Mikel Jollett, lead singer of the fast-breaking local band the Airborne Toxic Event, is aware of his reputation for darkness. He’s earned it through songs such as “Happiness Is Overrated,” a harder-rocking take on the Smiths, or the gloomy breakup song “Sometime Around Midnight.”
Even the band’s jauntiest number, the Franz Ferdinand-flavored “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?,” has lines like “I’ll bet your friends all hate me now.”
He’s heard enough. “I keep getting stuff about, ‘These songs are about these terrible things that happened,’ ” said Jollett, 34, sitting outside the Alcove, near his home in Los Feliz. “But I don’t know if my life is any darker than anyone else’s. I really just think that there’s something about catharsis, and taking some of your worst moments and trying to find the beauty in them. There’s almost a defiance in that.”
Of course, there was a time, not long ago, when things really were bad: Serious fans of the Silver Lake-area scene know the legend of the band’s genesis, how Jollett, a guy who’d lived in monastic isolation in the high desert for the sake of writing a novel, saw his mom diagnosed with cancer, came down with the rare malady autoimmune syndrome -- and broke up with his girlfriend.
He discusses it now with the kind of breeziness that comes from being bored by its retelling. “And then when my mom got sick, I got sick -- my dad’s terminally ill -- I think I just, like, snapped. One day I picked up a guitar and started playing, and then it was eight hours a day for a year.”
And from that the band, whose debut album came out this week, was born.
“There’s this line in ‘This Side of Paradise,’ ” Jollett says of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s largely autobiographical first novel. “Fitzgerald is talking to his mentor, who says, ‘The only difference between leading a scholastic life -- where you write it down -- and a non-scholastic life is that if you lead a scholastic life you leave a record.’
“Or in our case, make a record,” he adds -- as bandmate Noah Harmon offers an imaginary rimshot.
You’d never guess
Sprawled out on the restaurant’s patio, the members of the Airborne Toxic Event look like they might belong not only to separate bands, but to warring musical genres.
Bassist Harmon, with his long hair and multiple necklaces, looks like he’s trying to bring back late-'60s sitar-strumming psychedelia. Lank, disheveled guitarist Steven Chen could be an Asian version of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Drummer Daren Taylor, in his black garb and medieval goatee, could be a goth with Tolkienesque leanings.
Musically they’re equally all over the place: Anna Bulbrook was raised performing classical music and plays viola and violin in the band when she’s not shaking a tambourine. Harmon has a jazz degree from CalArts and loves the elaborate works of Charles Mingus.
That the band coheres at all, on the level of sound, is remarkable. That may be because Jollett is a song guy more than anything. “I like songs, songwriters,” he says, launching into a description of the exquisitely jaded lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel.”
While Harmon is, reportedly, a riff-producing machine -- three of the album’s songs were built around riffs he dreamed up -- Jollett tries to make each song distinct and to give each a beginning, middle and end.
But the band’s secret weapon may be Chen’s guitar, which recalls the chime of Pavement and Echo & the Bunnymen. Chen admires the sharp, single-note minimalism of some ‘80s bands and describes his aesthetic in art, clothing and music: “I always loved it when you take something really clean and proper sounding,” he said, “and dirty it up a little bit.”
Live -- they played a sold-out show at the El Rey on Thursday -- or on the band’s powerful MySpace videos, you see what he means.
From the moment Jollett picked up his guitar in 2006, things began moving quite fast.
The band’s demo -- recorded in his apartment soon after recruiting the group’s other four members -- became a hit on MySpace with the help of an enthusiastic Rolling Stone write-up. Before long the band -- which has toured the United Kingdom and held monthlong residencies at Echo and Spaceland -- landed the song “Sometime Around Midnight” in rotation at KROQ-FM (106.7).
The group had no label, no manager, no publicist and a baffling moniker (from a bureaucratic term in Don DeLillo’s 1985 comic novel “White Noise”). But when the song showed up on KROQ, industry types started sniffing around.
“The phone just started ringing off the hook,” said Jol- lett, whose work as a writer included occasional pop music stories for The Times. “And every single cliche about the record industry is true. People offering you drugs, telling you how famous they can make you, how much you need them in order for it to happen, how if you don’t do X, Y and Z it’s not gonna happen.”
They ended up, with their record already recorded at a friend’s Eagle Rock studio, going with Majordomo, an L.A. indie that includes Earlimart on its roster.
“It’s kind of a myth that you need a big studio and all that stuff now,” said Harmon. “Technology is such that you can get some really amazing sounds. Our studio wasn’t exactly what you’d call a home studio, but it was in a home.”
Adds Jollett: “It takes away one of the barriers to recording stuff. Suddenly you have all these artists who would never have an audience, who have an audience. People say the record industry is crumbling. . . . It’s not! Indie rock is thriving.”
Not what he’d expected
Things seem to be coming together for the band -- it’s now in rotation on five rock stations in L.A. and has appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show. As it moves from the often insular world of indie fandom into the rock mainstream, Airborne could make even the considerable success of Silversun Pickups look minor. But Jollett still jokes about his life’s sudden crises and his almost involuntary switch to music.
“Right now I should have my second novel and a 1-year-old kid,” he says. “Instead I’m playing at seedy clubs with these jokers.”
Happiness, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.
“It’s really absurd sometimes,” he says. “When we’re playing, all that stuff goes away, it feels completely natural. This is what I was meant to do.”