So that line where he says "We're ugly but we have the music," that really speaks to me. I feel like I didn't have the music until I became ugly, and that was my tradeoff with the world. And so I couldn't try to be the cute boy who fronts a band or tries to sleep with groupies…I had to write songs I meant, I had to be with bandmates I truly cared about, I had to do things that I really believed in. I wasn't going to get away with just trying to be cute because I wasn't gonna be cute anymore….I was going to lose all my hair and my skin pigment and look like Moby. (laughs) So he expresses that idea really well. And I feel that way a lot, that I didn't get music until I got so ugly.

Another one is “Quicksand” by David Bowie. Hunky Dory, it's just a great record. I remember listening to that song when I was 11 years old with my friend Jake in his garage. My friend Jake was my best friend at the time, and he was this real awkward kid who loved Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the Cure and the Smiths, and I didn't know from that shit except that he introduced me to it. We were both these poor kids, his dad was a coke addict, and we were on welfare and food stamps, and our escape was our garage with our music. And David Bowie sings that line, "You don't believe in yourself," that always spoke to me…It always meant we don't matter, that our ideas matter but we don't. We're just a couple of loser kids and we'll always be loser kids, but we can attach ourselves to ideas or we can have ideas, and that's the important thing.

The third one is “I Found a Reason” by the Velvet Underground, just because Lou Reed once told me, "Rock and roll can go ba ba ba, it can't go la la la." (laughs) I just really liked the song, it's beautiful, and I wish I'd written it because it's one of my favorite songs.

Number four is “3rd Planet” by Modest Mouse. Maybe it's something to throw you off with a more modern thing in there, but if I had to choose one song that was my favorite of all time, I'd have to say “3rd Planet” by Modest Mouse. It's because you're there with him, you're swimming around in all those guitar delays and all that confusion….And you see the planets and you see your own stupid, pitiful, little life, and it just makes sense to you.

And you know, "My only art is fucking people over" is a GREAT line because it just absolves you from your complete and utter inability to relate. I don't think I'm like that, I think I probably relate ok, but it's a great line and it makes you on his team at that point.

My number five was actually a bunch of different songs. I couldn't decide, so I figured instead of trying to explain or choose one, I'm just gonna list them and you can decide for yourself why.
-“Fairytale of NY” (The Pogues)
-“Like Cockatoos” (The Cure)
-“Rapture” (Pedro the Lion)
-“The Calendar that Hung Itself” (Bright Eyes)
-“Hotel Yorba” (White Stripes)
-“We've Been Had” (The Walkman)
-“A Little Bleeding” (Crooked Fingers)
-“Queen of the Surface Streets” (Devotchka)
-“Lion's Mane” (Iron and Wine)

Now if you're a songwriter, the reasons why you would choose any one of these songs seems really obvious to me, like they captured a little bit of what it felt like to be them at that moment. Before recorded music, poetry was really popular. My theory is that poetry isn't popular anymore because we have music now. Before we had a recording of how people felt, they'd try to capture it lyrically in poems. And now, no one gives a FUCK about poetry because we have all these songs, and they're so much better at capturing what it felt like. When Robert Smith wrote "Like Cockatoos," I know that feeling, I know it really well. "Fairytale of NY," I know what that feels like...You want to see all those police officers singing “Galway Bay.” "The Calendar that Hung Itself," have you ever been jealous in your entire life, of anyone? "The Calendar that Hung Itself" is the quintessential jealousy song. So it's a bit of a cock-up naming all these songs as #5. [Overall] what you're trying to do as a songwriter, you're trying to let other people know what it felt like to be going through this exact moment you're going through right now. And it's a series of lyrics, and a bunch of music, and there's a way that you sing it so that you can communicate with these people like, "You know what man, that's how that felt, it sucked, and that's what happened." So I guess I feel like each of these songs captures a bit of that in some way or another.

Me: Your band has become pretty hot pretty fast. You put out an EP, played Europe even, and then just recently got a manager. In fact, I heard from an industry friend in LA that your single had been picked up by "the" rock radio station out there - the first time in something like 10 years that they'd added a single by an unsigned band to their playlist. I'd read that you guys were pretty much doing everything yourselves. Do you feel like your time spent in the world of music reviewing gave you insights on what to avoid or what to do?
MJ: Well maybe some insights...like we have a band rule against doing coke. (laughs) Nobody in our band is allowed to do blow because we know that blow breaks up bands, so I guess there is shit like that.

