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The Airborne Toxic Event's Mikel Jollett abandons short-story writing for a life in music

Career Change

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God bless intrepid youth, that blessed innocence that allows you to pursue whatever you damn well please just because. Mikel Jollett took one such leap, and where unnamed and uncounted others have crashed and burned, he caught a wind that carried the Airborne Toxic Event to a larger audience. Now the Los Angeles quintet is attempting to diversify their sweeping arty rock with the more immediate Such Hot Blood.

Soaked in moody melancholia and adorned in billowing sonic plumage, Jollett and company's first two albums sound peculiarly British, puffed up by angst-laden balladry and soaring, keyboard-driven arrangements. While there's plenty of that on Such Hot Blood, a number of tracks strike out in new directions, and the whole album benefits from a less buffed and polished sound that dials back the keys and brings out more live crackle.

"The whole record was very, very live," says Jollet, taking a break from tinkering with his new motorcycle. "I think in the past we've been very focused on rock rhythms with electronic sounds, and this one was just sort of massively organic."

The highlight for Such Hot Blood is the song "Bride & Groom," a lively soul-rocker with hand-clap energy and a powerful undertow of lyrical regret. Oddly enough, it sounds a little like Wham! taking a dip in the Fountains of Wayne. The singer's pain lingers like a memory too distant and painful to fully manifest: "You are the whisper in my ear when I wake and no one's here." It's Jollett's favorite song he's ever written.

"It's about nostalgia, the silent, pained existence of bitterness, nostalgia, and romance," he says. "There's a sense of letting go and a sense of futility between the two characters, but then there is also a very strong sense of holding on and also a narrative element where you almost get a glimpse into their little interplay and how each of them feel about the events that happened, how each of them romanticized what happened with the other and how each of them romanticized the fatalism."

The new motorcycle he's modifying while we speak was purchased spontaneously while Jollet was in Omaha on what he calls "a walkabout." He then rode to Los Angeles and has been fiddling with it since. It's emblematic of Jollet's somewhat mercurial process, and how the Airborne Toxic Event came into existence. You see, Jollet was an aspiring writer before he dedicated himself to music. He's even been published.

Although The New Yorker rejected his short story "The Crack," McSweeney's didn't, and they put it right next to a Stephen King short. At the time, Jollet had been working for years on a novel and had secured a literary agent — no mean feat. Yet somehow, just when he was starting to break his way into the writing world, Jollett zigged instead of zagging.

"It wasn't like I had an idea like, 'Oh, I'll be a musician.' It's more like I picked up a guitar and then didn't put it down for a year," he says. "Music started to feel like what was real ... After doing it so much, it felt like me wanting to do other things was just a lie, because what I really wanted to do was play music. At this point, I've come full circle with it to where I realize in a lot of ways it's more in my DNA to be a musician than a writer."

Jollett hadn't been playing guitar for long when a series of unfortunate occurrences threw his life into turmoil, and music helped exorcise his demons. Within a few weeks of March 2006, Jollett broke up with his girlfriend, discovered his mother had cancer, and learned he had an autoimmune disorder that manifested as alopecia and vitiligo. Having given up music for writing in his teens, Jollett found himself switching back.

"I was going through a phase and still am, so maybe it's a permanent thing, and maybe writing was the phase. I'm not sure yet. This is all still kind of unfolding in real time," he says with a laugh. "Like I'm working on another piece right now that I'd like to submit to The New Yorker. And then maybe I'll want to do something else. Maybe that's a strange way to think, but it doesn't seem strange to me."

Given Jollet's success it's hard to question his ambitions. Both Island releases — 2011's breakthrough All at Once and April's Such Hot Blood — cracked Billboard's Top 10 on the Rock and Alternative album charts. He's assembled a crack band that's backed him without change since their first show in October 2006. He's obviously onto something.

But whether it's suddenly buying a motorcycle, abandoning writing, or recording a more lively album like Such Hot Stuff, the answer Jollett's never been able to answer is "Why?"

"I felt like doing it. That's what the short answer is, I felt like doing it," he chuckles. "Now, why am I the type of person that will just do what the fuck I feel like doing? Don't know. I just felt like doing it, and I don't have a lot of insight into why."

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