“Ever since I was in my twenties, I’ve had the fear, the dread. Now it’s been realized. I feel enmeshed, I feel deeply involved. It’s no wonder they call this thing the airborne toxic event. It’s an event all right. It marks the end of uneventful things. This is just the beginning. Wait and see.” ~Don DeLillo, White Noise
In one year, the Airborne Toxic Event, a meteoric Los Angeles five-piece, has whiplashed from a therapeutic outlet for heartache and loss to one of Rolling Stone’s “Top 25 Bands on MySpace,” from the Troubadour to KROQ (with the catchy pulse of single “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”), from the 2007 CMJ festival to being predicted by the Los Angeles Times as one of the three best bands of 2008.
Singer/guitarist Mikel Jollett, bassist Noah Harmon, and guitarist/keyboardist Steven Chen met at a bar in Chinatown a few months ago for what was to be a quick chat about the band’s past, present, and future. It soon grew into a boozy and hydra-necked three-hour meditation on art, commerce, the Internet, mixtapes, and jazz/telephone connection.
Let’s get the prologue out of the way first. From what I understand, the genesis of the band came from one of the worst weeks a person could have.
Mikel Jollett: Yeah, I had a really bad week [laughs]. So I was always staying home, working on a novel, which was tedious, and my mom got cancer, my girlfriend and I broke up, and I got diagnosed with this disease that can make you lose your hair or make your skin look patchy, and apparently the condition is made worse by smoking, and I smoked two packs a day. Oh yeah, I got pneumonia, too. So, yes, it was a rough week.
Noah Harmon: You had pneumonia?
MJ: Yeah, and then a bum threw up on me and a truck ran over my cat [laughs]. Okay, maybe not those last two. But for about one month, I just walked around in a haze, really depressed, just trying to get through day. But then I started to come to. I remember it really clearly — it was January 3 — I came home and picked up the guitar and just started playing for five hours, and the next day, eight. I couldn’t even really sing that well, but I would try to, every single day, just sing and play and write. And ever since then — I guess that was a year and half ago — that’s all I’ve done.
You were a rock journalist for a period, then you wanted to write a novel, but this urge to play music arose and overwhelmed all of that?
MJ: Yeah, I didn’t have any ambition to start a band. I wanted to write a novel, short stories, and then something just snapped. It’s hard to explain what, exactly. I just felt . . . different. For a long time, I felt really different. Now I feel a bit more back to normal, except that I’m in this band [laughs].
NH: Yeah, he woke up in a bed in Tijuana with us.
One thing I want to talk about, since we’re discussing that embryonic bad week, is the well of anger, or at least fear and confusion, directed in your lyrics toward loss, so much so that you named the group after DeLillo’s black billowing metaphor for the fear of death. I’ve also got you quoted as saying, “I think I write because I’m afraid to die.” Can you expand on that idea? Because it seems that while your lyrics revolve around darkness or loss, the music almost always sounds like a celebration. Is that the point — catharsis through pop music?
MJ: Yeah, you could definitely say that.
I could, or maybe you guys are just really catchy.
MJ: I think it’s a little bit of both. I was living in a really dark time — it’s weird. Being in a rock band, or at least one like Airborne, you’re sharing with everyone your psychic life or your dream life, and I had a lot of things to worry about. My mom getting sick pretty much scared the shit out of me. But at the same time, when I started coming around, I had that moment where you realize that, you know, “Life is short and I’m going to die, but I’m alive now!” You know? “I’m in a rock band! I wanna sing, I wanna jump around. We’re all gonna die, so let’s get drunk and dance.” Life’s sad, it’s beautiful, it sucks, it’s awe-inspiring, all at the same time, and we just try to reflect that or capture that in our music and our live shows. But I think Noah just wanted to be in the Clash [laughs].
NH: No . . . I mean, yeah, but it’s probably not going to happen [laughs]. But touching on that, you don’t need to write really morose music to reflect that awful things happen in life, you don’t need to sit down and say, “What’s the most depressing and cerebral and complicated thing I can come up with?” Making accessible ideas is just as challenging as something that’s ridiculously complex or miserable.
Interesting that you say that. A lot of people, me included, have used the words “post-punk” as a shortcut in trying to describe your sound, yet most of the other bands that fall under that umbrella term these days sound as if they should be called Ian Curtis and the Bunnymen — very morose.
NH: It’s interesting you would mention Joy Division/New Order. Go back and listen to your New Order records, almost all of their hit songs are in D, D Minor.
Steven Chen: What does that mean [laughs]?
