Posts Tagged ‘Time to Be a Man’

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.

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The Airborne Toxic Event, MissyBy Yules

How did it all begin?

It seems like I haven’t got much of a story to tell you all, really – I’m a relatively young fan. I’ve not lived enough of life to know that much about it. I only have a few, if any, truly profound experiences in my life up to now, but still, I’d like to share this with you.

My story is a story about imagination. And, well, music. Being that you’re reading this here.

Music, I found, was a way of pretty much losing myself, of celebrating little things in life and telling short stories in just a few minutes. Aged 12, I’d boldly claimed that I hated all music. Five years later, armed with an iPod, I was a changed woman.

Aged 17 – insert “Gasoline” jokes here – I discovered Airborne.

It began in a bizarre way; somewhere I’d glimpsed a strange name belonging to a strangely named band, and found myself on iTunes listening to the preview of Track 1. I liked Track 1 and bought that and loved it even more after listening in full – but the rest was untouched. It was only towards the end of that year that I returned for a few more tracks.

I turned 18 in early 2015, and within a week, I had bought my first two complete, physical albums. Ever. I’d never found a reason to before – digital albums on iTunes were in themselves a rarity for me – but this time, the whole thing was damn worth it. Something clicked and that was all I listened to for weeks.

It was insane.

What began with “Wishing Well” became a mad cascade. Mad, but absolutely beautiful.

**********

How did that all begin?

The first cut was probably made some years ago; the first time I learned to hold a craft scalpel in school and felt that strange plastic handle press firm into my fingertips. I wondered how sharp the blade itself was, if only pressing on a bit of plastic was already causing such discomfort. My fingers were numbed quickly.

I wasn’t very good at this… paper-cutting lark. The first cuts were probably a mess, to the point where I’m glad I’ve forgotten them. But… it was all a sort of beginning, way back then. I wasn’t much good, but that was only the start.

But now, let’s fast forward. It’s 2015. Tour announcement.

The one thing I was sure of was that I had to go and see this damn band; the tickets came out and the ticket was bought within the hour.

I was already repeating tracks and albums and shamelessly humming and whistling sections of melodies. From the introduction of that very first song, to the extravagance of “All At Once” and “The Fifth Day” and the simple beauty of “Graveyard…” (Confession: I genuinely cried the first couple of times I listened to “The Graveyard Near The House.”) Even the new release hasn’t failed in my books; far from it, and Songs of God and Whiskey is also a delight.

The Airborne Toxic Event, The Graveyard Near the House

With everything, I loved whatever the band threw at me. Lyrics, vibes, string-section flourishes.

And that’s how the images came.

The Airborne Toxic Event, Strangers

**********

How did this all begin?

Have you ever listened to a song and felt like there was a cinema in the back of your head?

That’s what it felt like to me. Airborne wasn’t the first band to play their ‘five minute feature’ to me, but they were definitely significant.

I imagined strange scenes, like animations. Silhouettes, black-and-white dances, rising and falling in and out of nowhere, flowers and storms and dreams and broken glass… Take “The Fifth Day” and imagine strangeness and darkness for hours and hours; then a pause, then move the curtain, and let everything be light. Take “All I Ever Wanted” and picture it: a steely firearm in your hands, and clutch your weapon tighter, and be brave, and oust your demons from existence.

It sounds cliché, but it’s all there.

I was bored in class one day, and began to draw, and realised what I was seeing on paper. I realised that the things I could not animate could come alive in another way.

I thought of the artists I’d Googled years ago, in search of art class inspiration. I thought of the simple images I needed to show and the words that came with them, soft and beautiful and sharp and twisting and fantastic.

I had a paper knife and a cutting mat.

Perfect.

**********

I posted my first piece on Twitter in March. It was an impulsive image, one that had emerged in my head in the middle of that day. What had begun as a pair of birds doodled in a moment of boredom had grown and developed into a small piece of lyric art.

The Airborne Toxic Event's "Chains"

The song was “Chains.” Why? It just happened to be in my head at the time, I guess. It took a few hours to complete, from planning to rough sketch to execution. I was rusty, having not cut paper for a while, but I was proud of what I’d achieved.