I don't know if there's much crossover in terms of writing about music because it was real important to me from the jump never to bring it up. Actually, I think Daren was in the band 3-4 months before he even knew that I'd ever written about music. I always felt like it was two separate things and some of the stuff is just kind of embarrassing. You just want to write a song and you want people to think about the song, not think about you as some critic, some ex-whatever…You wonder if people will ever allow you to be multiple things in your life. It was really important to me to never use anything [from his music reviewing life]....I just never brought it up...ever. We've had to turn down press opportunities because it was someone I knew, and we've turned down a lot of promotion because it was someone that I knew....I just wouldn't accept it.

So it's kind of two different worlds. It sounds so fucking stupid and trite, but I just...suddenly, all I wanted to do was play music. And it's all I've done. I literally have intense credit card debt, I've defaulted on my student loans, I haven't paid taxes in 7 years, I'm so fucking broke...and all I want to do is play music. I just don't care, I just don't care. And when I wrote about music I felt that way, when I was writing a novel I felt that way (laughs)...I don't know how else to be in life, I don't know what else to do.

So did it give me a perspective? Yeah it taught me that bands shouldn't do blow, because it makes everyone super egotistical and then you break up. And that sucks, you became a band because everyone in the band was really talented at what they did, and you came together and were really talented as a group. So we don't do blow as a result.

And I guess it taught me that what's important is you write and record good songs, and the rest of it kind of doesn't matter that much. But the rest of it, I dunno if one informs the other, I think they're two totally different functions of reality. I would have been done with music writing either way; I would have been writing novels at this point if I hadn't gotten bit by this music bug.
Me: That's exceptionally forthright, way more forthright than I expected. (laughs)
MJ: Steven is over there riffing right now you should see him...he just lying on my bed right now, riffing.
SC: (from the other room) You liking the mad riffage?
MJ: Yeah you're tapping your foot, it's awesome. Steven Chen, ladies and gentlemen, Steven Chen....My bandmates are my best friends; we've all kind of cast our lot together, and (pauses)….this is all any of us have. There's nothing else we're better at, there's nothing else we're trying to do, this is it for us. And we live and die by it. So we're friends, but partially we're friends because we're tied to the same fate, if that makes any sense.

Me: How would you define success at this point?
MJ: (laughs) I once remember telling a friend about a year and a half ago that I just wanted five people I'd never met to like songs that I'd wrote. Not friends, not friends of friends, but five people that I didn't know to like something that I wrote, and then I'd feel like I was a success. And now I think my feelings are that you multiply that by about...a million. (both laugh)

But it's the same basic idea, if you could reach people you've never met, people who don't know you, or people who don't have some sort of vested stake in your success, and who just get it. The last Spaceland show that we played...Spaceland's a club that holds maybe 400 people, and the last show we played, about 1000 people showed up. And the crowd, it wasn't your sort of local hipsters but all kinds of different sorts of folk. And this guy named Ray came up to me. Ray was like, "Hey man, I don't want to sound gay or nothing like that, but 'Sometime Around Midnight,' that happened to me." And I was like, "Oh, ok Ray, that's cool," and he was like, "No man, no," (makes the Wonder Twins power motion with his fist) and we pounded fists. Then he introduced me to his wife and said, "No no, it wasn't her, it was some other punta," (laughs) "but lemme tell you, I've been there and I know what that feels like, so you know, alright." And stuff like that...we all want to do this for a living for sure, but stuff like that, I look at shit like that and think, "Wow, fuck man, I totally talked to RAY." How the fuck would I know Ray, and Ray was all psyched that I wrote this song about being all bummed out about my ex-girlfriend at this bar one night. So yeah, that's success, that's good enough for us.

