Friday, October 27, 2006

Mini-Interview: Airborne Toxic Event

Sure, first impressions are important, but second impressions can be clarifying. That was the case for me with The Airborne Toxic Event, at least.

When I first heard the band’s name, I dragged my feet a little about listening to them because the name sounded to me like some SoCal punk act… but when I heard their music – which varied from the kind of straight rock that The Constantines try to hit, but rarely nail, to more playful sing-song tracks – I did a complete about-face.

So, I asked their lead Mikel Jollett a few questions to find out more about them.

Hi, Mikel. How you doing today? How's LA treating you?

Very well thank you. Los Angeles is just lovely this morning.

So... the name of the band. After doing some searching around on the Interweb, it looks like you're a fan of Don DeLillo's writing, yes?

Very much so. White Noise changed my life. I'm not sure if it was because of his treatment of a world consumed by media or the way he dealt with the fear of death. But there's something both touching and absurd about that book that seemed to capture what it feels like to live in America right now. You know: terrorism, death, fear, YouTube.

It seems like you've also got a lit influence in your song-writing, too. The song The Girls in Their Summer Dresses is based on a short story, correct?

Yes. The Girls in Their Summer Dresses is a story by Irwin Shaw. It's about a man and a woman walking down the street in New York city in the summer. The man keeps staring at these beautiful women as they walk by. The woman, who is his wife, is not happy about this. They fight. He reasons that he's been a good husband, supportive, faithful, etc... but just must stare at these woman. He can't help it. It's a very compelling argument he gives, but she simply can't accept it, won't accept it. The song is basically their argument -- his reasoning and her response to it.

I didn't actually read the story until I saw that Woody Allen movie Celebrity. There's a writer in that movie who says about the story that the title alone is better than most short stories. I thought so too. Such a compelling image the words inspire, kind of a nostalgia for innocence, youth: who are these girls? Why are they wearing dresses? Will I ever know such things again? Have I lost something? Am I dying?

The story's pretty good, too.

Have you slipped any other story references into songs?

Yes. We have a song called This is Not the Point of Babette which is also a reference to White Noise. It's something Jack Gladney (the main character) keeps saying to his wife (Babette) when she starts to freak out about dying.

I thought it was a funny thing to say. Just the construction, You know, "This is not the point of you. The whole point of you is that you are not like this." There are a few others.

What about your musical influences – both direct or indirect?

It's a good question. You know, there are the direct things, the people who wrote stuff that was immediate, touching, for one reason or another: Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, The Smiths, Josef K, Television, the Velvet Underground, the Cure, Eric Bachman, Orange Juice, Modest Mouse, etc..

But then the question is also, what makes you write? Like, why do you make music? And the answer to that I think is different for each of us in the band. It is my theory that Daren, who plays drums, really just likes to hit shit. Hard. You know, he wakes up in the morning and wants to bang on things.

We'll go out sometimes and be at a bar or something, and after a few drinks, he can't contain himself. He just has to hit things -- drum his fingers on the table, knock a glass with a spoon -- whatever. I love this quality in him.

Noah, and again I can't really speak for him, but I think he just loves to play anything. A piano, a bass, a guitar, drum. He's the kind of person that just wants to make music every second of his life. He's also great at it. It's sort of remarkable, actually.

Anna, who plays viola and keyboard, I think she loves melodies, and maybe also the whole group thing with music. I guess that's the deal with people who played in symphonies. She has a real ear for it. She'll just start playing a melody line and it's perfect for the song. I'm sort of amazed by that quality.

Steven, who plays guitar and keyboard, I think he likes the pageantry, the symbolism. He's a writer, he's working on a novel, and he reads a lot and has just impeccable taste. You know, loves all this great music. I think he feels a sense of involvement in all that when we play and enjoys it.

I think I write music because I'm afraid to die. My mom got diagnosed with cancer last year, the same week I got diagnosed with this degenerative skin disease. It's not fatal or anything, it just makes you look like Moby. And it was accelerated by the fact that I smoked.

It scared the shit out of me. I quit smoking, broke up with a girlfriend, spent a week in the hospital with my mom (she's fine now) and spent a month walking around in a daze -- hazy, depressed, like I was in diaper. When I came to, all I wanted, like literally all I wanted to do all day long was play music. I don't quite understand it.

Wow. That is a fucking long-winded answer. Next time I think I'll just say: Pavement.

You’re heading out to CMJ in New York soon. Is this your first? Have you gotten to play a lot of other cities?

It's our first time at CMJ. We're really excited about it. We're playing with Devastations from Australia and The Red Romance which is a bunch of guys from Ambulance Ltd.

It's actually going to be only our fifth show. We just had our first show a few weeks ago. We were shocked we got into CMJ and have been sort of shocked by the response we've gotten in general. We expected, like, 50 people to come to our first show at the Echo and there were almost 200. It was surreal.

How long has the band been together? How did you start?

Daren and I have been playing together for about five months. I'd played with a few other drummers and bassists and stuff, but they just kept leaving. I wasn't sure why, but I think maybe a band has to have a certain chemistry and I just didn't have it with them. I met Daren and we hit it off immediately.

I played him some songs and he liked them and then he played his drums with them and it was just instant. Then he told me his e-mail address was something like I fell smack in love.

So we just started playing endlessly. We spent months alone in this practice room, twenty hours a week or something just playing and playing and playing. Drinking, I guess. Screaming, stomping, dancing... It was a lot of fun.

Then we decided we need to play a show so we set a date. And even though we didn't have any bandmates yet, we were just going to play, as a two-piece if we had to.

But then Noah and Steven and Anna kind of just showed up all at once. They were all good friends of mine and all kind of doing their own thing. One night we all played together and I think we all just felt it. There was a real chemistry, a real enthusiasm. Like, not only did we like the sounds we were making, but we liked each other, liked what each other was about.

You’ve got a few songs available for download on your myspace page. Are those from a forthcoming EP or are they planned for an album?

We're not sure yet. We have them compiled on an EP, but when we make a record we'll probably include them.

What’s next for you?

Well, we're off to New York next week and then a bunch of shows around town in L.A. in November. I think December we're going to make the record. We don't have a label but we're not sure if that's important or not.

I got some really good advice from a friend who said to just pretend no one is going to help you with anything. Just try to do everything yourself. So that's the plan for now. Play a lot. Make a record. Work.

Last question: What other bands in LA are you enjoying right now?

As far as local bands, God, there's just so many. I really like that band The Happy Hollows. They're exciting and weird and cool. Plus that song Meteors is really good.

Also, Land of Ill Earthquakes is amazing. They're kind of like if Belle & Sebastian were from West Covina. Very musical and the nicest people. Acres of Fakers by them is one of my favorite songs. Bunny, they're singer, has a beautiful voice.

Thailand has this great song called This Officer's Life that I've been playing a lot.

Also, you know: Dios Malos are just the coolest fucking band. I think, like everyone else, I'm in love with Annie from Giant Drag. Irving has been one of my favorite bands since A Curious Thing about Leather (which probably makes me a neophyte or something).

And Cold War Kids -- I love how they just came out of nowhere and are doing so well. Very cool. It's funny too, how these bands are all just so nice -- just the humblest, hardest working people. It's either ironic or appropriate or, you know, karma.

That’s it! Thanks for your time.

Of course, thank you so very much.

The Airborne Toxic Event are playing at The Cocaine on October 28th and The Hear Gallery on November 11th, and then have a free in-store at Sea Level Records on November 18th


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