Less than a decade ago, there was a tried-and-true way for an L.A. indie band to start its career: Play club shows, earn buzz, score a Monday night residency at Spaceland or the Echo, land a record deal and work for a national audience.
The Airborne Toxic Event caught the tail end of that era. Their self-titled 2008 debut stormed L.A.’s indie rock scene, rising far beyond it when the band signed to Island Records in 2009. They headlined the Greek Theatre and Gibson Amphitheatre and quickly became staples of KROQ-FM and mainstream alternative stations across America.
But three albums in, the band is asking some of the same questions as some of their more fledgling contemporaries. How does a band command attention, when the popular climate for music is so different and diffuse now?
Their attempt to answer that question came in the form of their third album, “Dope Machines” (Epic). Out in February, the record marks a profound sonic turnaround for the band; instead of the yearning post-punk and folk flourishes of prior releases, they’ve picked up a minimal, purposefully synthetic sound, drawn from frontman Mikel Jollett’s new investment in production techniques after working on the “Dallas Buyers Club” soundtrack.
We spoke with Jollett - a former Times freelancer and always a lively, volatile thinker about music - via email about how a rock band revamps in 2015, and why their newly chilled music is meant to both refract and rebut our obsession with tech today. They play the Tower Theater in downtown L.A. this Sunday night.
This record is a pretty big sonic shift for the band. What limits were frustrating you about the typical rock-band sound palette, and how did you decide where to go next?
The first Airborne show ever played was at the Echo in 2006. In addition to drums, bass and guitars, onstage there was a percussive car hood (wrangled from a junkyard, it was banged with a mallet), two keyboards, a viola, a massive number of guitar effects, an electric bass bow, an upright bass and by the final song, roughly 15 singers singing in unison a song titled “This Is not the Point of Babette,” the title of which was taken from a line from the novel "White Noise," and the coda of which is man screaming, “Oh my God, I don’t want to die.”
Since then, we have played in punk clubs over thrashing pits, in dance clubs over huge dance floors, in goth clubs, on symphony stages [Red Rocks, Summer Stage at Central Park, the Cali symphony] with 63-piece orchestras, acoustically in moving cars, on moving boats while our drummer drove, in massive cathedrals with string quartets, at Disney Hall with children’s choirs and ballet folklorico dancers, and most recently at the Greek, which was one of the very major shows we’ve ever done with just five people.
I don’t think anyone would think we fit the typical rock-band sound palette.
But were you nervous about how your core fanbase would react to this? It seems like if a band today makes one wrong move, people just move on to the next thing. Did that worry you in this new writing process?
I don’t think you give people enough credit. Most people just want to hear a good song. It doesn’t matter if it’s Billie Holiday or Muse. They’ll listen to David Bowie next to Johnny Cash next to Frank Ocean next to Fleet Foxes next to the XX next to Blood Orange. It’s about a song people want to hear. A good song has a strong identity, sense of place, a mood that’s a window into a human experience that informs or enriches or mirrors or challenges your own experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s played on an 808 or a banjo.
I think the digitization of music has a lot to do with this. Great music from all genres is available to everybody in the modern world. All they have to do now is listen. There’s a much lower bar for entry into entirely new musical universes. In the past, you would have to wade through some critic’s opinion on X or Y. Now, you just listen. If I say I love Alabama Shakes, you don’t ask me for something to read about them. You look up a song and listen. Simple as that. As a result, I think most people’s tastes have become more eclectic since they soon realize that people very different from them make some very soulful [songs].
How did this new electronics-heavy format affect your songwriting? You’re known for very lyrical, imagery-driven songs, and that’s sometime a tough thing to square with the precision of electronics. How did you get out what you wanted to express emotionally, but adapt to this format?
The record is an exploration of the sense of being lost in a crowd one gets from the modern digitally interconnected world. Smartphones. Social media. We’ve taken all these things that are central to what it means to be human and digitized them into simple binary equations, algorithms and questions. Things like: Who do I like? Who likes me? What group(s) do I belong to? All these buggy little programs create a digital self that is a (mostly) polished reflection of our actual selves. And they’re addictive because they take the important questions, the ones we obsess over as humans, and quantify them into digestible bytes. Our social instincts, insecurities and ambitions are primed and we are all over that [stuff].
On balance it’s all pretty stupid, because we know that we are far more complex than these silly little brands we turn ourselves into online. But if you consider for a moment how this entire thing is just a metaphor that we’ve agreed upon: that websites are “places” (which they absolutely are not, they’re programs), that these pictures and quotes are “people” (which they’re not, they’re like little magazines ABOUT people) — it’s fascinating. Two billion (or some number) people have all agreed upon one system of metaphors, these images on screens that we decipher in our brains and codify into massively complex virtual societies.
So I guess our tongue-in-cheek commentary involved using these dumb, bad-ass, frustrating and amazing machines to make a record.