It's weird, you start getting ahead of yourself in your head and thinking like "Wow here's how much money I'm gonna make," and "I'm gonna be rich in 2 years and do this and that," whatever… And then other times you think nobody gives a fuck, like nobody cares about my music or my band or anything. And I guess success is if you're a guy who needs 100 dollars and someone gives you 101, where as failure is a guy who needs 101, and someone only gives him 100. So we're always trying to be the band that only has 20 bucks to their name because we're all really broke. (laughs) And we love that fact that people even know who we are because, you know, we're just an unsigned band from Los Feliz.

Me: How did you guys find SX….Did you find it was worth it, how did you guys get there, how did all that happen?
MJ: Well we took a plane (laughs)....We played this place called the Troubadour in LA and we made a bunch of money that night because it sold out. We took that money and we bought plane tickets.
Me: Nice, smart ass….I mean did you get in* [to SXSW proper]?
(*Ed. note: Often, bands, if they don't get into SXSW, will just come down anyway and try to get into venues and play.)
MJ: There's an application process and we applied. It wasn't clear when we applied that we would even get in. But then we got accepted and we got offered a number of, much to our surprise, a number of showcases. And we didn't even have plane tickets because none of us have enough money to just buy plane tickets. Then we played this show at the Troubadour which sold out. We took the money we made that night and bought plane tickets. Now we're even again and we're back to zero. (laughs)

It's funny because while we were at SX the biggest question we got asked was, "What is it like to be so successful?" And we were all like, "I wouldn't know!" (laughs) We don't have a label, we don't have any of that stuff. It's just us, it's just the five of us, we don't know what's gonna come of it. Everyone keeps telling us that that's what's gonna happen, but we don't know if that's true or not....none of it has really happened yet.
Me: But have you gotten good info from people from SX?
MJ: Well even before SX, we've definitely been wined and dined by labels. Like a lot of big name labels, like the presidents of labels are inviting us to their house at this point. We definitely feel courted, if for no other reason than they want us to feel courted, and maybe somehow loyal to them. We don't know what we're going to do yet. We don't really trust labels, we don't really trust anyone but the five of us. We trust each other but that's about it because you know, people say a lot of shit.

Me: Well that was actually a question that I had. If you go the Radiohead route and you go completely independent, it's difficult because there's the distribution issue. My friends and I are pretty big music nerds, but we first heard of you, being on the east coast, via SX stuff. Had we not gone to SX, we might not have heard about you guys, but then you're huge in LA. So I guess the question is what do you think about that? I mean, you have this EP, you have enough stuff "mastered" for a full length record, but I guess it's what do you want to do? What would you settle for?
MJ: Well, we're not in the mood to settle. We're very much in a mood to find people who believe in what we're doing and wanna support it. We're not terribly concerned about the numbers. We've already been offered enormous numbers, and also smaller numbers, and we've sort of scoffed at both because we're not signing away our futures. But we're also not interested in only being a band from Los Feliz that never goes anywhere. So I guess there's a line to be walked there somewhere. You can never predict how big your audience is gonna be or how many people are gonna like what you're doing...it's like there's a weird calculation that goes on where you have to figure out what you're worth, and what other people think you're worth, and we don't know. Honestly Erica, sometimes I feel like we're not worth anything. Some days I wake up and I feel like nobody gives a fuck, I feel like the biggest loser on the planet and no one cares...that's the honest truth. And then other days after shows, and there's like, 500 people running up to talk to me or talk to the band, I feel like the fucking king of the labyrinth. And I'm confused by both of those things. It's a very confusing and sort of overwhelming position to be in. It's like sometimes you think you're gonna be the biggest band in the world, and other times you think no one's ever gonna care, you fucking oversaturated fuck.

And I don't know, maybe some people don't go through things like that but those are the kinds of things that I go through. I know this is what I wanna do, I know I believe in what we're doing. I know I'm a participant in our shows, and I've looked at our shows and they look different than other shows that I see. And you kind of have to remain humble about those other things, you can't control them. You've just kind of got to do your thing and hope somebody gets it. And if they don't, you know, you're an asshole if you don't keep doing it anyway.

(After almost 3.5 hours of talking, much Jameson and wine had been consumed by all parties at this point, and we were losing Steven to massive hunger. So we called last question.)