That same evening, I logged on to read the next post about the songs of Dope Machines.

I did not realise how significant Mikel’s final paragraph about ‘Something You Lost’ was until I saw an isolated sentence again the following day.

It justhit me.

I dreamt. That evening, I realised that the quote needed to be cut out.

The following day, on Friday evening, work began. Work ended on Sunday, and after some conflict with the scanner – ‘dope machines’ indeed – it was ready. I posted on Sunday night.

The Airborne Toxic Event's "Something You Lost"

24 hours later, it had received what to me was significant attention. I’d been a nobody.

I was in shock.

This messy, imperfect thing had been seen. And there were compliments. Even the band had retweeted.

I couldn’t believe it.

**********

I took up the knife again the day after. From the conception of the twin birds of “Chains” to the frustration behind cutting out the letter ‘S’ multiple times, the letters had all passed through my head. I had more images inside.

The Airborne Toxic Event, The Storm

I was in personal awe of the things I was doing. I was putting blade to paper to cutting mat, dreaming and for once, realising these strange, silhouetted visions. There was hope yet of me expressing the strange fantasies that circled around my head as I heard a song play.

I’d had the words and now I had the pictures. It was delightful. Perfect, imperfect, I was getting things out. Dreaming on paper. Realising those dreams. Being on fire inside; somehow enjoying the numb, calloused fingertips and harsh plastic in my hands.

There’s something about expressing yourself. It’s a feeling of happiness.

The Airborne Toxic Event, Time to be a Man

What began as something small grew into an intense but amusing project.

I decided to challenge myself; I thought I’d do as many papercuts as I could before I saw TATE for the first time in mid-April. Weeks of work later, and an ugly callus staining my finger, I settled for 10 images. There were far more mental images and far more songs to portray, but for now, it was all I could do.

The final image, unlike the others, lacked words and incorporated a shocking burst of colour. It was posted at the appropriate time of 12am, on the day of the show I was to attend.

The Airborne Toxic Event's "Sometime Around Midnight"

**********

The show itself. I was nervous about it for weeks; nervous to the minute. Nervous about anything and everything. I went with it.

Hours later, after the end, I came away smiling like a fool (also sweaty as hell – but with two autographs and some conversations!) having learned three things:

  1. The band is fantastic live.
  2. Do not be afraid – everything is definitely worth it.
  3. The fans I met are proof that I am part of a family of sorts.

…and of course, I wasn’t an ‘Airborne virgin’ any more. The stupid, awkward fears I’d had before now lay slain behind me.

The Airborne Toxic Event, Timeless

Through showing my art and jumping into the full experience, I am definitely reassured. I am one of thousands of fans, many of whom attend shows, and a number of whom contribute to this blog. I seriously don’t know how I’d feel about showing my work to the online world without all of this wonderful company and the knowledge that there are other enthusiasts out there. Others mad and much, much madder.

And you know what? It’s great to be mad.

So thank you for giving me the courage to create and submit my work and to share it all with you. Thank you for the kind words and the encouragement. Thank you to the concertgoers and the blog writers and the reviewers and the photographers and all of the rest. Thank you all.

Is this true love? Well, I don’t know. It’s just my best guess.

What I do know is that the first show, just like the first cut and the first song, is only the beginning.

The Airborne Toxic Event, The Fall of Rome

The Airborne Toxic Event, Dope MachinesBy Glen

We’re a week and a half into the Dope Machines/Songs of God and Whiskey era, as fans of The Airborne Toxic Event bask in the glow of the unexpected double album release. Favorite songs are starting to feel like old friends, lyrics are being memorized, and tour plans made.

Toxicity 64 might as well have been named Toxicity 63, Part 2, because what we’ve got for you this week is an extension of last week’s TATE news: more tour information, more behind the song insights from Mikel Jollett, and many more Dope Machines album reviews. Let’s get to it.

(More) Dope Tour

Just like that, we’re only a few days away from the start of The Airborne Toxic Event’s Dope Machines Tour in Brooklyn. After the first Boston date quickly sold out, a second gig was added on March 15 – this one an all ages show, by popular demand.

