Way Out West Coast
Bitter exes, desperate housewives and dead dogÃ‚Â’s ashes wonÃ‚Â’t stop LA troubadours The Airborne Toxic Event spreading their love. Martin Robinson joins their crazy Californian road trip.By Martin Robinson
January 24, 2009
Bill Hicks called it Ã‚Â“turd cityÃ‚Â”, Woody Allen said its only cultural advantage is Ã‚Â“being able to turn right at a red lightÃ‚Â”, and Larry David fans will know Los Angeles as plastic and preening to the point of insanity. Imagine our surprise, then, to find in the suburb of Silver Lake, a warm-blooded indie scene bubbling dirtily underneath the shiny Hollywood machine. The Spaceland club is the meeting point for the cityÃ‚Â’s struggling artists, writers and especially musicians; its tin foil-clad stage has raised the likes of Cold War Kids and Silversun Pickups, but tonight NME has come to meet its most promising band yetÃ‚Â—The Airborne Toxic Event.
Named after a section of Don DeLilloÃ‚Â’s masterpiece novel White Noise, the band are centred around Mikel Jollett, a man very much in the Springsteen mould of raw feeling, anthems and charismatic showmanship. Well, when his ex-girlfriends arenÃ‚Â’t in the room, that is. Mikel looks panicked when we meet, and whispers, Ã‚Â“The album was written about two girls, and theyÃ‚Â’re both here.Ã‚Â” Yeah, as a former Philip Roth-obsessed fiction writer, heÃ‚Â’s got a tendency to not hold back his songs, so his current girlfriend watches out for flying glasses while Mikel introduces us to TATEÃ‚Â’s moustachioed, Naboo-ish drummer Daren and golden girl (not as in old, just, y’know, golden) violinist Anna. TheyÃ‚Â’ve recently got back from a frankly mental 30 Shows in 30 Days UK tour, which proved to be a lesson in how classy Britain is. Highlights included playing on AstroTurf in a marquee in Hayle, being paid in food in Fife (Daren: Ã‚Â“Dude, weird Scottish pies!Ã‚Â”) and playing to one shaven-headed man with his trousers undone in Hull (Mikel: Ã‚Â“He was staring at Anna. I was figuring out how to aim my guitar at his head if he touched herÃ‚Â”).
Mikel remembers how the US election changed how they were welcomed around the country. Ã‚Â“I was walking in Camden the morning after and people were high-fiving me. Like, Ã‚Â‘You finally did something right!Ã‚Â’Ã‚Â” You could say (if you wanted) that ObamaÃ‚Â’s transforming of AmericaÃ‚Â’s image is being reflected in the way Mikel is trying to change the image of LA. As he introduces us to local legends The Movies, he insists, Ã‚Â“Where we live has nothing to do with the Hollywood industry.Ã‚Â” Certainly, in contrast to most hipster scenes, everyone is incredibly friendly.
So why in fuckÃ‚Â’s name, the following night are weÃ‚Â—NME!Ã‚Â—not watching the band in Spaceland, but instead sat cross-legged on the living room floor of a family home as TATE play acoustically to a crowd of 40-something suburbanites? Well, despite turning down major label deals in favour of tiny indie Majordomo, the band still have to occasionally suck the hugely powerful cocks of US radio stations, and as theyÃ‚Â’re currently going crazy for aching single Ã‚Â‘Sometime Around MidnightÃ‚Â’, the band are returning a favour by playing a competition winnerÃ‚Â’s house. Trouble is, the winner is slightly older than anticipated. On the plus side, heÃ‚Â’s got in about $80,000-worth of booze, which helps the bewildered band immeasurably. As they play next to ashes of the old family dog on the hearth (the winner earlier explained Ã‚Â“heÃ‚Â’s with us stillÃ‚Â”), Mikel diffuses the awkwardness of the situation by telling the stories behind the songs, chatting to the little kids and even stroking the new dog. The band pull it off because: 1) They can really play and 2) They look hot. Imagine The Strokes sexing up Arcade Fire and youÃ‚Â’ve got TATE.
Helping in the hot stakes are handsome devil lead guitarist Steven and jazz degree-owning former construction worker Noah, who looks similar enough to Russell Brand that all he did in the UK was disappoint people. Ã‚Â“They were like, Ã‚Â‘Hey, Russell, howÃ‚Â’sÃ‚Â… oh.Ã‚Â’Ã‚Â” After the show, theyÃ‚Â’re at the bar on the back porch fielding the questions of Ã‚Â‘cougarsÃ‚Â’, US slang for desperate housewives. Being a literary type and a rock star, Mikel is prime cougar prey, but he escapes to grab NME and explain his ability to tell how many drinks his bandmates have had by the way they start a sentence: Ã‚Â“Like: Ã‚Â‘OK, this is what itÃ‚Â’s aboutÃ‚Â…Ã‚Â’ is two drinks. Ã‚Â‘You know what your problems isÃ‚Â…Ã‚Â’ is four and later thereÃ‚Â’s, Ã‚Â“YouÃ‚Â’re the type of guy whoÃ‚Â…Ã‚Â’Ã‚Â” He then insists NME try on one of his Ã‚Â“badassÃ‚Â” rings, but since weÃ‚Â’re a puny Englisihman only his little-finger ring will fit any of ours. Mikel thinks we look like Ã‚Â“the type of guy who carries a switchbladeÃ‚Â”. In fact we look like ET on a darts team.