Me: Ok so…have you had previous training as a singer, and are you looking forward to playing new stuff?
MJ: No and no. C'mon, you got a better question in you than that…I've no training as a singer, I spent the last year and half locked alone in my apartment singing 6 hours a day, and that's the only reason I can even carry a tune.
Me: How is that possible, that's nonsense!
MJ: It's true, it's true, I couldn't even carry a tune 3 years ago. I have the mp3s to prove it. It's only because...I'm telling you, my mom got sick, and my dad was sick, and I was sick, and suddenly everything just didn't matter, and I started singing all the time. Before that, I couldn't really sing, it was only after months and months and months and months of trying. C'mon Erica, I know you have another question.
Me: I know you have to go eat.
MJ: Is that it then, are we done, is that the whole thing? (calls to Steven) Steven, we're done, Erica's out of questions.
SC: (from the other room) Oh ok, you want me to ask you questions?
MJ: No I think we're good.

(Steven cheers)

Wishing Well (2006 version)-Airborne Toxic Event (MP3)
Wishing Well (2007 EP)-Airborne Toxic Event (Purchase)

Act IV coming up...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Airborne Toxic Event signs with Majordomo Records

In the midst of my interview with The Airborne Toxic Event comes confirmation of the "label-whose-name-shall-not-be-spoken" (heh). Full-length record slated for July release.

The Airborne Toxic Event Signs with Majordomo Records

The Airborne Toxic Event, whose danceable, literate rock-noir captured the fancy of L.A. audiences (and radio programmers) over the last year, has signed with Majordomo Records, the indie imprint affiliated with the burgeoning reissue/DVD label Shout! Factory.

The Los Feliz-based quintet, which will release its debut album, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” on July 15, becomes Majordomo’s second signing. The label debuted in August when it released Earlimart’s fourth album, “Mentor Tormentor”; on July 1, the label will release Earlimart’s follow-up, “Hymn and Her.” Although Majordomo is new to the new-release business, its products have major-label distribution through Sony BMG.

“At the end it just felt like Majordomo were the smartest kids on the block,” says Airborne frontman Mikel Jollett, whose band was courted by labels big and small. “You look at it, and you think it’s a new venture, but there is a lot of experience in that room. … They came in with the smartest, most aggressive offer.”

Airborne’s album was made in the Eagle Rock studio of fledgling producer Pete Min, a friend of the band. It will include reworked versions of the three songs on the band’s self-released EP, as well as the single “Sometime Around Midnight,” which vaulted into regular rotation at radio outlets such as KROQ-FM (106.7) and Indie 103.1 (KDLD-FM).

The band has been slotted to perform on “Last Call With Carson Daly” on Tuesday, and has several festival dates lined up for the summer.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sound and Vision: My Interview with The Airborne Toxic Event (Act II)

(Photo via Modelography)

Act I of IV


"Caught in the crossbow of ideas and journeys/sit here reliving the other self's mournings/Caught in the crossbow of ideas and dawnings/stand I"-Call on Me-Lou Reed

Later that same evening, after the band completes their meeting, we reconvene again. I'm told the Jameson bottle took a beating on our break. Anna goes to yoga, Daren and Noah say g'bye, and Mikel, Steven, and I continue.