As always, This Is Nowhere will be your source for tour coverage, with reviews in the works for Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as the April 4 radio show in Columbus. If you’re attending one of the other shows (in North America or Europe) and are interested in writing a review, please let us know!

Meanwhile, TATE’s most recent performance, a free in-store set at L.A.’s Amoeba Music, was reviewed by Rock NYC.

(More) Dope Stories

Mikel continued his “story behind the songs” series on Facebook this week, working his way through Dope Machines after posting the first three songs late last week. Really hoping he keeps it going for Songs of God and Whiskey, as his eloquent explanations are often as poignant as the songs themselves. In any case, here are the last seven tracks from Dope Machines.

California:

I wrote this song with Linda Perry one afternoon in her studio in the Valley. She was super cool and very talented. We talked about Betty (my ’66 Chevelle) and Rhonda (the ’74 Honda CB 750 — she was into old bikes and muscle cars too).. Then we went inside and started working on other things in the big room: songs that had parts she would sing and I would sort of sing back and we tossed ideas around but nothing really came of it. I got dizzy so we went to the kitchen. She said, I have this little idea and she sang a piece of a melody about California and I thought, “whoa there. That is something.” So we spent the rest of the afternoon writing the song. She mostly wrote the melodies (though I had some ideas). I mostly wrote the words (though she had some ideas) and we both walked away feeling like we had captured something about the state where we live.

I grew up here. My folks were big hippies. I was born on a commune in California and raised by very idealistic people who didn’t have a penny to their names but believed strongly in their children, you might even say their country. I feel very tied to this place and very resistant to its cliches. The SNL skit on Californians is funny and I wonder sometimes if that’s what the rest of the world thinks of us: dithering, spoiled people obsessed with their appearance. I understand it because most of what California exports (besides food) is the culture of white people who moved to Hollywood to get into films and yes many of those people are dithering, spoiled and obsessed with their appearance. But outside of maybe 10 square miles in the heart of Los Angeles, you don’t find many people like that here.

People have always moved to California to find a a new life. And always they have run up against a hard reality. The idea of Utopia always always begs the question of Dystopia. Whether it was migrant workers in the 30s escaping the Dust Bowl only to find a harsh world of shanty towns and corporate farms completely disinterested in their well-being… Or Berkeley hippies (like my folks) in the 60s protesting the war and Governor Reagan (Until I was 12, I thought Reagan’s first name was “That Bastard” since that is the ONLY way he was ever referred to in my house) who found that dropping out of society only created new, sometimes harsher societies as communes became cults and high ideals failed under the weight of so many corruptible human impulses.

People still move here to find a better life. And it only takes one look into a migrant shantytown outside the polluted fields of the San Joaquin Valley to know it is still a harsh life.

I don’t have a point I’m trying to make. Of course California is also the stuff of dreams, of aspirations, an oasis for high-minded people who live in a multi-cultural soup on the borderlands of the future. In this way, it’s more like Hong Kong or London than Chicago. Everyone is from everywhere else. And there are only a few of us who are from here. And everyone thinks we’re simple. And white. And we’re not. We’re complicated (And Mexican. Mostly.)

So I guess I could just say, as Jackson Brown once said of America: I love it here because my family is here and because it’s all I know.

Time to be a Man:

I once wrote a song about Lady Gaga and Freddy Mercury entitled, “Stefani, I’m Tired of Taking Chances.” It was a kind of torch song with lines like:

“And some day, they would all go rather gaga, as you danced on the stage without clothes,
so much like Old Madonna, With that crimson in your cheeks and that nose.

So I know you love David Bowie, because you told me one night in my dreams,
And I wished someday you could know me, we would stay up and listen to Queen.”

That was before I heard the a cappella version of “Under Pressure” that changed my life (at least for awhile) and made me want to make big music about big populist ideas and abandon any pretense that I too didn’t love “Another One Bites the Dust” or “We Will Rock You” or like 10 Billy Joel songs that you’re supposed to hate if you’re a Serious Artist (Summer Highland Falls, anyone?) in favor of obscure tracks by Townes van Zandt or Neutral Milk Hotel.

