Interview with The Airborne Toxic Event.
Mikel Jollett and Anna Bulbrook may be freezing cold at this moment in time, but right about now their band The Airborne Toxic Event look set to be one of 2009's hottest properties. The LA-based five-piece, currently two-thirds of the way through their inaugural '30 Shows In 30 Days' tour of the UK have been wowing crowds up and down the land throughout the month of November. Their self-titled album, released back home in August of this year, will finally get its long-awaited release on British shores next February.
Initially formed by singer, guitarist and main songwriter Jollett in the early part of 2006 and named after a chemical outbreak from a Don De Lillo novel, violinist and keyboard player Bulbrook joined the band some four months later and now, two years down the line, The Airborne Toxic Event are ready to fly.literally..
We first caught the band on the opening night of your tour in Derby. What really struck us was how many people knew all of the songs, despite the album not yet being (officially) released over here yet.
Mikel: Yeah that was kinda weird. The power of internet sharing I guess.
Anna: The power of wires!
Mikel: In all honesty though, it's been like that throughout the whole tour so far. We feel like there's a strong sense of momentum. The London show the other night was absolutely nuts; it was sold out weeks beforehand and everyone was singing along to every word. Last night in Brighton we had 140 people through the doors and they were all jumping around and stuff. There are certain cities where we didn't know what to expect so everything's been amazing. I mean, we'd played Brighton earlier this year as part of the Great Escape festival so I guess a few people knew who we were.
There does seem to be quite a large buzz around the band at the minute though, not least created by a number of favourable reviews in the English music press.
Mikel: Yeah we've been quite lucky so far. We didn't expect that to happen, certainly not this year anyway until after the album had been released. We've been accustomed at having to work for every little thing for this band, so to have people on our side so early on is great. It's a bit worrying though because you can't control how these things are gonna go; how much press you're gonna get, whether its gonna be positive or negative and so on. I mean, I was just thinking yesterday how great it is that we all get along really well. We've spent the whole of this month together 24 hours a day.
Anna: 20 days in a row.
Mikel: .and then even when we were in LA it was 12 hours a day because we were recording and shooting a video and then before that we were on the road around North America with The Fratellis so we've been in each other's pockets all day every day for about four months straight.
Anna: We sometimes call each other the wrong names because we're always together!
Mikel: This has been a humbling tour for us to be honest, because we're playing small clubs again - we haven't played tiny venues in the States for a long time - where we have to work hard to try and win over an audience who may not be aware of us.
Where do you pinpoint the initial spate of interest starting? South-by-Southwest maybe?
Anna: Looking back at that show we played to about 200 people, which at the time was like, 'woooaaahhh'!
Mikel: We sent some MP3s to some local blogs in LA - just demo recordings really that we'd made in my apartment - and things seem to take off from there. I didn't realise blogs could be so powerful. We played our first show a few weeks later and then I think a fortnight after that we were featured in Rolling Stone. This would be about February 2007, so we'd only been a five-piece for about three months, and suddenly we were selling out 400 capacity venues. I think we've learnt not to take these things for granted though; the thing I've come to realise about the music industry is that people like to talk you up but there is a feeling of here today gone tomorrow and we don't ever want to be perceived as just another flavour of the month band.
You've been compared to various high profile artists along the way; U2, Bruce Springsteen and The Arcade Fire are three that spring to mind. Do you see this as a compliment or a hindrance?
Mikel: Personally I see it as being very premature. All of those are amazing artists who we admire and respect so of course it is extremely flattering. It's quite funny too though. I mean, there's a website that's actually been compiling all of our comparisons! They're up to 50 bands so far and most of them even we're at a loss to explain.
Another positive with so many varied comparisons though must be the fact you're impossible to pigeonhole by scene or genre, which must be good for the longevity of the band?
Mikel: I hope so. I mean, the way the band came together was that I'd written about 100 songs over a two-year period, and then we demoed around 40 of those with the band. Eventually we whittled it down to 30, then had a core of 25 that we played live, recorded 17 and finally 10 made it onto the record. A lot of the earlier songs I would say were punk songs, 'Missy' is kinda like a folk song, 'Gasoline' is a rock and roll song.I've never intentionally written to any one style or formula.
