The Airborne Toxic Event: We are a circus of music

It’s a sunny day in Los Angeles and evening in South Africa, and The Airborne Toxic Event’s frontman Mikel Jollett says he’s incredibly excited to be coming to South Africa soon. “I’ve never been so far away from home,” he says.

The indie rock band from Los Feliz, Los Angeles will be one of the headliners at Freedom Fest in Pretoria and Cape Town at the end of the month and Jollett says even after all this time, it’s still exciting to be playing in far-out places.

“We’ve heard that the crowds go completely nuts in South Africa and we’re so glad that we get to come there and play for you guys. The response we get … it’s special when you feel something when a band plays and it’s something you can’t control. Lots of people from South Africa have been wanting us to play there for a long time and well, we’ll see how it turns out.”

The band consists of Jollett on vocals, guitar and keyboards, Steven Chen on guitar, and keyboards, Adrián Rodríguez on electric bass, Daren Taylor on drums and Anna Bulbrook on viola, keyboard and tambourine.

Creativity and catharsis
The Airborne Toxic Event released their debut album in 2008 and Jollett says the journey from there has been one of creativity and catharsis. “It’s been eye-opening in many ways, and we’ve seen so many places we’d otherwise never have seen … had experiences we’ve never have had and it’s been opportunity after opportunity.

“I never thought we’d have ten fans let alone thousands.”

Jollett is a fiction writer, who contributed to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, Filter and Men’s Health, among others. Soon after the formation of the band, he concentrated only on fiction and he says it’s up to the reader to decide whether his fiction and his lyrics correllate.

“I see a song much like I see fiction – it’s a three-act story, if you will. The average pop song has two acts, so to speak, and it feels incomplete. The structure of a good song is very much like the structure of good fiction, so it feels natural to write songs in the same manner as I write fiction. You have to have changes, shifts and fiction elements in a good song.

“After all, you’re telling a story, right?”

This is one of the reasons the band has released all their albums on vinyl, because you’re forced to listen to the whole album. “It’s a story,” Jollett says, “and vinyl invites you to be part of that world for the entirety of the album. You are asked to spend an hour or however long with these people who have written these stories.”

The name, The Airborne Toxic Event comes from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, and the “event”, as described in the novel, triggers a fear of death and a sense of mortality that fundamentally alters the protagonist’s outlook on himself, his family, and his life.

The band, Jollett says, was born of a similar life-altering sequence of events, and the themes of mortality and media consumption serve as a major impetus for the band’s creative drive.

“We’re all so connected now through social media and it’s in a way, disconnecting us from one another. We are all so keen to document our lives and identity, and in a way, Dope Machines is about that – the need to present ourselves online and in the public sphere in these ways that we forget who we are as people. Instead, we become these virtual beings.”

No genre
Jollett says the band isn’t really all that concerned with genre, but rather the content. “You can call it rock or indie, but we play with genre and five records later, we still haven’t defined ourselves into one genre.

“Essentially we are a circus of music.”

The Airborne Toxic Event will be playing at South Africa’s Freedom Fest on April 25 at Pretoria’s SuperSport Park and on April 27 at Cape Town’s West Coast Ostrich Ranch. – Nikita Ramkissoon