But I do. I love them. (I mean, I love Colorado Girl too but I’m just saying) I love those big pop songs. I probably don’t love the modern equivalents much (except Adele, of course. Anyone who says they don’t like Adele is lying). Most other modern pop sounds like soda commercials to me. That’s another rant.

The point is I wanted to make some music that was more spiritually similar to Freddy Mercury than Robert Smith or Bruce Springsteen. It’s fun. It sounds huge. It’s catchy and a little weird and there is a sense of abandonment to it. You get to have samples of choirs and you get to equate manhood with honesty and the ability to see past the darkness that can envelope your life in favor of the light you can bring others. And then when you sing it, you feel like Freddy and you can embrace your inner Freddy-ness and God Damn this song makes me want to stand on stage in a skin-tight onesie with a thick-ass mustache and just belt.

I’m not saying that will happen (though you never know, I mean why start a rock band if you’re not willing to put on your mother’s dress and dance around onstage?) All I’m saying is the trappings of pop music are no better or worse than the trappings of “art” music and the main thing is to not feel trapped. I think Freddy could get behind that.

Hell and Back:

I wrote this song for the Dallas Buyer’s Club. At the time, I’d only heard a description of the plot and watched a trailer. But the melody and general idea for the song had been stuck in my head since I’d taken a motorcycle trip (on the Lucy, the Harley, not Rhonda the vintage Honda — that would’ve just been dangerous) from Eastern Nebraska to Los Angeles. I’d camped along the way with an old Mexican blanket and a $30 tent from K-Mart strapped to the sissy bar. I would sit there in my helmet humming the nah nah nah’s and painting a picture of a journey involving damsels and devils and angels and tears — it was all very relevant at the time.

I decided to put the song on Dope Machines because I like to think of records as collections of music that is either thematically or temporally similar — that is, music about a set of ideas generally made in the same time period. In a way, this was the first song I wrote for Dope Machines since it was a kind hybrid (never say mash-up, never) of a country swing and something sinister and electro. This aesthetic contrast went on to infect the entire next record. You know: left hand electronic, right hand rock and roll. Or something.

Thematically, the idea of a journey that changes you was laced throughout the record. And, as it turned out, the people from Dallas Buyer’s Club thought it worked for them too and they used it as the single for the entire soundtrack. This song and experience was one of the most surprising and just downright pleasant moments in the entirety of the band’s existence for me.

My Childish Bride:

I’ve always liked working on songs with Steven. He has great ideas and more than anyone I’ve ever worked with, walks in the door with a very complete idea of how he wants something to sound. Plus it’s just cool to do something you are proud of with a friend. This is how we wrote the music for “All I Ever Wanted” and most of “All at Once” — we’d both have ideas then we’d sit in a room with guitars throwing riffs at each other, or bits of keyboards or harmonies or whatever—until one or the other of us would say, “Oh hell yeah…” Then we’d be off to the races.

So on this particular day, Steven walked in with about five pieces of through-composed music with keyboards and drums and whatnot. It was really cool stuff — sounding to my ear something like LCD Soundsystem or Pulp (Steven is a massive Jarvis Cocker fan). And then there was this one weird little track that had some hand claps on it and some simple chords and maybe one little melody line and I thought, “Now we’re talking.” It sounded like a song to me — as if the lyrics and vocal melody were aching to be written. So we spent some time locking in the music together and then I got down to writing lyrics.

This song probably has my favorite line in the whole record: “Now we stare at each other…” I love the stereo, the sheets, the intimacy between the people. It’s something like a shared secret, this love they have, as if nobody else was in on some breathtaking elaborate joke. Which is the best way I can describe true love. A secret joke two people share, a knowledge that somewhere in this very very hard world there can be true comfort, warmth, belonging, friendship — a gentle sharing of burdens, secrets and sweat — that no one else could imagine except the person under the covers with you listening to the stereo.

I love the idea of the map, with every detail, every signpost laid out: you know, life is supposed to go like this. You’re supposed to fall in love with someone like X. And we’ve all been told our whole lives that this certain X has certain attributes and those are the ones we’re supposed to want. But then love comes along it surprises you. The map fails because in reality, you fall for Y or Q or Z — and X seems like something from a fucking magazine: an airbrushed, two-dimensional version of love that has nothing to do with the shocking reality of falling for someone flawed and exciting and cool as shit. Because that’s love: something cool as shit and scary that you just can’t stay away from.

