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Interview: The Airborne Toxic Event

| April 29, 2011

Once In A Lifetime

Mikel Jollett is a little stunned, frankly. He and Airborne Toxic Event have just exited the stage of King’s College in London, where they were playing an intense set devoted to the songs they will release commercially in less than a week. What better time to discuss it all with a magazine back home in America?

Appearing: Wednesday and Thursday, May 18th and 19th, at Metro in Chicago.

“Hold on,” he exhales. “We just got out of the cab at the apartment where we’re staying. I’m a little . . . winded.”

It’s not long before the frontman of this Los Angeles-based quintet can settle in and open up. He needs to be thinking straight, because All At Once (Island/Def Jam) does for “intricately layered” what cement did for sidewalks.

“It’s cool on a lot of levels,” he beams. “Firstly, we’re able to play more stuff live,” he says after about three years playing variations on the same dozen-or-so songs. “Secondly, we just love the record. We’ve lived with it, and it’s something we spent a year making. I don’t know how to make anything better than it, and I think we all feel that way about it. There’s so many different parts — I look back and think, ‘I can’t believe we made that.’ It was by far the most challenging project I’ve ever taken on in my life: it’s nerve-wracking, and it’s exciting, and it’s terrifying, and it’s exhilarating.”

Jollett refers specifically to the album here, which differs to the upside-down life that fomented the band’s debut: mother diagnosed with cancer, girlfriend breakup, and the onset of his own health problems. No, this year Jollett and bandmates Anna Bulbrook, Steven Chen, Noah Harmon, and Daren Taylor poured themselves into an 11-song cycle where each piece absolutely depends on the others. And it wasn’t some Sudoku arrangement where the 11 sides could only exist in one formation. At some point, nearly 50 tracks were at the ready, and then there were curveballs. One of the album’s centerpieces, “The Kids Are Ready To Die,” arrived at the last minute to ultimately complete All At Once.

“It ended up being a unifying song for the whole record,” he relaxes “Those are always happy accidents, I guess. We started with 50 songs and we ended with 11 and a story. And that’s what we wanted. We wanted to tell a story with the record and engage some ideas we thought were interesting. We had so many demos. We were talking the other day how we could have made a whole other record, we had a whole different barrel of ideas that was lo-fi and electro . . .”

But the sounds — exhaustingly assembled — ended up being little competition for the narrative, which, on the surface, needs a listen or two to take hold.

“We’d written ‘Welcome To Your Wedding Day,'” Jollett explains, “which is a song about Predator drones mistakenly bombing an Afghani wedding, and ‘The Kids Are Ready To Die’ fit because it’s about governments taking advantage of news to send kids off to die. I think that middle 10 minutes of the record ended up as a bridge between a really big, orchestrated part and the end, which is sort of quiet.”

It’s a disquieting quiet.

— Steve Forstneger

For the full interview, grab the May issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

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