Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sound and Vision: My Interview with The Airborne Toxic Event

(Photo via Modelography)

The Airborne Toxic Event (ATE), a soon-to-be-signed band out of Los Feliz, CA, create music that runs counter to the "it's-got-a-good-beat-and-I-can-dance-to-it" mentality of pop radio marketing these days. ATE songs will make you dance (in fact, I dare you to stop yourself), but ATE's music also has depth; these aren't your kid sister's emo or top 40 songs about love, lust, and yearning, baby. Frontman Mikel Jollet has a baritone voice that echoes Echo and the Bunnymen lead singer Ian McCullouch on steroids, and writes songs like Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen, with lyrics so vivid you are walking (or more likely dancing) with the band as the plot unfolds.

I first discovered ATE at SXSW this year, our last band on the last night in fact. Great sound, great stage presence, great lyrics...Some of my notes from the show included the following: "For the SX mp3 track "Wishing Well", the lead singer starts out saying, "My mom had cancer..no one asks about the lyrics." Rather forthright, like the Paul Westerberg of East LA if he's the sole songwriter, and yet incredibly shy/soft-spoken, almost like he's shocked and surprised people like his stuff."

When I read up on them, I discovered their odd name is taken from a Don DeLillo novel (White Noise), one of their songs shares the same name as a favorite Steve McQueen movie (Papillion), and Jollett used to be a damn good literary and music writer. Being a music geek and writer myself, I found that last part most interesting--how and why does one go from being a literary writer to the frontman of a band? Literary writers are not typically the personality types you'd expect to see fronting a band since the vast majority of them are, I'd imagine, introverts. So what caused the switch? Would one's writing technique and style require dramatic alteration to accommodate? Do the same mechanics apply? Plus, frankly, I was curious if the band was for real. What band says things from the stage like, "This is the only thing any of us have, so thank you," as Jollett did in Austin, and truly means it? Were they choosing idioms out of some book like The Crash Davis Guide for Rock Bands: How to talk to the Public/Press? I had to find out.

I sat down with Jollett and Company electronically, via video conferencing, one afternoon…which turned into evening…which became another afternoon. As one of the darlings of the west coast indie-world, they’ve been interviewed a lot and are often played on major Los Angeles radio stations like KROC; here on the east coast, they're rather unheard of (though if the rumors of them signing on to a label this week are proven true, this will definitely change). So I tried to not ask all the usual questions.


"That woman's got me drinking…"-That Woman's Got Me Drinking-Shane McGowan (MP3) (Removed due to record company paranoia)

Various bandmates are arriving early for a band meeting at Jollett's residence. Noah Harmon, the band's bass player, arrives first…

Me: I'm sorry I hope this is done in time for your meeting…
MJ: No it will be fun. We're just like one big disgusting family here.
Me: Noah, I was telling him about how my friends in bands already hate him because he doesn't have a day job.
NH: Yeah, but can they buy things like milk and bread? (laughs)
MJ: Yeah it evens out...Noah and I were talking about this, how you know you're broke when you know the going price for a pint of blood. That's broke. (laughs)
Me: Ok, I guess first off, how about an overview of the band's members, names, where they hail from, ages, what they play. I've seen a variety of things online but nothing really cohesive.

(Steven Chen, the band's lead guitarist, enters)

MJ: Hey Steven say hi to Erica, she's doing an interview with us.
SC: Do you want to ask me anything?
MJ/NH: (collectively) No, you go sit over there. (laughs)
MJ: No, pull up a chair...

(I sip from a glass of wine)

MJ: Hey, she's drinking wine, get the whiskey!
Me: Hey it's later here on the east coast.
MJ: No, it's drinking hour.
NH: Yeah it's after noon.
MJ: Or eleven.

Me: By the way, I just thought you should know, I'm completely intimidated; you interviewed Bowie. (all laugh)
MJ: He's actually much shorter than you'd expect. I thought he was taller and then I met him, and he's this springy little guy...
SC: Yeah and wearing gym shorts and this University of Santa Clara shirt.
MJ: It was really odd, wasn't what I expected at all. (all laugh) Ok so there are five of us...

