Posts Tagged ‘Mikel’

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event: manning up. Photo by Ryan Tuttle.

Mikel Jollett: Manning Up. Photo by Ryan Tuttle.

By Glen

Through five records from The Airborne Toxic Event, there are themes that have clearly captivated Mikel Jollett: threads of thought that stalk his work like spirits, weaving their way through the shadows of multiple albums.

Death is the most obvious one of course, its influence limited not just to the songs but extending to the band’s very name and identity. But there are others.

Love. Loss. Home. Angels. Ghosts. Rain.

Amongst these weighty subjects, there is one that sticks out like something of a sore thumb.

Mikel Jollett is kind of obsessed with being a man.

The admonition to “be a man” conjures primitive images of testosterone-dripping, chest-thumping, macho Neanderthals who know what they want and aren’t afraid to take it, even if it means stepping on others along the way.

But unlike certain Presidential candidates, Jollett doesn’t seem overly concerned with flashing his masculine credentials and measuring his… fingers. Rather, his work betrays that he’s still grasping for direction, wrestling with what exactly constitutes manhood in the context of fear, change, uncertainty and relationships.

“What does it mean to be a man?” asks Jollett from the stage one night in Boston. “That’s a really stupid idea, right? I don’t know, like, eating beef jerky? You know, you can think of all these cheesy, simplified things that you can attach to that idea, which is ridiculous. So, for me, I landed on honesty. There was a time when I felt really trapped by so much that I was trying to hide from the rest of the world, and ultimately I realized that I just had to burn the whole fucking thing down.”

The embracing of authenticity and vulnerability is a very 21st century approach to masculinity; one that deals more in questions than answers, as we’ll see as we trace Jollett’s lyrical journey through manhood.

Changing

In “Changing,” Jollett treads a fine line between deference on the one side and cocksurety on the other. “I am a gentleman,” he insists repeatedly, offering a litany of proof. He requests what he needs, rather than demanding it: “Didn’t I ask for a place I could stay?” He pays his own way: “Didn’t I pay for every laugh, every dime, every bit every time?” He prioritizes relationship and steps up when he is needed: “Didn’t I answer every time that you call? Pick you up when you fall?”

That said, there’s a firm limit to his flexibility, and he butts up against it when he finds that being a gentleman is getting him nowhere. A deep mistrust is eating at the relationship – at least on her side – and he’s not going to take it lying down. “You say that I lie,” he says with disbelief. “You say I never tried.” Are you serious?

As her deep-seated suspicion seeds mind games and naked attempts at control, the gentleman takes a backseat to a more primal form of masculinity: one that’s had enough of listening, resists compromise and takes a stand. “I won’t hear one more word about changing. Guess what, I am the same man.”

The stubborn man, unwilling to bend and refusing to be owned, is a stark contrast to the gentleman who minded his manners and followed the rules. So what type of man does he want to be?

The Storm

In “The Storm,” an almost 40-year-old Jollett is starting to figure it out. He’s come to a sobering awareness: only just now, after “25 years of running in sand,” has he finally “learned how to stand like a man.”

As it turns out, standing like a man isn’t at all what he expected; perhaps that’s why the lesson was so long in the learning.

“I was going through a lot of heavy stuff at this point in my life when I wrote this song,” Jollett explains. “The idea of the song is somebody witnessing your struggles. You go through these private struggles in your life, and in some cases you feel like you’ve been just barely getting through for a very long time. And the idea is that somebody comes in and just sees it, and is like, ‘Oh my God!’ And that moment of sympathy and empathy, and that sense that somebody can witness who you are and want to help you in your life when you’re just kind of laid bare was really powerful for me at the time. There’s a sense of home that’s kind of the heart of love; that sense of homeness that you can just be yourself with someone, they can see your struggles, and they can see what’s good and bad about you and love you for it. And the minute you recognize that is actually when you know that you have love in your life.”

It’s an extraordinarily counter-cultural take on manliness. We think it’s all about standing on our own two feet and handling shit on our own. But Jollett found manhood in a moment of extreme weakness, even dependence, when he realized there was someone else in the room and it was okay to lean on them. Being a man is not a solo sport.

The Fifth Day

By “The Fifth Day,” the man is broken. The room is empty again.

If Jollett found relationship to be the key to manhood, what does it mean to be a man now that the girl who continually reminded him, “Boy, you’re not so tough,” is gone?

Well, perhaps she’s not completely gone after all. Memories linger: their song in the air, her scent on the sheets. And he knows, even in her absence, “It’s these things that make you a man.”

He may be facing the future alone, but he’s not the same man he was – and he’s not going back. Even if he wanted to, he can’t remember where he started.

But I won’t go back to what I was
I know now that you are lost
It’s your choices that make you a man
Your frozen mind begins to thaw
You think my God my God my God
Where was it I began?

There’s only one way out, and that’s forward, with the lessons of the past in his pocket. That is his choice.

The Way Home

The Such Hot Blood bonus track “The Way Home” introduces us to a man at the end of his rope. Perhaps it’s the same man from “The Fifth Day,” some indeterminate time later; it’s tough to say. The events that have crushed him are not spelled out, but whatever they were, they have left him alone and uncertain.