Me: Did you have an idea of how the lyrics should "sound" when put to music, or did your bandmates just add what they heard? If it's the latter, that's rather incredible and lucky.
MJ: Most of the songs, for the most part, it feels like solving a puzzle. There's a certain thing I see in my head and I'll start to write a song, and there's a line, and then suddenly, I glimpse the song, the whole thing, for a split second. And then you spend the next days and weeks and months pulling your hair out trying to find what you saw as that song. So they were pretty much written by the time we were working them all out [musically]. And there's a lot of time spent redoing phrases. I feel very flawed in that way, I always spend a lot of time trying to find the right words to say, and I don't know if I always do. It's very difficult for me, it takes a long time, it's not like it just happens in 5 minutes. "Wishing Well" took 8 months for me to write, over and over, until I got the words exactly right. By the time it was done it was like yes, that's it, that is how I meant it, that's what I was feeling, that's what was going through, that's what it looked like. Trying to get that all right, that's a very long and arduous process.
SC: It's like structuring an emotion, something that's going to hit you in the gut. If you can do it well, you don't even see it, you just feel it.
Me: I ask that because "Midnight" is a song that starts and then swells, and the lyrics move to this point where at the end, Mikel, you're screaming. As it goes along, everything gets louder and there's this main crescendo and then it descends, and it's striking....I thought wow, if the lyrics hadn't been planned out with the music ahead of time...
MJ: You go through this thing where you're a writer for awhile and a listener for awhile, and a writer, then a listener....the emotion and what you see if really, really real...but then finding it is arduous. That song, "Sometime Around Midnight," that happened…..
SC: I was with him when it happened.
MJ: (to Steven) Yeah you were the friend, you don't remember that, you'd said "What the fuck happened to you"? (to me) I went home [from the bar mentioned in the song] and locked myself in the house for 3 days. I kind of started to write this riff and spent 3 days alone with the song. I was like ....driven, it was all I did, I didn't answer the phone, I didn't go out....I just sat there for 3 days straight writing this song. It was revising, and the first original thing of the song was very different. But it's like being a stonecutter or something; you chip away at it as you go. You try to craft it so that it matches what you were going through.
SC: I remember distinctly when that song came together. We had been torturing ourselves and arduously going over how this song would come together. The way that the song builds... there were a lot of things that didn't work. We were having trouble with it and in a period of like 3-4 hours, we figured out exactly how it would go, and you felt it happen. We had finished playing what became the final version and everyone just knew that incarnation of everyone's arrangements had actually hit the mark. It ended up resonating well when we finished it.

(Discussion ensues as to whether there needed to be more lighting in their room. Steven goes to fix the blinds and I'm told that Steven is the tallest guy in the band at 6'2, and has talents very similar to MacGyver.)

Me: (to Mikel) Do you feel the adult-like jobs you've held as a writer (NPR commentator and Filter magazine writer/managing editor), where you were in essence telling or relaying a story, contributed to your style of songwriting? I say that because a lot of the songs tend to be who, what, where, when....
MJ: I guess being in a rock band, it's like living your dreamland in front of people. It's like you woke up one morning and wrote down all your dreams, your crazy lust-filled, angst-filled dreams, and then at night, you act them out in front of people….at least that's our band, that's what it's like for me, it's living out the dream life. Once you start playing, you don't think about where you are, what day it is, who's out in the audience, who you are, you're just in it. Where as writing, it's more formal and you can adopt different voices. As a singer I can't really do that. There is like a sense that you've lost your mind a little bit...or maybe I have a sense that I've lost my mind a little bit. I mean, it's not sane to do some of the stuff that we do. But I think it's appropriate.

But if you're on NPR or you're writing, you're telling a story and you're within confined bounds, like you're writing a story for your high school English class, it's a little more formalized. I think as a writer, I was definitely always trying to reach the reader. I was never really interested in being a critic, I was always trying to tell a story about political figures or musicians or ideas that I thought were interesting. But music is a different thing, or at least Airborne is a different thing, it's like being completely unhinged and you're completely naked in front of people. Because it's so loud, and everyone's screaming and you're kind of drunk, it's like the energy is all very appropriate, it all makes sense.

