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A Cake In 15 Interview: The Airborne Toxic Event

14 Sep

The Airborne Toxic Event are from Los Angeles, but not the L.A. everyone sees on TV. I sat down with lead singer Mikel Jollett and bassist Noah Harmon and they made that pretty clear. “Everyone thinks L.A. is Hollywood and that exists,” Jollett says, his speaking voice sounding much softer than his gravelly, Mike Ness-like onstage growl. “But L.A. is black, L.A. is Mexican, Laotian, Ethiopian,” he continues, “my high school had, like, nine white kids in it–it’s like growing up in Queens.” Harmon adds, “Everyone thinks L.A. is Beverly Hills/Paris Hilton shit, but it’s like, ‘Motherfucker, haven’t you seen Boyz N The Hood’?” Jollett continues, “Haven’t you seen Stand And Deliver? White people don’t know about L.A., they think it’s a whole other thing than what reality is.”

TATE came from seemingly nowhere, toting a cache of songs that remind one of The Smiths darkest places, the mid-tempo offerings of The Cure, slices of Modest Mouse, bits of Social Distortion, and one song that opens with the same lyrics as LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.” In the wrong hands this would amount to an unmitigated disaster, but de facto leaders Jollett and Harmon are smarter than a lot of people that play in bands; smarter than a lot of people, period. They not only make it work, but make it sound cohesive and fresh to boot. Sound calculated? Hardly. It sounds almost accidental – accidental in that way that makes you say, “Wow, I didn’t think the song was going there,” several times while listening to the album. Steven Chen’s guitar work can be as caustic as it can be precious, Daren Taylor sounds like he’s beating on his drums with lead pipes at times, Anna Bulbrook almost single-handedly gives the album multidimensionality with her violin and synth work – to say nothing of Harmon and Jollett’s formidable contributions on bass and rhythm guitar, respectively.


Read more after the jump

While taking up residency at Silver Lake hotspot Spaceland, their single, “Sometime Around Midnight” began getting radio play on L.A.’s Indie 103, among several other radio stations, which isn’t surprising given the caliber of the music save for one tiny detail: they weren’t signed to a label yet. When the industry came calling, they had the rare upper hand entering negotiations. “We signed the most artist-friendly record deal ever,” Jollett says. They retained control of their music as well as the rights to it. One A&R man from an unnamed major told them they wouldn’t get radio play without his label’s support, which seemed funny to them, as he was talking to them precisely because he had heard them on the radio already. It rarely, if ever, works like this. Bands often give up too much on the front end for a shot at fame, only to be left in the odd, disheartening position of being gold- or platinum-selling artists who are flat broke. “We made sure we were taken care of,” Jollett says of the deal they signed with Majordomo Records, which is run by members of fellow L.A. band Earlimart–it’s probably not a coincidence they got a stellar deal from an artist-run label.

Indeed, they’re no dummies. They come across as the exact opposite of the pre-conceived notions that many people have about guys who play in bands. They are articulate, well-read (their name is taken from a section of Don Delillo’s 1985 novel White Noise), and have other interests outside of playing music. Prior to fronting TATE, Jollett was a struggling writer on the cusp of success. He’s recently been published in McSweeney’s, the magazine started by literary wunderkind Dave Eggers, and has a novel in the works that he hopes to publish in four parts, then as a whole at a later date (he’s been working on it in the van while on tour, he says). The New Yorker showed interest in some of his work as well. “I was right at the moment of: ‘I have a literary agent for the novel, I got a piece in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker wants to see stuff.’ and then I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to start a band.’” It indicates an incessant need to create on Jollett’s part, if one avenue doesn’t work, he always has the other to travel down – but at the moment, both seem to be getting a lot of traffic.

To dispel any notion that the band is just a lark that turned into something more by accident, I ask them about the genesis of the band. Harmon was reluctant initially, but after listening some demos that Jollett sent him, he found them clever and joined up. Jollett jokes he had to beat Harmon into submission and that, contrary to popular belief, physical violence solves everything. We all laugh and I’m struck by how comfortable they are with their position as up-and-comers in an insanely competitive business in an insanely competitive city. “Tons of people play in (bands in) L.A.” Harmon offers, “but only a handful are really fucking serious about it. After we signed the deal, Mikel had a plan to tour the next day. Most bands are out getting drunk, we had pie charts and shit.” I think he’s joking, but the intensity and exuberance with which they approach and discuss the band, it’s entirely possible these charts exist somewhere.

The Airborne Toxic Event seems to have prepared for everything except failure, it seems, an unlikely happening at this point. A bit of nearly impossible luck has put them directly in charge of their own careers and destiny, a rarity in an industry filled with bloodsuckers, sharks, and peril seemingly around every corner. They managed to dodge the worst of it at the outset by inadvertently tipping the scales in their favor, now it’s just a matter of keeping them there.

Download The Airborne Toxic Event’s performance on KCRW here.

More photos from the band’s performance at First Avenue here.

Extra special thanks to guest columnist Pat O’Brien.

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