Writing Up The Airborne Toxic Event

Going from lyrical writing to writing lyrics

Success doesn’t come tracked any faster than that of The Airborne Toxic Event. Starting with an indie label last year, TATE was quickly attractive to the majors and, after several meetings, the Los Angeles quintet decided to cast its lot with Island Records. There was something about the label’s offer that was too good to pass up.

“We didn‘t have to sign our children away; we worked out a very band-friendly deal,” says vocalist/guitarist Mikel Jollett. “You know, when you meet Satan, he’s actually a nice guy. We thought he’d be a dick, but he isn’t. He buys you dinner and he has great feng shui. You’d be surprised. He used to be a producer in Hollywood but he quit because you just can’t trust those people.”

TATE’s story could have gone in a completely different direction from the place the band is now. Three years ago, Jollett was channeling his creative energies into his first novel after spending some time in a couple of college bands. Within a single week, Jollett’s mother received a cancer diagnosis, he got dumped from a relationship and found that he was suffering from a genetic autoimmune disease that led to alopecia (hair loss) and vitiligo, a skin condition. Inexplicably, Jollett shifted his focus from lyrical writing to writing lyrics.

“You read about people who go through some shit in their life and suddenly they only want to do one thing, maybe marathon running or baking apple pies,” says Jollett with a laugh. “For me, it was making music. Suddenly I just felt differently about music and heard music differently.”

As quickly as Jollett’s musical inspiration struck, he assembled a band. Beginning as a duo with drummer Daren Taylor, he recruited violinist Anna Bulbrook, bassist Noah Harmon and guitarist Steven Chen, christening the Indie Prog/Pop aggregation The Airborne Toxic Event, a phrase from Ron DiLillo’s 1985 novel detailing events surrounding a hazardous chemical spill.

“We just vibed really well,” Jollett says. “Daren and I immediately clicked. Anna’s a great performer and I just knew she was right. Steve and I have been friends for a long time and Noah is just a stupidly talented musician — he can play the hell out of anything you put in front of him.”

The quintet immediately wrote and recorded songs, sending MP3s out into the blogosphere and posting them on their freshly minted MySpace page. Within a month of forming, TATE played its first show. By the end of 2006, Rolling Stone named the group one of MySpace’s Top 25 bands.

Within a year, TATE’s audience had grown considerably and the unsigned band’s song “Sometime Around Midnight” was in regular rotation around the country (iTunes named it the top Alternative song of 2008). The band signed to Majordomo, the indie label founded by Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza, and released its eponymous debut last summer. Still, Jollett found that industry buzz didn’t translate into label respect.

“I sat in the offices of presidents of major labels and they looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Your songs are never going to be on the radio. You’ve made a good demo but this isn’t a real record,’ ” Jollett says. “And I’m like, ‘You only heard of us because you heard it on the radio.’ We ended up rejecting (every offer).”

With the group’s recent Island signing and re-release of the debut, big things have happened for The Airborne Toxic Event. The group played SXSW and Coachella, and its ironically titled song “I Don’t Want to be on TV” was included on the soundtrack for the hit show NCIS (“It seemed like a post modern joke … Andy Warhol would have loved that”). None of it has made a huge impression on Jollett.

“I know there came a point when I started caring only how the story turned out,” Jollett says. “I was willing to be the butt of the joke. Philip Roth always says, ‘You have to impune yourself when you write.’ You have to be willing to look uncool. There’s a lot of posturing in Rock & Roll. The situations that shape you are the ones where you look really bad. Things that are beautiful and joyful shape you but they can be embarrassing to write about, too. The big change for me was the year where everything went sour and I just decided to write about what I think and care about and not care if I look bad. These are the ABCs of being human.”

While the shows are getting noticeably bigger, Jollett insists nothing substantial has changed the band.

“This is all just kind of happening to us and there’s only certain things you can control,” Jollett says philosophically. “To worry about how big you get is maddening so it’s best not to think about it. So we’re trying to think about how to stay friends, stay grounded and have some measure of humility and not lose our bearings in the midst of this shithouse mad tour. There’s a lot of just trying to keep our heads about us.

“There’s no point in becoming The Beatles if, along the way, you become an asshole. You can’t control whether you become The Beatles, but you can control whether you become an asshole.”

THE AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT plays The Mad Hatter Aug. 5 with Hazle Weatherfield. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.