And everyone wanted you to fall for X. And here you are with Y (or Q or Z) and maybe nobody gets it, maybe you don’t even get it. So you’re forced to change, to soften your position, to feel around for a new self— because you are never going to end up with X and lets face you can’t wait to jump under the covers with Q.

The Thing About Dreams:

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 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.

Something You Lost:

This is all so vulgar. You know, the business of music, this business of discussing it — the point at which the dream life of the song butts up against the day-time reality of logic and punctuation and “analysis” (don’t even get me started on “awards”). I don’t like any of it. Because the whole point of the song is to express something that can’t be expressed any other way. That’s why you have to make it in the first place.

I’m glad we get these moments to share our thoughts, you and I. And I’m enormously grateful there are people who will hear these songs. But there’s a contract here that begins and ends in the song. Meaning—I don’t know how to say what I want to say most of the time, except by singing and writing and scoring and recording something. So I’d rather just get out of the way.

There are a lot of big ideas in this song about isolation and fear, about connection and distance, mortality and fate. But if you’re reading this, it probably means you have already figured that out for yourself and with any luck the song has already taken on a life of its own in your own mind. I’d rather my thoughts remain anonymous behind the veil of the song itself here and wish only for you that if you get this song that you are able to hold on tight to what you have and maybe some day a million trillion heartbreakingly endless amount of time in the future—our ashes will commingle on some distant star and we can both know that for a very brief time we were the luckiest bits of dust in all creation.

(More) Dope Reviews

Reviews continue to pour in for Dope Machines; not so much for the harder to obtain Songs of God and Whiskey. Dope Machines, which debuted at #56 on the Billboard Top 200, remains divisive, with critical response all over the map. Here’s a sampling of the mixed reactions; it goes without saying that we strongly disagree with some of them.

Sputnik Music: “Whether it’s choruses backed by artificial drum machines or lush synthesizers that help to set a nice atmosphere, The Airborne Toxic Event manage to make this album sound like a breath of fresh air rather than a sellout move.”

ABC News: “In the attempt to make a journey into neon club-land, the Airborne Toxic Event have accidentally made an overproduced, monochromatic collection. It sounds uniform and ends up sounding rather sterile and surprisingly boring.”

Ultimate Guitar: The absence of these instruments on ‘Dope Machines’ doesn’t leave the band’s sound hollowed out, though. Employing proper layering and nuanced progression, TATE capitalize on the spanning potentials of synthetic sound – whether it be the gritty analog bassline balanced with dreamy synth leads in ‘Wrong,’ the throbbing acid synth rhythm that drives the smooth synth-pop cut ‘One Time Thing,’ the chop-happy ‘Time to Be a Man,’ or the shoegaze-inspired ‘Something You Lost.'”

Cityview: “The 2015 version of events falls flat because the band’s heart does not seem to be into it.”

Badger Herald: “By deviating from their previously indie rock style, the L.A. foursome resorts to music made for the masses, perfectly average and altogether lacking in any notable qualities. While past albums have a unrefined, raw sound, Dope Machines is 10 tracks of refined mush — lacking in originality, creativeness or notability.”

My Inside Voice (covers both Dope Machines and Songs of God and Whiskey): “Admittedly, the shift takes a little getting used to — and it doesn’t help that the majority of the material on Dope Machines cannot be counted as some of the band’s best and frequently falls flat. But there are enough moments when frontman Mikel Jollett’s pained loser persona cuts through the synth pads and drum machines to connect with the listener to make it worth checking out… Songs benefits from a fair number of good old-fashioned breakup songs (some of which have been available on YouTube for some time), which few singers can deliver as convincingly as Mikel Jollett, and some lovely (and missed) viola work from Anna Bulbrook.

Our Spanish readers may also be interested in checking out LA Pop Life’s Dope Machines review.

