The Airborne Toxic Event: 'Midnight' massive
An unlikely hit and non-stop touring put TATE on top
Special to Metromix
The success of the dramatic Los Angeles indie-rock quintet the Airborne Toxic Event (TATE, to their fans) could be a textbook example of what works in the current depressed state of the music biz. Following a run as one of L.A.'s premiere club bands, the group's unrelenting, Arcade Fire–ish single “Sometime Around Midnight” was picked up by local rock radio and then spread near-virally throughout the country, spurred by TATE’s strong live shows and the adamant working-class ethos.
Singer-songwriter Mikel Jollett was a burgeoning novelist, but turned to songwriting after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he also was told he had medical issues—without getting technical, his hair was falling out, and his pigment was lightening, leading him to think he may end up looking like “a white Gollum.” Thankfully, that didn't happen, and these days Jollett's in a great mood, starting our interview by joking about the trash talking that would occur in an indie-rock basketball showdown. (“You don't even know the third song on [Pavement classic] ‘Wowee Zowee.’ Get out of my house!”)
Metromix talked to Jollett while he was on the road about whether he'll ever finish his book, the rigors of touring behind a global hit record, and how he plans on representing for his beloved hometown when the band plays a prestigious gig at Walt Disney Concert Hall this December.
All right, be honest: How sick are you of playing “Sometime Around Midnight?”
I'm not sick of playing it, but I definitely want to start playing new material. The record we have out is the culmination of about 100 songs. [When we started,] we played punk songs, we played mod songs, and the record is the paring down of a much larger set list. It's funny, I think we get accused of our record having a really broad palette, and to us it feels really narrow. We've definitely played “Midnight” a lot though.
Did you know that song was special when you wrote it?
I did. I called a friend of mine and played it for her. I had written a folk version of it—it had all the same parts, but it was more pared down. I finished and was like: “That was the best thing I've ever done.”
The story about your mom's cancer and your medical problems has become part of the mythology of the band. Do you feel like it’s overblown?
The story's true, so you can't be like, “well, stop telling the story,” but my mom is fine. And I'm fine. I thought I was going to lose all the hair on my body and all the pigment in my skin. But it didn't end up happening; every now and then I lose an eyebrow or a chunk of hair. So far, it hasn't mattered so much. If Lady Gaga lost her hair, or Britney Spears, it might be different. But I don't think people care how bands look that much. Thom Yorke is a fucking weird looking dude, and I don't think anyone holds that against him.
You're the only rock band playing this season at the usually classical-only Disney Hall in L.A.—your biggest-ever hometown show. How are you feeling about it?
That's fucking exciting, man—that's in the “dream come true” category, where you go, “This is my life?” I don't think we've talked about it with anyone yet, but we have a lot of different surprises in store. It's not going to be just an Airborne concert. We're trying to see ourselves as curators of this event. It's an honor—we're trying to live up to that honor, and we're definitely involving some other musicians.
It seems from an outsider point of view that over the last two years you've slowly gotten bigger and bigger—which means more and more people want something from you. Are you burned out yet?
I'm tired. We just got back from Japan. We played a festival in South Korea before that. A few days before that we were in Slovakia, Ireland, England, Scotland, L.A. We haven't stopped since the record came out, April of last year. “We're going to be on tour for a few weeks…oh wait, it's a few months…oh, wait, it's six months. A year. Year and a half. Two years.” [Pause] Awe…some. It's like if someone said, “I'll pick you up at two,” and you're, “Cool, will I be home by six?” And they say, “Yeah…or 2012.”
Where'd you feel the furthest away from home?
In Slovakia, we were in the middle of this airfield, amid acres of concrete. There was all this old 1960s communication equipment around. You could picture lines of tanks and goose-stepping. We went into this tent at the festival, and it was traditional European folk dancing--it was kind of like square dancing with different moves. The audience knew all of our songs, though, which was weird: people knew “Midnight,” people knew “Missy.”
Are you ever going to finish your novel?
That is my goal. I just literally haven't been able to sit still in 2009. I've had a total of three days off. I haven't been home at all, and it's tough to write on a bus. I definitely miss it. It's the only thing that, when I'm doing it, I really don't feel like I should be doing something else. I miss living in a world of ideas, and the rock and roll thing…sometimes, I don't want to get drunk and play a show. I want to stay up late reading, and get up late the next day, at two or three in the afternoon, and casually start writing until midnight.
It's ironic, because often the frontmen for big rock bands are actually the ones who most enjoy being alone.
I miss that isolation. I'm not as social as all this. I feel bad sometimes; the band hangs out a lot, and often times I'm just going to the hotel to read or go for a run by myself. I'm not used to being around people that much.
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