Anna tells us that being a classically trained violinist meant sheÃ‚Â’d barely heard any popular music until two years ago, and has had to toughen up being on the road with a bunch of rock boys. Ã‚Â“I find I now make unhealthily close friendships with girls who I meet in bars. Like, Ã‚Â‘Nice to meet you, shall we get our nails done?Ã‚Â’Ã‚Â”
Daren then drags NME off for a smoke behind the winnerÃ‚Â’s garage. Daren talks with the hip oldies until a smirking French painter comes over and asks if he can paint the band naked. He goes into detail over the poses. Word gets back to the rest of the band about this, then one of them spots a hot tub and everyone gets The Fear: maybe these people are swingers! Time to leave.
The next day, NME joins the band in their van for a six-hour drive across California from LA to San Jose. Since America is really big, the task of alerting the country to their presence is a daunting one. Still, TATE have a secret weapon: a cowboy. Yes, their guitar tech and driver is a proper cowboy. As in, comes from Texas, is built like Jack Palance, wears boots, leather and a Stetson all in brown (Steven: Ã‚Â“So you donÃ‚Â’t know if heÃ‚Â’s a good cowboy or a bad cowboyÃ‚Â”). Mikel hints that with this many big mouths in the groupÃ‚Â—and they are loudÃ‚Â—the cowboy is a useful guy when they get in trouble.
Mikel sits in the back with us as we drive across the California farmlands, passing through both driving snow and beating sun. He tells us his theory that Elliott SmithÃ‚Â’s 2003 death in LA caused Silver Lake to bond so closely.
Ã‚Â“Everyone knew him, or knew someone who did. It was such a terrible tragedy and somehow it created this sense of community in his wake.Ã‚Â” Death, as both a bitch and a great motivator, is the key to understanding where TATE are coming from. A couple of years ago, Mikel managed to win a place at the revered literary retreat Yaddo (previous attendees include Philip Roth and Truman Capote), but then received news which made him stop his fiction and begin writing songs. Inside of a week he learned his mother had cancer and that he had an autoimmune disease which led to chronic skin problems, Mikel recalls the pull towards forming a band in the wake of this.
Ã‚Â“My mom getting sick, me getting sick and my dad was already sick, there was a sense that there was only so much time. ThereÃ‚Â’s always things you want to do, but suddenly, it was, Ã‚Â‘Fuck, I really donÃ‚Â’t have long to do it.Ã‚Â’ I suddenly felt motivated to go, Ã‚Â‘You know what IÃ‚Â’m going to do? IÃ‚Â’m going to write songs, drink whisky with my friends, play some shows, sing these songs and IÃ‚Â’m going to talk to people and engage them, and I want us all to be there, and I donÃ‚Â’t want anyone to dieÃ‚Â…Ã‚Â’ it was that kind of feeling: letÃ‚Â’s just bring everyone close.Ã‚Â”
At the show in San Jose that night, MikelÃ‚Â’s need for connectivity shines through. With his sleeves rolled up, he tells his stories, gees up the crowd and really is uncannily like The Boss. Behind him, Anna looks like she should be in MGMT, Daren in 13th Floor Elevators, Steven in Muse and Noah in MotÃƒÂ¶rhead. TheyÃ‚Â’re a weird mix, but you canÃ‚Â’t take your eyes off them, and songs such as the punky Ã‚Â‘GasolineÃ‚Â’ and the Pogues-ish Ã‚Â‘MissyÃ‚Â’ provoke the nerds of Silicon Valley into crazed human contact.
The US is sure to fall for their rabble-rousing anthems and, appealingly for us Brits, they love Pulp and are silly pissheads. Much later that night, Mikel decides to play a few songs on the hotel piano at his whiskeyÃ‚Â’s suggestion. When the bar manager asks him to stop, Mikel says, Ã‚Â“Do you really want to be the type of guy that stops the piano player?Ã‚Â” Ten minutes later, five police cars arrive. Surrounded by officers, Mikel defends himself by saying, Ã‚Â“I was just playing C. Who doesnÃ‚Â’t like C? C. (ding) C. (ding) C. (ding)Ã‚Â…Ã‚Â”
The Airborne Toxic Event, then: loveable life-savers who are not quite succeeding in showing LA to be sane.