After a ‘week from hell’ in which his life fell apart, music was the best medicine for Mikel Jollett. He tells Dave Simpson about the Airborne Toxic Event’s euphoric sound of recoveryBy Dave Simpson
January 23, 2009
Mikel Jollett suffers from autoimmune disorder, a genetic condition that can affect sufferers in all sorts of strange ways. They can be struck down with terrible illnesses, or lose all their body hair. However, the condition is easily manageable with a healthy lifestyle. Doctors recommend plenty of sleep, fruit and vegetables and a stress-free environment. What they do not recommend is that sufferers form a rock band, never mind one that has undertaken a touring schedule that would be stressful at the best of times, which promises little sleep, and would probably make it difficult to get your five portions a day.
Jollett is singer-guitarist with the Airborne Toxic Event, an LA quintet, with whom we catch up in Leeds, before gig 15 of their “30 gigs in 30 nights” tour, taking in some of the UK’s least promising rock’n’roll citadels – Aldershot! Hayle! Barrow! – without so much as a day off. Last night it was Yeovil. “The kids were moshing,” says Jollett, nursing a perhaps not medicinal whisky. “They really appreciated it,” says violinist and keyboardist Anna Bulbrook. “They treated us like specimens.” The Airborne Toxic Event might as well have been Coldplay in Barrow, where they made the local paper’s front page.
This is surely one of the more difficult routes to world domination, but the band say they wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’re a live band,” insists Jollett. “We’re not gig snobs. We’ll play anywhere.” They’ve been hitting the boards hard since they formed two years ago, notching up five gigs inside their first three days – one of them at a hardcore punk festival, where they were the only non-punk band on the bill. Some of the locations visited may not be for the faint-hearted, but this approach has served them well. They even had 200 people at their first show, luring them in by a combination of mailing out MP3s and good old family connections. “We have a lot of cousins,” says Bulbrook. Since then, their literary, widescreen rock has been picked up by MTV, the sublime single Sometime Around Midnight is the iTunes alternative song of the year, and has now also been playlisted by Radio 1. For Jollett – an Anglophile – this is an ambition fulfilled. He grew up listening to early Bowie, the Cure, the Stone Roses, Orange Juice and Josef K – all of whom have left their DNA on the Airborne Toxic Event’s urgent sound.
Jollett prefers British bands because they deliberately write songs rather than arrive at them through jams, and he is thus probably one of very few American singers who can find nirvana in a tent in Cornwall. “I thought: We’re on an indie label. We’re 5,000 miles from home, our record isn’t even out yet and people love us.” Which may pacify his doctors. However, Jollett is adamant that playing the songs live is nowhere near as stressful as the process of writing them, which began in late 2005 in what the band refer to as The Week From Hell.
At the time, the frontman was a struggling freelance journalist who’d taken time out to write a novel in the hope of salvaging his career. Then his mother visited the doctor – who found some “suspicious stuff”. She was rushed into emergency surgery for pancreatic cancer. Jollett and the family “camped out” at the hospital for a week, while he also coped with the stress of stopping smoking. “Prior to that I’d been a two-packs-a-day smoker,” he explains. “But your mother getting cancer is scary.”
With his mother’s life hanging in the balance and Jollett’s nicotine-starved nerves rattling, his long-standing girlfriend chose that moment to end the relationship. “It had been coming,” says Jollett. “It wasn’t, ‘Your mum has cancer, I’m dumping you.'” But he does admit the incident put his life into sharp perspective. Meanwhile, he was also becoming ill.
The first thing he noticed were spots all over his face. Then he got pneumonia. Then vitiligo. “I suddenly lost half the hair on my head. I lost my beard. I didn’t have to shave. I even lost an eyebrow! Weird shit like that! I was convinced I was going to look like Moby.” For three weeks, he didn’t do anything. “I was very sick, very depressed. And then one day I got up and played guitar.”