Anna: I wouldn't want to be in a band that just sticks to different variations of the same old thing. I can't imagine how dull that must be.
How did you manage to sift so many songs out, and will any of the ones that didn't make the cut this time return at a later date?
Mikel: Its like swings and roundabouts. Some songs swing, others, well.
Anna: I guess we just take the ones that feel the best.
Mikel: I mean, it would be fair to say that we see ourselves more as a live band and a lot of the songs on the album are songs we knew worked well live. I'd even go as far as to say that our record is in many ways like a live album..
I certainly got the impression that the band were most comfortable live from your show. The way you interacted both with the crowd and each other, down to the fact some of the songs took on a more improvised form than on the album seemed to confirm that.
Mikel: Yeah that's definitely the case. I mean, the songs that we don't play live won't necessarily be discarded - I've enough material to put out four albums at least - but the songs on this album have a history with our live audiences too, especially back home. We were playing them for months before any of them were recorded, and everything about our live set is geared towards putting on a show. We're not one of those bands that just stands there trying to look miserable and cool. Something has to happen at one of our shows or its not worth doing, and I think we've got a bit of a reputation - certainly in LA - for that.
Anna: I think we're fortunate enough to come from a place where there is a lot of friendly competition, and a lot of our colleagues in other bands are doing stuff that stands out to us and makes us want to emulate or even better in one way or another. I think seeing so many great bands within your own neighbourhood can only inspire you to work harder, and that's what I think happened with us.
Would you say that LA and its music scene has an influence in your sound, in that historically that city's artists have generally been quite eclectic as individuals compared to say New York, whereby there are a number of scenes but the artists within them are strictly defined by one specific genre?
Mikel: I wouldn't say so actually, because one of the hallmarks of the LA scene is that all the bands who play together tend to sound very different. I guess you could even argue that it isn't really a scene at all. Some bands are obviously influenced by English bands, others by West Coast indie rock, others by twee indie pop. It's a mixed bag in Silver Lake where we come from to be honest, but I wouldn't say any of us are influenced by each other.
Going back to the songs, some of the arrangements sound pretty complicated, particularly Anna's classical pieces. How difficult was it to integrate that into a rock band?
Mikel: To start with I recruited the band to play my songs how I'd intended them to be played, but then once we started to grow as a band and got to know each other musically the songs developed into much more interactive pieces and what tends to happen nowadays is that one of us will bring an idea to the rest of the band and we'll talk it through and if everyone agrees on it we'll try it out and everything evolves from there. There are a lot of extremely talented musicians in this band and I don't consider myself as one of them; I'm more of a song writer than song player, and I feel very lucky to have people like these around me. Take Anna for example. She can sing, play piano, viola, violin, guitar.
Anna: I can play a modicum of guitar.just!
Mikel: I think the whole collaboration between all five of us is sensational though, really. There can't be many other bands with so many multi-talented musicians in their ranks around today. Seriously.
Anna: One thing that makes it so enjoyable is that although we're quite focused we're not entirely perfectionist either in a musical sense so that allows each of us a degree of flexibility to work with. Sometimes Mikel might play something on his guitar and one of us might suggest it would sound better on a keyboard or vice versa. I think from that angle we have a nice pallet.
Have there ever been any major disagreements over musical or lyrical content?
Mikel: Not really. So far so good I guess. I mean, if one of us were to have a strong opinion about something that is specific to them; for example, if Daren (Taylor) were to have a concern about a particular drumbeat then we'd listen to him and let him do his thing because that's what he brings to the band. Lyrically they're all my songs and so if I didn't want something to be used it wouldn't be there in the first place, and none of the other band members would ever ask me to change any of the lyrics as they know they're mostly quite personal to me. A good example of how we interact would be 'This Is Nowhere'; Steven (Chen) brought in the main guitar part, Anna brought in the bridge for it and I wrote the lyrics.
Anna: Sometimes we all get on each other's nerves.
Mikel: Yeah sometimes we do but then we tend to get over it. I see us as being like a bunch of siblings.
Anna: Papa of the band!
Mikel: I wouldn't say that.I see myself more as the big brother of the band, a level of authority perhaps.
Anna:.and we're the group of peasants!
