Friday, October 05, 2007

Interview: The Airborne Toxic Event

It was exactly a year ago tonight when The Airborne Toxic Event performed live for the first time -- and they drew a large crowd even then. The show took place at The Echo and it was packed, though not quite as much as their sold-out follow-up event there months later and subsequent residency nights at the venue.

The rest of the year continued in indie rock whirlwind fashion for the group: releasing an EP, gaining a manager, headlining The Troubadour, shooting a video, touring the UK, playing Sunset Junction, and more.

They've gained a lot of attention quickly and, as one of LA’s most promising new rock acts, rightly so.

A few nights ago, we checked in with lead Mikel Jollett about recording their upcoming full-length album, what else is next for the group, and basically all the things we didn’t get to ask when we interviewed him right around this time last year.

We'd meant to do the interview over some beers somewhere, but transcribing takes fucking forever, so we conducted it over Instant Message while drinking at home from our respective apartments.

mikelj: Do you see me?
RFSL: Hi, Mikel.
mikelj: Hi, Joe.
[We talk about cheap beer and internet abbreviations for awhile. It goes on longer than you'd probably want to read.]
RFSL: So... it's been quite a year for the band.
mikelj: The only year.
RFSL: It has been a year since you played The Echo, yes?
RFSL: First
mikelj: Yes.
RFSL: That was a good show.
mikelj: October 5th of last year.
mikelj: Thanks. You were there?
RFSL: Yep.
mikelj: wow.
mikelj: Did I invite you?
RFSL: You invited me right before.
mikelj: Very cool. Thank you so much for coming.
RFSL: I listened to your stuff on your myspace page and thought it was immediately likeable, so came out.
mikelj: You did the first interview we ever did.
mikelj: Thanks.
RFSL: How many have there been since?
mikelj: Not sure.
mikelj: 20, 40, 50?
mikelj: I don't know.
RFSL: So, what are some highlights from the last year?
[Time passes.]
RFSL: Did you lose the internet silver cord?
mikelj signed off at 10:20:27 PM.
[A brief phone call ensues. He’s been responding, but the connection is cut, so he reconnects and pastes all he’s written.]
mikelj signed on at 10:25:10 PM.
mikelj: Well, definitely the UK tour. I think that's when we really came together as a group. We'd been playing shows before that but I think that was when we finally figured out that this is something we wanted to do long term. Something we wanted to do together. There's something about spending a lot of time with someone in a van...
mikelj: I think we all realized that we were all OK.
mikelj: That everyone really just kind of LIKED each other, you know?
mikelj: The Troubadour show was kind of a big dream come true for us..
mikelj: Just because we'd been to so many shows there.
mikelj: Playing Koko in London... looking out and seeing all those people. And of course, just tons of jokes, new songs, what have you.
mikelj: The February 2nd show at The Echo. It was weird because it was where we'd played our first show, but then to sell it out, to have this line around the block. It was kind of mind-numbing.
mikelj: You still there?
RFSL: Yeah, everyone in the band seems to get along really well.
RFSL: (This is me catching up.)
mikelj: It's weird. We've all become very good friends. Kind of like siblings. Sometimes I think that we're like this shipwrecked family of brothers and a sister.
RFSL: What were the shows like in the UK??
mikelj: I think pretty typical for a new band. Some big, some small. A couple were just amazing. All these kids showed up and bounced and sang and knew all the lyrics. And then some of them had like 15 people who couldn't care less we were there.
mikelj: But we kind of had each other in the van.
mikelj: We make our own fun.
RFSL: How did you all meet?
mikelj: I met Daren through a friend. I'd known Steven and Anna for a few years. And Noah was neighbors with my friend Chris. I was just trying to find band-mates.
mikelj: I felt so lucky to find such incredibly talented people, who were also, you know, funny and smart and just fucking cool.
RFSL: So, you guys have been recording lately.
mikelj: Yes.
RFSL: How many songs? With who?
mikelj: So, we just kind of decided to go ahead and make a record ourselves rather than waiting for a label. Fourteen songs so far. We're recording with this guy Pete Minn at his studio.
mikelj: He built this amazing studio in his home and he's just a genius with it.
mikelj: It's on this hill in Eagle Rock.
RFSL: Oh, yeah. He’s also recording Radars To The Sky's new EP, right?
mikelj: Yeah.
mikelj: He just really understands music and has such a good ear.
RFSL: Nice. You played one of the new songs on a radio interview recently.
mikelj: We'll do something and he'll say, "You guys should just go home and sleep. You're tired. Come back tomorrow."
mikelj: Instead of some intellectual concept-driven thing like, "Well, we're really going for a sound that is yada yada yada..."
mikelj: He's much more like us. Like someone who grew up dancing for his dinner. You know, instead of like a trained ballerina or something. We're all like people who are used to dancing on the street corner.
mikelj: What sounds good. What works.
mikelj: What moves us, I guess..
mikelj: He's like that.
RFSL: So, it’s going well.
RFSL: You planning to self-release or wait and see?
mikelj: Yeah. It's been fun.
mikelj: I guess we don't know yet.
mikelj: We just didn't want to wait because we felt we had a record in us.
RFSL: I've heard some of the tracks and like them a lot. They move off in a new direction from the previous songs, but still sound like you.
mikelj: We've always felt that we were going to just do our thing and if someone, a label or whatever, wanted to come along and help us, great. but if not, we sort of plan to make our own way. This is what we want to do.
mikelj: Thank you.
RFSL: I got addicted to Just Around Midnight. (That's the name?)
RFSL: Sometime Around Midnight.
mikelj: Sometime Around Midnight.
[Note: You can hear it here. And should.]
mikelj: Yeah.
mikelj: Thanks.