-Mikel Jollet: 33, guitar, keyboards, vocals, Los Angeles, CA
-Steven Chen: 29, guitar, keyboards, Pasadena, CA
-Daren Taylor: 28, drums, Kingsburgh, CA
-Noah Harmon: 26, bass, dobro, Tuson, AZ
-Anna Bulbrook: 25, viola, tambourine, backing vocals, guitar, Boston, MA

Me: I've read in bits and pieces about how the band came together. Can you cite sort of how/when the band idea began? I also read that you were originally set as a two-piece. What prompted the change to add members? Then, how and when did other members join so it gelled to what it is today? Wow, there's a lot to that. (laughs)
MJ/NH/SC: (agreeing)....get the whiskey, get the whiskey.... (all laugh)
MJ: Well let's see....

(Steven returns with a bottle of Jameson)

MJ: I was gonna write a novel and spending a lot of time at home and had given up the music journalism thing a few years ago to write a book, I had no aspirations whatsoever to be a musician. I was just home a lot writing...(takes a sip of Jameson)
Me: (seeing the bottle) Wow and Jameson no less? You're boys after my own heart!
NH: Well we figured you were having a drink so we might as well. (all laugh)
MJ: (continues) I'd just wanted to be a novelist you know, and I was home a lot and started writing all this music out of nowhere. And then I'd gone through some shit with my health and my mom's health. Having gone through that, when I came to after this really bad month, I just started playing music everyday a couple years ago. It was like being bit by a bug or something, I can't explain it. Suddenly all I wanted to do was play music. I had no ambition before that to do music and had given up music years ago, but I just started writing all these songs and it just started to take over my life. All I ever wanted to do was play music and write songs and sing and sing and sing, like 8 hours a day. It was like having OCD but with a guitar or something.

I decided I wanted to start a band, I started playing with Darren, we met through a friend. We didn't have any plans to be a 2 piece; we just couldn't find any bandmates. (laughs) It's actually really hard to put together a band it seems, and I'd gone through a couple of drummers before I'd met Darren too. We just really gelled immediately, he's such an incredibly talented kid, and I think, wanted to do a lot of the same things I wanted to do.

And then I'd been friends with Steven for a long time, like 5 years, we'd met through mutual friends awhile back. Noah, I actually asked Noah to join and he said no. (all laugh) Little thing you should know about Noah, Noah is the best bass player in Los Angeles.
NH: (being modest) Ahhh, it's not true, it's not true...
SC: He's our secret weapon
MJ: It's like if you're gonna start a basketball team, you need an all-star power forward. He was our draft first round out of college, it's true! (Noah modestly denying)
Me: I'd actually read about that, aren't you a music teacher Noah?
NH: I teach at 2 different community centers.
Me: I'd read all these comments from kids who said "Noah, he's my teacher, he's so cool!"
NH: Yeah, it was nice of them to say that, it cost me a little bread, if you know what I mean. (laughs) But no, it's really funny with the whole radio thing, they're all high school kids in East LA, and totally unimpressed. They're like "Oh cool so you're a millionaire? Lend me some money man." (laughs)
MJ: Anna, I'd sort of known, we had friends in common. We'd see each other around, and I actually saw her out getting tacos late one night, like 2 am and said "Hey don't you play violin?" The original plan with Anna was that she was only gonna play on 2-3 songs but she's such an incredibly talented musician, she can play so many different things. She actually doesn't play violin, she plays viola live because she didn't want to break her violin at some stupid fucking rock club. (laughs) So she plays viola, and she can sing and play keyboards and guitar….between everything, she wound up becoming a full-time member.
SC: The funny thing is, Mikel and I had known each other for so long, we just never talked about the fact that we both played music. It just wasn't part of the conversation. I was a writer too in San Francisco. We'd talk about bands and stuff but I didn't know he was doing what I was doing at home, playing guitar and making songs. At one point he said "Hey don't you play keyboard?" I said "Yeah but I also play guitar, that's more of my main instrument." So when I came in, I did a little ditty on the keyboard then strapped on the guitar and that felt much more...
MJ/NH: (interjects) Who woke up Steven? You did a little ditty? (all laugh, and both Mikel and Noah start imitating Chuck Berry riffs)

