By Glen Mikel Jollet of The Airborne Toxic Event

In this week’s Toxicity, we drill down into the essence that sets The Airborne Toxic Event apart from other artists across the musical spectrum, and certainly from much of what passes for popular music today: the unsurpassed writing of Mikel Jollett. A recent Facebook query inviting fans to share their favorite TATE lyrics yielded hundreds of diverse responses, clearly illustrating the depth of appreciation among the fanbase for Mikel’s gifts as a wordsmith. What follows is a selection of interviews, influences and writing samples that shed light into what makes Mikel tick as a writer.

In this early interview, conducted prior to TATE’s fifth ever show as a band, Mikel reveals his impression of why each member of the quintet is drawn to music. (Daren “really just likes to hit shit. Hard.”) When asked why he writes, he answers bluntly: “I think I write music because I’m afraid to die.”

It’s an answer that should surprise no fan of the band. Aside from the obvious fact that a large portion of the band’s canon and many of their best loved songs are fixated on the topic of death, and that their defining imagery centers around a mortally wounded bird, the story of Mikel getting diagnosed with a degenerative skin disease the same week that his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and subsequently locking himself in a room for a month and writing hundreds of songs, has become part of TATE lore.

The interview is also noteworthy for its insight into The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, a b-side available on the deluxe version of the debut album. The song is based on a short story of the same name by Irwin Shaw. The original story can be read here, and is well worth your time. I can’t listen to the song now without picturing Frances warning her husband Michael to be careful, lest he break his neck gazing at other women passing by on a busy New York street – an accusation that starts out playful but gains in severity over the course of the tale.

And if video’s more your thing than reading (though it’s quicker to read the story than to watch it), here’s a short film based on the story, starring Carol Kane and Jeff Bridges:

Part 1:

Part 2:

 

In a more recent interview, circa 2011, Mikel likens his writing process to finding the sculpture hidden inside the clay, adding complexity along the way: “It’s more like a sculpture where you start with the basic framework of an idea, then get into the details as you go. You keep sculpting and paring it down. What am I seeing? What am I trying to say? How do these ideas fit together and how do they fit with the music? It’s about going over it again and again and again. It’s exhausting.” (Hmmm… it’s almost enough to make one Numb.)

Over time, Mikel’s songwriting has become more refined and less prolific, but no less inspired or inspiring. After penning over a hundred songs for the debut album (oh for a future album or box set of these unreleased tracks!), he noted in the run up to Such Hot Blood that he’d written only the ten songs that appear on the album. This may have been a slight exaggeration, as we now know there were at least two additional tracks that will appear on the expanded European edition (Dublin and The Way Home). But it seems that Mikel knew exactly what he wanted to say to the world this time around.

Freelancing

It’s well-known that Mikel found work as a freelance writer prior to turning to music as his creative outlet. Many of his freelance articles can still be found online, and Julie Stoller has done us all a great service by posting a collection of links to these writings. Among the many highlights are Me vs. The Bully, in which the self-professed nerdy son learns a valuable lesson from his tough guy, jail-hardened father, and You Can Find Motivation in the Oddest of Places, in which a Brad Pitt film inspires the author to shed weight and become the fitness freak that he is today.

Mikel’s relationship with his father is a fascinating topic, one which I’d love to see plumbed more fully in future songs (It Doesn’t Mean a Thing notwithstanding). In a particularly illuminating piece, read aloud by Mikel and interspersed with words from his father, he tells of his relationship with My Dad the Ex-Con.

The Crack:

And of course, no examination of Mikel’s writing would be complete without a link to his short story, “The Crack”. The influence of Don DeLillo, the author from whose work the band drew its name, is readily apparent.

YouTube Gold:

We close with one of Mikel’s earliest songs that lived to see the light of day, though not as any kind of official release: Days of Wine and Poses, as performed at the WFNX Ames Hotel Session in 2010. (This week’s YouTube Gold actually comes courtesy of Vimeo.)

Airborne Toxic Event, “Days of Wine and Poses,” WFNX Ames Hotel Session (2010) from WFNX on Vimeo.

Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.

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Comments
  1. Susan says:

    Glen, once again, thank you for another thoughtful entry.

    Like

  2. As always, love the updates Glen, thanks!

    Like

  3. Thanks to you both, Susan and Kethra!

    Like

  4. Susan says:

    I’d never read the short story. Thanks for posting it. Very interesting. You’re full of knowledge, G-man Superfan.

    Like

  5. julie says:

    Hi Glen, this seems like the right place to post these videos, so they don’t get lost in the chaos. These are three songs that were filmed by elaine layabout, a regular of the silver lake music scene. Mikel took part in a singer/songwriter evening back in 2008, sponsored by the blogs web in front and classical geek theatre, called “my little underground. he performed “waves and radiation” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNxgJwVWeNo | “days of wine and poses” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1PebvjUmSY and “april is the cruelest month” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ektvHyHMkqo – all quite beautiful.

    Like

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