It's mid-September, and Mikel Jollett says to meet him by the pony rides in Griffith Park. The lead singer of the Airborne Toxic Event is clad in cuffed jeans and motorcycle boots, looking more like a biker than the frontman of an indie band.
We're meeting to discuss his group, which is headlining L.A. Weekly's LA 101 festival on Oct. 23 — in the midst of the Los Feliz quintet's fourth world tour since their self-titled debut came out in 2008. Their second album, All at Once, hit No. 17 on the Billboard Top 200 chart in May, so there's plenty to talk about.
Which is a good thing, considering the evening's itinerary sounds more like a date than an interview. The original plan was to meet up with Jollett for a jog in Griffith Park at 4 p.m., get together with bassist Noah Harmon for a motorcycle ride two hours later, and conclude the night with tacos and drinks with the rest of the band: guitarist Steven Chen, drummer Daren Taylor and violist/keyboardist Anna Bulbrook.
We nix the jogging and end up sitting at a tucked-away picnic table on the edge of a horse trail in the park. Jollett, an L.A. native who spent time as a ranch hand north of the city, in Acton, is broad-shouldered, with weathered skin and distant-gazing blue eyes. He speaks softly but rapidly, on subjects that would make a stoned college freshman's head spin. He manages to hit on both U.S. foreign policy and Nabokov within the first 15 minutes.
“I liked the parts in Bend Sinister and Lolita where he established a conspiracy with the audience,” Jollett explains, adding the Russian novelist also influenced him as a songwriter. Makes sense, considering that the confessional storytelling in Jollett's lyrics has been critical in attracting the band's frenzied global fan base.
The Airborne Toxic Event have established themselves as something of a literary band. Their moniker references Don DeLillo's White Noise, and their website offers “book of the week” recommendations, including Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Jollett met Chen while both were freelancing scribes in San Francisco in 2001, before they later returned to their mutual hometown of L.A. The latter holds a master's in journalism from Columbia and has written for Los Angeles, while Jollett has published fiction in McSweeney's.
The group was born of a series of ominous events. Jollett endured a breakup and was diagnosed with a genetic autoimmune disease (fortunately, he says, its cosmetic conditions affect only his vanity), and his mother was diagnosed with cancer. While taking stock of his mortality, Jollett began making music.
“I think I just, like, snapped. One day I picked up a guitar and started playing, and then it was eight hours a day for a year,” he told the L.A. Times in 2008.
Despite Jollett's struggles, the Airborne Toxic Event have had a charmed existence; the group played their first show to a crowd of 200 at the Echo less than a month after forming in 2006. Three months later, Rolling Stone named them one of the “Top 25 Bands on MySpace.”
Their quick rise was spurred by great word of mouth and blog hype, and their shows developed a reputation as a “cathartic” experience, Jollett says. “It wasn't too cool for school. Everyone would just dance and yell and get caught up in the music.”
Their fan base boomed after they premiered what would be their debut album's big hit, “Sometime Around Midnight,” in a live performance on Indie 103.1 in 2007.
They became one of the most commercially successful acts to come out of Silver Lake in recent years, and the band's eponymous album sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide.
Yet with success came barbs from the peanut gallery.
Pitchfork.com's Ian Cohen (a Weekly contributor) tore it to shreds, giving it a paltry 1.6 (out of 10), inspiring an open-letter response from the band and an L.A. Times roundtable piece in their defense.
Three years later, however, Jollett feels the group has proved its mettle. “I think we've worn [critics] down just by still being here and not having done anything lame like trying to be a bigger band. If you're trying to do that, it's obvious and it has a stink to it. What we're doing is trying to write good songs, and put on good shows.”
We eventually make our way back to the pony rides, where bassist Harmon is waiting with his and Jollett's rides, a pair of vintage Honda CB750s.
“You're in my motorcycle club now,” Harmon says, revving the engine. “If you get scared, just scream!”
Far from frightening, the ride through the park is exhilarating. Harmon says his motorcycle is his only means of transportation here, and he finds riding energizing and vigorous.
You could say the same for the group's music. While their recordings borrow from both synthy post-punk and classic-rock balladry, they're also distinguished by a certain galvanizing, unrestrained sound.
Jollett's songwriting also is uninhibited, and filled with unapologetic honesty. All at Once, their major-label bow, extends beyond the heartbreak anthems of their debut with more aggressive, political undertones. “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” is a souped-up Irish pub stomp railing on the U.S. government for the accidental bombing of an Afghan wedding party in 2008: “You can dance on the graves and bones of their children/if you know what to say.”
“I get a certain thrill out of how fuckin' shit-talky it is to write a song like that,” Jollett says.
Though they often include electronics, their tracks are substantial enough to be satisfying when played acoustically. “I think it says a lot about the songs that they still stand up when [we] play them in that stripped-down way,” Bulbrook says.
That's not surprising, considering she's a classically trained violist and violinist. Harmon, meanwhile, studied upright jazz bass — which he plays in the band, along with bass guitar — at CalArts' prestigious Herb Alpert School of Music.
Our ride continues to a ridge in Elysian Park, overlooking a glowing Dodger Stadium. Despite sparse attendance as the team's dismal season winds down, it's an enchanting site. Harmon turns dramatically to Jollett: “Is it OK if I kiss you?” They crack up and get back on their bikes.
The next stop is Los Feliz's El Gran Burrito, where we meet up with the rest of the band, shaggy and clad in black skinny jeans and leather jackets. The Airborne Toxic Event owe more than a few cured hangovers to the joint, and it's where Jollett asked Bulbrook to join the band back in 2006. She's easygoing, even when the guys start making penis jokes. It becomes apparent that such tolerance probably is necessary when hanging with this testosterone-fueled crew on the road for weeks on end.
The night finishes up at Silver Lake's Thirsty Crow bar, where Harmon sometimes plays jazz on Sundays. With each drink comes a new tour tale, like the one about the time they had to improvise during a power outage before a crowd of thousands at a block party in Philadelphia.
“We tend to thrive on that element of unpredictability, where everything's teetering on the edge of disaster,” Chen says. “It just makes for a really good show.”
Indeed, unpredictability seems to be the Airborne Toxic Event's gold standard. Throw in their unabashed emotional sincerity and you've really got something. Because in L.A. a compelling band — like a good date — can be hard to find.