mikelj: That was a really bad night.
mikelj: I saw you that night, i think.
RFSL: Yeah, I went home with a beautiful French girl that night, but you got a great song out of it.
mikelj: Did you really?
mikelj: Ugh. That sucked.
RFSL: Well, I left and went to her home, at least...
mikelj: Nice going.
mikelj: I had a terrible night.
RFSL: Tough question:
mikelj: ...
RFSL: Do you ever feel that as a writer that you sometimes put yourself in emotional harm’s way for your art? Or mine bad times for art?
RFSL: (I will probably edit that later.)
RFSL: (To make myself sound smarter.)
mikelj: As long as you extend me the same courtesy.
RFSL: Done.
mikelj: I guess it's probably not as conscious as that. I think Kafka broke off something like three engagements because he was too happy and he couldn't write.
mikelj: I think it's more like both come from the same place: you know, the desire to write or make music or whatever and being a bit of a fuck up.
RFSL: (He should be happy that he didn't feel like a bug.)
mikelj: Ha.
RFSL: Yeah.
mikelj: and I guess I wouldn't have chosen, say, a night like that. But I guess it's fair to say that I chose a life that leads to a life like that.
mikelj: or something.
mikelj: I know that when I wrote that song, I spent two days locked in my house working on it. Like, feverishly. It was all I could do. And I had to get it out.
mikelj: I was going to ask if it was like that. It seemed like something that you needed to get down on paper right then.
mikelj: So the art was all I could get out of it.
mikelj: Definitely.
mikelj: It was kind of the apotheosis of something that had been going on for about four years.
RFSL: (And, as an aside, I think you should keep the end. It brings a lot to it.)
mikelj: Thanks.
RFSL: Do you do all the song-writing for the band?
mikelj: Yeah.
RFSL: And that's your background, right? Fiction?
mikelj: Lately we've been collaborating on the music and the arrangements more.
mikelj: Yeah. I just sold a short story.
RFSL: Congrats. To where?
mikelj: [Removed until he's sure it can be announced.]
RFSL: Oh, fuck. That's great.
mikelj: Thanks.
RFSL: You're also a former music critic. How's life on the other side?
mikelj: I don't really know. We've haven't really done anything yet.
RFSL: Or how was it being a critic?
mikelj: I never really felt like a critic. I just kind told stories.
mikelj: And they were about bands.
RFSL: Who did you write about?
mikelj: Just whoever I liked.
RFSL: That's the rare ideal spot in writing about music.
mikelj: I got to meet Robert Smith and get drunk in a hotel room across from Central Park in the middle of the night once.
mikelj: I asked him every question I ever had about the Cure.
RFSL: Did you ask about Carnage Visors?
mikelj: I asked him about his wife Mary and we talked for a long time about madness and art and we rambled and paced the room and he was the most querulous person I'd ever met.
mikelj: It was amazing.
mikelj: I felt like interviewing him was just a ruse to ask him all these questions I'd ever wanted to ask him.
RFSL: Sounds great.
RFSL: I'm kind of fascinated by -- not to sound like obscure music nerd -- that 15 minute guitar dirge b-side they did called Carnage Visors.
mikelj: It was a soundtrack to a film.
RFSL: It's kind of like pre-Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, etc.
mikelj: That a friend of theirs did.
mikelj: Then they just released it because, well, they just didn't care.
mikelj: A Hundred Years, which opens Pornography is a bit like that.
RFSL: See, now I'm interviewing you about interviewing The Cure.
mikelj: Very meta.
RFSL: Coming from that side of things and now making music, does it give you less patience when you see bands, I dunno, not living up to their potential?
mikelj: I'm not sure what you mean?
RFSL: Well, I'm guessing that most music writers thinks that they can do better. You actually are making music, though.
mikelj: I don't know. I never felt that way.
mikelj: I felt like I wrote about stuff I couldn't get my head around.
mikelj: Like, I was just fascinated that this thing existed.
mikelj: It really feels like two different parts of my head.
mikelj: Like they come from completely different places.
RFSL: The making art and appreciating art sides are different?
mikelj: I kind of felt struck by lightning when the band thing started.
mikelj: hah.
mikelj: for me.
mikelj: Yeah.
RFSL: No, that makes sense.
RFSL: I deconstruct a lot of writing, movies, etc, but when I'm writing fiction all of that is background haze that I don't really tap into consciously. It just comes out.
mikelj: I know what you mean.
RFSL: You know? Sometimes you can just nail it the first try, though it's taken you years of practice and osmosis to do that.
mikelj: I don't know. Can you cut out the part about [name of publication]. I'm not sure I'm supposed to talk about it yet.
RFSL: Okay.
mikelj: Thanks.
RFSL: So, Andrew from Radars To The Sky.
mikelj: Good guy.
RFSL: You went to high school with him.
mikelj: I've met him once or twice.
mikelj: Yep. Junior high too.
RFSL: Where was that?
mikelj: Westchester.
RFSL: He said once that you guys bonded by being the only kids in school who didn't like Guns N Roses.
RFSL: (I've only got three more ?s for you, by the way.)
RFSL: Hello?
mikelj: He can totally shred.
RFSL: We got disconnected there again.
mikelj: Oh.
mikelj: Dang
RFSL: Did you write anything before that last shred part?
mikelj: Can you see this now?
mikelj: We went to this high school that was mostly black and there was a handful of white kids and we would walk down the halls in like Morrissey or Stone Roses t-shirts.
mikelj: He's been at the band thing a lot longer than I have. And he's a much better guitar player.
RFSL: Bad internet weather tonight.
mikelj: Totally.
RFSL: Cool. I've got like three more for you.
RFSL: But, yeah. I really like Andrew's band. They always nail it live.
mikelj: They are soooo good.
mikelj: They're my favorite band.
RFSL: So, you did a video.
mikelj: I really think he's the most talented guy I know.
mikelj: Yeah.
RFSL: How did that come together?
RFSL: (This is where I embed the video into the article later.)