But also full of resolve.

Rather than yielding to despair and wallowing “beneath this darkened shroud,” the narrator gets his head about him. Change is no longer the enemy. He tears down his prison of shame, brick by ignominious brick. He catches a glimpse of hope – “I can hear the birds, see the light outside” – and it emboldens him to “stand up like a man and swallow my pride.” The hands of time may have beaten him down, but they haven’t defeated him.

The doubts have not been vanquished; not all the question marks have been replaced by periods. He is neither brave nor sure – but Fear will not be permitted the final word.

He doesn’t have the slightest clue where he’s going, just that it’s far away from here – and that’s enough for now. The man closes the door behind him and sets off for the horizon, walking this road on the bricks he’s laid.

Time to be a Man

If the story ended there, you might think he’d finally figured it out. But there’s another chapter, and it brings Jollett full circle.

“Time to be a Man” is a funny song. It seems on the surface to be a bit of an odd duck in the Jollett catalog, with a triumphalist tone that contrasts sharply with his customary cynicism. “Be a man! The whole world is at your door!” What was that we said about chest thumping?

Except it’s not that at all. The man who had boldly set out for a new life somehow finds himself right back where he began: tossing his way through sleepless nights. And still alone. The lessons of “The Storm” have long since been forgotten: he thought he could do it on his own, “like you don’t need no one else,” but he was wrong. “The way home is so steep” – much steeper than he expected.

Yet again, he tries to muster up the strength to be a man. However, his admonition to himself is shot through with self-doubt. “Tell me how does that go? What the hell are you waiting for?”

“The whole world is at your door,” he reminds himself. But walking through that door is not as easy as it seems.

“Time to be a Man” isn’t the optimistic paean to grabbing life by the balls that it might at first glance appear to be. It’s the same secrets and lies and doubts and failures that Jollett has always battled, just wrapped up in a glossier package.

In other words, he hasn’t figured it out after all. Not by a long shot.

But he’s not pretending he has… and that’s a start.

GlenGlen 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.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event performs in Boston in the fall of 2014. Photo by Ayaz Asif Photography: https://www.facebook.com/AyazAsifPhotography.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event performs in Boston in the fall of 2014. Photo by Ayaz Asif Photography: https://www.facebook.com/AyazAsifPhotography.

By Glen

I am a dreamer. 

Not so much in the daytime, where infinite possibility is so often drowned out by cold, hard reality, and fantastical notions of what-could-be are subsumed by the mundanities of what-actually-is.

However, in the dead of night, as my natural pessimism drifts away and the synapses of my brain are finally free to fire unencumbered by the constraints of responsibility, wild things happen.

My dreams are vivid. On any given night I’ll be cast as the lead in a multi-act film, with cameos from any number of unlikely characters from across my lifespan. Though some themes replay themselves repeatedly (at least once a week I find myself back in school, having completely forgotten about a critical assignment), from one sleep to the next there is no telling what twist the plot will take.

Sometimes the next morning I’ll try to describe it to my wife. Unfortunately, what seemed so clear and profound when my eyes were closed is now just barely, frustratingly out of reach. In that netherworld, the pieces – disparate as they may be – somehow fit together. But with the rising of the sun, they become a senseless jumble. As a non-dreamer, she has little patience for my confused attempts at retelling.

——————–

“The Thing About Dreams” is a unique entry in The Airborne Toxic Event canon, in more ways than one. It experiments with sounds that were previously foreign to the band, creating an evocative aural landscape that sounds very, well, dreamlike. Mikel Jollett, a natural baritone if there ever was one, pushes well past the presumed upper limits of his register to deliver a falsetto chorus that transports the listener beyond the atmosphere of TATE World, into another dimension entirely.

Perhaps most strikingly, the consummate storyteller abandons his usual straightforward narrative approach to songwriting in favor of dropping a series of disconnected thoughts; snatches of visions that lack a connecting thread, just as dreams are prone to jumping from one scene to the next with neither warning nor apparent purpose. The result is not just a song about dreams – it is a dream.

It leaves even the writer himself scratching his head wondering, “What is this thing I’ve created?”

I have no idea what the deal is with this song. I wrote it a year ago and never planned to put it on a record. I liked the Wurlitzer and the beat and that moment when the beat stopped and the piano came in.

Dreams don’t follow any sort of logical pattern (it’s more of an attempt by your brain to create something logical out of your spinning stream of unconscious emotions and images, short and long term memories — or so I’m told by the New York Times).

I had a recurring dream when I was kid about flying. I would be standing on the sidewalk with huge ears, like an elephant— and simply flap them and I’d be airborne. I remember thinking “Why do I keep forgetting that I can fly? This is so easy. I have to remember this when I wake up.” As if the only thing stopping me from flying in reality was a mental block I’d acquired from living too long on a planet that told me I couldn’t.

So many dreams are like that: memories of a time when you didn’t so thoroughly know the limitations that life imposes on you. That’s probably why they’re important. Because unlike flying, many of those limitations don’t actually exist.