Me: Noah and Steven, just to give you an overview, being a writer myself, I decided to approach this on more of a "writerly" aspect, and so I'm talking to people who are primarily songwriters. So a lot of the questions I'm going to ask are primarily slated towards Mikel because of the writing background, as well as being the main songwriter...
NH/SC: No, no we just stopped by…
Me: But it's all good because having you guys give insights on things wouldn't be bad either.
MJ: Yeah, I mean everything is very much in the open in our band so it's alright…
Me: Do you have a band house too, one of those big scary group houses? (laughs)
MJ: No, we all live near each other but we haven't crossed that threshold of annoying yet.
NH: Yeah thank god! (laughs)
Me: You know I shared my hotel room at SXSW with two guy friends, and all I can say is "God bless Anna," she's got to have the patience of a saint with four of you. (all laugh) By the way, you should tell her that all my guy friends think she's damn cute.

(Collective groans from Mikel, Noah, and Steven)

MJ: Yeah I'll put it like this, there's always this large amount of awkward indie-dudes with beards and glasses hanging around after shows waiting to talk to Anna. It's like (imitates a smitten boy) "So hey yeah you're that girl..."
NH: (continuing imitation) "Yeah you're totally hot…"
MJ: And like, most of our audience is dudes, so the four of us just sit there like...kind of annoyed (all laugh), it's like "Oh yeah, great"...
NH: And then the errant 16 year old girl walks by at the all-ages show and it's like "Hey thumbs up!" (laughs)...We're like "Yeah, thanks" (all laugh)
Me: I was talking to different friends in bands about what were good questions they would want to be asked, and one of my friends suggested "Ask if they'd gotten laid by being in a band?"
MJ/NH: (in unison) NO! (laughs) Absolutely not….
MJ: It's actually true. We…(starts to explain)
Me: You don't really have to answer it. (laughs)
MJ: No, we don't mind answering it...we're very much of the mentality that whatever is rock star, we are against.
NH: Also it is LA, so it's "Oh you're kinda hot...oh wait, there's Slash..." (all laugh) It's like nobody fucking cares...
MJ: We're just an indie rock band from the neighborhood and we play frequent shows out here. But I think everyone's pretty normal and the whole groupie thing...you have to be pretty media-savvy to know about a band like us anyway, and anyone who's that media savvy isn't gonna be that lame. And anyways, we're just not that kind of people.

Me: Another band thing before we go into the writing part of it....I'd read you guys did a "residency" at a bar in LA called Spaceland, where you played one night a week for a month when you were still relatively new. On the east coast, that type of thing seems to be more for cover bands or more “established” bands, like Alejandro Escovedo, who plays Tuesdays at the Continental Club in Austin, TX, or Bobby Short, who used to play weekly at the Carlyle in NYC. First, is this a typical thing on the west coast and then, how did it come about for you?
NH: There's a lot of clubs in LA that do that with bands that are getting more established, but not broken yet. It's actually a very common thing on Monday nights, Monday night is the quote-unquote "residency night."
MJ: (interjects) Well, on the east side, you should distinguish between the two...
NH: Right, on the east side. There's two parts of LA, there's the eastern part of LA, then there's what you see on TV, like Hollywood, West Hollywood, Santa Monica. We don't even go over there, we're not even welcome in that part of town. If we did, they'd call the sheriff basically, like "Get outta Rodeo!" (laughs)
MJ: "Stop disturbin' my quiet beach town!" (laughs)
NH: So yeah, it's a fairly common thing to do on east side LA clubs.
MJ: And it's usually your up and coming bands. It's pretty common around here. The one thing about the Spaceland thing is that it was a Thursday night residency, which is more of a "show" night of the week, and they'd only ever done that one other time, like 2 years ago with Silversun Pickups. So that was definitely a bit of an honor, and Spaceland kind of getting behind us and the east side scene. We very much felt like that's our turf, we play a lot of shows out here, that's our home.

