It’s no secret that The Airborne Toxic Event, and Mikel Jollett in particular, count themselves among Bruce Springsteen’s legion of admirers. Jollett has named the legendary rocker as one of his chief influences on many occasions, and the band has frequently covered “I’m On Fire” and “Born in the USA” in concert, often as part of a classic rock medley in the midst of their go-to show closer, “Missy.” The group has also appeared on Sirium-XM’s E Street Channel, a channel dedicated to all things Boss, as guests on the show “Live From E Street Nation,” hosted by well known rock critic, Dave Marsh.
In 2013, just prior to the release of Such Hot Blood, Jollett sat down in New York with Steven Fein, Williams College Professor of Psychology by day, published Springsteen writer by night. They spoke about Springsteen’s influence, and specifically how it impacted Jollett’s approach to writing Such Hot Blood. This interview has never been published… until now. This Is Nowhere is proud to release it, and thankful to Steven for the opportunity to do so. Excerpts from this interview are also being published today on the Springsteen fan site Backstreets, which itself was a major source of inspiration in the early days of This Is Nowhere. We thank them for setting the standard that we strive to reach.
Steven Fein: I know when you were working on [your second album] All at Once you said Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was one of your chief inspirations, and then you were talking about your new album being more from the mindset or approach of Born to Run. So my question is: Are there specific kinds of things that you can talk about in terms of inspiration from those kind of albums or other aspects of Springsteen?
Mikel Jollett: Yeah. Well there’s three. One is the idea I remember from one of the documentaries where he talks about scoring and viewing it as a cinematic score like you can watch an album. And that just hit home to me cause I didn’t do that at “All at Once,” I did that a lot on the first record with like “Wishing Well” and “Midnight” where I was really scoring, and “Innocence.” The whole intro to “Innocence” and then I just didn’t do it with the second record cause I was just writing songs I’d bring to the band and then we’d work it out and cool, that’s the arrangement. But it’s bullshit, cause you’ve got to score your thoughts, you’ve got to put people in your world with you, you’ve got to let them join your world and the only way to do that is to sit in a room and tinker with lots of different sounds until it feels like a mood is happening and then you can sing about it. And that’s a direct lift from Bruce. And it’s something that I was not conscious of the fact that I did and I remember I was like “oh I totally used to do that, why’d I stop?” and then this record I was very conscious of it. The opening to “Secret,” all of “The Fifth Day,” “Elizabeth,” “Timeless,” these are songs that are heavily scored. Like if you could sing them in gibberish you would know what they were about.
SF: “This is London” had that feel too.
MJ: Yeah, London, that little delayed guitar that kind of repeats. It sounds like the street. Yeah, that was the idea. I wanted to have that feeling. So that’s a direct, thank you Bruce, for taking something I didn’t even realize I was doing and making it very explicit. So it helped me to really be clear about that on this record.
The second idea, which, I don’t know where I saw it but it was the idea of struggle, that you don’t present your solutions you present your struggles. Give people the struggle, don’t give them your answer. Cause you don’t have an answer. Don’t act like you do, asshole. You don’t know. So you don’t want to be like “I’m the songwriter I figured out so much truth and here it is! Love is the best thing”—like f*ck that, f*ck you, shut up. But present your struggle, and I forget, I don’t know if he put it in those terms, or I was just listening and just thought this but I know this is an idea I got from him, the sense that you’re wrestling with an idea, and the idea isn’t to wrestle with it to come to a conclusion and to write about your conclusion. The idea is to put people in the room with you while you’re struggling. Cause they’re struggling too.
SF: He talked about extending an invitation. I don’t know if that’s the same thing but about bringing people into the room, you know, and not presenting here’s the way out but here’s the way in.
MJ: Right. Just come here in this room with me. And I think that relates to Greek tragedy and the whole sense of catharsis and storytelling and that like there is a function of storytelling in sort of like human race where this is how we relate to, this is how we organize information as human beings is through narrative.
Something about that storytelling moment goes back to that sense of communing I think is extremely instinctual with people. And something about music, the idea of melody, and rhythm is extremely instinctual. Like I often wonder if you walked up to a caveman, and you said “ladada ladadadadadadadada ladadadadadadadada” [sings the tune of “Yesterday”) if he would be sad. You know? Would he get it, would he give you like “totally man.” “Thag sad. Thag not want to go collect mammoth meat today.” I wonder, cause I think he would. So, there’s mood and there’s emotion and communication in melody and in rhythm. And of course its part of storytelling, of course its part of communing. So I think what it is with music then, that’s why it’s such a vital thing for human beings because it’s a way that we communicate more complexity in our thoughts and our emotions. So anyways, if you present people your struggles in this way, they feel less alone. There’s a shock of recognition, of like “oh my god, somebody else.” And I’ve had that with many, many artists where I’m like “somebody else has felt this.” And sometimes art challenges you to think things you haven’t thought before, I think that’s important too. But I like the shock of recognition moments where I’m like “I thought I was the only one who thought this.” And it’s such a relief. That’s why I love Philip Roth, I just feel relieved. Just like thank Christ. And I feel less alone with it. So, that’s kind of a Bruce idea.
And then the other thing I would say, specifically about “Thunder Road.” There’s a moment in “Thunder Road” that is always like my standard. And the moment is, “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away.” When he just belts out that line and the music swells and suddenly everything just goes. It’s like a car and its going down a bumpy road and then its kind of like, “Screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves” and you’re kind of like on this little journey, and then suddenly, it kind of ramps up and ramps off and then you’re off and you’re on this highway and you turn right! And you’re like oh sh*t the whole song turned right now, now we’re on this highway—what there are ghosts! And you can see the prom dress flying in the air, you can feel the rhythm of the thing and the engine roaring and you’re like yeah! And that, that sort of poetry, highly evocative poetry mixed with the orchestration and the scoring of that moment can let people go on that journey with you. Like the middle of “What’s in a Name” is totally that. Like that quiet part I’m just trying to bring people into this “so I park my bike outside your house.” Or the bridge to “Timeless,” the song kind of falls away and then it sort of reinvents itself in this little moment. It’s almost like that moment is the core of the whole thing. And for “Timeless” in particular, it’s not really clear what the song’s about I think until that moment. The heaviness and the weight of loss, hearing voices and seeing faces and the opening line “help me through this moment” it’s like you’re giving it all away, like here’s why I wrote this song, ‘cause I’m stuck in this moment of grief. So, yeah, that idea. I think he just nailed it on that song so it’s sort of like a standard for me. I’m always thinking about that and looking for that moment where it gets interesting.
And I don’t want to be Bruce Springsteen, at all. You know, I think there’s decisions I wouldn’t make too. So it’s not as if I feel like he nailed the thing that I wanted to do and I just want to copy him, because I don’t. And I have other things that I want to do. It’s more that I so respect and admire what he did. And mostly, more than anything, the sense of being in it, body and soul. The sense of just “it’s four o’clock on a Tuesday. How is it today you are dedicating your entire life to being this cipher for people. How is it that you’re dedicating your whole life to being able to embody an idea, you know. And you’re not f*cking around, you’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. You really are every bit the person you pretend to be, and how are you doing that today. And I ask myself that constantly. And that is the thing that I respect most.
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