The month of May has more than made up for a few slow news months for The Airborne Toxic Event. Shortly after the fall tour and San Francisco residency bombshells dropped, a new interview with bandleader Mikel Jollett is creating shockwaves of its own. Are you ready for a change of direction?
Mikel: “If People Aren’t Mad About This Next Record, I’ll Feel Like I Failed”
For the better part of 2014, Mikel Jollett has been hidden away from public view. This week, he resurfaced in a big way in the form of a revealing, in-depth interview with Darren Rose.
Not surprisingly, his time out of the spotlight (which he refers to as intentional isolation) has been put to very good use. Mikel has hit a songwriting vein, having penned upwards of 50 songs and a great deal of music besides, as he prepares for The Airborne Toxic Event’s upcoming fourth album. Fair warning: this ain’t gonna be your grandmother’s TATE – or maybe even yours, for that matter.
The conversation with Rose is appointment listening for any TATE fan, as Mikel offers up hint after tantalizing hint at the fresh direction the next album will take, while also providing a rare window into his songwriting process, which has changed of late. I highly recommend making the time to listen to the entire 78-minute interview. Seriously: STOP WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND LISTEN TO THIS.
Okay, if you can’t do it right this second, we’ll whet your appetite with a brief video clip of their chat, followed by a transcript of everything Mikel had to say about album number four. All words below are Mikel’s, apart from the occasional interjection from Rose (DR). The transcript is heavily edited to isolate the parts relating to the new album (many other topics are covered in the audio).
A lot of the things that I put on for Airborne is a certain aspect, or a certain type of music. I’ve generally written massive stuff, from bedroom pop to acoustic ballads, to huge rock songs, to straight up dance songs. With Airborne I tend to take a slice of this and put it out. On this next record, I think we’re going to be sort of widening the breadth of that, to put out a wider array of music. I guess I feel like it doesn’t matter as much to me what we sound like. I kind of want to destroy the sound of the band. That’s kind of my goal on this next record, is just completely explode any expectations we or anyone else has about what we sound like… I feel that way right now about Airborne… If people aren’t mad about this next record, I’ll feel like I failed.
(DR): But what does that look like? Is that new instruments? Is that out of tune? What is that?
Ha ha, no. Everything’s in tune… I think our core fans that are really familiar with the breadth of things that we’ve done won’t be terribly surprised. They’ll be like, “Oh yeah, it’s just a little bit more on this front, and a little bit more on this front. But, I think, to have a whole record that really goes there. I think it’s going to be a much longer record. We’re always like, “10 songs and that’s an Airborne record,” and each song is really meticulously crafted. I’m trying to meticulously craft a really large amount of music right now for this next record… I really want to bury the past…
When I sit down to write something, in a few days I can get really close to what a finished product is gonna sound like. And doing that has forced me to make a lot more choices that I used to leave up to chance… I’m producing the next record, completely; I’m not even bringing in another producer at all, and it’s forced me to make choices that I wouldn’t normally have had to make. It’s also massively meticulous, every single effect, every single thing, trying to get it right. But then what’s good about that is I really have to own it; I really have to think through what I want this thing to sound like. And even the really weird stuff… when you want something to be really weird, if something’s going to work, the details have gotta be fucking right, because if they’re not it just doesn’t. And sometimes translating that to other people or to a producer can get in the way of that… This is all kind of an experiment; it’s unfolding in real time…
For me, (songwriting) is like, I’ll hear something and be like, “Oh that’s cool! That makes me think about this, and so today I’m gonna write a song about this idea of how you project your innermost longings onto other people, and how there’s this dance that goes on.” I’m writing a song right now about this idea called “My Childish Bride.” And how you project what you actually long for onto other people as if they’re real, when they’re really just constructs in your mind; simultaneously they’re doing this with you, and so in a relationship, oftentimes you’re just in this orchestrated dance. And it can be sort of terrifying or it can be really sweet, and at times it’s really fucking sexy… it’s complex, right? And so I’m writing this song about this idea, and literally it started with a beat and a thing on an electric piano. And I was like, for some reason that just made me think of that idea. It felt kind of close. And I was like, “Alright, I’m gonna write about this idea.” And then I sort of wrote a stanza, and then I edited it, I’m not kidding, ten times. And I’ll just write and rewrite, write and rewrite, sing, sing, sing… “Oh that’s how I meant to say that, yeah!” I just wrote this line today, I finished the song this morning: “And we stare at each other like a sister to a brother, like a pusher to a shover, like a secret to a cover, like a lover to a lover, under covers with the stereo on.” (Sings) “With the stereo on…” It’s kind of a stuttering beat…
This record, my goal is to write 30 (songs), but in the process I think I’ve written 50, and also just endless, different types of music that are just instrumentals, where they didn’t quite go anywhere, because I couldn’t quite get the thing to work, and so you get like halfway down the road and you go, “This isn’t working,” so you walk away. Then you come back later and you’re like, “You know, that 40 seconds of music is awesome!” So of that, there’s an insane amount of music. And it’s also way more – I’m loathe to use the word ‘produced’ but let’s say, closer to being something you could actually listen to than I’ve ever done before… That’s how I’m doing this record. It’s really close to done. And I don’t want to reproduce it in some expensive, fancy studio in Nashville… I want it to sound like how I want it to sound, ’cause whatever decision I made at 3 am after ten hours of wrestling with how a kick drum should sound at this part of a song, or how much reverb the vocals should have or what the compression rate should be on the fuckin’ keyboard or whatever it is, I trust that decision. I don’t want to redo it later, and I don’t want someone else to redo it…
I’m going through the same process now, and I didn’t on the last two records, that I did on the first record, except for with a ton more tools. We didn’t have a producer, so I just produced it… And I didn’t think that much about what our sound was, because we weren’t known for a sound… And that’s kind of where I’m at now, where everything’s in play. I don’t care: if I like it, it’s in play. We might have pop songs on the next record. I wrote one yesterday – I don’t know if I’ll put that one on – but I don’t care. Whatever works. And sometimes it’s a country shuffle, and sometimes it’s a rock song, and sometimes it’s a dance song, and sometimes it’s kind of a low-fi… I’ve been using a lot of boutique 78 beats and 808’s lately, but I’ll do things to them so they sound kind of cool. There’s not going to be a ton of drumming on the next record. I mean, Daren’s gonna definitely play a bunch of stuff, but we’re gonna sort of mix it together with stuff that’s programmed… I just don’t care. I don’t care about protecting a particular aesthetic.