NH: It means we’re talking about formulaic stuff, and they’re kind of the gloom-and-doom band, or they came out of it, and so that there’s a certain amount of calculation to what anyone does, even the best bands within a particular movement.
MJ: It’s funny. In rock ’n’ roll, there’s a lot of politics in your mix. Say a band like Interpol, they don’t have, from just a music-theory standpoint, that much separating them from Britney Spears. They just turn the guitars up, there’s a lot of loud reverb on it, a lot of chorus on it. In rock ’n’ roll, there are a lot of politics in your guitar effects.
SC: Yeah, but there’s a reason there is a formula. It’s evolved from decades, or even centuries, of how people respond to sound.
Let’s talk about breaking standard pop-songwriting formula, at least lyrically. A lot has been made of the literary aspects of the band, from the White Noise reference to the song “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” which adapts an Irwin Shaw short story. In fact, most of the songs seem to be structured that way — as short, compact stories rather than verse-chorus-verse, with the lyrics hewing closer to something like “The Gift” by Lou Reed than a more traditional tune, like “Satisfaction.” Is that intentional, or is that just how it comes out?
MJ: It’s just how it comes out. With pop songs, sometimes it feels forced to add a chorus — it’s like, ‘verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, refrain.’ Very pop, right? I just write my songs the way they feel they should be written, the way the story feels it should be told. Though, that being said, we do have a couple of songs that are closer to that traditional structure. It’s not really something I consciously think about. It all depends on where it feels like the song should go.
SC: Even on the songs that don’t have a lyric chorus, musically there’s still that chorus element, that sound, of revisiting that portion of the song that feels the most cathartic, or the part you simply want to hear again and again. You want to reach people, and the chorus is the most straightforward way, but there are other ways to get that feeling.
MJ: We’re definitely writing for an audience. And we’re very interested in putting on a show, a set that makes people dance. At the end of the day, they’re just songs, you know? Here they are. We’re just musicians. We’re like a juggling act.
There are two ways you can approach being in a band: You can be like the trained ballet dancer who went to dance school and has trained all her life, self-serious and all focus; or you can be like the guy who’s tap-dancing on the street corner for his dinner. We’re the guy dancing for his dinner [laughs]. I feel like every set tells a story —
SC: Mikel and his stories [laughs].
MJ: And during a show you’ve got to tell a story, make an arc, bring the audience with you. At certain points in the show you use a particular song for resonance, to hit those emotional peaks and valleys of the story you’re telling.
Like the ebb and flow of a good mixtape.
NH: The mixtape analogy’s excellent. You aren’t going to start a mixtape with the Ramones and then go straight to Simon and Garfunkel. You can get there, though, I suppose, the Ramones to Garfunkel [laughs], maybe go from Ramones to later Clash to the Smiths to Simon and Garfunkel.
MJ: Smiths give you a lot of room. A lot of different places you can go from there.
Speaking of the Smiths, that’s one band the press constantly mentions as an influence on Airborne. There’s always some iteration of a British post-punk and American indie reference, usually of the Smiths-meets-Modest Mouse variety, which is all the more convoluted now that Marr’s joined Mouse —
MJ: That’s right! I hadn’t thought of that.
And though I do hear their influence, I also hear a lot of, say, early Television in your music and maybe some Cohen in the lyrics. So what is the musical background of the band? Who do you allow to seep in?
SC: When we first met, Mikel and I bonded over Archers of Loaf — that great stomping quality of theirs — and Pavement. I grew up listening to them. I remember just getting exciting over how smart and quirky the lyrics were. I don’t think Malkmus gets enough credit for the dramatic quality he lends his music, I think he’s seen more as just a smartass, like Jarvis Cocker, who’s another influence. Those would be some important ones — Pavement and Pulp.
MJ: We’ve all bonded over the kind of music that almost everyone likes — the Clash, the Cure, Joy Division, Radiohead — but it’s not something we think about during the songwriting process, whether something sounds “post-punk” enough, whatever that means. Then there’s Anna and Noah, who are classically trained and really embrace classical music.
NH: And you’ve got Mikel jammin’ on a Doobie Brothers riff at rehearsal. So there’s a lot in there, a lot of sound that comes together.
MJ: We really don’t care about having a certain “sound.” Some bands might — I don’t know, I’ve never been in another one. We just play what sounds right. Sometimes we even sound country, I think; on certain songs, we sound like what gets labeled as post-punk. We don’t really think about it — “this doesn’t sound enough like the Cure!” or anything like that.
I don’t think our musical backgrounds, really, are as important as the fact that we just happen to be five people in a room who love music and who really like making it with one another. Whatever sound we have, I think it stems more from that than anything else.
