The Airborne Toxic Event Interview
If we forgive them their big daft name, we can forgive them anything. That done, if we don’t let The Airborne Toxic Event into our desperate, weary hearts, we’re dafter still. This year, no other band has seeped quite so deep into my very corpuscles. Peddling the kind of guitar heroics that manages the twin thrills of garage-y grooves with an altogether more stately take on classic rock shapes, the LA five piece deliver a pointed challenge to every other supposed saviour of The Scene in 2009. Picture Televison hi-tailing it west and seeking out Lyndsey Buckingham to help them get in touch with their pop side. Or maybe The Strokes finding Arcade Fire rehearsing next door and throwing in their car keys. You’d still not be quite there, of course. It’s a tough one. But if the buzz has made you curious, seek out their eponymous debut and piece it together for yourself. You will, I guarantee, be rewarded and then some.
Mikel Jollett, he of the sharp lyrics, sharp suits and, I quickly surmise, sharp tongue, is not your typical Indie Band Leader. Playing back the tape of our interview, I find myself once again blown away by the force of nature that is Jollett jumping on an idea and running away with it. Looking back at my pad I kick myself because I don’t pin him down on a handful of things I want to probe, not least of which just where he's drawn the line between invention and documentary.The characters in those story-driven lyrics, are they characters at all ? And, yes, it’s been documented well enough already, but I really should have touched on those Wilderness Years he himself alludes to more than once during our conversation – the years spent as a freelance journalist, the novel that wouldn’t come, the autoimmune disorder he suffers from and his mother’s cancer that finally kicked him up the arse and saw him ditch the smokes and get this crazy band idea moving …
Mikel, your album is that rare delight; a record that edges out of the alternative rock side roads and blasts down the rock ‘n’ roll freeway with guile and guts, brains and brawn. Frankly, it’s my world this year, makes me laugh, makes me cry, takes me into lives, motel rooms, minds of strangers. It’s a phenomenal record. “That’s really kind of you to say. Thank you so much.” As a writer, you are daring to do that rare thing; rather than spout pose or an attitude, you’re documenting, recording, it seems. I think of you as a chronicler in line with American fictional writers like John Cheever or Lorrie Moore.“That’s very, very flattering, thank you. “ Hey, what can I say ? Who is Mikel Jollett ? Writer first and foremost, singer second ? “First of all, I think I am very indebted to a lot of other writers. I never really considered myself a writer, you know, I’d just pick up the guitar and play all the time. The songs on this record are the songs I would play in my room all day long, much to the chagrin of my neighbours, but, yes, a lot my influences were literary ones and for me, I think, I spent about five years writing alone. I was alone a lot, reading a lot - Phillip Roth, Nabakov – I read everything by Nabakov. And you know, a lot of the things they would write about were a lot more honest than the things you would hear in a three minute pop song. “
The songs on ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’ burn with almost horrifying candour. Like I say, I don’t cover the whole Fact or Fiction thing like I should have done but if it all Really Did Happen, then those analyst bills are gonna bankrupt him. That said, common sense suggests it’s somewhere between the two – real life given a shot of flavour enhancer. Is writing a release, does it shoo away any pesky demons ? “Not really, it’s more about the precision. One of the first rules of writing, I think it was Phillip Roth who said that you have to confuse yourself as a writer, you have to be willing to look a fool, look stupid. Because this is how you spend a lot of your time feeling and rock ‘n’ roll is a lot of posturing. The idea is you’re supposed to get up there and look cool with your tight jeans or whatever. That seems to be the idea and yet it has always been more important to me to try to just say what’s true. It’s for politicians to say what’s untrue but popular and I think it’s our job as artists to talk about things that are true but unpopular. I remember the first time I read ‘Immortality’ by Milan Kundera or ‘American Pastoral’ by Phillip Roth. There was a real sense of relief at just how horrible these people were. But also, you sympathise with them, you sympathise with some of the traits and the desperate things they did because you felt a kinship with them They did it because they were lonely or they did it because they longed for certain joys that they once had. “
This is absolutely fascinating. You begin to see just how much ambition Jollett must be sat on. If I’d have had my brain in gear at the time (and if I’d have been able to get a word in anyway) I’d have picked him up on a connection that maybe even he didn’t know about. It was Kundera in an interview with, yes, Phillip Roth after ‘Immortality’ was published who shed light on the self-referential nature of the writing process : “This novel springs from a casual gesture of a woman, seemingly to her swimming instructor. This small act creates the life of a character in the mind of a writer named Milan Kundera. The character, named Agnes, becomes an object of obsession and longing, that explores the meaning of existence.” Jollett is in good company. Songs like 'Happiness is Overrated' and 'This is Nowhere' are aflame with, well, obsession and longing. Go, ahem, figure.