This song was just a way to wave across the abyss to a memory of something that once made me feel limitless.

Jollett has said that the most important meaning to be found in any song is the one that is produced between the ears of any given listener. If that’s true of his more typical songs, which are thoroughly grounded in specific times and spaces and deal with real events that happened to real people, how much more so for this piece that by design defies definitive interpretation?

“The Thing About Dreams” entices the listener to swim about in their own consciousness, to grab bits and pieces of Jollett’s stream of thought and connect the invisible dots to their own lives.

With Jollett positing that many of life’s limitations may in fact be a mirage, it’s ironic that, for me, the points of strongest connection are those lines that jolt me back to reality.

The thing about love: it’s never enough. Circumstance changes and life’s always calling your bluff. Enough is enough.

And now I’ve said too much and I’m not giving up. I can’t carry the weight of this over-filled cup. I just close my eyes like you’re close to the touch and I dream: You’re not what you seem.

I have clung to these words like a lifeline this past year: a year of changing circumstances and over-filled cups, in which life has gotten scarier than any nightmare and I might well have gotten “Enough is enough” tattooed on my forehead.

When it all gets to be too much and that heavy cup seems on the verge of slipping from my hands, sometimes the only way out is to close my eyes and slide back into that world where things are not what they seem: where the present and the future can be rewritten however I see fit, and it all seems close enough to touch.

It’s a happy place.

Video by Monica Lara

GlenGlen 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.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Ryan Macchione.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Ryan Macchione.

As we were in the throes of writing our upcoming Toxic History chapter on The Airborne Toxic Event’s third album Such Hot Blood (watch for that next week), we were contacted by our friend Steven Fein. In 2013, just prior to the release of the album, Steve had a chance to sit down with Mikel Jollett to discuss the making of the record. Last year we published a portion of that conversation, in which the pair discussed Bruce Springsteen and his influence on Jollett’s writing. Now, in a This Is Nowhere exclusive, Steve has graciously given us the opportunity to publish more of the interview. 

Steve Fein: First of all, “Timeless” is just a fantastic song. But I read I think in an interview with Billboard where you said something like, “Don’t write like you’re an indie rock artist or an art rock band, don’t write like you’re trying to write an Airborne song that’s gonna be huge, just write what’s in your heart.” And when I read that I was like what the hell is he talking about, cause to me the song sounds quintessential you.

Mikel: I feel like it’s a little more hopeful than I would normally try to write. I think some of the earlier stuff like “Wishing Well” or something there’s a lot of like desperation. I mean I guess that’s how I was feeling. But there’s a lot of desperation, there’s a lot of actual darkness. A lot of references to like claustrophobia and drug use and things like that which is very different than “I hope I don’t die, and I hope that in the meantime I can spend my time with a true love,” or something.

S: I mean it sounded like part of almost a triple set with “All at Once” and “Graveyard,” because they also have that defiance in the face of death and connection with people being what—

M: Yeah, “All I Ever Wanted.” That’s true it’s definitely a motif I guess, isn’t it. I hadn’t thought about that. Well I had written the lyrics to that song about ten different times and I couldn’t find it. The song just, you know, a song presents itself to you. And sometimes it does it on the first try and you’re psyched. It’s like, “Yeah.” But that’s rare. Only a couple songs have ever done that. And then sometimes you just chase it. And “Wishing Well” I chased. “Midnight” I actually wrote all at once, in like a day or two. “All I Ever Wanted” I chased. “All at Once” I chased. Most songs I chase.

S: You had that great line about 25 years chasing a song.

M: Oh yeah, in “The Storm?” Yeah. It’s definitely been a motif. I think that the difference with this song is that it’s not just an acknowledgement of it, there’s a desire to just want to do something about it. And I don’t know why that’s true now, but that wasn’t what was in my… when I sat down to write, I was in Cincinnati and I was running across some bridge, cause I like to go running on tour just to get the fuck away from everything. And I was just like singing the song, cause I’ll just sing all day long in my head trying to get it down. And I was singing all these different lines, and I was like “She disappeared alone in the dark…” and I was like “Ah!” and I stopped, and I borrowed like a pen from someone and a piece of paper and I wrote down the opening line. And I knew once I wrote that line that the rest of the song would present itself. It was like, you gotta start with one true thing. Phillip Roth talks about this, he’ll write when he starts a novel he’ll write a hundred pages in like three months until something feels alive. And he’s just searching for something that’s alive. And then he’ll write one paragraph and that one paragraph is alive. And he goes “There’s my book.” In this one paragraph. And then you take that, and it may not be the first paragraph of the book, but that’s when the book presents itself, that’s when the story presents itself. And with that line, that’s when the whole song, I got it. And then it was just a matter of the craft of creating a song about that idea, which is a whole other thing. Like, songwriting craft is whole other discussion. But just having craft isn’t enough, cause you have to have your imagination captured by an idea large enough to write about.

S: In his VH1 Storytellers session, Bruce Springsteen told telling the story about “Does This Bus Stop on 82nd Street?” from his first album, and he said basically the exact same thing about it’s one line, and you know you have the song. And in that song it was, “Man the dopes that there’s still hope.” And the whole song was crafted around that line. So it’s interesting that you say that.