SC: What’s interesting is that you can take a hundred people who all love the Smiths and Joy Division and Britpop, and have them write their own music, and they can have one hundred different “sounds,” different takes on how they were influenced by those bands. We just as a group all happen to have similar “takes” on those bands that everyone loves.
NH: We love doing our huge and epic ambient things, like “Wishing Well” or “Sometime Around Midnight,” but we also love doing simple pop music, like “Moving On?” We’ll keep doing them both simply because they move us. If Mikel comes in with a country ballad and we like it, we’ll do that, too.
So as long as it appeals to you, you’ll do it, regardless of how it sounds or fits in with the other songs? If the mood strikes you to cover the David Bowie/Bing Crosby version of “Little Drummer Boy,” that’s where you’re gonna go?
NH: That version’s a fucking American tradition, anyway, man. If Steven came into rehearsal with a song that sounded like Britney Spears, but it was a great song, then we’d try and find a way to make it work.
SC: For me, the litmus test is if the song hits you in the gut. I don’t want to be too cerebral, not at first. I just want a song, initially, to hit me, move me. If it does that for us, then we can start to really explore it, stretch it out, play it live.
Your live shows have been receiving stellar reviews, especially for a young band.
MJ: Nine months old.
But what surprises me is, for such a young band, you really gel when playing live. It reminds me of something the remaining members of the Doors — when they’re not tarnishing whatever credibility they have left — often mention: that each member was one of the four corners to a diamond, that each person was integral to the unit, that they were intuitively connected to one another.
MJ: It was like that the first time we practiced together. We got very lucky. I know what you mean: We just all came in and happened to be on the same page. We got lucky. It was a relief, too, just from a songwriting point of view. I mean, I never have to worry about the bass parts, for example, because Noah’s just so fucking good. Or, say, the drumming, just because I already know Darren’s going to bring the right energy and rhythm to each song. It really clicked on the U.K. tour, because that was the first time we had to spend so much time together. It was a relief because we had so much fun — we realized how much we enjoyed just being around each other. This would be fun if we were just a debate team. We’re not exactly Fleetwood Mac yet — there’s no Behind the Music-style tension.
SC: We could easily be like a lot of bands, where there’s just one major asshole that tears the band apart. Luckily, we’re all assholes, so it works [laughs].
You’ve managed to land some pretty good venues, as well as getting a U.K. tour, for an unsigned act. How did you manage that?
MJ: We were lucky — a lot of blogs caught up on us, came out to see our shows, people started talking about us a lot. I was surprised — people read all those music blogs? [laughs] — but it was essentially good word of mouth.
NH: Combined with our manager, Mary, working her ass off, plus dumb luck.
MJ: And a producer in the U.K. heard our EP and liked it enough to actually fly out here and help set that up.
Do you plan on recording a new EP or album soon? Or are you waiting to hear any rumblings on the label front?
MJ: We’re making our record right now. We didn’t really want to wait on a label to tell us to record an album for them to release. What we’re going to do with the recordings, we’re not really sure yet. Do we need a label? Yeah, it would be cool, but we’re just musicians, we’re not business people. We’re just going to worry about recording our stuff. It’ll get released, one way or the other. We just want to be able to make music, tour together, and pay our rent. That’s the job we want.
NH: Industry’s in a weird place right now, anyway. They’re having a hard time transitioning.
You’re right, it is a weird time. With the changing of the industry right now, with the singles-based nature of the MP3 culture, people are forecasting the death of the album as an art form. Artists like Beck are releasing these Rubik’s Cube-like albums in which the track order is seemingly inessential. How does that affect a new band recording a first album?
MJ: We’re definitely an album band. We want to make our mixtapes, tell our stories. How people want to listen to songs is their business. But we definitely approach it as a whole, as an album.
You know, I’m all for it—the Internet as a force in music, as an instrument to shake the industry up and change how things are done. So many bands have to change for their label: “put an extra chorus here, a bridge there, take the balls out of the guitar by EQ’ing the hell out of them.” But now music is approaching — I hope — a point where it can be released without those constraints.
NH: And who knows how many would-be classic albums have been shelved by some label that had no idea how good they were — something shelved in 1996 that could have changed the world for some listeners, been the greatest album anyone’s ever heard. But you know what? It was a band that was on contract and the label didn’t put it out, and now it’s rotting somewhere. Hopefully, now a band in that position can just put their music out there on the Internet.
MJ: Maybe it’s a little harder now, but I think a struggling or unsigned band can still make it these days, make enough money to survive and keep doing it. Put enough music out there, and, if it’s good and people like it, they’ll show up at your sets. You’ll find a way to make it.
