After touring almost non-stop for the past few years, the members of The Airborne Toxic Event are understandably worn out, but that does not stop frontman Mikel Jollett from goofing around during interviews.
“Wouldn’t it be great if I gave you a bunch of misinformation and stuck with it?” he said, before launching into an epic (and made up) tale of bonding over music in Bangladesh with drummer Daren Taylor. Then, with barely a beat in-between, he switches angles: “I was raised by wolves. We would ritualistically and tribally chant every night before bed as a way of trying to further stay in touch with our roots. My introduction to rock ‘n roll – it makes sense if you think about it.”
The Los Angeles-based quintet is in the middle of yet another tour promoting their second full-length album, “All At Once,” and there is no rest in sight. As one of the hardest working groups in the current rock scene, fans have gotten used to seeing Jollett and his band mates roll through town every few months. But despite being away from home so often, the group still manages to retain that sense of humor and passion for music, no matter what.
The real version of how the band formed is more tragic. Back in 2006, Jollett’s mom found out she had pancreatic cancer, and he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that, in Jollett’s words, “makes you look like Moby.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, he broke up with his girlfriend the same week.
“I just started playing guitar as a way of dealing, I guess,” Jollett said. “It started off almost like a joke, but I started playing every day for like four hours, and then four became five, and five became six, until all I did was play guitar, play piano, and write songs. So I thought ‘Well, looks like this thing is not just a hobby and maybe I should try and do something with it.’”
Looking back now that the band is successful, the decision makes sense, but at the time, Jollett said nothing could have been more absurd.
“Now it’s like, ‘Well obviously you were going to be a musician,’ but it was like no, people thought I was fucking nuts. I went to tell my folks and it was exactly as if I was telling them I was going to join the circus,” he said. He had been accepted into Yaddo, an artists’ community in New York. “It was like, ‘Here, go become the writer you always wanted to be. Go become one of the – and this is in all caps – exciting young writers of your generation!’” But about two months before he was scheduled to go, he decided to start a rock band instead. “It was like saying, ‘I’m going to follow my dream of training elephants.’”
But somehow, everything clicked into place as one by one, Jollett connected with Taylor, viola player Anna Bulbrook, guitarist Steven Chen and bassist Noah Harmon. “We just clicked. We all had other things that we were thinking about doing but right from the first show, it was just a thing.”
Two studio albums, a live CD/DVD, and four years of touring later, and the band members are a bit drained.
“You want to be polite, and say it’s all awesome and you’re so grateful. And you are, and it is. But we are tired,” Jollett said. “It’s not like we’re not grateful for it. It’s just hard to see which way is up right now. You lose track of reality pretty easily.”
That’s not to say that the band is not enjoying touring; in fact, they are still having a blast performing every night. The Airborne Toxic Event is one of those rare bands that may be even better live than recorded, simply because everyone appears to genuinely enjoy being onstage. The live shows are not a chore or an excuse to sell overpriced merchandise to fans. Rather, the band members are having as good of a time as the audience.
“The shows themselves are just playtime, like let’s go fuck around with the crowd,” Jollett said.
Recently, Jollett uncovered a particularly rewarding experience. On this past spring’s tour, they avoided playing the acoustic “The Graveyard Near The House,” off of “All At Once.” They assumed fans wanted loud, screaming guitars, not soft songs about death and decay. But when the band was inundated with requests to play that exact song, they decided to include it on the set list this time around.
“I’m just really, really enjoying this. After four years on the road of loud guitars to have this quiet moment with the audience…it’s really cool,” Jollett said.
Songs about death are not unusual for the Airborne Toxic Event, a band which takes its name from Don DeLillo’s novel, “White Noise,” about a chemical spill and the resulting noxious cloud that forces characters to confront their mortality.
“Fear and uncertainty are my way of dealing with songwriting,” Jollett said. “For me, the ideas that are compelling are the ones about being afraid to die, the way that being afraid to die makes you more excited about being alive. And knowing that the clock is ticking has the effect of forcing you to make decisions. Having the realization that your life is short makes you make some decisions not to waste that time and that’s a good thing.”
The band is finding non-musical ways to have fun and celebrate life as well; in fact, their fascination with fireworks has gotten them into trouble with the police in multiple cities while touring. “We blew up a piano in Boise once in a big concrete parking lot,” Jollett said while mimicking the sound of fireworks going off. “We stuffed it full of explosives and exploded it. As awesome as it could be, it was literally even more awesome. The fire department, as they pulled up, they looked at it and they were laughing.”
Ultimately, The Airborne Toxic Event works so well simply because they are all actually friends.
“It’s funny, we’re out on the road and we get so sick of each other and then we’re home for a few days and we’ll sort-of sheepishly call each other. ‘Hey man. So what are you doing? Want to hang out?’” Jollett said. “You know, after hanging out with the same people, you get so sick of one another but we are actually pretty good friends. We know that our fates are entwined and we take that part pretty seriously.”