M: It would be interesting to kinda think about each song and think what was the one line when you knew. Like, “Bride and Groom” it was actually the opening line: “The city is haunted by the ghosts of failure.” That one made sense to me.

S: What I love about that song is the last part….. the writing of that song is just fantastic.

M: Thank you very much. That’s probably my favorite song I’ve ever written.

S: It’s amazing and you know when I first heard it, actually the back half of the album, the songs didn’t sound quite as loud and boisterous. It’s a different type.

M: Right, it’s a different type. I did that on purpose. It’s almost like there’s a hot side and a cool side like they used to have. The second half is like the hand clap and finger snap, orchestral, it’s a little quirkier. The song writing structure, the first half except for “Safe,” is pretty strict in its structure and the second half is just wide open.

S: Yeah, it’s just fantastic. And you know, playing around with the vocals with Anna. And to me, like “Elizabeth” when I first heard it, it’s like “Oh that’s sweet and clever,” but then I listened to it a couple times and I’m like “Oh my god!” like that last verse—

M: It’s a killer right?

S: That last verse is, oh my god.

M: And then it’s just over! And…

S: And that last line…

M: And that last line, is the gnarliest line on the entire record.

S: But it just sums up everything doesn’t it!

M: And then it just ends! It doesn’t even resolve, you know, cause it ends on the 5. It just hangs there. And I was like oh my god, that’s gotta be the last line.

S: Yeah, that last line just does it. And it seems like in a way it’s a response to the previous song “The Fifth Day.” You know, here’s what you learned that you have to say…maybe that the person couldn’t say.

M: I was also trying to break the tension. “The Fifth Day” is such a big, imagined song and I was hoping people would go on that journey with me. I mean we’ll see if they do or not, I’m not sure. Because it requires a certain commitment to the journey and what that song’s about which is sort of like the re-imagining of kind of sadness. Like the majesty of sadness, this whole second half. And there are the two voices at the start, and they’re both almost like two bubbles saying kind of the same thing but from different perspectives, and then the end is the kind of imagined dream-life that they share. And that song makes a lot of sense at like three in the morning. When I wrote that song actually there was a lot of time spent just blaring it at three in the morning. Like the whole neighborhood’s asleep and I’m pacing around my house with that song, I’m writing parts. I wrote that song over the course of a week. And that whole latter half just arranging it and just blaring it in the middle of the night. It makes sense, but I wasn’t sure if it would make sense in the day like if people hear it if they’d be like “What the fuck is this?”

S: At least for me it took two or three listens but it was so much more rewarding going through that journey. Is the wordless outro because it just sounded good to you or was it because it’s sort of a comment on the fact that you were saying earlier in the song “words don’t matter” or “you can’t find the words” or something along those lines?

M: Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. But that—”Yes”, let’s just go with “Yes.” I love that. No, but, maybe that’s how you know it’s honest. I didn’t have to mean it. I didn’t have to intend it. It just happened that way. The wordless outro was…something about this music spoke to me and it felt like you get these two characters and they’re so sad. And this song, it’s not bleak, like “Innocence” or something is, it’s just sad. They’re just sad. And then by the end there’s almost this childlike fascination of, you know, the majesty of their own sadness. You know what I mean? And I was really trying to go for that, bring that idea to life. Because it was definitely like a dreamscape.

S: It sounds to me also, though, that the person in the song is starting to gain some self-awareness by the end that he was lacking before, before that loss.

M: Yeah that’s interesting. This whole record is that I think.

S: Yeah! And that brings that last line from “Elizabeth” back. You know, you’re sort of guessing what love is, whether love is real.

M: Yeah, because you don’t know. You don’t really know what anything is. And you know the irony of writing all these songs about love and you’re not really sure you really know at all. I guess I was trying to break the tension a little bit too. That song’s a hair tongue-in-cheek. You know that line about being uptight for a Mexican girl. I love that line. And so I didn’t want it to be too serious. “The Fifth Day” it’s like this big song and by the end you’re just like weeping. I wanted there to be a little bit of light, light-heartedness. Even if that lightheartedness is still kind of gnarly.

S: Well yeah when it switches, these are all love songs and sometimes love makes you feel shitty. I just love that you know it turns like that in that last verse.

M: Thanks.

S: Anyway going back to the mortality kind of thing from “All at Once” and “Graveyard” and “Timeless,” I know that part of the origin story of the band and your week from hell where you sort of pumped some gas and were exposed to the toxic cloud. So that obviously was a seminal turning point, but did you think about that kind of stuff much before that at all?

M: Yeah for sure. I wrote a novel about it. I wrote two novels about it.

S: So do you feel when you do that that you’re gaining insight or that it’s cathartic or just you have to do it so you do it even if it doesn’t necessarily help you work things through…

M: Yeah I think writing, actually writing is more like that where it’s like you want to know what you think about something so you write about it, cause you have to organize your own thoughts. This is a little bit more like, yeah you’re estranged to yourself, and I guess there’s a reckoning there. Like are you asking what’s the impetus to write? And whether or not that’s like catharsis?

