The Airborne Toxic Event: an art project disguised as a band, and a damn good one

:: The Airborne Toxic Event ::
 :: Bluebird Theater :: Feb. 23 ::

By Timothy Dwenger

A band leader is often born out of many awkward teen years toiling in a friend’s garage, working on songs he would never admit to today. Maybe he followed that with a classic rock cover band that might have gotten a few gigs at local bars and frat houses in college, and then two or three mediocre original bands before he finally landed that sweet opening gig on a Sonic Youth tour … or something like that.

It is pretty rare that a successful journalist-turned-aspiring-novelist decides one day to drop everything and start a rock band, but that’s exactly what happened in 2006 when Mekell Jollett decided to form The Airborne Toxic Event. “I’d just gotten into Yaddo, the writers program in upstate New York, and I’d just gotten an agent for my book,” Jollett told The Marquee, days before The Airborne Toxic Event set out for the U.K. to kick off nearly three months of touring on two continents.  “I was at this crossroads where I could have gone deeper into my writing career but I just suddenly snapped and decided I had to start a band. Everyone thought I’d lost my fuckin’ mind.  When I told my folks they were like, ‘WHAT!!!’ and they looked at me like I was nuts. But, suddenly the idea of being alone in a room for three months or six months or a year as this tortured solitary writer just wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time.”

In fact, just about everyone, from friends to prospective band members, were shocked when Jollett told them the news but it was a fire burning within him that he couldn’t ignore. “Sometimes night writing is just absolute drudgery and other times it is three in the morning, your brain is buzzing, and the ideas are just pouring out. A lot of these songs were written on nights like that and I had such a strong desire to see what would happen if I actually got a group of people in a room, plugged in an amp, pounded away, wailed, and jumped around on stage,” Jollett said. “I had written songs alone in my room for a year and no one had ever heard them. I was just so curious about what it would sound like, and feel like, and be like, if I played them in front of people.”

Despite the skepticism from friends and family, it turns out that starting a band was one of the best ideas that Jollett ever had. Within three months of becoming a band The Airborne Toxic Event was packing The Echo in L.A. and the scene was out of hand. “There were about 400 people in the room and about 100 lined up out the door. Darren was up on stage banging the shit out of a car hood that we found at a dump and Anna ran back there and banged on it with him while I was out in the crowd, singing with an arm around somebody. By the end of the set there were 15 people up on stage singing the last song with us. You could feel the energy and the sweat in the room. The whole disinterested, cool, indie thing just went out the fucking window,” he said. “At that point in L.A., there was this sense that you went to an Airborne show to dance and jump and scream.”

It wasn’t long before L.A. radio stations KROQ, Indie 103, and 98.7 FM took notice of the scene surrounding the unsigned band and, in an unprecedented move, added their song “Sometime Around Midnight” to their play lists.  The reaction was amazing, the phones were ringing off the hook with requests for the track, and soon the major labels were breaking down Jollett’s door and offering huge contracts. The only problem was that the majors viewed the band’s self-recorded debut record as a demo and Jollett knew it was more than that. “They kinda gave us a pat on the head and said, ‘Hey that was great, you made a nice little record, now here’s what we think you should do …’ And we were like, ‘NO! That’s our record. That’s what we want to put out.’ Nobody would just put it out as-is on a major label and we said, ‘Fuck that, we’re not changing it,’ and ended up turning down literally hundreds of thousands of dollars and going with an indie,” said Jollett.

The “indie” that Jollett and his bandmates ended up signing with was L.A. based Magordomo Records because of the faith the label put in the band’s vision to release the album exactly as it was. “First and foremost we are a live band and our record is a live record. All those songs were recorded in analog, live, and in one take. When we made it we had been playing live shows around for a while and our goal with the record was to capture that live energy on tape. So our record is a shoddy re-creation of our live show and not the other way around,” said Jollett.

It has not been an easy road for The Airborne Toxic Event but they have done it their way, and by playing countless live shows have created quite a fan-base; even in the U.K., where their album hasn’t even been released yet. “Last November we did 30 shows in 30 days in the U.K. We wanted to make the point that music is about being in a room with people and getting the fuck off of myspace or whatever and physically dripping sweat on someone as they drip sweat back on you. We are an art project disguised as a band, disguised as an art project, and we wanted to bring that mentality to every little shithouse club in the U.K. that we could,” Jollett explained.  “It’s all about being in a room with people and feeding off the energy that is created.”

:: The Airborne Toxic Event ::
:: Bluebird Theater :: Feb. 23 ::

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