With his mother in recovery – minus part of her pancreas, which the doctors removed – Jollett found that playing guitar for hours a day made him feel better. He’d been unable to write the novel because for him writing and smoking had been inseparable. But he found himself able to jot down short ideas. After several months, he had a eureka moment, realising he didn’t have a novel, but 40 or 50 songs.
“Charles Bukowski used to say it was a battle between you and your typewriter,” says Jollett. “I was that kind of writer. But I realised I had this ability to write songs that I never knew existed.”
In a surge of the same almost giddy euphoria that drives his music, Jollett recruited musicians quickly, finding Bulbrook – a “recovering” classical violinist – in a bar at closing time. “If I had a nickel for every dude that’s said, ‘I wanna tell you about my band …'” she sniggers. “But I heard the stuff and it was better than most bands I’d heard. Plus, there was something about the lyrics.”
Jollett admires Leonard Cohen and Morrissey, and draws inspiration from novelists, too (the band’s name is taken from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise), but his words are untamed, sounding as if they were literally pouring out.
“Did you see the [Spike Jonze] film Adaptation?” he asks. “There’s a scene where this guy is kinda crazy, but his wife divorces him after a car accident. He doesn’t understand why, but this friend says, ‘Because she could.’ Because her parents had died in that accident. There’s a point where you just think, ‘Fuck it.’ I didn’t care if my credit went to shit, or my gas was cut off. I just wanted to write music.”
Jollett suggests that the disease is responsible for one of his most affecting lyrical traits – the lack of ego in his songs. He’s not afraid to look, as he puts it, “like an idiot”. In Sometime Around Midnight, people stare at him in the street, and not in a good way. He describes the song as “boy meets girl, gets really wasted in a bar, girl’s there with another boy, boy ends up walking alone”. It’s about his former girlfriend. “I think she joked about being my muse. I don’t think she realised it was real.”
Not everyone thinks Jollet’s writing is real. In September, the Airborne Toxic Event were involved in a curious spat with the influential Pitchforkmedia website, which gave their album 1.6/10 in a poisonous review and accused them of being chancers, conceived to satisfy LA’s “worst” desires for a “flagship upstart indie band”. Bizarrely, though, the reviewer described the album as “lyrically moody, musically sumptuous, and dramatic”, but then suggested they were cynically combining Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes and the Strokes – accusing the band of making a great record that sounds a like other great records.
The Airborne Toxic Event shot back in an open letter, praising the reviewer’s other work but criticising Pitchfork’s “preconceptions” about LA and its criticism of bands that do not match a certain indie rock aesthetic. “Pitchfork has slagged many, many bands we admire (Dr Dog, the Flaming Lips, Silversun Pickups, Cold War Kids, Black Kids, Bright Eyes [ironic, no?] just to name a few),” they wrote, “so now we’re among them. Great.”
The spat had the effect of drawing attention to and boosting the “oddly flattered” band, with dozens of web posters applauding them for standing up to indie snobbery “bullcrap” and pointing out that the rumpus would entice casual listeners into hearing what the fuss was about.
Two weeks later in Sheffield, it’s Jollett’s turn to not know what’s real as he takes the stage and announces: “Welcome to night 26 of our 30 shows in 30 nights and we have no fucking idea where we are.” It’s a more ragged performance than their high-octane pop gig in Leeds – but it’s again impossible to ignore the force of Jollett’s drive – even if you can’t help worrying what all this could do to his body.
“I never wanted to look cool,” he declares – and sounds convincing. “I realised I couldn’t be a rock star, because I looked like some weird freak. So I decided I’d better mean it.” Jollett – a trooper to the last – says he would “unquestioningly” play 30 gigs in 30 nights again. Guitarist Steven Chen – who admits he’s not been sober the entire tour and looks, like the rest of the band, as if the tour bus just ran over him – is not so sure. “Next time, we’re taking it easy. Ten shows in 15 days.”
Ã‚Â• Sometime Around Midnight is released on 26 January, with the band’s self-titled album following on 2 February. The Airborne Toxic Event play Uncle Alberts, Middlesbrough, tonight, then tour.