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Monday, March 2, 2009

Interview with Mikel Jollett
of The Airborne Toxic Event

Photo credits: Erin Broadley, Henry Ruiz, Stuart Wainstock

The Airborne Toxic Event are a fast-rising L.A. band that crafts story-based songs built around real-life experiences. Blender Magazine praised their self-titled record for its "inebriated celebrations of love's boundless optimism." One such track, the acclaimed "Sometime Around Midnight," currently sits at #5 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart.

The band will be performing at Mr. Small's in Pittsburgh tonight. Singer/lyricist Mikel Jollett called us yesterday to chat about his lack of vocal hygiene, dueling with bloggers, and his inability to compete with Leonard Cohen.

It’s good to hear your voice. I understand you had to cancel some recent shows because of laryngitis.
Yeah, we had to cancel 5 shows, unfortunately, so I could go see a voice specialist.

How did they treat your condition?
Well, I’ve been learning all about something called ‘vocal hygiene’. Apparently, you’re not supposed to get drunk every night (laughs). You’re supposed to not drink alcohol and caffeine. But there was another issue where a cold virus had gotten into one of the nerves, apparently. One of my vocal chords was partially paralyzed. It’s a temporary thing - it goes away when you get over the cold - but the doctor was like, ‘Well, you’ve been on two continents back and forth touring for 6 months, getting up early every morning and drinking every night…’

Well, if you don’t do those things, your stories might not be as interesting...
(Laughs) Maybe. I’m feeling better, though. I’ve been resting. I didn’t talk at all for 4 days. I walked around with a little notepad and a pen and communicated that way. A lot of lip reading went on when I was trying to speak.

It must be satisfying to head out on tour knowing that a lot of your upcoming shows have already sold out.
Yeah, it’s nice to know people want to come see the show. It’s our first headlining tour and we’ve yet to play a non-sold out show so far. We’re really sort of surprised by that, and it’s been great.

Your music has been compared to a wide variety of bands, from all across the spectrum. What’s the weirdest comparison you’ve heard?
(Laughs) When we first came out, we got compared constantly to the Pogues, the Clash, and the Smiths. And then for a while there it was Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand. There’s a blog somewhere that keeps track of how many different bands we’ve been compared to - it’s like 50 or 60. It’s weird because the bands are nothing like each other. It just seems really silly to us, because it has nothing at all to do with what we’re doing.

There’s a lot of politics in the guitar effects. Put a certain amount of delay on a guitar and people say you sound like Modest Mouse. Add strings, they say you sound like Arcade Fire. It’s not really what’s at the soul of the music. What’s at the soul of the music is the intention, your songwriting, the stories you tell, the ideas you go with.

Pitchfork Media gave your CD one of its worst scores ever, and you responded by sending them an open letter. Why did you feel it was important to respond in that way?
We thought that it was a little bit beyond the pale. You can’t take that stuff too seriously - they gave The Boy With The Arab Strap an 0.8, which is a great Belle & Sebastian record.

We’re very spoiled – we’ve gotten a lot of positive press – but it felt kind of like the writer just had an axe to grind, so he decided he was gonna get us. We’re an indie rock band on a tiny label, and we just happen to have a song that ended up on the radio, so I think that he heard a song on the radio and figured we were sort of ‘that’ band and made a bunch of assumptions. So we thought it was appropriate to write him a letter.

I think he tore into “Sometime Around Midnight” for rhyming, which doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a controversy. And then a couple months later iTunes named it the Song of the Year. Weird stuff like that… it feels like it has nothing to do with you. It feels like you’re standing somewhere idly watching people argue about you. So it’s probably best not to take any of it too seriously.

How did “Sometime Around Midnight” come together, and why did you choose that as a single?
We actually didn’t choose it as a single - it was kind of chosen for us. I wrote that song after seeing my ex-girlfriend. It’s a true story. It happened one night. I went home, spent three days locked in my apartment and wrote the song. I brought it to the band, we started playing it and we recorded it. And then people just started sharing it on the web, it got posted on blogs and played on local radio stations. We didn’t have a record label at the time. We didn’t have a manager. It was just the five of us, and the radio station in town called me up and said, ‘We’re gonna start playing this song.’ It was KROQ. I was like, Really? (laughs).

Video: The Airborne Toxic Event on The Late Show With David Letterman

How much interest did you have from major labels, and what made you ultimately go with an indie label?
We met with just about all of them. We went to a lot of lunches and dinners, people bought us a lot of drinks, that kind of thing. It wasn’t any kind of dogmatic thing, like, ‘We have to be on an indie label,’ it was just that nobody would put the record out as is. Every one of the major labels wanted to change it. They treated it like a demo and wanted to have us re-record it, or remix it. Actually the president of one of the biggest labels in the world said he wanted to sit with me and work on choruses and bridges (laughs). I was like, You’re out of your mind!

Majordomo came along, and their deal was, ‘Hey, we really like your record and we want to put it out.’ So that’s what we did. It was a very simple exchange. We handed them the record completely done. And we would’ve signed with Capitol, or whatever major label, if they would’ve said to us, ‘We love this record and we’d love to put it out.’ So, nobody was willing to put that kind of muscle behind what was basically a home recording.

You guys have signed on for Coachella and Sasquatch. Have you played any major festivals before?
We played V-Fest in Toronto last year. We played Pemberton in British Columbia, which is sort of like, if you can imagine Coachella at the foot of a mountain (laughs). They were both really fun, just really great crowds. You get to see some of the other bands and you get to meet a lot of the other bands. It’s really a good energy at festivals.

We’re so looking forward to Coachella. We’re playing the same night as Morrissey and Leonard Cohen and some guy named Paul McCartney. I don’t know if we’re slated for the same slot as Leonard Cohen. Maybe he’ll be on the mainstage and we’ll be on a side stage or a tent. I think I’d probably tell the audience just to go watch Leonard Cohen (laughs). That guy’s a genius. He had his first U.S. concert in 15 years a couple weeks ago in New York, and I watched all the YouTube videos, and it just looked amazing. I can’t wait to see him.

Finally, which is more fun to play: David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, or Carson Daly?
Letterman. The crew was super cool, everyone’s really relaxed, and it was just a really good vibe. We were drinking wine in the basement before we went on stage (laughs). We had a hotel that was half a block away so we could leave the studio and go there. At some point we did a soundcheck, then we went home with our friends, then went out and we played on the tv, and then we went to dinner. It was just a really fun day.

The Airborne Toxic Event perform at Mr. Small’s Theatre tonight at 8 pm. Find them online at www.myspace.com/theairbornetoxicevent and www.theairbornetoxicevent.com.


inpgh said...

Good interview. Enjoyed the p4k question, open letter.

Scott said...

Thanks. They are a really interesting band.

rickdog said...

Find more Airborne Toxic Event in my mp3blog and forum searches:


Glen Hoos said...

Hi Scott,

I am preparing to publish a book on the band The Airborne Toxic Event. In the book, I quote from this excellent interview that you did a few years back with Mikel Jollett.

My publisher informed me that I would need your permission to quote from your interview (which would be properly cited in the endnotes). I would be most appreciative if you would be able to provide permission by e-mail to glen@dsrf.org. The following text would suffice:

I, Scott, provide permission to Glen Hoos to quote from my interview with The Airborne Toxic Event for Unrescuable Schizo in his book, Toxic History.

Thank you very much for considering this request!


Glen Hoos