S: Well, yeah. That’s more the consequence of writing rather than just the impetus. I understand the impetus as in you just feel like you need to get this out and explore it. But does it help other than to get it out, in terms of gaining awareness or feeling like somehow you’re cheating death or anything along those lines?

M: Well a little bit of cheating death ’cause you’re creating something you hope someone will hear in 100 years and they’ll be like “Oh, I thought that. Alright.” And it’s like you’re winking at him, or waving to him from the grave like, “Hey guy, I thought this.” And the guy’s like “Hey, that guy’s dead but he thought this. Cool.” It’s sort of like, there’s a desire to communicate, because you’re really, really, really alone. And you don’t want to be so alone with your weird thoughts and your fucking weird, strange feelings that you have that you find weird. It’s not like I don’t find them weird too. I do.

And so then you write a song, and something about the idea of communicating, it’s a way of, without having to write a whole book, or without, or maybe even more intensely so, really getting your point across. And the desire to communicate that, is a desire to be less alone with it. And for someone else to hear it and hopefully relate to it and if they do, then it’s just—you’re just part of this big tragic comedy of life. You’re part of it and they’re part of it, and then it’s like okay, because you relate it, and then you’re like “Yeah!” and then something that felt so strange, and so isolating, and so weird suddenly becomes like “eh.” And that’s one of the great things about life is no matter what your trials are, no matter what you’re going through that seems so horrific in your own mind at 2 AM, you talk to someone about it, you communicate it out in the world. The idea of “The Secret,” like once the secret’s out, once it’s done, there’s a real freedom because then everyone kind of just goes “fuck it.”

And that’s one of the great things about mankind. It’s like propensity for violence, for hatred of others, hatred of ourselves, whatever. But then there’s such incredible desire for grace and for kindness and for acceptance or just to kind of commune. And I guess something about music is that, and that’s why I love playing shows, cause that sense of communing with others is kind of what you’re at at the moment of writing. And everything else in the middle is kind of horse shit, right? The production and the record and the marketing, all that bullshit. Like there’s a moment where you have the impetus to write, and then you write, cause you don’t want to be alone. And then there’s a moment where somebody hears it, and whatever goes on in their own heads, which is different from what’s in your head, and you have to respect that, happens. And there’s this yawning, fucking gulf between those two things, right? Of arrangements and production and producers and fucking Twitter and all this press and all the record labels and marketing and bookface and all this shit. And then on the other side of it somebody hearing it and something becomes sort of a light in their own mind, and those two moments are the important ones.

And the goal is to make all this stuff go away as much as possible so that there’s just this moment. And the place where that happens most purely and spontaneously is at a show, and that’s why I love playing shows. You look out in the crowd and everyone’s singing your song that you wrote because you didn’t want to be alone and you are literally not alone because they’re singing it too, and you know they had a moment with it, it may be different from your moment but that’s fine, you know you had a moment and you’re all there together. Sometimes I feel like you can see it from space, like we emanated some kind of light that in this room would be the brightest room in the whole world. Cause everybody’s emanating this light of sort of wanting to commune with one another and they’re caught up in the music, and I’m caught up in it too. And you can’t fake something like that. You can’t. Honesty just sounds different. I don’t know why that’s true, but it’s true. Honesty just sounds different so you can’t fake it. People know if you’re full of shit, people are way smarter than you think. Cause people want that moment of communion.

S: Yeah, maybe that’s part of why they call it concert, you know. There’s this union there.

M: I like that.

Steven Fein is a Williams College Professor of Psychology by day, published Springsteen writer by night.

A TATE ChristmasBy Glen

‘Twas Sometime Around Midnight on Christmas, in the Graveyard Near the House,
TATE’s Facebook page was quiet – not a single synth-related grouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that some show dates soon would be there.

Clad in a tour shirt, I dozed in my bed,
While The Thing About Dreams played in my head.
I imagined myself wielding Anna’s viola,
Plucking the strings out ‘neath the pergola.

All At Once in the street there arose such a clatter,
The roar of a Dope Machine the silence did shatter.
In a stupor I stumbled down from the second floor,
Swaying, braying, I burst through the door.

It was a bleary-eyed night, beneath the streetlight,
I needed a moment to take in the sight.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a poet, a singer, weighed down with gear.

The mermaid tattoo was an obvious tell,
I knew in a moment it must be Mikel.
Greedy for more, I was blinded by fame,
And I whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now Daren! Now, Steven! Now, Adrian and Anna!
On, roadies! On, Pete Galli! And you too, Bill Handlin!
To the top of the stage! To the top of the wall!
Not so high please Mikel – I’m afraid you will fall!”

And then, in a twinkling, I came up with a plan,
Nervousness be damned – it was Time to be a Man.
“It is most unexpected to find you out here,
Like the surprise God and Whiskey you dropped on us this year.”

“We take care of our fans,” he said with a wink,
“You should know that by now, wouldn’t you think?
On The Fifth Day of Christmas, your True Love asked me,
To give you a gift you never thought you’d see.”

