If Mikel Jollett isn’t as wowed as he should be with where the Airborne Toxic Event finds itself today, it’s because he never expected—or even aspired—to be making a living at music. As such, the Los Angeles–based quintet’s rapid ascent in the indie-rock ranks isn’t nearly as impressive to the singer-guitarist as it has been to those who have embraced the group’s self-titled debut.
“I played in a punk band in college, and I played guitar in my living room for my neighbour’s cat,” the self-effacing Jollett says with a laugh, on the line from his City of Angels home. “But most of my time was spent writing. I had kind of decided that music wasn’t for me. I decided that I was more suited for working on books and stories and working on transitions—the usual writer’s tasks.”
Even if he never finished the great American novel, Jollett is on his way to establishing himself as a gifted wordsmith, landing a short story in the Dave Eggers–published magazine McSweeney’s Quarterly and finding himself pursued by such publications as the New Yorker. In the middle of a book that he intended to devote a whole year to working on, life threw him a bunch of major curveballs. As has been well-documented in every article written about the Airborne Toxic Event, Jollett’s mom got cancer in 2006 right before he was diagnosed with a serious autoimmune deficiency. Toss a terminally ill father and a bad breakup into the mix, and you’ve got a chain of events that gets people seriously wondering what the hell they’re doing with their lives. “A lot of stuff happened, including me quitting smoking,” Jollett says. “I kind of lost it. Quitting smoking was particularly hard. I was two packs a day and the moment my mom got cancer I quit. I went through nicotine withdrawal. After being in the hospital for a week with my mom I came home and I was just sitting there shaking, partly from withdrawal and partly because my gas was turned off because I was so broke.
“It was then,” he continues, “that I started playing guitar and singing. Sort of like how if you were sitting in a dark cave you might beat rocks together just to say you were doing something. After a few months I realized that I wasn’t writing a novel—that wasn’t going anywhere—but I was writing songs.”
The result was The Airborne Toxic Event, a debut disc that finds Jollett leading a band with ambitions. From the wistful neo new-waver “Wishing Well” to the grandly symphonic “Sometime Around Midnight”, the Airborne Toxic Event has mastered the art of knowing when it’s time for the guitars to come crashing out of nowhere and create something epic. The album closer, “Innocence”, makes it clear that the band’s professed affection for punk rock isn’t just lip service, while “Gasoline” smells like vintage garage pop from the Stiff glory years. Through it all, Jollett, not surprisingly, shows himself to be a man who has a way with words, detailing sonic stories such as “Missy” with lines like “She had eyes as big as porcelain plates/And skin as thin as paper drapes”.
Apart from an undeserved slam from one of the hipper-than-thou snotbags at Pitchfork, The Airborne Toxic has been hailed as the work of a band headed for greatness. Or, failing that, at least an invitation to Coachella or Lollapalooza. Where Jollett and his bandmates were once thrilled to pack out clubs on their hipster-blessed home turf of Silver Lake, these days life is all late-night talk-show appearances and European tours. The singer is well aware that an Arcade Fire–like buzz has begun to build around the group, but says that keeping a perspective on things hasn’t been difficult. That’s partly because, for every time the Airborne Toxic Event has been invited to a mega-event like Pemberton Festival, there have been afternoons of humping equipment up the back stairs of clubs in rainy English backwaters.
“I don’t know if I ever dreamed about rock stardom, and in any event, we’re not even there yet,” he says. “On the English tour we just did, London was good, but some of those shows were really small where we’d just end up playing to the other bands. When you’re carrying your amps up and down into clubs, you realize you’re just like any other rock band. As far as wild dreams go, it’s not exactly cocaine and hookers every night.”
Even so, from where Jollett is standing these days, that’s still better than slaving over an unfinished novel in a cold apartment, hoping that someday someone will care about what you have to say.
“Sometimes writing can be fun,” he says. “Like Lester Bangs in the middle of the night on uppers and cough syrup. Most of the time, though, you’re like, ”˜Fuck, how do I get this transition right so it’s smooth?’ Or, if you’re novel writing, like, ”˜What’s a good name for this character that represents death?’ I’d rather be sitting around playing music and drinking with my friends.”
The Airborne Toxic Event plays Richard’s on Richards on Wednesday (February 18).