Monday, December 7, 2009

Mikel Jollett: Best Laid Plans

Published May 2009 in Salem Monthly. Stories ideas come from unexpected places, it's best to be prepared. My wife and I went to Portland to see Airborne Toxic Event and Jollett announced he'd spent part of his childhood in Salem. I turned to my wife and told her I was getting that story. The following morning, I e-mailed the band's management and it led to an interview. I reused a lede from another story several years back. If I had to choose, it works better in this one.

Mikel Jollett, frontman of The Airborne Toxic Event, knows a thing or two about big plans.

First, he knows how the grandiose designs we hinge our lives on rarely work out the way we think they will.

Second, he knows that's not such a bad thing.

"At this point in my life, as far as plans go, I had expected to be on my second novel and doing an NPR column instead of traveling around with a band," said Jollett.

Jollett, who spent part of his youth in Salem as an Englewood Elementary School student, recently wrapped the U.S. leg of The Airborne Toxic Event's first headlining tour and has since moved onto a stint in Europe. The group's self-titled debut album was hailed as "poetry you can dance to (LA Times)," and "earnest tales of downtrodden folk, seeking contact in a disconnected age (Blender)."

Speaking with Jollett, it's easy to draw the line from the man to his music. But he would likely shy from such a statement.

He's remarkably well-read, unhesitatingly friendly, but dresses in an armor of black onstage.

"As a writer, you're not the point. It's not what you're saying to a large crowd, it's what you're saying to one person," Jollett said.

Salem days

Jollett was born on a commune in California and his family headed north on I-5 when they left with no particular destination in mind.

"My Mom has, like, a 'hippie-sense,' she can sense where there are any ex-hippie's hanging out. So she pulled off in Salem," he said.

She started working for the state prison working with inmates transitioning back to the outside world. Jollett remembers the time as a retreat during the 80s.

"Reagan was president and all the big ideas that folks had had about the sixties had somehow not quite panned out. And, man, they hated Reagan, I was 20 before I knew Reagan's first name wasn't 'That Bastard,'" he said. "For them, it was like the good guys had lost."

While his elders hashed out the changing politics of the day, it left Jollett and his brother with a lot of time to explore on their bikes around their home on Breys Avenue in Northeast Salem. The duo's spent much of their time seeking out opportunities for causing mayhem.

"We were the kids who tried to be bad. We'd either be smoking cigarettes in the barn, lighting fires in the alley, or lining the railroad tracks with rocks so we could duck them as they fired off when the train passed," Jollett said.

Unlike other kids who found a calling in athletics or academics, Jollett was a writer from the start.

"At Christmas, I can remember my uncle asking me how the story writing was going," he said.

The week from hell

Jollett still has trouble pinpointing what made him turn to writing lyrics instead of the novel writing his big plans originally dictated, but at least part of it had to do with his week from hell.

Jollett's family returned to California, specifically L.A., after he finished grade school and his writerly leanings took full hold.

"Writers became my heroes - (Vladimir) Nabokov, (F. Scott) Fitzgerald, Philip Roth," he said. "I moved to a ranch after college and spent a year as a ranch hand working for room and board, and spending the rest of the time just writing and reading."

He wrote essays and journalistic pieces to fill in the gaps not covered by the ranch job, then everything seemed to happen at once.

He broke up with a long-term girlfriend. His mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. All in a week. In response, he picked up a guitar and started playing six to eight hours a day.

"I'd been in bands before, but decided writing was what I wanted to do. Picking up the guitar was sort of the last thing I expected, but I decided I wanted to become a rock star," Jollett said.

The first song he wrote in the wake of the chaos, "Wishing Well," ended up the first track on the album, although Jollett said the track on the disc is about the thirtieth iteration of the song.

"It's about so many things, but it was about that night. I wanted to be anywhere but where I was. Anywhere, I just didn't f--king care," he said. "I didn't want to feel so isolated, I wanted to be with my family. At a table with a huge bucket of spaghetti and bottles of wine. And instead I was sitting alone isolated, by myself."

The makings of a band

Jollett hooked up with drummer and friend Daren Taylor and the pair locked themselves in a warehouse on the east side of LA and played for about 25 hours a week, until it started to feel like they were onto something.

"It was like we weren't making music, we were finding it," said Jollett.

Then his trajectory hit another fork in the road. Jollett found out he'd been accepted to Yaddo, an esteemed writing program in New York.

"I either had to go to Yaddo and become a writer, or not go and become a musician. Not going to Yaddo would have been crazy. But Darren is a damn good drummer," he said.

Jollett and Taylor spent four months playing as a two piece, then pair met violinist Anna Bulbrook through friends of friends and it wasn't long before she was made a permanent part of the band. Soon keyboardist Steven Chen was added to line-up. Bassist Noah Harmon was the final piece of the puzzle.

"Noah was just the best bass player I had ever seen. His other band wasn't that good, but he was really good," Jollett said.

When it came time to choose a name, Jollett returned to his first love, novels.

"There's a section of the book, "The White Noise," by Don Delillo, called The Airborne Toxic Event," said Jollett. "The main character is exposed to a toxic cloud and, as a result, told he is going to die, doesn't know if he's going to die in a week or 20 years. He starts living his life differently. It was kind of like that week that I had, the name sort of made sense."

As they prepared to perform live for the first time, they sent out demo CDs to LA's local bloggers. The response was immediate, but even Jollett was surprised when the band took the stage.

"They turned up the lights and there were 250 people staring back at us. We expected like 12 of our friends," he said.

Their high-energy live shows became such a draw that the group earned a residency at the popular Hollywood venue, Spaceland, in January 2008. Three months later, they signed with Majordomo Records and released a full-length CD four months after that.

The road ahead

Jollett said the group is already working on tracks for their sophomore effort. Three songs he expects to end up on the album have already been incorporated into their live shows.

“We had about a 100 songs when we were working on the first album and only 10 made it, so it’s a long process,” he said.

He’s enjoying the ride, especially watching audience members come to the show and sing along, but said it’s difficult being away from friends and family.

“We're always gone. We've coalesced into this sort of family, but it's a far cry from being a writer alone in a room,” he said.

He still seems somewhat bewildered by the response to their music. He’s always considered the band more of an art project masquerading as a rock band.

“We always sort of hope for a riot or something,” he said. “That's rock and roll, right? There's always got to be something happening. Somebody might get in a fight or somebody might get laid. To able to get out there every night and do it is just f'n awesome.”

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