He was dressed all in black, from his head to his foot,
And into his guitar case, his hand he did put.
“What can I give you? Another masterpiece?
What more could you want after a double release?”

“All I Ever Wanted,” I slowly began,
“Was just one more gig for a crazed super fan.
Can you please play Poor Isaac? That song is so boss,
And if I may be so bold, how ’bout Something You Lost?”

He was cooler than cool; I was feeling unworthy,
My insides were Numb and I was getting too wordy.
But he put me at ease with a nod of his head,
He’s good with his fans; I had nothing to dread.

So I took a deep breath, “A request if I may,
A happy TATE song for the holidays?
A little less death, a little more joy,
Something appropriate for my little boy?”

He said, “Not my style; that music sounds dated,
And holiday cheer is so overrated.
I’ve tried to be sappy; I’ve tried to write kitsch,
But sometimes Christmas can make you feel like shit.”

He sprang to his bike, flashed his 7th Heaven smile,
And then he assured me, “We’ll be back in awhile.”
And I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Please don’t forget to Shazam TATE tonight!”

The Airborne Toxic Event at Denver's Not So Silent Night. Photo by Kristina.

The Airborne Toxic Event at Denver’s Not So Silent Night. Photo by Kristina.

By Glen

Heading into last night’s appearance by The Airborne Toxic Event at Denver’s Not So Silent Night, it seemed likely the gig would be a welcome but ultimately unremarkable blip in the midst of an extended break for the band. Dinner with some lucky fans before the show (a reward for winners of the band’s latest Shazam contest, which by all accounts was lovely), a brief middle-of-the-bill set (7 songs, as it turned out), and then they’d head back underground for awhile.

Instead, the group found itself at the center of a social media shit-storm after what many are calling the worst performance of their career.

I won’t go too far into the details – you can find them easily enough if you’re interested. It was clear to anyone watching (whether in house or online) that Mikel Jollett was way off his game. There were many factors in play, including a lack of time for a proper soundcheck, terrible technical difficulties, a sick lead singer (which he confirmed at the fan dinner) and, yes, alcohol. It was the perfect storm for a poor performance, and storm it did.

I recently wrote that, through my research for the Toxic History project, I have read hundreds of TATE performance reviews, and I can count the number of bad ones on one hand. Unfortunately, after last night, that is no longer the case. The vitriol reached epic proportions, whether it was from people for whom this was their first experience of the band or, more dishearteningly, from longtime fans who were stunned by what they witnessed.

I know I can easily be dismissed as an Airborne apologist. Though I strive for objectivity, I make no bones about the fact that This Is Nowhere is a fan site. My default position is one of support, and my first instinct is to give them the benefit of the doubt. Five perfect albums and over a thousand thrilling performances have earned them that much, in my opinion.

That being said, it’s difficult to mount a credible defense for what occurred on this one particular night. Yes, there were a number of factors beyond the band’s control that contributed greatly, but there’s no sugarcoating the fact that the response to those circumstances was not good. Mikel and his bandmates would be the first to admit it, I am sure. If this is indeed to be the last we see of them for awhile, it’s a sour taste to be left with, and that is very unfortunate all around. The band, and the fans, deserve better.

But…

This is, in the end, one particular night: a “One Time Thing,” if you like. It is one bad gig among a thousand great ones. It is one time that fans left disappointed, among a thousand times that expectations have been surpassed. It is one night when Mikel let sickness and circumstances get the best of him, among a thousand nights when he has spilled his guts on the stage regardless of how he was feeling or what was going on in his life.

Music fans are consumers, and those who were there last night are justified if they don’t feel like they got their money’s worth. And if they thought it was so bad that they choose never to return, as some have sworn, that too is their right.

As for me, I choose to focus on the thousand, and not on the one. I’ll be first in line the next time they come to my town, whenever that happens to be. I hope you’ll be there with me… and I hope, above all, that Mikel will be well.

GlenGlen 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.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event exhales after a job well done in Philadelphia. Photo by Ryan Macchione.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event exhales after a job well done in Philadelphia. Photo by Ryan Macchione.

By Glen

As I gear up for my next Airborne Toxic Adventure, which will take me to Nevada and California a mere two weeks from today, I muse on the latest TATE news…

One of America’s Greatest Rock Bands

The Boston Herald‘s over the moon review of The Airborne Toxic Event’s show last weekend in Boston has been making the rounds in the TATE fan community all week. The writer, Bill Brotherton, heaps praise upon praise on the band.

The competition for your entertainment dollars this weekend was fierce. The three-day Boston Calling festival began last night with the Avett Brothers and Of Monsters and Men. Down south, Ed Sheeran was at Gillette Stadium and Brad Paisley was at the Xfinity Center. Josh Groban and Frank Turner sold out the Wang and House of Blues. And tonight, Madonna brings her spectacle to the Garden.

Spectacular acts, all.

But those in the know made the pilgrimage to the Orpheum last night to dance, sing and wallow in the exuberant sadness of The Airborne Toxic Event. Never have songs about failed romances, self-doubt and our inevitable death sounded so buoyant and upbeat. Its frontman Mikel Jollett is one of our best songwriters and TATE is one of America’s greatest rock bands.

