Mikel Jollett once discovered the perfect complement to his bandÃ‚Â’s live stage setup in a junkyard.
The frontman of Los Feliz five-piece The Airborne Toxic Event had trekked to a local facility along with drummer Daren Taylor to sift through rubbish in search of a Ã‚Â“big metallic sound.Ã‚Â” With golf club and bat in hand, the two began banging until they stumbled upon just the right clunk: the hood of a 1969 Alfa Romeo, which would later be incorporated into the gaggle of L.A. shows that Airborne would play over the next year.
Though theyÃ‚Â’ve parted ways with the hood, Jollett seems keen on a revival: Ã‚Â“At some point if we get to be a bigger band, weÃ‚Â’ll probably bring the car hood back and actually start a whole junkyard percussion thing for Daren,Ã‚Â” he jokes.
For a while, it didnÃ‚Â’t seem like any band in L.A. was bigger than The Airborne Toxic Event. Considering the groupÃ‚Â’s penchant for atypical instruments, coupled with its stellar reputation as a live act, itÃ‚Â’s no wonder that on the final night of AirborneÃ‚Â’s five-week residency at Spaceland in January, the band packed the Silver Lake club nearly 100 bodies past its 400-person capacity, with hundreds more turned away at the door. Ã‚Â“Everything was crazy after that,Ã‚Â” guitarist Steven Chen says.
L.A. radio beacons KROQ and Indie 103 snagged AirborneÃ‚Â’s demo and plunked it into rotation, with radio stations up the West Coast following suit. The reverberations rippled through local media and into Rolling Stone and online and print outlets across the Western world, including appearances on Last Call with Carson Daly and Late Night with Conan OÃ‚Â’Brien. And the major label honchos came aÃ‚Â’knocking.
New artists swept up in a whirlwind courtship with the music industry are usually either hard-wrought daydreamers or else have the backing of record labels, managers and publicists who know how to talk a good game. But with the way Airborne whittled its dark brand of pop into the public consciousness while unsigned and without typical industry support Ã‚Â– and in little more than a year of its formation, to boot Ã‚Â– one begins to wonder about deals with the devil and genies in bottles. Ã‚Â“Being in a band like Airborne, itÃ‚Â’s like youÃ‚Â’re living out your dream life,Ã‚Â” Jollett says.
Two years of writing music and assembling the band culminated for Jollett in the August 5 release of AirborneÃ‚Â’s self-titled debut. The album proffers a strong hint as to why this band would spark such an uproar among fans and tastemaking DJs: taut, heartbreaker anthems full of saw-toothed post-punk guitar swipes, sophisticated lyrics and a boatload of irresistible pop hooks.
It was a barrage of misfortune, however, that launched JollettÃ‚Â’s modern-day rock fable. As a music journalist working on a novel, he was hit by a triple whammy: his motherÃ‚Â’s cancer diagnosis, the dissolution of a relationship and his own autoimmune syndrome diagnosis Ã‚Â– all in the same week.
Holed up in his one-room apartment surrounded by books and literal writings on the wall, Jollett began crafting songs for hours on end. His literary background combined with his personal adversity manifested in autobiographical lyrics that are relatable. Ã‚Â“HeÃ‚Â’s able to string them around these melodies that hit you at the gut level,Ã‚Â” Chen says, Ã‚Â“because theyÃ‚Â’re coming from your gut, too.Ã‚Â” When playing for the neighborÃ‚Â’s cats no longer sufficed (Ã‚Â“You never know if anyoneÃ‚Â’s ever going to hear anything youÃ‚Â’ve written,Ã‚Â” Jollett says), he decided to start Airborne, tracking down the right components in about eight months.
Jollett gelled with Taylor first, next picking up bassist Noah Harmon, a punk-gone-jazz player replete with a degree from the California Institute of the Arts. A chance 2 a.m. taco run linked the three up with keyboardist and violinist Anna Bulbrook, and then came Chen, a fellow native Angeleno who shared JollettÃ‚Â’s affinity for literature, The Smiths, Pavement and Archers of Loaf. Ã‚Â“It took a while, but I think I knew what I wanted the band to be from the jump,Ã‚Â” Jollett says.