It’s disheartening to see so many reviewers picking on the lyrics. True, the first half of the album is more lyrically straightforward than what Mikel has typically been known for, but his insights above amply demonstrate the depth of care that went into crafting each and every song to convey exactly what he wanted to say. And even a cursory listen to the second half of the disc – to say nothing of Songs of God and Whiskey – should be enough to convince one of the skill of the lyricist. No wonder he dismisses the whole enterprise of analyzing and passing judgment on music as “vulgar.”

A Synth Revolution?

In previewing the latest album by Mumford and Sons, F&F Presents draws attention to what they term, ‘the synth revolution.’ The Airborne Toxic Event is cited as one of several traditional artists who have turned to electronica of late:

In recent months bands such as Milo Greene and The Airborne Toxic Event have all but abandoned their classic sound and elected to push out electrical beats instead. Although Mumford & Sons, The Airborne Toxic Event, and Milo Greene are three very different acts, the one thing that they all have in common is the desire to try something new.  As Marcus Mumford points out to Rolling Stone “None of us had really any interest in doing a sort of Babel 2. It was always going to be different.” We have been hearing  similar sentiments from a lot of the artists we speak to and although some fans will not be happy, isn’t that what being an artist is all about.

I don’t subscribe to the popular conception that TATE is merely going with the flow of what’s popular; Mikel has explicitly denied this angle, and we know that he has been into this type of music since before the band formed (Exhibit A: his love of Passion Pit). But it is interesting to think about the band’s transition within the context of a larger movement.

At the end of the day, any artist who is more concerned with fulfilling expectations (be it those of the music industry, radio, critics, popular opinion or even their own fans) than about following the muse in whatever direction inspires them, is really missing the point of the whole thing.

Best in Studio

Proving once again that Airborne fans are the best fans, The Airborne Toxic Event’s 2009 studio session at Radio 104.5 FM has been voted the best studio session of that year. The winning performance included “Missy,” “Sometime Around Midnight” and “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”

Toxic Gold

Seven years before it was renamed “The Lines of the Cars” and released as part of Songs of God and Whiskey, a White Noise inspired song by the name of “Waves and Radiation” was performed by Mikel at the Bordello in Los Angeles.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic EventGlen 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.

By Glen

“We’re kind of genre-less. I think we play lots of styles of music… We’re musicians in the purest sense in that we’re not stuck to a genre. We just like music. If we liked polka, we’d probably play polka.”
– Mikel Jollett

The Airborne Toxic Event, Dope MachinesFor almost a year now, Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event has been hinting at/warning of/ardently proclaiming a radical change in direction for the band’s fourth studio album, Dope Machines. He has been at once aware that some fans may not like it (“If people aren’t mad about this next record, I’ll feel like I failed”), chagrined that anyone would object to an artist breaking new artistic ground (“I find it really weird that people can’t wrap their head around the fact that as a musician you would want to make more than one type of music”), unapologetically defiant (“People keep asking us, are you a rock band, a folk band, an electronic band? The answer is, fuck off!”) and, above all, certain of his course (“This isn’t what The Airborne Toxic Event is supposed to be; this is who we are”).

On one occasion Jollett famously declared, “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;” on several others he likened the magnitude of the shift from Such Hot Blood to Dope Machines to the transformation that Radiohead undertook between The Bends and OK Computer.

And make no mistake: the musical makeover of TATE is significant. But just as noteworthy as the sounds emanating from the speakers is the means by which they came to be.

Even more than the style, some longtime Airborne listeners were concerned over early indications that the fourth album would be made with less direct involvement on the part of the other band members than previous TATE recordings. Take, for example, this comment from Jollett’s interview with Darren Rose last spring: “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.”

The genesis of Dope Machines involved Jollett holing himself up in a room and writing a ton of music. Of course, that was true of the first three albums as well. But this time, rather than taking his solo work as a starting point and building upon that foundation with his bandmates, Jollett instead emerged from his cocoon with what he felt at the time was a near-finished product, and confidence that he had achieved what he had set out to do. As he said in the interview referenced above:

“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.

“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.”

That Jollett stuck to his guns to a great extent is evident not only in the sound of the album (particularly the first half, where traditional guitars, violas and drums are shelved in favor of electronic synths, layered Jollett vocals and programmed drum machines) but also in the credits, which, unusually for TATE, name a number of guest contributors. Included in the list of helping hands are John K. Morrical, Jr., Math Bishop and Miguel Devivo, who all added keyboards to a number of tracks, as well as guest background vocalists Kenny Soto (“One Time Thing,” “Dope Machines” and “Time to be a Man”), Arnae Batson (“Dope Machines”) and Audra Mae (“California”).

