They may live in one of L.A.’s grooviest neighborhoods, but The Airborne Toxic Event sure has made a dent in England. When we jumped on the phone with singer Mikel Jollett, he was in waiting to play a gig in Sheffield, a blue collar city outside London which he said reminded him of Cleveland. The band made lots of fans when they blew through Britain last fall, doing 30 shows in 30 days – no wonder they sound so tight these days. The Brits tend to love the punchy, angled tunes the Event is expert at; the young band’s self-titled debut even cracked the UK charts.
Now Americans are starting to come around, too; this is a band with forward motion. Maybe it’s because their music swoops through a number of spots. Sometimes they sound like The Cure in a good mood, sometimes it’s an ornery version of “Let’s Dance”-era Bowie. Jollett is a novelist, and the band’s moniker is clipped from Don DiLillo’s imposing White Noise. They’ve just become one of our You Oughta Know bands. We spoke to him about U.S. shows, not British.
YOU GUYS RECENTLY PLAYED COACHELLA. HOW DID YOU DO, WAS IT AN A, B, OR C PERFORMANCE?
The politically correct answer would be A, but I think it was a B, B+. Coachella has become scene-y. You’re supposed say Coachella’s awesome so you don’t piss off the promoter, and actually, to be honest, the Coachella promoter is a great guy. But it’s gotten weird, with lots of Hollywood stars hanging out backstage. Playing was great and the audience was really supportive – maybe more supportive than they should’ve been, hahahaha. Our really good shows feel like a riot, like the place is about to burn down – we like it that way. For us [a show is truly happening] when half the audience is on the stage, we’re leaping into the crowd, someone’s dancing on the speakers, someone else is bleeding, two people are making out in the corner and someone’s in a fight in the other corner. Everyone’s jumping and screaming…that’s rock ‘n’ roll; you gotta sweat, gotta bleed, something’s gotta happen – something as opposed to nothing, right? Otherwise it’s just folk music with a backbeat.
DID YOU ROAM AROUND COACHELLA? WHICH BAND IMPRESSED YOU MOST?
Oh, I watched Leonard Cohen.It was like…religious. Best concert I’ve seen in years. The stage sound was hushed, and everyone quieted down. I was there with my brother and he’s a big guy with tatted arms, a recovering junkie – you don’t mess with my brother. During this quiet section the people in back of us were talking. And he gave them this look and they instantly shut the hell up. And everyone around us was thankful. The wind was blowing, it was nighttime, and there was Leonard Cohen singing. Very memorable.
YOU LIVE IN SILVER LAKE, ONE OF L.A.’S CHIC NEIGHBORHOODS. DESCRIBE IT A BIT.
I moved in five years ago, before it got super chic. They just redid my block with all new landscaping and stuff. I was flat broke, living in this crackerjack apartment, and I think we were part of the window dressing for realtors. They’d walk the perspective buyers through and show us off: “Here, live among artists,” and me and the guys on my block would be getting high. It’s changed a lot. The music scene is great, though. It’s more supportive than competitive. We’ve played with everyone at various times. There’s a similarity between the bands: it’s about putting on an active show rather than standing around staring at your feet.
YOU WERE A ROCK JOURNALIST AND A NOVELIST. WHAT’S MORE FUN TO WRITE, A REVIEW OR A SONG?
Well, I don’t think one has anything to do with the other really. I was bad at it. It was just a chance to meet people I admired and ask them questions. I didn’t really care about the stories. I cared about the writing, but not the facts, and to this day I don’t care about facts. I got to meet David Bowie and ask him questions. I had this very paternal moment with him. We were having this big talk about the death of Nietzsche, and asked me
“Is it hard for people in your generation to care about anything?” It was like “Yes, yes, thanks for asking, Ziggy.” I spent the next two years trying to answer that question.
YOU’RE OFTEN ASKED LITERARY QUESTIONS. WHAT BOOKS ARE YOU RECOMMENDING THESE DAYS?
I just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy – that’s a great book. And there’s this short story collection by Jeffrey Eugenides, he wrote The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. It’s called My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead. Some classic writers, some modern guys – really good.
WHAT’S THE BEST SONG TO KICK-START A PARTY?
Umm, OutKast’s “Hey Ya,” probably. Though if you talk with Noah, our bass player, he would say Paul Simon’s “You can Call Me Al.”
WHAT’S THE MOST HILARIOUS MOVIE EVER MADE?
Good question. My favorite funny movie is ANNIE HALL.
WHAT’S A CHILDHOOD MEMORY THAT YOU ALWAYS HAVE IN YOUR HEAD?
My parents riding motorcycles. My mom and dad both had bikes and they’d ride ‘em around. I can still see them doing that.
YOU GREW UP ON A CALIFORNIA COMMUNE. WHAT WAS THE WORST PART?
The smell of patchouli – hahaha, just kidding actually, I don’t remember anything about patcoulhi. But it’s funny, everyone on that commune turned out to be a super successful dude or some kind of complete loser. There was no in between: either first in their class in Harvard, or serving time.