The Airborne Toxic Event - A sublime second wind

LA rockers The Airborne Toxic Event have poured their hearts into their latest album, they tell Althea Legaspi
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The Independent Culture

New York's Tribeca Film Festival dares to be different. When it began in 2002, the popular belief was that America's newest film festival would function as something of a brash younger brother to Sundance, giving a glitzy East Coast spin to that festival's laid-back indie cool.

In a hotel lobby in Austin, Texas, The Airborne Toxic Event (TATE) are ready for the first item on their busy day's agenda. Well, almost. Drummer Daren Taylor has arrived, and viola player/keyboardist Anna Bulbrook checked in before a much-needed coffee run. Bassist Noah Harmon and guitarist Steven Chen are present. But songwriter, singer and guitarist Mikel Jollett is M.I.A. "He must be running," says Taylor. Save for Jollett, they're all on time – no surprise for a band who have had impeccable timing throughout their short musical career.

In 2007 the fledgling Los Angeles band played shows while distributing songs around town. "They weren't mastered, they were all MP3s," says Chen. In January 2008, one of those unmastered songs hit big when, to the band's surprise, the Los Angeles alt-rock radio station KROQ added "Sometime Around Midnight", a non-traditional, chorus-deprived storytelling tune, to their playlist rotation. "We all just flipped," says Taylor. "I don't know what inspired them to do that. The song is great as far as I'm concerned. But it's essentially four verses, straight."

"We didn't have management, we didn't have a label at the time," adds Harmon. "We were recording at a friend's home studio. So it was very off the cuff, and we were like, 'OK, we're making a record' and it was sort of materialising as the whole KROQ thing started."

In March 2008 the unsigned TATE played numerous buzzed-up SXSW shows and the following month signed to the indie label Majordomo, who released their eponymous debut. By 2009 "Sometime Around Midnight" had reached No 4 on Billboard's modern rock chart and the album spent several weeks at No 1 on the Heatseekers chart. Ever since, TATE have been hitting the late-night TV circuit, touring the world playing hundreds of shows, and selling out several concert residencies in advance of their sophomore album, All At Once, their first release for major label Island Records.

Their rising rock-star status is a long way from the humble beginnings of Jollett, who has finally arrived after his 12-mile run. Jollett grew up in various places on the West Coast, often living in communes with his "hippy parents". Reaching adulthood, he took odd jobs, including as a ranch hand, while he pieced together a meagre living by writing. Despite remaining poor ("I borrowed money from friends. I gave blood..."), he scored some impressive assignments, including a gig as an on-air contributor for National Public Radio and a published story in McSweeney's.

The band's debut was born out of Jollett's literary aspirations. "I took a year off to write a novel; instead I wrote a bunch of songs and started a band." Their debut mined personal heartbreak. All At Once, while filtered through personal experiences, explores what Jollett calls the "human narrative". "I think writing's about loneliness," he says. "You're alone with a thought and you're overwhelmed with a thought that you want to express and make somebody else understand."

Jollett wrote All At Once after returning from non-stop touring, where the oft-solitary writer had found himself constantly surrounded by people. Three family members also died during that time. "Something about people dying and something about being far from home, and something about meeting thousands and thousands of people – that idea hit me really hard," he says. "And that's what I wrote all at once, that was the idea, this is all happening at the same time."

Those experiences informed Jollett's writing of 50 songs. "I just kinda locked myself in my room for three to four months and did nothing but write songs." Jollett was thinking of his grandparents' 72-year marriage – his grandfather passed away first, followed by his grandmother a few months later – when he wrote "The Graveyard Near the House".

"At a certain point in your life you realise that you're going to die, and that's a really important moment," he explains. "And then eventually you come to the conclusion that you're gonna live and you're gonna get older if you're lucky, and you're gonna go for life. And when you're doing so, it's better to love people like it's a choice, like it's a privilege."

Death also pervades "The Kids Are Ready to Die" and "Welcome to Your Wedding Day", two songs which discuss outside involvement in the Middle East. "I think the army and the governments take advantage of that rebellious spirit [teenagers have] to send kids off to die," he says of the former. The latter's lyrics were inspired by a bomb that went off during a wedding in Afghanistan, killing the bride and several others.

All At Once also reflects on the past. "Strange Girl" is a nod to his youthful fondness for The Cure. "You miss being 16 and loving anything that much, anything that makes you feel that overwhelmingly for a song, and it's like the most consistent feeling you have sometimes," he explains. "It's nostalgia for the loss of that feeling." Elsewhere, "It Doesn't Mean a Thing" envisions his parents' commune wedding and refers to his father's time in jail. "It's mostly a fable, but there's a lot of truth to it."

As on their eponymous debut, matters of the heart find their way onto All At Once, albeit more universally than personally. "I like to think that Airborne are the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of rock'n'roll. Because we're not like a mainstream blockbuster movie, but we're not like a super indie movie, either. There's definitely a heart at the centre of it – we're not detached and cool," he explains.

Jollett's lyrics mirror the film's approach. "I like that kind of humanity where it's not as simple as, 'I'm happy. I'm sad. I'm in love'. There are all these internal monologues that go on inside your head where you're like, 'Is this the right thing, am I doing the right thing? Wait, these people are doing this other thing, maybe I should be doing that'. That's how I experience life."

As for his aspirations as a novelist, he has yet to complete his first. "How long can you jump around on stage?" he ponders. "I don't really know where this whole thing's going to go, to be honest. Sometimes I think it's stupid, and other times it feels like this is what I was meant to do. I don't think it's really clear when you're a new musician, when you're on your second record, you know?"

All in due time.

The Airborne Toxic Event's album 'All At Once' is out now on Mercury. The band will be playing major festivals across the UK this summer. The next single, "Changing", is due for release in July