NH: If you want to be a billionaire, though, you should probably buy stock in Apple.
SC: And music is going to be made, regardless. People will figure out a way to make it work. It’s like the Wild West right now. It’s actually very interesting. Whatever happens, it’s inevitable. These changes in technology and culture, they’re inevitable. People will figure it out. Right now, people are scrambling around, trying to figure out how to make money with their music, how to redo the model that’s been slowly eroding over the past few years.
When the Internet first became a real threat to the industry, it seemed as if it was going to destroy the chances of an unsigned act to make a living. Yet with your band the Internet has been a tremendous help. Rolling Stone voted you one of the top twenty-five bands on MySpace, more people have been able to hear your music and buy the EP, and you have an entire following that probably wouldn’t exist without the Internet.
NH: First off, small bands with big labels have never been okay. There’s no clout. With or without the Internet, they’ve never been okay. Personally, I don’t understand how people hearing your music hurts you. Even if it’s for free. If they hear it and like it, they’ll come see your shows. You’ll survive. At least someone will have heard your band, you know?
SC: It’s not like the Internet is this thing that’s hijacked culture; it is culture. And we want to be a part of culture.
NH: Did you read that Thomas Friedman book, The World Is Flat? I totally disagree with the guy on a lot of things, but his concept of all this information that’s out there, accessible to anyone, that’s amazing to me. Is that really a bad thing?
So you can see the Mona Lisa online any time you want, for free. Does that mean culture is dead? No, it’s just readily available, only in a digital format. Is that bad? How can you judge that?
MJ: Even though I appreciate the effect the Internet is having on music, I’m still wary of it. Cyber-reality and reality, these two separate things, they get confused. MySpace, Friendster, Facebook — these are really compelling questions people ask themselves and one another. “Am I liked? Do we like one another? Are we friends?” These are among some of the most important questions human beings ask one another, and to do it from the remove of a computer . . . . I don’t know. I’d rather my friends just come to my house.
The access to information is amazing. But it also seems to hinder your ability to function in the real world. If I’m at the computer for four hours a day, I just don’t feel good. If I have friends over for four hours, I do feel good. That’s one of the great things about being in a band, you go to a show, you look at people, and people they look at you, you talk afterward — connection. And you weren’t on fucking MySpace. So, like anything, it has good and bad qualities.
NH: Maybe it is the downfall of civilization. But the fucking polar icecaps are going to melt and drown us all before it becomes a real issue, anyway [laughs].
MJ: It has helped us, though. For instance, twenty years ago, the L.A. Weekly never would have covered us. I just don’t want to rely on it too heavily.
NH: I think it’s impossible to say, really, the extent to which the Internet’s helped us versus how it’s hurt us. I mean, was the telephone good for jazz? Did Ma Bell save Charlie Parker?
MJ: What [laughs]?
NH: Seriously! How can you know? Technology, you can’t separate yourself from it and look at it objectively. Sure, I’d love to, and go live out in the woods like Pearl Jam on that one record [Vs.]. It’s good and it’s bad, but you can’t separate yourself from it. Like the telephone. I hate cell phones, but I’ve got one. You’ve got to embrace the negative, sometimes, to find the good.
All right, all right. Do want to close on a sappy note?
MJ: Sure, what the hell.
You’ve accomplished a lot for such a young band. This originally started as a way for Mikel to have an outlet for the worst week of his life. Now, unexpectedly, the band has a life of its own. What’s next? Where do you take it to go from here?
MJ: I really don’t know. You can’t really control that stuff, so I try not to think about it. The kind of stuff I think about is that I hope no one in the band gets sick. I really hope Noah doesn’t get cancer, Steven doesn’t get hit by a car, Anna doesn’t get lupus, Darren isn’t in a wreck. I really just want us to stay together, get along, be friends, make a record. And that we do it for years.
Sure, I’d love a big record and to tour. If you’d asked me six months ago, I would’ve said that’s all I wanted, a platinum record and world tours and all of that. Now, everything’s changing so quickly, all this stuff is swirling around us. All we can control is how we play as a band, as friends; all we can control is being honest with and about our songs. That’s all any band can do, and that’s all I want to do.
SC: I like the idea of our name. I’d like our band to be like that — an event. Not in terms of fame or anything like that, but just this thing, this event, that happens, and what it means isn’t entirely clear at first. Something that intrigues you and grows in meaning the more you think about it.
[At this point, a brightly dressed man approached our table from the bar with a massive bowl of popcorn, looked at each one of us, and then simply asked, “Popcorn?” before walking away.]
SC: Something kind of like that, actually [laughs].