(DR) Do you care about a radio single?
No. I mean, yes and no. Here’s my thoughts on that: No, because you can’t write a radio single… I can’t do that. We’ve never been that kind of band. Our songs that made it on the radio were never really intended that way… You just have to write a lot of music, and sometimes you write something that’s really great. And if something’s really great, people will play it because it’s great… I don’t want to be known for something that’s kind of superfluous. There’s bands now, and I won’t mention them, who are on the radio, and I wouldn’t want to play their songs… It’s not my thing, and I wouldn’t want to be a musician if it meant I’d have to sing their songs… I really believe that great music rises to the top.
Even now, three days after my first listen, I’m having a hard time processing everything that was shared here. But here are some random thoughts:
- Not surprisingly, some hand wringing has begun over Mikel’s intention to destroy all expectations of what TATE sounds like, and his statement that if people aren’t mad about the next album, he’ll feel like he failed. After all, we fans love everything the band has produced to date, and we aren’t exactly anxious to see it thrown on the trash heap. But I see this as an evolution, not a revolution. The Airborne Toxic Event’s style has morphed from album to album, and their sound has always been impossible to pin down into any one musical category. This strikes me as a continuation of that rich history, albeit (potentially) accelerated. Further, I believe that every great band goes through periods of reinvention. It’s part of pushing themselves and keeping themselves interested over a long career. I’ve heard it said that the average person goes through 8-10 career changes in their lifetime. For a career musician, dabbling in different forms of expression allows them to experience that same variety and freshness without actually quitting their day job. Personally, I don’t expect that the change will be so radical that it won’t still be TATE; Mikel said as much when he mentioned that longtime fans will recognize it as elements they’ve dabbled in before, only pushed to the next level. Ultimately, I trust Mikel’s (and his bandmates’) instincts and integrity, and I’m genuinely excited to see where they take us next.
- I’m especially heartened to hear that Mikel has no interest whatsoever in writing for radio. That was the fear of a lot of fans after the band announced their intention to quickly head back to the studio to follow up on the success of “Hell and Back.” If anything, it sounds like he’s less interested in radio than ever; at one point in the interview he even stated that he’d sooner quit music entirely than to have to sing songs he didn’t like. As long as he maintains that commitment to following his artistic instincts, the results will inevitably be compelling.
- It’s very telling that Mikel intends to produce the next album himself. Though by all accounts the band had a good experience with Jacquire King producing the last album, I do recall an interview around the release of Such Hot Blood in which Mikel talked about the sound he originally envisioned for that album (stripped down, hand claps, whistles, etc.), and how that didn’t really come through in the finished product, apart from “Bride and Groom” and “True Love.” It makes me wonder if he regrets some of the production decisions that were made, and whether this plays into his desire to keep the next album in his own hands. Certainly, the fact that it will be self-produced will ensure that the record we receive is the record that Mikel envisioned.
- It’s interesting to hear Mikel discuss the huge breadth of music he’s been writing, and how only a slice of that goes to TATE – albeit a bigger than usual slice for this next album. That still leaves a whole lot of pie, and it would be a shame to see it go to waste. One wonders if we might see a solo album in the future, though he also spoke very strongly about needing to be completely focused on Airborne, because it’s more than a full-time job. I’m not sure how a solo album would fit with that, exactly, but I would hope that we’ll someday get to see these other sides of Mikel, in some form.
There’s so much other good stuff in this interview that we can’t even begin to get into, including Mikel’s thoughts on other bands such as Arcade Fire, Muse and Deadmau5, and an explanation of the genesis of “Duet.” In case I haven’t been clear: have a listen!
Anna’s Psychedelic Strings
Anna Bulbrook, meanwhile, has been tweeting quite regularly from her studio in recent months. It’s hard to know when she’s working on TATE stuff and when she’s focused on other material, but this would seem to fit with Mikel’s desire to push the band’s boundaries outwards, no?
this morning, I will be testing the limits of how quickly I can write and record psychedelic strings.
— Anna Bulbrook (@annabulbrook) May 20, 2014
Fort Worth Round-Up
Lest we forget, The Airborne Toxic Event is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, hitting 2-3 events per month throughout the summer. Most recently, the band dropped by Fort Worth, Texas last weekend. The Fort Worth Weekly published a brief interview with Mikel on the day of TATE’s set, while Michelle Pelissero captured some nice shots of the band doing their thing.
Finally, The Airborne Toxic Event’s upcoming 3-night residency in San Francisco has
greedy hopeful fans dreaming of some true rarities. Such as, say, “The Winning Side.”
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.