People are inconveniently complex, aren’t they ? “People, you know do awful things and that’s the nature of human experience – anger, jealously and these aspects of behaviour you don’t often get in a pop song. “ Your songs feature so many fractured lives. All that heartbreak and loneliness, all that not letting go. I’m worried about the characters in your songs. “Yeah, I’m worried about them too ! “
Let’s talk about The Airborne Live Experience. Twice this year I’ve seen you utterly catch fire. You play with glorious abandon, real ragged glory. “Which shows did you go to ? “ Manchester. Club Academy most recently and The Ruby Lounge back in February. Tell me you remember them. “Where the fuck was that ? Was that that underground room ? It was real sweaty in there and everyone was just on top of each other ?” That was the one. ”That was cool …” At that Academy gig the crowd had grown but so had the response. It was electric, like we’d cemented things after that initial curiosity. As a unit you’re selfless and supportive, no-one’s playing for themselves. “Yeah I think there’s some of that. I think a lot of what we’re doing live is – look, we always say this : you have to play the show you’re playing and not the show you wish you were playing. Whether you’re playing for five people or five thousand. Sometimes when you’re playing for five thousand you wanna play for five, you know ? Every room is different. Something has to happen. If something doesn’t happen it’s not rock ‘n’ roll. It’s visceral engagement. It’s this sense that it might go horribly wrong or the fucking building might burn down or … who knows, there might be a fucking riot ! That’s what makes it rock ‘n’ roll. That whole energy is the key to it – we don’t even care if we play in key half the time !”
Have you got to the stage where you can differentiate between different towns yet? ”For sure, yeah. For example, Glasgow is a way more enthusiastic crowd - they go a lot more crazy than, say, London. Although our last two London shows were pretty insane but the Glasgow crowd in particular, for some reason, our last Glasgow show we played in this room, sold out, about a thousand people and it was just fucking crazy. They were screaming ! And we were like … we didn’t even know how they knew who we were ! At one point the entire crowd was onstage and security was trying to clear it and they were ignoring security and they were trying to shut us down and we wouldn’t shut down .It was one big fucking fiasco.” Wow. Wish I’d been there. ” It was great !” You make the point, very un-rock ‘n’ roll, this, of thanking the crowd at length, expressing surprise at the response. Last time I saw you, you said that being in a room full of ‘friends’ made it easier being so far from home. We’re English; we like that. Truth be told, sneering disregard has got a bit tired. ”That’s just how we are as people. I’m not ever gonna be a Rock Star … whatever the fuck that is. I’m just this dude that’s a writer, who writes songs and tours around with his friends. There’s this expectation, especially in Britain, that there’s this mould you’re supposed to fit – there’s four guys, they’re all 22 …” And they all revere Oasis? ”Exactly - they all don’t care and there’s groupies and there’s drugs. I’m a writer and I write songs that mean a lot to me and my friends in the band are all amazing musicians and they were good friends before this when we hung around together. It’s actually more important to us to connect with people. A lot of it has to do with the fact, for me anyway, that I spent so much time isolated. Some of it’s in some way probably a salve to that …I very much, in some way, just wanted to engage with people and that whole idea is just not the British rock ‘n’ roll ideal. Maybe that’s why so many people were a little confused when we came out ? They just didn’t understand the reference points. Our songs are all over the place.”
Did you ever worry that people wouldn’t get you ? I mean, you look the part and you’ve got a handful of songs that radio would surely love if it gave them half a chance. But you’re still too weird for some, too accomplished and poised for The Kids. ”Well, yeah. 'Are you trying to be some kind of throwback band ?' I don’t know but we thought, Fuck it, man, the cat’s out of the bag - everyone knows what a rock n roll show is like …”
You say that all you wanted to do was write your songs, make your “little record”, but things have moved on somewhat. If the gigs are anything to go by, people are far from casual about you. I think you mean a great deal to people who’ve made the connection you talk about. What will you do if it does all blow up ? Are you prepared ? ”I think so but also it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend our time thinking about it because you can’t really control it, you know ? You can drive yourself crazy thinking about things you can’t control and things you can, even. The kind of things we think about are like how we might manage to stay friends, how to have some balance in the middle of all this, how to do any of it with some measure of grace, I guess. You can become the biggest band in the world but you can still be an asshole. You have to live your life with some kind of dignity or else it’s all kind of pointless.”
Life sounds too busy for words right now. What do you do to relax ? ”I hang out with my family whenever I can, I call my folks, I read a lot. Lately I’ve been working on songs on the bus. I’ve been doing this thing lately where I’ll write in the dressing room. We were playing in Germany recently and I just wrote this new song in the dressing room surrounded by the other band, our band and all the crew and everyone. There was just nowhere else to go so I was sitting there with the guitar and some recording equipment just trying to work out parts for a song. We played the show and after the show we got on the bus and stayed up most of the night finishing the lyrics and moving it on. I don’t know, I just really enjoy song writing, that whole process.”
We wind up by talking about this handful of new songs, how they've been road testing them of late. Jollett is excited and confident about what they've come up with. They'll be touring this album at least until the end of 2009, though, so the road is where they'll stay for now. The titles alone are enough for me : 'Echo Park', 'A Letter to Georgia'. The new songs sound good but for me, as on the album, it’s epic album and set closer ‘Innocence’ that puts me in orbit, especially how you give it that extended, (very) solo intro onstage. ”That was actually part of the song originally but we thought maybe it was too long - add that in and it ends up being a ten minute song”. But playing it like that, you’re really on your own, you're isolated to a huge degree. It’s electrifying for us, god knows what it's like for you but wow - what a tightrope. I guess it all boils down to trust. You really have to be sure you have the audience with you. It could so easily go wrong, surely ? ”Maybe it will go wrong. Maybe that’s the whole point.”