- Posted on Mar 4th 2011 5:45PM by Dan Reilly
Courtesy Airborne Toxic Event
Born out of a series of personal devastations, Airborne Toxic Event's 2008 self-titled debut was, as frontman Mikel Jollett puts it, a record of "sad songs about girls." This April, the band returns with its second LP, 'All at Once,' which finds Jollett singing about his childhood, his love of the Cure and, yes, the deaths of innocent people thanks to US predator drone strikes.
After playing over 350 shows in support of the first album, the L.A.-based quintet is getting back its road-warrior ways. Having just played a series of residencies across Europe and with a US tour planned for the spring, the group is ready to return to SXSW to show off their new tunes.
Spinner recently spoke with singer, guitarist and main songwriter Mikel Jollett about growing up as a poor child of itinerant hippie parents, the impact the Cure and the Smiths had on him and how making 'All at Once' finally convinced him that he could be a full-time musician.
Where did you grow up?
That's a good question. I'm going to have to get into this more on this record. There's a lot of stuff about my folks [on it]. My parents were hippies and we moved around a lot. I was born on a commune, kind of in Santa Monica, but grew up north of San Francisco. Then we left the commune and we were in Berkeley for a while and then Salem, Ore., and we moved back to L.A. when I was 11. I went to public schools where I was the one white kid. It was kind of all over. There was never really one place. We were fairly itinerant when I was a kid.
Were you always surrounded by music?
Yeah. My dad was real into Allman Brothers and stuff. We'd be driving around, he had this '59 Chevy, and he'd be like "You want to hear a smoking guitar? That's a smoking guitar" and then he'd play like f---ing 'Eat a Peach.' I'd be sitting there with my Cure tapes going, "That's great, dad."
My mom, she used to take us to the symphony to listen to the dress rehearsals because we were really poor. We didn't have anything, so we couldn't afford tickets to the symphony or anything like that. We were these white trash kids, but my mom was really determined that my brother and I were going to graduate high school and make something out of our loserly selves, so she would take us to the dress rehearsals. We'd sit in the back, the three of us, listening to whatever they were working on. That was important to her.
My mom worked really hard and we had a lot of Salvation Army clothes and Goodwill appliances, Tasty-os instead of Cheerios, government cheese. I don't know if you ever had government cheese but it's not good. Food stamps, the whole nine. But it was really important to her that we were people of the world that were engaged in books and music.
When did you start playing guitar?
15. A group of friends were playing acoustic guitars and I thought it was really weird. You know the old Smiths lyric, "I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar/Then it meant you were a protest singer"? I felt that way. I was like, "Are you guys going to a f---ing Joan Baez show?" Then I was like, "Oh, I get it. You can sing songs on it" and I immediately started writing songs on it. Before I could play chords I was writing songs. That's what I was always drawn to. You had instant accompaniment. I never learned licks. To this day, I can't play licks.
Do you remember any of the songs from back then?
Yeah, they were terrible. Typical teenage bulls---.
Was there a specific band or song that made you fall in love with music?
There are so many. I remember the summer of 7th grade, my friend Jake got [the Smiths'] 'Louder Than Bombs' and [the Cure's] 'Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me' at the same time and gave them to me. We were both latchkey kids and his stepdad was kind of a prick and we would hide out in the garage and we felt like misfits. We didn't have money for a bus ride or a car, so we would sit in his garage and listen to the Smiths and the Cure and I think it made it us feel -- I don't know how to put it -- like "this is specifically who we are" in a way that pop music [didn't]. The sense of being an outsider, not really fitting in, not really wanting to -- they're a little smarter, a little cannier, but then they still don't have a f---ing pot to piss in. That was us.
Do you think that upbringing had an effect on how you approach songwriting with Airborne?
Yeah. I have a song on this record called 'It Doesn't Mean a Thing' and it's about my dad. My dad did three years in Chino before I was born and when he got out, he got clean. He was on heroin and stole credit cards, all this s---, but he cleaned up. A lot of people don't and since I was born, he's been clean.
He has this way of thinking about life where it's just like "If something's not good then just move the f--- down the road. Pack up and move to the next spot." He's always sort of seen it that way. A lot of parents put a lot of head-trips on their kids that they've got to be a certain person to make their dads proud, like somebody spends all this time going to law school but they don't want to be a lawyer. I never felt that way for a minute. My parents were glad I did graduate from high school, but there was always a sense of "Here's the world, do what you're gonna do. Try to do something important, stick around family, don't be an a-----e, maintain some humility and if your situation gets f---ed up, move down the road."
When did you realize that playing music was going to be your career?
To be honest, I don't think it was until this year. That whole first record, I still felt like a writer at heart and this was just something I was trying on. I spent so many years wanting to be a novelist or narrative journalist. I still feel that way sometimes, like I'm wasting my time with this music and that I should be writing and getting better at it. But this year, writing this record, I feel very proud of it. I hear the songs and I'm so proud we were able to make this record and finally I'm like, "OK, this is something I can do." I don't believe in fate -- I wouldn't say I was born to do it -- but this is definitely something I can do and I like to do and I'm probably going to keep doing it. So, it wasn't until we made 'All at Once.' Up until then it was like "This is cute but when are you going to get back to writing novels?"
Catch Airbourne Toxic Event's SXSW Set on Friday, March 18 at Stubb's (801 Red River) 10:30PM.