Having said that, nine months have passed since Jollett’s initial revelations: three quarters of a year that included the official addition of a new band member, signing to a new label (Epic Records) and road testing the new material. To what extent these developments impacted the finished product, only those in the inner circle know, but the betting here is that Dope Machines evolved a great deal between then and now.

And now that it has in fact landed, what to make of the long-awaited, much-debated release?

As expected, the willingness of any given listener to leave their preconceived notions of how TATE is “supposed” to sound at the door may very well inform their response to the finished product. Though it’s true that, as Jollett has said, “our core fans that are really familiar with the breadth of things that we’ve done won’t be terribly surprised,” it’s also entirely likely that much of what initially drew any given fan to the band will be difficult to recognize on this release, if it’s there at all.

If some find themselves unable to get past what isn’t found on Dope Machines, it is both understandable and regrettable.

Understandable, because TATE BDM (Before Dope Machines) remains undeniably special. A violin in a rock song, lyrics that were obviously penned by a novelist and not a songsmith, and, yes, a supremely talented original bassist – all these elements and more have contributed to something that is truly unique in the 21st Century musical landscape, and no one wants to lose it.

Regrettable, though, because those who allow themselves to look beyond the past will find in Dope Machines the thrill of new discovery, a familiar voice speaking in fresh tones, a band that is resolute in its collective refusal to be hemmed in by anyone’s expectations, and a vastly broadened musical landscape that leaves the future wide open. If The Airborne Toxic Event was difficult to pigeonhole before, they are impossible now; where they go from here is anyone’s guess.

“We are not a franchise,” insists Jollett. “We’re artists. We’re just a group of musicians playing music. Sometimes that music is on acoustic guitars and sometimes it is on a bunch of crazy keyboards. Being an artist – you make stuff that makes the hair on your neck stand up. Sometimes that means a whispering folk song and sometimes that means a bunch of loud dance instruments.”

This time out, it means the latter. From bouncy lead single “Wrong,” to the funky earworm that is “One Time Thing,” to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aural adventure of a title track and on through the dreamy soundscape of the second half of the album, the language of choice is electronica.

But that doesn’t mean that The Airborne Toxic Event will never whisper again. Look no further than the bombshell the band dropped yesterday: a second, surprise album to be released concurrently with Dope Machines, an acoustic rock ‘n’ roll record called Songs of God and Whiskey. Featuring the already-beloved “The Fall of Rome,” which is as raw and poignant as anything in the TATE catalog, this unexpected gift should lay to rest any concerns that the Airborne of old, whatever that means, has been put to rest. (Note: we’ll have a full review of Songs of God and Whiskey on Tuesday.)

Even apart from this welcome news, the closing track of Dope Machines, “Chains,” serves as reassurance that everything we have come to love about the band remains alive and well amongst the new dimensions that have been added to their sound. After nine songs devoid of most classic TATE fundamentals, the grand finale rings in with the familiar chime of Steven Chen’s guitar, channeling the Edge in all his reverb glory. Daren Taylor’s drums thump loud and pure. And then, with barely two minutes to go, Anna Bulbrook’s breathless viola finally shows its face, almost as if to say with a wink, “You didn’t think we’d forgotten about her, did you?” And so this chapter comes to an end with an exquisite blend of old and new.

I can no more rank my favorite Airborne album than I can choose among my four children. To try would be a fool’s errand at the best of times, much less mere hours after adding a shiny new toy to the collection. But I will say this much: Dope Machines is the catchiest release of the band’s career to date, and it is certainly their boldest and in many ways most compelling step since their debut album. It can stand proudly alongside its predecessors, and may just provide a doorway for new listeners to discover their delights.

It may be different, but The Airborne Toxic Event has done it again.

Dope Machines: Track by Track

Wrong: The lead track and first single was a guitar-infused live favorite weeks before the polished, electro-pop studio version raised eyebrows across TATE nation. What the recording sacrifices in visceral punch, it makes up for in sheer danceability, setting the stage for an album full of surprises.