mikelj: We knew we wanted to do a video and Jason Wishnow, the director, was an old friend of mine. He always has his hand in nine different things and is just a great film-maker. So we asked him to do it.
RFSL: Seems like it's gotten a good reaction on YouTube and what not.
mikelj: Yeah. Weird. Eh?
mikelj: We didn't expect that.
mikelj: I always think it'll just be for us and maybe a couple friends.
mikelj: You know, maybe like a couple hundred people will see it or something.
mikelj: but over 200,000 plays so far.
RFSL: You guys have done a lot in a year. Come a long way.
mikelj: On the video.
mikelj: I guess.
mikelj: I feel like we haven't done anything yet.
mikelj: like I'm just itching to get started.
RFSL: Both you and The Deadly Syndrome started up and got a lot of attention right away, it seemed like.
mikelj: All of us are.
mikelj: That's a great band.
mikelj: Love them.
RFSL: What's next for you?
mikelj: Well, we've got a bunch of shows. All over. San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, New York...
mikelj: Finishing the record.
mikelj: Then who knows.
mikelj: It's kind of the wild west in the music right now.
mikelj: Yeah, we're going.
mikelj: Playing three shows.
mikelj: One at the Mercury Lounge with The Little Ones and Robbers on High Street that we're really looking forward to.
RFSL: Nice. I love seeing The Little Ones live.
mikelj: Yeah, they're so cool.
mikelj: Lots of energy.
mikelj: and just a really good vibe.
RFSL: So, last question: Who else are you listening to these days?
mikelj: The big guns, eh?
mikelj: Well, I've been listening to the mixes of the new Radars To The Sky songs that they just finished.
mikelj: Also, Orange Juice, those songs have been making a renaissance on my iTunes.
mikelj: Also, just love that Franz cover of the LCD Soundsystem song All My Friends.
RFSL: Still there?
mikelj: On my iTunes right now is Brian Eno, Azure Ray, Wolf Parade, and BRMC.
mikelj: Yep.
mikelj: You?
RFSL: I think so.
mikelj: Did you get the music answer?
RFSL: Yep.
RFSL: Okay, real last question: Where do you want to be in a year from now?
mikelj: Honestly.
mikelj: I want to be alive. I want to not be sick. I want to be great friends with my bandmates. In the meantime, maybe we can make some music.
RFSL: Good answer.
mikelj: So good talking with you man.
RFSL: Great talking with you.
RFSL: Thanks for your time.

The Airborne Toxic Event play next in LA at The Echoplex on Friday, October 12th with Low Vs. Diamond and Castaneda.

- Mini-Interview: The Airborne Toxic Event

- Wishing Well MP3

Photo by Jeff Koga.


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