"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"-
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