Interview :: Mikel Jollett of Airborne Toxic Event [5.3.11]

Mikel Jollett, writer and singer behind Airborne Toxic Event, charged into the crowd no less than three times last night at Piano's, possessed with all of the energy of the same guy, though then considerably less traveled and famous, who took the stage in the same place three years ago. As part of the band's "origins" shows, they've returned to all the small clubs they played when they were first touring as a band, you know, before KROQ added "Sometime Around Midnight" and before everyone had the same thought all at once: Is it possible he wrote this song for and about me? Earlier yesterday, Jollett reflected to us about life in his band, making his new and outstanding record, All At Once and what it means to make music. Our questions and his answers after the jump.

32feet: The first record was written from the perspective of the perils of not making it as a band – I’m thinking of “Innocence” and “This Is Nowhere” – was it strange to write the second one after a big charted single and with the backing of a major label?

Mikel Jollett: This is Nowhere is actually more about that. Innocence is a completely different idea/theme – which has more to do with losing your ability to see yourself as untouched or unscarred by life. That idea is actually rife throughout this record, from All at Once to Graveyard – the notion that innocence is dangerous. That it leads to all manner of lies you tell to and about yourself, when in fact what’s closer to the truth is that life scars you.

These scars aren’t a bad thing. They’re the entry point to having some sort of wisdom, some sort of perspective. You acknowledge them and something about abandoning the very idea of innocence is freeing. We’re flawed, we’re damaged, we’re laughing about it and happy to be alive.

32feet: Was it tempting to end the record with “All I Ever Wanted”, despite how crushing the last lyrical turn (“I’d be lyin’”) is? Or, put another way, is ending the album with “Graveyard” an effort to find hope in some of the darker themes that run through this set of songs?

Mikel Jollett: That’s a very insightful question. Yes. It was tempting. I think we saw it actually as the last proper song on the record and Graveyard as a sort of epilogue. I like the crushing ending about lying in the face of death. It’s desperate and real and something I can very much relate to.

But then Graveyard was a kind of lyrical call back to the opening lines of All at Once. “We were born without time…” The album traces an arc of a life, struggles with challenges, with the questions that All at Once (the song) introduces then comes to one humble conclusion. Just one. It’s a better to love. Everything else is sketchy.

32feet: Talk for a minute about the effort to do these “Origins” shows? I still remember seeing you guys at Piano’s in June of ’08 and thinking you were the biggest rock band in the world for 40 minutes. What is it like to be back in these small clubs, this go round actually as one of the biggest rock bands on tour?

Mikel Jollett: It’s extremely gratifying. You get to be in this small room with this group of people who know every word to every song. They want to know how the songs were made and why you made them and what your intentions were and what your feelings are now and despite what anyone might tell you about the mythologies of rock and roll – sex, drugs, fame, what-have-you – that feeling of connection is far and away the most fulfilling thing you can have as an artist. It’s why you ever wrote a song in the first place.

32feet: What was the single biggest challenge in making the album?

Mikel Jollett: Songwriting. No Question. Getting the ideas down and writing with intention. It’s one thing to write a bunch of disconnected songs that are good on their own. That’s hard enough. It’s overwhelming to attempt to write good songs that are also thematically connected.

All at Once is something of a concept record about change. Personal change, political change, the phases of life, the way major events shake you to your core and make you a different person. Every song deals with this idea in one way or another. It was exhilarating and challenging and so many nights spent wide awake with a pen in hand trying to get it right, to actually say what you mean.

32feet: We ask everyone this: Say Airborne Toxic Event is on a sinking cruise ship and there is only one life vest. Who gets it and why?

Mikel Jollett: We’d go down together.

32feet: What is the one thing people don’t know about your band that they should absolutely never forget?

Mikel Jollett: Music is not a party trick. Genres don’t matter. Aesthetics are window dressing. We all just want a story. A connection. For example:

Paul Simon didn’t become Paul Simon because he was into folk in the 60’s or African rhythms in the 90s. He’s Paul Simon because of lines like “losing love is like a window in your heart, everyone can see you’re torn apart, everyone sees the wind blow.” You hear that line and you think “My God, I have felt that way.” And it’s a relief to know someone else has too. It’s fascinating to feel the vicarious poetry of this writer’s perspective. And despite whatever vulgar tag some vulgar critic wants to put on him – it’s those lines and that feeling that make people understand themselves better and feel more alive.

Same with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie.

And if you ever want to know what drives us – it is not the dictates of some silly genre (indie rock, say or “alternative” rock) or whatever collection of ephemeral attitudes and dopey-eyed aesthetics count for the canon of modern music. We literally don’t think about it.

It’s “the way she brushed her hair from her forehead,” and “Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river…” and “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away…”
You look out at the audience at a show and you’re singing a song that you wrote and someone else is singing the words back to you and your both caught up in this moment – and you think “I know you.” And you smile to yourself and you’re just happy to be among other people, stumbling around in the dark with you.

It has nothing to do with guitar effects or who is on the cover of Spin this month or who the blogs are excited about this week – that is all hero worship, projection, power politics and mythology.

It is that feeling – lost in the music and the moment and the sense of knowing and being known – that is the essence of music and absolutely everything you need to know about why we became a band.

Airborne Toxic Event play Mercury Lounge, Bowery, Webester and Town Hall to close out a sold out run of shows this week in support of their new album All At Once, which is out just about everywhere right now.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

When someone can speak so coherently, authentically and with good insight into the band's fan base, it's no wonder we fans entertain a bit of a cult mentality.