Me: Writing as a process. As a writer myself, I seem to be more productive in certain surroundings, with certain music, etc. Can you speak to the specifics of yours?
MJ: Yeah, I'll go like 3 days, 5 days, 8 days, without seeing anyone. I'll lock myself in this apartment, I'll write on the walls, I'll write on myself,...
Me: Yeah I saw that at the Cedar show, you had written on your arm some line like "Life is a ghost?" I was like, what are you Eddie Vedder? (all laugh)
SC: Yeah, "Pro choice ‘92!"
MJ: I guess I get into a mode. You're a writer you may understand this… I'm a very social person. I really like interacting with other people, tend to enjoy being around other people, always a lot of ideas running through my head. I think for writing, I'll deprive myself of that, and I guess I'm so....I dunno, angst-ridden by it, that I have to write it down. The writing or the song writing becomes the only way I can express myself. Where I would naturally communicate to a friend at a cocktail party or whatever, I can only do through a song. And you get into a mode where you haven't seen anyone in 2-3 days and you're just sitting there by yourself...it's usually in the middle of the night, sitting with a guitar, and everyone else is asleep…and you're awake, trying to write about something you feel pretty strongly… Sometimes it's for an audience, it's because you want this girl to hear how you felt and just be moved by it because you want...
SC: (interjects) Or not...
MJ: Yeah in your case (laughs), and you just spent all this time working on it because you want her to have heard it and been moved by it and be like, fuck he was awake at 3 in the morning writing that music, feeling that about me. And other times, it feels like there's just no one, like no one in the world that's awake but you, and you're sitting there in your hovel of an apartment, and your books on the wall, and no one's around, and you're like fuck it, I'm gonna talk to the void.
SC: Well, if I can ask a follow-up question, do you feel like when you go back to it later, that moment of purity, do you feel like it was worth getting there or was it like what the fuck was I thinking, I was so out of sorts...
MJ: (interjects) Always worth it. My best moments are always those moments where you come back and this thing was written...and….really, truly it's not like you wrote it, it's like you wrote it down. You're just this desperate, pathetic, fucking, mongroling little thing who just wanted this one moment to be right. And you don't care what you're accused of, you don't care how you look the next morning, you don't care what sort of person you come off being, you don't care what judgments other people are gonna make about you…you just put yourself out there because you believe that people are gonna get it
Me: Well yeah but that's if you put it forward [and others hear or read it].

(Mikel gets called away for a phone call. Steven continues…)

SC: You're not really writing as much as it is channeling. It's like it's something in your mind that already exists, and you're just trying as smart and as fast as possible to get it down. I feel that a lot of those really memorable hit songs, the writers describe them as writing them that way. It comes down in a flash and you know this part has to happen, and that part has to happen, and when you're done, you almost don't believe you put it together. I've talked to Mikel about this, I feel like songwriters feel that way when they put together a really, really good tight song that people can relate to...You stand back and go "Did I just write that? That has to have existed before"….But it didn't and you feel like you're channeling at some point.
Me: I read about that, where Keith Richards wrote the riff to “Satisfaction”--he'd woken up in the middle of the night and happened to put this thing down, then woke up the next morning going "Where the hell did this thing come from?"
SC: Yeah right? And then, I feel at least, you almost feel like you don't deserve credit for it...like that couldn't have come just from me, I probably stole it from somewhere. (laughs)
Me: So you're a writer too?
SC: Yeah, I was working on a novel, I still sort of am. Mikel and I, we had sort of bonded in San Francisco because I'm a little bit younger than him and I was trying to find people to help me out in my writing career. So a friend introduced us and we sort of bonded late night over bands and whatever. And it's strange to me that playing music never came up. I was surprised when I found out that he played as much guitar as I did. So before, the basis of our relationship was so literary that we hadn't had to talk about that other element. I dunno...I guess neither of us wanted to be boastful about the fact that we could play music, because who are we, we're just some writers... But that's how Mikel and I became friends. But we didn't become really, really great friends until we started this band together, and saw each other at our best and our worst.

Outside of music, I do a lot of writing and editing as well.
Me: Now did you do this [writing] in undergrad?
SC: Yeah, I did it in undergrad and grad. I write a lot of articles and used to write about music as well. I write a lot about film now. You get to a point where you don't know how to write about music anymore. It's weird because once you start playing music you can't write [about it], it's a tradeoff. So I started writing more about film and at some point, I had some really, really good ideas about fiction, I was always more comfortable with non-fiction. Fiction always seemed to be very indulgent and I wasn't sure if I could pull it off. But after awhile I just started wanting to write really, really fun stuff. Mikel and I differ in that, Mikel's writing is more heart wrenching and very serious, and it's very depressing a lot of the time. I tend to gravitate more to the Seinfeld school of thought where you can poke fun at anything. So that's kind of where I came from.