And they certainly didnÃ‚Â’t waste any time, fearlessly booking a show at The Echo before they were ready, just two weeks after playing together as a complete band. Hip to the power of L.A. music blogs, Airborne sent MP3s to bloggers before the gig and saw its efforts rewarded: 200 people showed. Ã‚Â“Music blogs are pretty influential,Ã‚Â” Jollett says. Ã‚Â“We knew enough to send them MP3s.Ã‚Â” Adds Chen, Ã‚Â“DonÃ‚Â’t underestimate the power of blogs. ItÃ‚Â’s such a huge resource to have someone whoÃ‚Â’s completely dedicated to finding out local music. Their ears are really open. Early on, they were really supportive. They cared a lot Ã‚Â– they cared more than my friends.Ã‚Â”
Reeling in local indie cognoscenti and radio heavyweights became clockwork once Airborne started working its tail off with a constant string of shows around L.A. The bandÃ‚Â’s heart-on-your-sleeve songs and energized live set must have resonated with its audiences because a core of followers kept coming to shows. Harmon attests that just getting out there and saying yes to all show opportunities was vital to building a following. He explains, Ã‚Â“Anytime anyoneÃ‚Â’s going to ask you if you want to open for them Ã‚Â– especially when youÃ‚Â’re just starting out Ã‚Â– itÃ‚Â’s not a good idea to be precious about that kind of thing.Ã‚Â”
Cultivating a live experience as grandiose as its moniker (taken from the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo), Airborne saw its fan base and press attention multiply, as media hoopla and widespread courting from a spectrum of major and indie labels followed. Key advice from their own industry Ã‚Â“oracle,Ã‚Â” TBD RecordsÃ‚Â’ (RadioheadÃ‚Â’s In Rainbows) co-founder Phil Costello, reminded Jollett that to truly succeed, a band must remain true to itself. Ã‚Â“He said, Ã‚Â‘Listen, you have to be honest about your music. You have to win your fans over one by one. You should own your shit and you should control the direction where youÃ‚Â’re going. DonÃ‚Â’t sign over your life to the major labels.Ã‚Â’ We really took what he said to heart,Ã‚Â” Jollett says.
The temptation from music industry machines also taught Airborne to maintain whatÃ‚Â’s important. Ã‚Â“At the end of the day, it really only matters what you and your bandmates think and whatÃ‚Â’s going to be best for you guys,Ã‚Â” Harmon says. Ã‚Â“I think that was probably the most important thing Ã‚Â– to just remember you started a band with a bunch of people for some reason, whatever that reason was, so you should probably stick to that.Ã‚Â”
Nurtured from the outset by the local music community, Airborne signed in April with Majordomo Records, an imprint formed by Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray of Earlimart in partnership with Shout! Factory. Ã‚Â“ItÃ‚Â’s not as if we had any dogmatic ideas about indies or majors,Ã‚Â” says Jollett, Ã‚Â“it was just the kinds of things the majors were talking about were the kinds of things we werenÃ‚Â’t interested in. And then Majordomo showed up and it was just like they were the smartest people in the room. They really understood who the band was; the staff had been to tons of Airborne shows.Ã‚Â”
As it turned out, keeping ties with another ally, Pete Min, a friend who recorded AirborneÃ‚Â’s demos in his Eagle Rock home studio, proved the right decision when it came time to lay down their debut. Ã‚Â“We spent nine months in his studio obsessing over every little detail,Ã‚Â” says Jollett. The band stuck to live recording and remixing Ã‚Â“over and overÃ‚Â” until things sounded right.
Ã‚Â“The whole point that we were going for was to try to capture the energy of our live show,Ã‚Â” Jollett says. Ã‚Â“ItÃ‚Â’s a very purposeful record. I couldnÃ‚Â’t describe why one take worked and another didnÃ‚Â’t. We could just feel it, there was an energy. Every song on the record was done that way.Ã‚Â” And, Jollett adds, Ã‚Â“We spent so many hours writing and rewriting songs [in the midst of recording the album]. ThereÃ‚Â’s probably a thousand hours of work in that record.Ã‚Â”
Navigating a groundswell of attention can throw some burgeoning bands into a tailspin of inflated egos and self-destructive vices, but only the level-headed prevail and Airborne seems immovably grounded Ã‚Â– so down to earth, in fact, that fans approach Jollett to open up about their personal lives. Ã‚Â“People tend to tell me stuff after shows,Ã‚Â” he says.
Lately, JollettÃ‚Â’s mailbox has been filling up with letters from kids who also cope with autoimmune disorders and Jollett says heÃ‚Â’s happy to offer advice. Ã‚Â“The real trick with this thing is that youÃ‚Â’ve got to live your life. Make your life about ideas. Fall in love. Get heartbroken and then write about it. Really commit yourself to something.Ã‚Â”
Though intending to finish that novel someday, Jollett and The Airborne Toxic Event will sooner wrap up a national tour with The Fratellis this month and continue plugging away at songwriting.
With their cathartic live show as evidence, they value human interaction as a top priority of their music. Ã‚Â“For us, the art is the connection you get with people,Ã‚Â” Jollett says. Ã‚Â“I feel like thereÃ‚Â’s a lot of politics in rock Ã‚Â‘nÃ‚Â’ roll. People think, Ã‚Â‘Oh, youÃ‚Â’re trying to do a take on Wolf Parade,Ã‚Â’ or, Ã‚Â‘Oh, youÃ‚Â’re trying to do a take on Arcade Fire or U2 or The Strokes.Ã‚Â’ YouÃ‚Â’re just writing songs and the things youÃ‚Â’re interested in are stories. ItÃ‚Â’s all about the human component, emotion and interaction. I think some people are really uncomfortable with those ideas, but thatÃ‚Â’s the whole point. You play a show and you want people to feel, and you want to feel like you know them and they know you and you brought them into your darkest moments, and, because of that, the darkest moments arenÃ‚Â’t so bad.Ã‚Â”