In Tune With the Toxic

Indie-rock fans yearn for Mikel Jollett's sad anthems.

November/December 2009

Reading time min

In Tune With the Toxic

Autumn DeWilde

Drums from the opening act thunder through the floor at the Fox Theater as Mikel Jollett, frontman for tonight's main attraction, The Airborne Toxic Event, talks about his band's marathon tour across the United States, Asia and Europe. The quintet is here tonight in Pomona, Calif., then on the road for weeks, before ending up at Los Angeles's premier performance venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, on December 4.

Jollett, '96, says, "It's as if someone picked you up at your house at 4 p.m. and you asked when you'd be home, and he said, 'It could be 7, or it could be a year and a half from now. Get packed.'" The indie-rock band has performed more than 250 shows since last year, along with an appearance on The David Letterman Show. Jollett has been on the road so long he gave up his apartment.

The Airborne Toxic Event, also known as TATE, plays earnest, yearning music that led to a record deal with Island Def Jam, a hit debut album and growing numbers of fans, including U2's bassist Adam Clayton, who called the song "Sometime Around Midnight" a favorite. "There's something very orchestral about their songs, something unique and special," says Nic Harcourt, a writer and deejay who's long been a musical tastemaker in Los Angeles. "I'm a sucker for those big, anthemic songs."

The songs grew out of a dark time. At the end of 2005, Jollett's mother was diagnosed with cancer. He was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that blotched his skin and caused clumps of his hair to fall out. He broke up with a long-term girlfriend. He started playing his guitar and writing songs for hours a day.

He was supposed to be writing a novel. Born on a California commune to idealistic parents, Jollett had written stories, told stories, for much of his life. After graduating with a psychology degree, he taught, coached track and worked as a carpenter—all the while writing and steeping himself in such authors as Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth. He wrote and recorded essays, set them to music, and on a lark sent them to National Public Radio. NPR started airing his pieces about bands, his family (his mother got better) and slackerdom.

In 2006, he hosted weekly "happenings" for musicians at his L.A. apartment. Armed with a bottle of whiskey, cellos, flutes, acoustic guitars and other instruments, they recorded a song each night. In attendance were drummer Daren Taylor, guitarist Steven Chen, bassist Noah Harmon and Anna Bulbrook, who plays violin and keyboard—and eventually they formed The Airborne Toxic Event with Jollett. In October of that year, TATE played its first show.

To launch the band, Jollett gave up an invitation to Yaddo, the prestigious writing residency where he planned to finish his novel about four young characters with terminal illness. An excerpt, in which the characters spelunk into a giant crack in the street, was published last year in McSweeney's.

But Jollett knew his passions had changed: In that transformative year of 2006, he'd written a hundred songs, but only 5,000 words of his novel. Instead of becoming the next literary sensation, he found himself calling seedy clubs for gigs. "It was absurd, a very humbling time in my life," says Jollett, a wiry, easygoing charmer with piercing eyes.

The band was born out of the Silverlake indie rock music scene, known for its eclectic, intellectual bent. Located east of Hollywood, the tight-knit community of artists also gave rise to musicians Beck, Silversun Pickups and Rilo Kiley. Spaceland, an influential neighborhood venue, invited the band to a residency in January 2008, with sold-out shows every Thursday. That month, the song "Sometime Around Midnight," about seeing an ex-lover, was also added to the full-time rotation of KROQ, a commercial radio station in Los Angeles—almost unheard of for an unsigned band with no agent and no manager. "I loved the song. It's not the traditional verse-chorus, verse-chorus. It's so cool," says Lisa Worden, the station's music director and an early booster for the band.

When Jollett started TATE, his ambitions were low. "I wanted five people who didn't know me, who weren't even related to me, to listen to us and like it." He's surpassed those expectations, by far. On the Fox stage, Jollett, clad in a shrunken black suit and skinny tie, and his bandmates give their trademark lively, leaping, crowd-stirring performance. Fans sing along; the theater glows with the screens of digital cameras and phones filming the show. At one point, Jollett requests the house lights go up so he can see the audience. "That's a lot of good-looking people," he says, drawing whoops and applause.

Next year, Jollett hopes to record the band's second album and also to return to his novel. His literary roots remain manifest in the band, which takes its name from Don DeLillo's novel White Noise. Their song "Girls in Their Summer Dresses" is inspired by Irwin Shaw's short story by the same name, and "This Is Nowhere" is about a character from Jollett's novel.

In his songs, Jollett attempts "what you never hear in a three-minute pop song."

"It's the way you would talk to a close friend at a bar, how your life is consumed by things you'd rather not admit: jealousy, rage, grief, joy and love. And that people are horrible and sympathetic." He smiles. "It feels subversive, to write about that."

VANESSA HUA, '97, MA '97, is a writer in Southern California.

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