Q&A: Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event

In the midst of a national tour before the release of their third album, Such Hot Blood, the Airborne Toxic Event stops at The Warfield before hitting the main stage at Coachella.

The Airborne Toxic Event has built a steady following with near constant touring over the last five years after breakout success with “Sometime Around Midnight” on the band’s 2009 debut. We caught up with lead singer Mikel Jollett, a former Bay Area resident, to talk about recording in Nashville, playing Coachella, and his experience as a student at Stanford.

You just embarked on fairly rigorous two-month tour. How do you get prepared for that?

We’ve been on the road a lot, about five out of the past six years. The first few days of tour, you’re always a fish out of water. You feel weird when you get on a bus with the band mates and crew. It’s like camping in a way; you live out of a bag and you get used to sleeping on a bus and whatnot.

Once you get to the first venue and get your lights and equipment all set up, and everyone’s super excited to be there, you sort of realize why you do this—for these incredible moments. And then you think to yourself, “Tonight we are going to play some fucking rock ’n’ roll.” It’s so much fun.

What’s one of the worst things that ever happened on tour?

We were in Atlanta one night and we got into a fight with some racist cops. I was at a table with some people and they said some racist shit about President Obama so we started arguing. All of a sudden, I started getting beaten with a club from behind, so I swung and realized it was a cop. They arrested me and the band had to drive around searching for ATM’s to bail me out. We had a show that night, too.

Prison was no joke. They have this thing called “the feeding.” No joke, it was total dehumanization. They give you pieces of bread with bologna and packets of mustard. You get lined up and everything, meanwhile People are swindling like, “Hey man, can I get your sandwich? White boys don’t ever be eatin’ their sandwiches.”

So yeah, tour can get rowdy. We fuck around with fireworks more than we should. We had this old piano and we stuffed it full of fireworks and blew it up one night. We’ve climbed up the side of buildings. We do motorcycle trips and try to cause trouble. Touring is almost like Groundhog’s Day, because every day is like the same.

Tell me a little about recording your new album, Such Hot Blood.

We went to Nashville to record the record. The producer, Jacquire King, was great. He really believed in us and befriended us. We just literally showed up and started to play. Some producers like to build the song from the ground up, track by track, but we just set up on day one, turned the microphones on and he was like, “let’s go!” It was a live record. He really pushed us to get the right take and the best take. It was great. He’s one of the most talented rock ‘n’ roll producers working today.

Did recording in Nashville influence you at all?

Yeah, we wrote the song “Safe” while we were there. For some reason, we thought we needed another track on the record. We were presented by this challenge, it was the weekend and we needed another song by Monday. We spent a day in the studio just tossing around ideas. We finished the music and then I spent like two days walking around Nashville getting ideas for lyrics, and then we recorded the vocals. It took us two days, but it was already because we’d been a band for six years that we were able to do that.

You are a writer, as well, and you were published by McSweeney (founded by SF’s David Eggers). Do you find a connection between writing lyrics and writing fictional stories?

There are a lot of similarities. You find that there is a story you are trying to tell; there are moments that are important. Music is a lot more economical. You have your four minutes of art. Sometimes you can express yourself in four minutes, sometimes it takes a whole novel, but music is very powerful that way.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve been reading this science fiction anthology of the 1950s and 60s. It’s so pulp and interesting and funny and weird. There’s a lot of spaceships and shit. But you take an idea like teleportation, and you take human beings, who are all mischievous, and you give them this power they don’t usually have and watch it play out, it’s really cool.

Are you pumped to play Coachella?

Very pumped, it’s gonna be great. It’s nerve racking. We saw that we’re playing the main stage, but it’s exciting as shit and it’s become such an important and influential music festival. To be a part of it is an honor.

Who are you excited to see?

The Stone Roses and Passion Pit.

Before Coachella, you’re coming to San Francisco. Is it true you once lived here?

I lived in San Francisco for about six months after college. I went to Stanford and lived in Palo Alto. I didn’t fit [at Stanford] at all. It just confused me. I was a scholarship kid and there was this whole game, this whole language I didn’t speak. It was like being launched to the moon. I liked my professors and classes a lot, but there were so many kids who came from prep schools and parents who went to Harvard. I just didn’t fit in. The whole culture was baffling to me. I was in a band and was an outcast and “winning” was drilled into us. And I’m a fucking loser.

Did you study English?

Actually no, I studied Biology and ended up with a degree in history and psychology. I wanted to develop my own perspective on writing. I wrote a novel in college but it was crap. I only took one English class in my first semester. Joel Stein was there, Nicole Kruass, who wrote one of my favorite novels The History of Love, and Michael James. They were all there and all knew one another.

What’s one of the best shows you’ve seen?

Jack White. I saw the White Stripes at the glass house in Pomona, and goddamn that guy’s a rock star. He just has that presence and a great voice, it was just amazing. I saw Leonard Cohen last time he was in Los Angeles. He’s 76 years old and skips on stage. Whenever another performer does a solo he takes of his hat and bows to them. It’s just a great way to honor someone, and there’s such poetry in his music.

Airborne Toxic Event perform at The Warfield on April 11. Find more Coachella bands bands performing in the Bay Area HERE.

Written by Anthony Presti

Anthony Presti lives and breathes music. He not only writes about some of his favorite musicians around the globe but also plays as a singer/songwriter. With an eclectic taste in music, his favorite live act is The Devil Makes Three while the band he's seen the most are the Deftones. Presti is always a passionate bay area sports fan, avidly following the Giants, Warriors and 49ers.