ME: Did you guys have a definitive sound in mind when you started? I've read a lot about what people think you sound like but myself personally, I hear story stuff like Tom Waits, I hear Brit Pop jangly stuff, I hear Peter Murphy vocals, I hear a lot going on. But it was really odd to hear that five people came together and had that sort of definitive idea about what it is that they wanted to sound like in advance.
MJ: It wasn't really like that. I think it appears like that from the outside. From what I can piece together, it seems like people make a plan like a business plan, like, ok we're gonna be a band of this genre, we're gonna write songs of this ilk, and therefore, attain this audience. Our experience has not been like that; I mean, we just write songs. Sometimes we sound like the White Stripes and sometimes we sound very much not like the white Stripes. (laughs) There's a lot of politics in guitar effects. It's not because you chose to sound one way or the other, it's just what sounded good to you. These choices weren't made out of any particular desire to be part of a genre, we're just musicians. I write a lot of folk music, I write country songs, Anna has a classical background, Noah has a jazz background...The rock and roll songs that I wrote, that we wrote together, or that Noah and I wrote, when we come together and work them out, we're more thinking about what sounds good. And probably there's a bunch of influences going on there that are subconscious, but it's not like the kind of thing that we plan on. So it's extremely flattering to be compared to these bands that we just admire so much, but there's really no intention to it.

Me: Being at SXSW, I was really struck by how young many of the bands were. You guys are a little older for a first band--is that odd?
MJ: Well to be fair, I'm older, the rest of them are about the same age. (laughs)
ME: (to all) Well remember I'd set these questions up more focused toward Mikel so...
MJ: Yeah it's a fair question....I feel it's absurd sometimes, I mean I had every intention of being a younger first time novelist as opposed to be an older first time bandmate. (laughs) But you know there's this moment of recognition when you're working on something, that your heart’s really in it, it doesn't really matter as long as you do catch the plot. Some catch the plot when they're 12, I literally didn't until I was 30, for some reason it just didn't click in my head. I mean, I was in a band when I was 25, I wasn't very good.
NH: I think that being said, I think it has allowed us to sort of skip making a lot of mistakes that young kids make. Like we've still done some really fucking stupid things (laughs)
MJ: (interjects) Nightly.
NH: Yeah pretty much daily. That little bit, that touch of age, has really allowed us to not be intimidated by mister whoever who works for whatever band saying, "Look this is what you've got to do right now, if you don't do this right now you are fucked."
SC: If I could interject, I think it's also that a lot of the things that Mikel sings about, it's awful, and it really happened to him. You get the run-of-the-mill type topics with younger bands. I feel like there is some real struggle in a lot of lyrics that speak very honestly to the bands' experience, versus a bunch of songs about lecture heartache at 21 in retrospect.
MJ: Yeah, I mean I wasn't that good of a songwriter when I was 25, that's the truth of it. I still struggle with it quite a bit. It sometimes feels absurd to me…maybe I should be starting at a law firm or finishing that 2nd novel or whatever…instead I'm playing in clubs. Maybe it's stupid but I just love it, it just feels super natural to me. What else I've noticed is kids just don't care, they don't care one way or the other. I mean, I get all kinds of fan mail...Oh say hi to Anna!

(Anna Bulbrook, the band's viola/keyboardist, comes in. I relay to her my comments regarding her dealing with 4 guys and how my guy friends at SXSW loved her.)

MJ: (to Anna) We were telling her about the many admirers that hang out after shows.
AB: Ahhh… (laughs)
MJ: We call them "Anamaniacs." (all laugh)
MJ: (to me) Oh I was saying about how we have younger fans...We have a lot of younger fans who are like, 14, 15 years old and my emails to them are like, "Stay in school! Working hard has nothing to do with your parents!" I get really personal but I think it's because the songs are real personal. I get a lot of really personal emails from kids, like "My stepdad isn't so good a guy" or "My folks split up awhile ago" or whatever, and I guess I feel sort of avuncular towards them. They're a lot younger than I am but they can relate--I think it's really cool. I'm always like, "College has nothing to do with your parents, go to school, learn things, live your life, love people, have ideas, be beautiful!" (laughs)
Me: Well I figured being older you could win drink-offs or something...
MJ: No, I couldn't win a drink off in this band. Noah, Noah would definitely win the drink-offs in this band. (laughs)

(At this point, "mad riffage" is starting from the other room where the other members have gravitated. Anna soon joins them, and Mikel and I start talking about writing.)