I guess also in the practice space when we're working on music, a lot of that may come into play. I'm always pushing trendier stuff maybe, and Mikel's like, "I dunno..." But it's a good tradeoff between the two of us. And Noah's a huge force in the band in terms of that too because he's such the quintessential songwriter who's trained in what kind of constitutes a 'proper song'. So I think a lot of us come at it from different angles. And I guess what comes out is, hopefully, well structured and concise and really, really soulful.
Me: Who do you like for writers? Or because you've written about film, whose films do you like?
SC: I was an early fan of Tom Perrotta, he wrote "Little Children" and a really funny book called "Wishbones." I do like a lot of the Cameron Crowe type writing. I tend to shy away from films about really, really quirky people, like 'Look how crazy these people are" or "Look how crazy this family is." I feel that's the richest material, when it's just bland, because ordinary people can sometimes be the strangest, weirdest people you've ever met. I really like Alexander Payne, he did "Election" and "About Schmidt." They're about the most ordinary people in the Midwest and I feel like those are really interesting stories. Movies about drugs and alcohol, that's so typical and predictable that these people are gonna wreck their lives because it's in the cards....How does an ordinary person wreck his life, what does he use?

(Mikel comes back. The situation with the shade resumes and Steven" MacGyver" makes another attempt to fix them.)

MJ: Sorry about that, I had to take that, it was a really important call. We're in the middle of a ton of things right now….
Me: (interjects laughing) Name two...
MJ: Uhh...(calls to Steven in the other room) Steven what are two things we're in the middle of?
SC: Like books?
MJ: No, as a band from a business standpoint...(to me) Well, we're trying to figure out how to put out our record, which label, if any, we want to rep us...you know just stuff like that.
SC: (from the other room) We're trying to figure out how to take over the west coast. (all laugh)
MJ: Please don't quote him on that. (laughs)

Me: So we were talking about writing as a process... I mean do you find you work better at certain times of day, or….for example, I find I work better late at night, listening to classical or jazz…I dunno, things just sort of come then. Are you the same for that or do you find that it just varies?
MJ: I think I work better when I'm just completely deprived of people. Like I'll just completely lock myself in here...I don't have a television, I've never had a television, I don't have a radio...I have books and I have cds. I think when I lock myself indoors, I have time, then I tend to write a lot. Sometimes that's in the morning--I honestly don't get a ton of work done between noon and 5 pm. The evenings or early mornings, I tend to work the best. When I haven't really been around people for awhile I can kind of get into my own thing...these things have a way of piggybacking in your own head.

Me: I've always been interested in what makes someone go from listener/appreciator of music, or in your case, writer/commentator, to the person who needs to make music. Can you speak to how and when this change took place for you, first, how you knew you wanted to write about music as a profession, and then second, that you wanted to be a musician/singer/songwriter?
MJ: Well, I should point out, to be accurate, that I was never a professional writer about music. I was really, really broke during all that time. I wanted to be a novelist and I liked music a lot. I wrote under a lot of pen names and I made very little money, like less than 20 grand a year.
Me: But I thought you were Managing Editor of Filter?
MJ: Yeah, I worked from home and I never met the people I talked to. Mostly I was a writer and I got a title because I would write under different names. I think it sounds really important but literally, I was here, the same place I am now. I was just trying to find a way I could meet Robert Smith and ask him questions I wanted to ask him.
Me: (laughs)
MJ: It's true! I was trying to find a way to meet David Bowie and ask him questions. I think those David Fricke's of the world or those people who are real critics, I don't think like that.
Me: You don't write like that either
MJ: I just don't know enough about music, I don't know enough about the history of music. I don't own enough of the big albums, like by Big Star or Television, I don't know that much about Josef K….I'm not pedantic like that. I knew I liked music and I knew I wanted to meet David Bowie and Robert Smith. So it was a way of doing that. I was really, really broke the entire time. I remember reading this book called How Soon is Never by Marc Spitz, who is a writer for SPIN. A couple friends of mine and I were reading it and we were all writing about music at the same time. The opener was all about this character, this music journalist who was so over his life because all he ever did was do blow and hook up with Strokes groupies. We were laughing as we read it out loud because we were all thinking "This guy needs to lose a foot" or something, "This guy needs polio," this guy needs something fucking real to happen to him in his life. We were sacrificing so much just so we could write our dumb little pieces about The Cure or David Bowie or Lou Reed. And it was because we were writers and we liked music and wanted to write about music. We weren't critics, we weren't paid anything. We literally made it up as we went.
Me: Yeah, I read your review of Devotchka and I was wowed by it. I hate to be all fangirl but that was really well done. The ending was like something exactly that I would have written [about a band I loved].
MJ: Well, you know you have to thank Devotchka for that. Their goal, which was much harder than mine, was to make me feel that way. It wasn't by accident, and I just happened upon it. I saw that movie Ratatouille and it brought a tear to my eye a little bit. It's stupid, it's a movie about food, but there was this moment at the end where this critic goes something like "As much as I consider myself important, I know my absolute best work is worth about as much as these people's off days, because they're actually contributing something and I'm just remarking about it." And that type of thing wouldn't have hit me that hard a few years ago, but now I think it's totally true. I mean, it took me 8 months to write that song “Wishing Well,” 8 months of effort and work, of absolutely trying to create this impression in people's heads. I think if you're a really good songwriter, it's not that hard, what you're trying to get across is this thing that happened. And that idea which you feel very strongly, people have felt. The gift of music is that you're able to make other people feel exactly like you did at that moment--it's really, really hard. And maybe other people are better at it, but it took me 8 months of rewriting that song to get that exactly right, to get to "that's exactly how I felt." I felt like killing myself, and I felt like running in one direction and not looking back, and I felt like writing her letters, and I felt like getting drunk and fighting... I felt like nothing fucking mattered. And to get that across in a song that's got like guitar and bass and drums and violas and keyboards and all this shit, it took a long fucking time.

