Airborne Toxic Event forgoes indie norms

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Refreshingly, Mikel Jollett has more on his mind than the music business—and every miserable thing related to it—when he picks up the phone in his hometown of Los Angeles. When it’s mentioned that the Straight has talked to him before, in 2009, following the release of the Airborne Toxic Event’s eponymous debut, the singer-guitarist quickly takes control of the conversation, noting Barack Obama was still a White House newbie back than.

From there, Jollett shifts gears to the 2012 presidential campaign and the various political gaffes of Republican challenger Mitt Romney. That’s followed by a commentary on the reign of George W. Bush, whom he doesn’t necessarily think of as a bad person, but whose re-election made him seriously question what the fuck is wrong with his fellow Americans. Evidently just warming up, Jollett then flits to the American health-care system, and his amazement at how his countrymen get apoplectic at the idea of having the kind of access to doctors that Canadians take for granted.

“The funniest thing I read in a long time was after the Supreme Court upheld the Obamacare legislation,” the easygoing but thoughtful frontman says. “There was a stereotypical knee-jerk response from the right. The best one that I saw was someone going ‘This country is going to crap! Socialized medicine? I’m moving to Canada!’ I remember thinking ‘Man, you could not have crystallized this debate any better.’ It’s like someone going ‘There are too many guns here in Wisconsin, so I’m moving to Texas.’ ”

His interest in such matters suggests that Jollett spends more time thinking about the world around him than, say, the cretins in Mötley Crüe do. His willingness to look at the bigger picture also spills into the music that he makes with the Airborne Toxic Event. To fans, the group’s second release, All at Once, built upon the sonic majesty of its debut, the songs ambitiously swinging from the ornately rendered postpunk of the title track to the comedown coffeehouse folk of “All for a Woman”. In between, the group’s members show they are as comfortable cranking the amps and lighting out for the Stone Pony in Asbury Park (“Strange Girl”) as they are tapping their inner first-wave punk rockers (“Welcome to Your Wedding Day”) or breaking out the Brylcreem and taking a swing at vintage rockabilly (“It Doesn’t Mean a Thing”). Binding the songs together is the flair for the dramatic that’s made the Airborne Toxic Event as comfortable in sweaty clubs as it is playing with penguin-suit ensembles such as the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

In other words, All at Once is every bit as grand as that Arcade Fire record that had everyone urinating all over themselves at the last Grammy awards. Not, however, that Jollett sees things that way.

“The second record was us trying to do something that was really important—and I think that was kind of a mistake,” he says with a cackle. “Some of the choices that I made, I definitely wouldn’t make again. We were trying to be different from the first record, which was, like, a real rejection of indie rock.”

The implication there is that, as a songwriter, Jollett thought more with his head than with his heart on both of the Airborne Toxic Event’s first two releases. Which may or may not be true.

“I’m a big fan of Pavement, and Archers of Loaf, and Beck. I’ve been to enough Modest Mouse and Animal Collective shows to have totally earned my indie-rock pedigree. But I was like, ‘Fuck all of this. I want to make a record that’s passionate and loud and romantic and sad and emotional. Something about desperation and sex with loud drums, and loud songs about things.’ All of which flew in the face of everything that indie rock was supposed to be predicated upon. Indie rock is supposed to be intellectual and sexless and, generally speaking, lacking in specifics. The whole point was to explode all those ideas and be a big fucking loud, passionate house on fire.”

So what’s next for the Airborne Toxic Event? Well, that’s easy—the group has been toiling away in the studio for much of this summer. Jollett says he and his bandmates have changed things up, specifically making the kind of album that he wants to hear, as opposed to making something that he thinks fans might want. And yes, he’s done a lot of thinking about that.

“This record really feels special to us,” he says. “I don’t care about trying to impress anyone on this record, including fans or critics. I literally just wanted to make something that I love, and the band loved. It’s our third record, and by this point I think the cat is out of the bag. It’s like, you are who you are. We just stopped fucking caring. All I wanted to do is make something that I can point to and go ‘Okay, I can die now.’ ”

The Airborne Toxic Event plays LIVE at Squamish , at Hendrickson Fields & Logger Sports Ground, on Sunday (August 26).

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