Me: You're the band's main songwriter thus far. Can you talk some about your writing past?
MJ: Well, the biggest thing I guess is in the next McSweeney's I have a short story coming out. It's my first piece of published fiction, so that's kind of exciting. It's about four friends, who are all dying of various illnesses, walking around in one of those weirdly surreal rainy days in LA. It's a short story but it's actually kind of long, like 10,000 words, I'm working on turning it into a novella or a novel, so that's been the main writing project of late.

My background in writing is, I dunno, when I was 27 I moved to a horse ranch and brought with me a ton of books, and sat there for a year and read and wrote, and that's all I did.
Me: A horse ranch?
MJ: Yeah, I was like a stable boy where they gave me room and board if I worked for 3 hours a day, shoveling horse manure. So I did that, and just read a bunch of books. I didn't have a literature background, I was a science person in college, so it was all really new to me. And I just fell in love with it and started writing all the time. I did some music journalism, a lot of personal essays, I also wrote about politics, and during that time, 50,000 words of a novel....I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I think it happened with music too. I kind of throw myself at things and I'm like a jockey on a horse, often I can't control how it goes, I just have to hold on. These days it's with music and songwriting and stuff but at the time it was very much with literature and writing.
Me: What was your novel about?
MJ: Oh, I can't tell you that.
Me: Boo (laughs)
MJ: No it's bad luck, it's bad luck. (both laugh) But I've since abandoned that first novel. The story that's coming out in McSweeneys, it's much more lighthearted. The first one was like "MY NOVEL" and I spent a lot of time on names that represent death. This one, they're all dying--I tend to write about death a lot--and they're all dying, but mostly they just smoke a lot of pot, watch movies, hang around Los Feliz, and crack jokes; it's just about the relationships between these 4 friends.
Me: Where did you do undergrad?
MJ: Oh, Stanford.
Me: Wowza…
MJ: Eh… (shrugs)
Me: I won't put that in. (laughs)
MJ: It's ok. People in my family don't generally graduate high school. I was the first one, so it was all gravy for me, very much a good thing. I come from a long line of mechanics and ex-cons. (laughs)

Me: Did you always have a penchant for writing since childhood? When you got into it, was writing something that just came easily to you?
MJ: Yeah, I think that's fair to say. When I was a kid I used to write stories a lot. It was like a thing in my family...my uncle would ask, "How's the writing Mikel?" when I was like, 8. (laughs) I would always write short stories, invent characters, and tell stories. In high school, I started playing guitar and actually started writing songs--I think I was 15. Of course, I didn't write a good one till I was 30, but I started writing songs when I was 15. It was your heartbroken teenage garden variety sort of trope.

But yeah it's always been a thing for me. If you could look around my apartment here, there's writing all over the walls and books taped up to my walls....things written everywhere.
Me: On the wall itself? (laughs)
MJ: Yeah I just write on my walls. I dunno, that shit just kind of makes sense to me. I always liked books and no one else in my family ever liked books.
Me: So when you move you always carry 18 boxes of books?
MJ: Oh yeah, I have a lot of books and I like to keep them too. I feel proud that I read them and they're all dog eared and shit.
Me: Lots of underlining and stuff?
MJ: It's like a little exercise... I don't underline but I'll dog ear them and later on when I go back, I read it because I'm curious and trying to find what I thought was important. (laughs)
Me: Yeah, I've got books, CDs, and shoes....the latter, it's a chick thing.
MJ: Ah. I got books, CDs...and whiskey. (both laugh)
Me: Well at least it's Jameson so that's a plus. Let's see…was there someone in your life who instilled a love of language for you early on?
MJ: Nah, not really. I come from a family of very poetic people, in their own way, but probably not formal language, that was more my thing. My folks were down with whatever it was I was gonna do. They always sort of recognized I was into different things...
Me: A bit precocious?
MJ: No, I think I was a pain in the ass actually. (both laugh) But I was definitely into things that not necessarily everyone in my family was into. They were always into music though…I'd be driving along with my dad and he would put in a song like off "Eat a Peach" by the Allman Brothers, and say, "Yeah, you wanna hear a smoking guitar, check this out….oh wait right here!" (air-riffs)