One Time Thing: After three weeks with this song on near-constant repeat and not even close to wearing out its welcome, I’m about ready to declare “One Time Thing” the most addictive TATE song of all time. Mikel Jollett insists that he did not set out to write radio hits, but he might very well have succeeded in doing so nevertheless. Propelled by a distorted, staccato bassline, this tale of misplaced romantic longing really catches fire in the second half.

Dope Machines: The title track is the shortest on the album, but it packs a ton of noise into its 3:17. Seemingly a half beat slower than the live version to which we’ve become accustomed, “Dope Machines” is a wicked combination of screechy guitar and shrill synths that rocks harder than any TATE release since “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.” There are so many competing elements going on at once that it seems like it shouldn’t work – and yet it does.

California: If “Dope Machines” seems slightly slower on the album than it does live, “California” seems sped up. On tour, the ode to the real face of the band’s home state is played straight down the middle as a crowd-pleasing, brisk ballad that would’ve been right at home on Such Hot Blood. The studio recording has more pep in its step, with electronic embellishments giving it a slicker feel. Notably, “California” marks the first time Jollett has shared songwriting credits with someone outside of the band (Linda Perry).

Time to Be a Man: “Time to Be a Man” is an odd amalgamation, marrying some of the most experimental moments on the album to an uncharacteristically conventional chorus that conjures images of a sea of cell phones (or lighters, given the nostalgic feel) waving in unison in a darkened arena. After opening with 20 seconds of bleeps and bloops that give off a sort of carnival-meets-eighties-video-game vibe, the song settles into a mainstream radio mode that sits a little uncomfortably on TATE. On the plus side, the song gives Bulbrook a chance to shine brightly with a dramatic vocal interlude.

Hell and Back: Originally released in the fall of 2013 as part of the Dallas Buyers Club soundtrack, the unexpected hit song established the blueprint for Dope Machines. At the time it seemed like a major departure, with its synth underbelly and electronic drumbeats. But after a year and a half as a rowdy live staple and presented within the context of an album that pushes the envelope much further, it actually comes across now as something of a throwback to old-time TATE – particularly the Changing-esque stomp of a chorus.

My Childish Bride: The tone of the album shifts dramatically from the opening drone of “My Childish Bride,” the first in a trilogy of downbeat, introspective numbers with subtle instrumentation (electronic and otherwise). “Bride” is set against a crisp background of what sounds like hand claps, which interestingly fits with Jollett’s original (and ultimately abandoned) vision for Airborne’s previous album, Such Hot Blood. Steven Chen is credited as a co-writer, and the writers’ lyrical proficiency steps to the forefront with clever, clipped phrasing.

The Thing About Dreams: Were you to drop straight into the chorus of this moody ballad, you would never guess it to be an Airborne song, however familiar with the band you may be. Delivered in an appropriately dreamy falsetto that reaches higher notes than one would expect a baritone like Jollett to hit, the refrain is bookended by plodding yet purposeful verses backed by sweeping, ethereal vocals reminiscent of the Bulbrook-fronted “Come Unwound” by The Bulls. The thing about “The Thing About Dreams” is that it ushers the listener into yet another heretofore unexplored dimension of the band.

Something You Lost: Jollett has identified “Something You Lost” as his favorite track on the album, and it’s not difficult to see why. Completing the trifecta of atmospheric reflections, the song is in no hurry to get where it’s going – each line delivered with intentional precision and increasing passion, as Jollett pleads with his lover to stay by his side. “Something You Lost” immediately takes its place among The Airborne Toxic Event’s most affecting pieces.

Chains: TATE 2.0 meets TATE 1.0. From Column A: Jollett’s vocals doubled or even tripled up over top of subtle synth undertones. From Column B: propulsive guitar riffs, live drums and a show-stopping (if brief) viola solo. In typical TATE fashion, the composition gradually ramps up in urgency before bursting into full-fledged anthem mode, transporting the listener to “a place with no center and no edge and no end.”

Click here to purchase Dope Machines from iTunes.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic EventGlen 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.