Being a critic of it or being someone who writes about it...you know, it's good, some are better than others and you can find your own art in it. But in the case of that Devotchka review, the credit there goes to Devotchka for writing those songs that make you feel that way.
Me: How did you know, in the case of the song that took 8 months, how did you know it was done? How did you know that it was exactly what you wanted?
MJ: Because you hit the last chord and you go.....that's what that was, that was exactly how that felt. And it wasn't until 2 years later, after having tried to record it 20 times and getting it exactly right in the recording, that you finally go.... THAT was it.
SC: It probably didn't help that you started off trying to make it a reggae song and that's why it took 8 months. That was a bad joke... (laughs)

Me: Talk to me about muse and inspiration. I know I've written some of my most inspired pieces if something was on my mind and I'd had a few drinks. But obviously, one could turn into Lester Bangs doing that every time and dying at age 32. When you're stuck creatively now, is there anything you do to kick your mind into gear?
MJ: No, not really. I go through phases where I write a lot then I won't for awhile. I don't have a lot of control over the process, and I don't try to control it. I'll write 10 songs in 5 days and then I won't write anything for a month, and then sometimes I'll write a song a day for 3 weeks and then I won't...It just kind of comes and goes and I always have faith that it's gonna come back, so I don't really worry about it that much or try too hard. I tend to just have a lot of songs in me. And again, I can't take credit for them. I don't really want to act like they're my ideas because they're not, I just sort of write them down. I'm hunting for them, but I didn't create them.
Me: So if you didn't create them who does?
MJ: In the book This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald talks about this. He's talking to his mentor and there's a point at which his mentor is talking to him about the difference between a scholastic life and a non-scholastic life. And he's using the word scholastic, I think, to mean a person who deals with and writes down ideas, whether as a sculptor, artist, musician, writer, whatever...And he says there's really no difference between a scholastic life and a non-scholastic life, the only difference is that if you live a scholastic life, you leave a record….and I guess I feel like that. I mean, I don't think I go through anything that other people don't go through, I just try really hard to try to leave a record of it.

So as far as inspiration, where do the ideas come from….I dunno, where do the ideas come from that you feel when you and your boyfriend or husband break up? Or where do the ideas come from that you feel when you walk out of your 10th year high school reunion, saw your ex-boyfriend, and you feel a sudden sense of longing for youth or whatever? What is it you feel in the grocery store aisle? These things are very human and very real to everyone on a day-to-day basis, and you can't take credit for them, they're just part of what makes you human. So my goal, as a writer, is just to write them down.

Sometime Around Midnight (acoustic)-Airborne Toxic Event.mp3
Sometime Around Midnight (2007 EP version)-Airborne Toxic Event (Purchase)

Act III coming up...