And last night they were spectacular.

The Airborne Toxic Event played Boston Calling two years ago. Their set was a standout. But last night fans ventured to the Orpheum specifically to see them, and they were rewarded with one of the year’s best shows on one of Boston’s busiest music nights in years.

Over the last year and a half as I’ve worked on our ongoing Toxic History series, I have read literally hundreds of Airborne show reviews, and you know what? This is far from unusual. Coverage of TATE gigs is almost universally glowing (like this latest, from Stereo Embers, who caught the band in Buffalo). Seriously – I’d bet I could count the negative pieces on one hand.

The superlatives spewed by The Herald have been echoed by so many others for so many years now. It makes you wonder: just how many times does a band have to be labeled criminally underrated, the best band you’ve never heard of, and a group that should be playing much larger venues before the world wakes up and realizes what it’s missing? As special as it is to be one of “those in the know”… Mikel, Anna, Steven, Daren and Adrian – they deserve more than to be music’s Best Kept Secret. I hope someday they get it.

Dope Machines… or Such Hot Blood?

“I was really determined on this record to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it,” says Mikel Jollett. “And I didn’t care if it was weird. I didn’t care if the song structures were weird, or if the ideas were straightforward or obvious. I didn’t know if anyone would get it.”

Pop Quiz: What album is Mikel talking about?

If you said Dope Machines, you can be forgiven, because he said very much the same sorts of things in the run up to its release. But in this case, he’s talking about Such Hot Blood.

The quotes come from a podcast that was shared this week by Boston Rock Talk. With the way they tweeted it, I was under the impression that it was a new interview, and I listened to it for a good ten minutes before I clued into the fact that it’s actually from two years ago. Still well worth the listen. But I was pretty surprised to hear Mikel talk about SHB in these terms. It’s never struck me as a weird album, at all. Am I alone here? To this day, I feel like this wonderful record has not gotten its due. Just another example of TATE being under appreciated, I guess.

The Bird is the Word

And now for something that I think we can all agree is very weird…

I’ll start by confessing: I have a powerful aversion to all things Pee-wee Herman. It dates back to when I was a kid, and my Grandma decided to take my brother and I to a movie. I wanted Back to the Future; he wanted Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. He won. (I mean really… can you believe it?) And even though the film featured a cameo from one of my favorite bands at the time, the legendary Twisted Sister, I knew enough to know: this is not high quality entertainment.

If you’re wondering why I’m rambling about Peewee Herman in an article about The Airborne Toxic Event, well… just watch.

I’m so sorry. (But, well played, Murray Jay Siskind!)

Snapshots from the Road

Despite the extraordinarily busy week for The Airborne Toxic Event as they traipsed their way around the east coast, there haven’t been many professional quality photos making their way to the Interwebz (save for The Heavy Press and their Riot Fest Toronto collection). But fans have been stepping up to fill the void, as evidenced by the Crowd Albums for Buffalo, New York, Boston and Philly.

Toxic Gold

One of the highlights of last weekend’s shows was the return of “The Thing About Dreams” to the set. *Spoiler Alert: it is one of the top two fan favorites from Dope Machines, according to our recent TATE fan survey. Here’s the video from Boston, courtesy of Julie. I put it here in hopes that the band will play it when they hit Reno and Sacramento a couple weeks from now.

GlenGlen 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.

Anna Bulbrook gets high as Mikel Jollett looks on during The Airborne Toxic Event's set at Riot Fest Toronto. Photo by Trish Cassling.

Anna Bulbrook gets high as Mikel Jollett looks on during The Airborne Toxic Event’s set at Riot Fest Toronto. Photo by Trish Cassling.

By Glen

We’re smack dab in the middle of the most action-packed week The Airborne Toxic Event has had in months. After playing four sets in three cities in just over 48 hours last weekend and hitting Buffalo Tuesday night, the band finishes off the first portion of the Whiskey Machine Tour with another four set, three city, 48 hour whirlwind: New York City (last night), Anna Bulbrook’s hometown Boston tonight, and Philadelphia tomorrow. That final stop will include a private set for the winners of the band’s Shazam contest, to be held a couple hours before the main event.

A Close Call

The band’s frenzied performance schedule this week is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Mikel Jollett has been doing it hopped up on painkillers after a recent car crash that could’ve been much worse. He shared the scary details in an interview with CBS Philly:

I hydroplaned on the 10 freeway and spun off and totaled the car. I almost died; like, it was crazy. Went down an embankment, got pinned by a boulder. I just spun off the freeway at a high speed. It was insane. My back’s all messed up… nothing major, just some muscle stuff.

As to playing the shows on meds, he says, “It’s been interesting. We played a show the other night and I forgot the lyrics to a song, then we play another show in Toronto at Riot Fest and I forgot the lyrics to another song, and I put it in the wrong key, because I’m on all these muscle relaxers and pain killers. The show’s been loopy, but fun. I’ve never been that into drugs, more than you’re average wayward rock and roll person in the big city I guess, but man, it’s been a whole nother experience.”

