I dug my fingernails into the crinkly plastic of my water bottle and somehow managed to look him in the eye. This was no easy task, as his eyes are arrestingly blue, with the kind of fierce, penetrative gaze that intimidates people like me. Remember to breathe, I told myself. He’s just a person.
I took a deep breath and carefully presented the words as if I were about to walk across them in midair.
“Can I ask you a weird question?”
Oh, crap. Why did I say ‘weird?’ Quick, follow it up with an escape route!
I smiled warmly. “You don’t have to answer, if you don’t want to.”
This was my chance, likely the only chance I would ever have, to ask this question face to face with the artist I admire and respect most – Mikel Jollett. Few people are gifted with such an opportunity. Perhaps foolishly, I suppressed the fangirlish desire to vomit praise and rapturous confessions of undying love for the music and went straight for the mind behind the musician, knowing full well he could find me impertinent and excuse himself (or me) from that backstage dressing room at The Vic in Chicago.
Sitting across from me on a brown loveseat that looked like it had seen better days, Mikel offered a half smile and lifted his chin to attention. “Sure. What’s your question?”
Here goes nothing.
“Do you ever suffer from crippling self-doubt? Like, as an artist, do you ever think ‘Oh, God, this song is crap’? Not that any of your songs are, of course. But, do you have that voice in your head that lies to you?” I chuckled out of sheer nervousness. “Or is that just my problem?”
“Yeah, I think everybody does. The key is not to listen to it, or the voice that tells you you’re great. The key is to just do a lot of work. Most people don’t want to hear that. But that’s the only way to quiet both of those voices, the one that tells you you’re great and the one that tells you you suck. Just focus on the work.”
That exchange took place a year and a half ago, but his words still echo in my mind when I think about art as work. Most of us – myself included – experience art in the way it moves us, or doesn’t move us. We are so quick to judge a piece of work based on our own background and life experience, that rarely do we consider the art from the artist’s point of view: that art is simply the product of a heck of a lot of work.
With the upcoming release of Airborne’s fourth album Dope Machines in a couple of weeks, from which we’ve already seen a change of pace in the band’s signature sound, here is an example of an artist who claims to have been holed up in his house serving as musician and producer, crafting a product to perfection in the way he felt it was intended. The first single “Wrong” offered us a taste of what was to come by way of its experimentation with electro pop from a band known for playing with orchestras, and Mikel was quick to defend the band’s foray with the disclaimer heard at many if not all of the shows last fall: that people ask him all the time what kind of band are they anyway, and his response is, to paraphrase, “mind your own business.”
It’s as if he knew this album could potentially polarize fans, but his commitment is to the record and producing it the way he desired.
As evidenced by comments on YouTube, Twitter, and the band’s own Facebook page, reactions have been mixed and, at times, downright belligerent. Speculation on why the band changed direction persistently challenges Mikel’s claim of recent, that he was inspired by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie and felt the need to change his approach. Some fans are taken back by the seeming lack of collaboration from the other band members. Others are placing blame on bassist Noah Harmon’s departure.
It seems Mikel’s statement “If people aren’t mad about this next record, I’ll feel like I failed” in a 2014 interview with Darren Rose was more than just a passive commentary about his creative process. Either intentionally or not, he has ruffled the feathers of some longtime fans by “destroying the sound of the band” in an attempt to “bury the past.”
Whatever his reasons, as was already mentioned here by This Is Nowhere’s founder, it is normal for bands to go through periods of reinvention and experimentation with different sounds. Truly great artists seek to challenge themselves and their abilities with different mediums. If anything, it shows integrity to their career and craft, and Airborne’s rich history of being a band that isn’t trying to jump on board whatever trend might land them in the Top 40 – but if they wind up there, great – is so far still blindingly evident with Dope Machines. From the handful of tracks that have been released, though synth-heavy, for those who are familiar with Airborne’s earlier and/or unreleased work, there is nothing that stands out as surprising.
And yet people are surprised, and some people are angry, and some have even shown themselves the door.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and free to voice it on YouTube or wherever, this particular fan is reminded of the work that goes into crafting a verse, a song, an album, and legacy. And while The Airborne Toxic Event certainly doesn’t need me to defend them, I will defend the case for the artist’s choice and freedom of expression to receive the respect it deserves.
These artists are not infallible beings who have somehow become more myth-and-legend than flesh and blood like the rest of us. If anything, Airborne’s extensive catalog highlighting the struggles we all face, and why we relate on such a deep and personal level to the music, have revealed the vulnerability of the artist in ways that a lot of us would be afraid to show. These songs have always been somewhat autobiographical in nature, some of which we’ve nearly missed, as in the case of “The Graveyard Near The House,” which Mikel recently revealed as a song he never thought “many people would like or understand.” And yet, we do.
Arguably, music can be a shared catharsis between the musician and the listener, and conversations with many Airborne fans all over the world have given weight to this fact.
But ultimately, it is his “open book” approach to the inspirations behind the songs that brought me here in the first place, and how I found myself sitting across from him in a small room in Chicago able to look him in the eye. He’s an artist, but he’s also a person.
If you’re not going to respect the art, that is your choice, but at least respect the artist for taking the risk. For the trail-blazing and for the directional change. For breaking the mold and setting the whole thing on fire, bravely choosing original over conventional. For the days and nights spent locked in a room with dope machines, ignoring the warring voices of greatness and self-doubt, doing a lot of work.
When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins, where this post originally appeared. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.