You’re known for pretty physical and dramatic sets. How did introducing all these electronic elements (which usually come with some degree of playing along to samples or click tracks) affect how you present yourselves on stage?
We have a saying in the band that a good show has to flirt with disaster. There’s always a moment when the whole thing could fall apart. We look for the moment. Because that’s when the entertainment is no longer happening in front of the audience but rather it’s happening to the audience. That hasn’t changed. We basically play the folk songs like electronic songs and the electro songs like rock songs and we all stand in a big room with a big group and sing our hearts out and by the end we all go home feeling like we shared something special.
I’m not sure what it is. But I think on the best nights, it’s the sense that no matter how deep our struggles, others share them. And we can sing about them, laugh about them, hell dance about them — then they aren’t so big and our collective ability to understand them makes us feel less alone.
What was exciting and scary about learning to produce? It’s such a different job than writing songs on an instrument like a guitar or piano, which means a whole new set of very complicated things to learn, and a whole new arena to express yourself.
It was a big decision. I’ve always been heavily involved in the production of records. I’d sit there in the booth, working with our producer on compression or reverb or mixes or whatever. And it was Jacquire King who produced our last record in Nashville — he was a friend by the end and an absolute mentor — who pulled me aside when we were finishing and said, “You know, I think you’re ready to produce your own records.” I was nervous at first, especially once I realized just how much technical jargon I had to learn (so much time reading manuals…) But once I got the hang of it, it was thrilling. Because all it meant was that I was better equipped to do what I always wanted to do, which was make the air outside my head sound like the air inside my head. That’s all producing really is.
How do you feel about your second record and that time in your career? There was such a huge groundswell of support and popularity after the first LP. But the second LP didn’t make quite the same impact, and you’ve changed your sound pretty dramatically after that. Was the reaction to that second album any cause for some soul-searching about what you wanted out of the band and where you needed to go next?
I love “All at Once.” It was a stubborn record. I was being pushed so hard to write radio-friendly singles but that’s just not really how my head works and anyway I’m crap at that kind of thing. I can never predict what people are going to like. My grandparents had all just died (two grandmas and a grandpa) and it hit me very hard because I come from a close family and there was a feeling that it was shrinking and our world of people and jokes and love was disappearing around us. So that felt like the biggest thing in the world to me. And it was all I wanted to write about. So from the opening line “We were born without time…” to the final one “I will love you ’til I die” I was determined to make a record about what my family was going through.
It probably would have been better business to try to sound like what was on the radio or something. But I just can’t write that way. I start from the assumption — as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mentor put it in "This Side of Paradise" — that the only difference between a scholastic life (a life in the arts and letters) and a non-scholastic life, is that you leave a record. That is, you have the same highs and lows and joys and setbacks as others. And it’s simply your job to do your best to struggle with it, to think, to work hard at your craft and to write it all down. Now, I realize that’s one hell of an assumption. But I guess I always thought the thing to do was to make something great and if you do, money and fame or whatever will be the side effect.
There was a song on that record called “The Graveyard Near the House.” It’s just a folk song really about treating love like a choice in the face of death, about which there is no choice. It was a massive struggle to even get the song on the record. People were against it. There was no hook, no chorus. There were like 500 words or something. Some thought it was a waste of time, that we were flushing our career down the toilet.
That song ended up becoming the biggest song on the record. Our final show of that record cycle, we played Gibson Amphitheatre, which was twice as big as any show we’d played on our first record. This happened in every city we played. Meaning that the choice to just write and not try to write singles was one that actually led to a much larger audience. So by the time we got to “Graveyard” at the Gibson, I remember being floored as I heard the entire place quietly sing along to every word.
You were one of the last local bands to come out of the Silver Lake/Echo Park residency circuit and become a major international act. Do you feel lucky to have come of age in that era? Do you think that a band like yours could come out of Silver Lake today and get to where you are?
I’m with you. DJs have a great racket going.
I know we all feel very privileged to have come out of the Silver Lake scene at that time. We were contemporaries with the Henry Clay People and the Deadly Syndrome and all these amazing musicians that really put their heart and soul into their bands. It was supportive and kind of competitive in the way that these other artists forced you to bring your A-game when you played your Spaceland residency or whatever.
I think honestly though we aren’t really a “Silver Lake” band. Meaning, the community has an identity that is tied to a kind of pointy-headed hipsterness to which I just don’t relate. I like pour-over coffee and I do have industrial furniture in my house in the Silver Lake hills, so I’m with them on that. But I just don’t think the way they do. I want my band to be raw and honest and to sweat and stomp and scream and dance. I want to reach people. I want them to reach me. I want to stand in a room and sing with others about our worst fears and greatest hopes. And I want to leave feeling like the world is larger than I thought it was. And I love weird people. Because they make me feel less weird for being weird, if that makes any sense. But I don’t like cool people. I prefer when people are warm.
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