I’m sure I speak for the entire Airborne fan community when I say, thank God it wasn’t worse. Take care of yourself, Mikel, and thanks for keeping the show on the road.

Speaking of God, elsewhere in the interview, Mikel waxes theological as he considers the Pope’s visit to Philly coinciding with the band’s show on Saturday. He also looks back at the reaction to Dope Machines, concluding that he had fretted unnecessarily.

I think I was hand-ringing over nothing. When you make something, you spend so much time on it, you feel like a lot of nervous energy about how it’s going to be received. Early on there were people, like on Facebook that were so mad that we made an electronic record and I wasn’t sure if they were expressing some larger will, and it turns out they weren’t.

A Not So Silent Night

The Airborne Toxic Event has been a regular at holiday shows over the years, and the first announcement in that regard came down recently. The band will return to Denver with Bastille, Cold War Kids and others on Dec. 5, for Channel 93.3’s Not So Silent Night.

Reading Between the Lines

From the department of “I May Be Reading Too Much into This” comes this tweet:

It’s just four little letters that could ultimately mean nothing, but that “hmmm” has me quite optimistic that we will get some kind of official recording of Airborne’s very popular cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” before too long. May it be so!

Road Recaps

Assorted coverage of The Airborne Toxic Event’s most recent road escapades:

Anti Music tagged the band as one of the MVP’s of Riot Fest Chicago.

Music Felon published a photo gallery from TATE’s electrifying gig in Austin.

AXS Entertainment captured the fun at Riot Fest Toronto. So did Riff You. And so did The Reviews Are In.

Buffalo News published a huge collection from Airborne’s visit earlier this week; if you were there, you’ll probably find yourself in their extensive fan shots.

Mulling Over Midnight

As part of their ongoing “What’s THAT Supposed to Mean?” series, Popdose recently covered The Airborne Toxic Event’s best loved song, “Sometime Around Midnight.” The writer, Beau Dure, muses about why he feels so connected to a song that describes experiences he’s never personally had – a sensation that I am very familiar with myself.

The question I’ve wrestled with is this, and the reason I’m writing about this song in this series: What do I get from this song? Why does it resonate with me?

I’ve never been in this situation. I was never a serious drinker — never “lost in the haze of the wine” or stumbling down a street oblivious to everyone’s stares. I haven’t had a breakup I regretted since I started college.

The closest I can come to that feeling would be in college, watching situations in which I didn’t even have a chance to be the ex. I haven’t checked with Duke, but I may still hold the university record for unrequited crushes. I can’t think of a specific situation in which I saw someone I admired from afar walking off with another guy, but if you add up all the times I realized someone was out of my league or just walking in different circles (like frat parties, which I never had the slightest interest in attending), I could probably come up with a pretty good amalgam.

Indie History

Noisy published a compelling retrospective off failed Los Angeles radio station Indie 103.1. With the station’s heyday having coincided with the rise of The Airborne Toxic Event, the band gets an extended spotlight in the story. Mikel recalls what the station’s support meant to his upstart operation:

We had been a band for about a year and I think Mark Sovel had us in to the studio to do a live performance of a song. It was really cool because we were just a local band playing Spaceland and El Cid and places like that.

I had this little clock radio and it was on Indie 103.1 and I heard our song, “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” and was like, “Woah, this is so cool!” It was like that moment in La Bamba.

It’s one thing when you hear something through your speakers or monitor speaks in the studio or something, but hearing something that you’re a part of on your tiny, little fuckin’ digital talk radio—that’s a trip. I think it also followed the song “Push” by the Cure, which is one of my all-time favorite songs. I kind of welled up a bit.

In January of 2008, we played this [Indie-hosted] residency at Spaceland and in the fourth week of the residency—again, we’re still a local band, no manager, no record deal, nothing—and Indie 103.1 added us to their rotation, started playing our song all the time, which was a huge deal for us…We never figured that the radio would play us and then they did. It was this really weird moment because it was embarrassing how exciting it was.

KROQ [added The Airborne Toxic Event] that same week and it was crazy. The audience totally changed. It was bigger. I think 1200 people showed up to that show for our residency and Spaceland has a capacity of 300. There’s a little documentary online about that night. That was kind of weird. The week before, there was 200.

The other thing that changed was the audience. Before that, it was our friends and people in the scene and music fans from the Eastside or wherever. Then suddenly people drove from the Valley or people drove from the South Bay or the Westside to come see a show at Spaceland. It was just a much bigger crowd and it was a different kind of crowd.

Radio is very competitive and there are all kinds of charts that show you the research of how this song is performing…There is detailed research and it’s all tied to ad revenue, right? But, Indie 103.1 didn’t seem to care. They just liked playing what they liked and they had some cool people working there—Sovel being one of them—that just had good taste and liked good music and just sort of believed that if they did that then the rest of it would fall into place.

Toxic Gold

Yep… I’m a little obsessed with “Pursuit of Happiness” at the moment. Here’s the performance from Riot Fest Toronto, courtesy of danielscissorhands.

GlenGlen 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.