Mikel: Imagine a group of brothers and sisters that had been shipwrecked on an island with instruments, and they hadn't figured out how they were going to get along, make a living, find dinner, pitch the tent, have fun together or whatever, and that's how I see us, generally growing together and bonding as a group.
One of your songs, 'Gasoline', is currently being used to soundtrack the new FIFA 09 computer game. Are you worried that some people may accuse you of selling out?
Mikel: Well, there are two schools of thought here. On the one hand, we wouldn't ever advertise something we didn't want to do, especially if it's any kind of corporation that we don't believe in. On the other hand, I think there is a genuine understanding that music is ubiquitous and if a song is used on a video game; well, it's harmless. Having said that, I probably wouldn't want a song like 'Innocence' to be on the FIFA game. The lyrics of that song are so personal to me that it wouldn't be appropriate to use it on any kind of advert.
Anna: Its quite surreal in a way. We were playing a show back home a while back and these young guys came up to the stage after we played 'Gasoline' shouting 'FIFA! FIFA! FIFA!'. In a way we should be grateful that people are finding out about us and our songs in as many different ways as possible.
Mikel: There are loads of other bands doing commercials too. Modest Mouse have made one for Chrysler, Silversun Pickups and Sea Wolf have both done Isuzu recently.
Anna: Coldplay did a VW commercial, M.I.A. did one for Honda.
Mikel: Band Of Horses did a mini-van commercial. The list is endless. That doesn't mean we'd let our music be used for just any kind of commercial either. We've turned down all kinds of shit. We want to be taken seriously as a band and we know there are certain things you can do once people know who you are.
A lot of the songs do seem to have a serious, almost angst-ridden side to them that probably wouldn't sit too well amidst a television commercial.
Mikel: I write about my experiences, almost in a therapeutic way. My father got terminally ill, then my ma did, then I wasn't well either, and it was almost like a total re-evaluation of everything around me. I really don't understand those bands that just write songs to look or sound cool. We're not cool. I don't have cool hair; I don't try to look cool. I dress OK but there are a lot of bands who dress cooler and pose on stage. We're not about the posture.
For such vitriolic songs though there is also quite a pop element in your music. Is that a deliberate goal you set out to achieve?
Mikel: No not really. I think the real goal is in the story. I don't really go for the whole vaguely metaphorical aspect that some songwriters pursue on a regular basis. I'm more in favour of writing about specific events without feeling the need to disguise them to sound cool or clever. In a lot of ways this band is meant to be a response to that kind of attitude. I think what attracts people to our songs is that there are no hidden meanings or metaphors to be found; they're just straight to the point. As for being 'pop', 'pop' itself is a dirty word in some circles. It's seen as deliberately making your music sound overly commercial when that really isn't the case. However, if I'm going to tell a story set to music I'd rather it be something that people want to get along with than someone mumbling lyrics really quietly over a tuneless wall of noise.
So the whole '30 Shows In 30 Days' tour. Where did that idea come from?
Anna: We were all sat talking one night about something crazy we could do that would be important to us, and it just seemed to coincide with planning the UK tour and we just thought 'What is the best way we can do it?'
Mikel: The idea was to be a travelling art project so if this thing is about catharsis and interaction and storytelling that doesn't happen on television or the internet. The whole idea of playing music for me is about making your art in front of people, not making friends with complete strangers on the internet.
Anna: The whole Facebook thing of making friends online rather than hanging out just doesn't appeal to us.
Mikel: We just thought let's come to every corner of the UK.
Anna:.visit every town.
You've certainly chosen a few places that are off the beaten track on this tour. Barrow-In-Furness tomorrow night for example.
Mikel: Too right. We played a great show the other day in this little town in Cornwall. You had the mountains on one side, a windstorm going off on the other, the ocean in front and about 100 people going crazy in this venue that was like a tent.
Anna: The guy who put the show on said afterwards that any time we come back to the UK we're more than welcome to visit and stay at his house. Things like that make the whole touring experience worthwhile.
What are the band's plans for 2009?
Mikel: The album comes out in the UK on February 3rd and there'll be three extra songs on this version that aren't on the original record that came out in the States in August. We're back touring the UK to coincide with the album's release and then we're playing North America in the spring. After that its mainland Europe and then we're pencilled in for a few festivals; Coachella is one, and then, who knows..?
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