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Meet Mikel Jollett, Lead Singer of The Airborne Toxic Event

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Photos by Kristy Sparow via Airborne Toxic Event's Myspace

Los Angeles' local heroes, The Airborne Toxic Event, are coming back to town for a giant homecoming show at the Henry Fonda on Thursday. Over the past year this band has launched itself into the musical stratosphere with their self-titled album which has earned constant rotation on the now deceased Indie 103 and KROQ radio stations. Mikel Jollett founded the band after one hell of a week. In one week his mother fell ill with pancreatic cancer, then he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and then the relationship he was in fell apart. While his mother was in recovery, Jollett found himself playing the guitar and writing songs to help him cope. A few months later he formed the Airborne Toxic Event and the band been rocketing to glory ever since. Mikel Jollett was kind enough to talk to us earlier this week.

You formed the band right after what had to be the worst week ever for you. Why did you start a band?
By that point I had already written a ton of songs. I didn't even think about starting a band. It was more like, "God I wonder if this will work." Because I hadn't played any of my music with anyone else. I've never been a jammer. I just wondered if these songs would work if there were other people in the room playing too. I just wanted to hear what it would sound like.

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So where did you find your band?
Everyone is friends of friends. Steven and I were friends for a long time and I knew Darren through a friend. We spent a bunch of time playing these songs in a tiny room together Darren and me. It was really fun. It was really hot that summer and it got to be 100 degrees in the room. Darren knew what kind of band I wanted to start. We clicked. He immediately got it. So then we started recruiting more members. I knew Anna through friends we had in common. We met out one night at this taco place. We were drunk at two in the morning. I found out then that she could play keyboard and sing. So she started playing with us. Noah we asked to be in the band, but initially he said no. He was a jazz musician and worked at like Holiday Inns for banquets and things and they would pay him to do that. He would work for four hours and then made $200. So he didn't really want to devote his time to the band.

How did you get him to changed his mind?
I dunno. I think it was because I finally convinced him to play our first show. There were a lot of people that showed up and by the end he was totally into it. He and I write songs together. I never thought I’d have a writing partner.

I read that you took your name from the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo. For those of us who are unfamiliar with the work, what is that referring to?

In the novel the Airborne Toxic Event is a big cloud that is a result of a giant chemical explosion The huge poisonous cloud threatens a nearby town. The hero, Jack, gets exposed to it. He’s told by the doctors that he’s going to die. When he asks when the doctor says, "You may live a week you may live 40 years." Which is really unhelpful because that is true for everyone. The Airborne Toxic Event his fear of death. It changes him in these really important ways. The same thing happened to me in that year I formed the band with my mom dying and my own health problems.

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What made you pick up instruments? How old were you?
I played the alto saxophone when I was nine years old because my brother played trombone. I thought that’s cool, but that didn’t last long. Later on in high school I started playing the guitar. I used think that if you played the acoustic guitar you were either a protest singer or a cowboy. But then I learned chords to songs I knew and I thought "Hey, this thing is good! There's music is going on and the radio isn’t even on."

Is your band a democracy or a dictatorship?
Neither.

Social republic?
(laughs)Let’s see. The government analogy is the wrong one. I like to think of us as a group of shipwrecked siblings. We’ve all been left on this island, and we have to survive. We travel around together and so spend a lot of time together in close quarters. We need to survive by our wits.

What band would you dread being compared to?
I don’t know. I like the bands we’re compared to. It’s kinda premature to compare us to anyone right now. We’re such a new band. Our record has been out for four months now. We have a long road ahead of us. We’re compared to the Smiths sometimes. But you're not the Smiths until you’re the Smiths, you know?

What do you love most about LA?
I love that it’s this crazy batshit crazy thing. All of these cultures rammed up against each other. People who don't live here think LA is Hollywood. But there are 14 million people here from somewhere else: Salvadorian, Ethiopian, Korean, Armenian...we're just one giant civil stew.

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What was the worst show you ever played?
Oh November of 2007 we played the Echoplex and it was the worst show. I was just really light headed and drunk. It was a really bad show, a really really bad show. We talk about it as, "The show of which we will never speak."

What is the weirdest thing you ever saw at a show?
When we played this festival in San Francisco, we started playing Sometime Around Midnight and six different couples in the audience started making out. It was really strange. Why that song?

They probably weren't listening to the lyrics only the violins.
Yeah, violins have that effect on people, I guess.

If you could change one thing about the music industry what would it be?
You know, I just had a long discussion about this the other day. I think it’s really great that the music industry crumbled. Now there are bands that aren't in the back pocket of a giant corporation. That is great. The changes that have happened in the last few years have really shaken things up. To record a record used to cost $100,000, now you can do it with one garage band and a mic. Any kid who wants to make a record can and release it on the internet. Which means not all of the music on the internet necessarily good. Look at Bon Iver. He made this great record in a cabin in Wisconsin.

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Where did you write Something After Midnight? Who is it about?
I wrote it in my apartment. I came home after the night that's described in that song and locked myself in my room for two days and wrote it. Everything on that record happened. All of the songs are about events and people that are real.

I love that you use the word feral in that song.
Oh good. You don't hear that word very often do you? Usually you hear it just to describe feral cats. I wasn’t sure if people would like it, but it works in the meter so well. I had to use it.

I heard you used to work at Filter Magazine. Is that true?
Yeah, I was a writer there for awhile. It was a fun time. It was just me and my friends Tom, Steve and Greg. None of us knew what we were doing. We'd travel around and talk to bands we really liked. It was great.

Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
Yes, I really like that song American Boy by Estelle. We heard it on the radio in the UK otherwise I don't think I would have heard it. It’s very clever actually. You know that line about the bespoke suit? (Before he speak his suit bespoke.) It’s a really cool little pun Kanye wrote. Oh and if Estelle's looking for an American boy. I could help her out.

If you could meet someone dead or alive who would it be?
Leonard Cohen.

Why?
He’s like my idol. Did you know he wrote novels before he started writing songs? He didn't start writing songs until he was 33. He came to it late in his life. I think he's such an incredibly talented writer. I have a bunch of questions to ask him.

Finally what is your favorite breakfast?
Breakfast for me is a straight forward thing. I like scrambled eggs. I’m a simple guy.

Be sure to catch the Airborne Toxic Event at the Henry Fonda Theater this Thursday.