Me: Your lyrics for a lot of what's out there thus far are like a 2-3 minute glimpse into someone's emotional core. Some are quite raw, almost like a plane crash, but you can't look away ("Sometime Around Midnight" and "Innocence," for example). I've read they resulted from a week of hellacious events that took place in your personal life. Many writers allude to events like this in metaphor, let someone else sing them, or talk of them only within the walls of their shrink’s office; yours was put out in song lyrics that you yourself sang. Was it or is it weird or awkward to have to sing those and record those?
MJ: Hmm...That's a good question. See that is a different question, most people ask, "What's it like to be sorta famous now?" (laughs) As soon as I got in front of an audience, it wasn't weird. I spent a couple years, like I said, playing in my apartment, and I'd write songs all day. I have 100s of songs that we haven't played, just cause they're not right for Airborne, or the ones we play are really the greatest hits or whatever...

(slight interruption occurs)

MJ: So…I spent a lot of time in my place, playing guitar, really wanting to be playing a show. By the time we'd played our first show, I'd been in my head with this music for a year and half at that point, and I was so fucking ready to play that it just felt really natural. The songs in there are all real, everything in there is true, everything really happened. Like in the case of "Innocence", I just wanted the entire world to see this horrible event for what it was. Or a song like "Midnight", you write that sitting alone in your apartment, and like with all writers, you want to be able to tell the entire world that THIS happened to me and I want others to know about it because it was so overwhelming to me that it happened. So by the time we played a show it felt extremely natural from the first note. I always have these thoughts before shows and after shows about what the show will be or won't be. But during the show, I'm not thinking, I'm just running on fumes and energy and it has nothing to do with thoughts anymore, I'm just kind of a conduit. I see tapes sometimes and I think, "Wow that guy looks really insane, I don't know who that guy is at all." (laughs)

(Daren Taylor, the band's drummer, arrives)

MJ: Daren say hi, this is Daren, our drummer

(We exchange pleasantries and Daren goes into the other room with the other bandmates)

Me: At SXSW, you mentioned that you guys "Couldn't play anything else, you played all the songs you knew." Have you been writing currently? Do you feel your topics/tone has differed since that first round of songs?
MJ: No, we pretty much have our record. Basically the way it works is this: I wrote like, 100 songs in the last year and a half, of that, Darren and I worked out beats and stuff for say, 40. Of those 40, we brought about 30 to the band, of those 30 we played about 25 live. Of those 25 we played live in the last year, we recorded about 16. Of those 16 we decided to keep 10.

In the last year, I don't know if things have changed that much, it's hard to have insight into these things in such a short amount of time. We're still a new band so it's hard to think about change over time. We don't even have our first record out yet.

Me: You were able to take devastating events and channel them through an outlet, and it produced a "type" of lyric. If nothing else bad happens from this point on in your life…
MJ: (interjects) That would be fine by me! (both laugh)
ME: Do you feel that your writing will change?
MJ: I think that you write about what's around you. So yeah I hope so, I hope it's not the case that I can only write about devastatingly bad times. I've just had some devastatingly bad times in the past couple of years. I didn't choose ‘em, I wouldn't want ‘em back. My life's a little better now that it was a year ago so....I would love to write a really, really good song about being in love with a beautiful, kind, wonderful woman that bears me many children. (laughs) It's just all this stuff kind of happened. If you had asked me 5 years ago what I'd be doing right now, I'd probably say I'd be on my third novel and married…..instead I'm in a rock band. You ever have stuff happen to you in your life that just breaks you in half? You never plan for it. It's also stuff I often tell all those young kids who write us letters, I'm always saying, "Shit happens in your life, use it, make something from it, make some art from it." The things that are terrible in life that happen to you are also beautiful, and you can find the beauty in all that terror. Hopefully there's some beauty in just beauty and happiness. I don't know, I've yet to write a good love song that's just about being happy….But I hope to, I aspire to that.

Me: You'd said that you'd studied science in undergrad, and then you just said that you wanted to be on your third novel. So where did the switch take place?
MJ: Between science and writing?
ME: Yeah, I mean there are great creative writing people at your undergrad.
MJ: Hmm, yeah I dunno, I guess I always felt that studying writing is cheating, and that somehow I didn't want to learn all these tricks so I couldn't tell the tricks from things I actually thought.....

(The band meeting is about to start at this point so we decide to reconvene a bit later that night and continue.)

Act II next...

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