Many new bands get taken advantage of by major-label sharpies when it comes time to sign on the bottom line. But the Airborne Toxic Event had a different experience with Island Records.
"We didn't have to sign our children away; we worked out a very band-friendly deal," says singer-guitarist Mikel Jollett. "You know, when you meet Satan, he's actually a nice guy. We thought he'd be a dick, but he isn't. He buys you dinner, and he has great feng shui. You'd be surprised. He used to be a producer in Hollywood, but he quit because you just can't trust those people."
TATE's story could have gone in a completely different direction. Three years ago, Jollett was crafting his first novel after a bio that included a couple of college bands. Within a week, Jollett's mother was diagnosed with cancer, he got dumped from a relationship and he found he was suffering from a genetic autoimmune disease that led to alopecia and vitiligo. Inexplicably, Jollett shifted his focus to writing lyrics.
"You read about people who go through some shit in their life, and suddenly they only want to do one thing — maybe marathon running or baking apple pies," says Jollett. "For me, it was making music. Suddenly, I just felt differently about music and heard music differently."
As quickly as Jollett's musical inspiration struck, he assembled a band. Initially a duo with drummer Daren Taylor, he recruited violinist Anna Bulbrook, bassist Noah Harmon and guitarist Steven Chen, christening the prog/pop ensemble the Airborne Toxic Event, a phrase from Don DiLillo's 1985 novel White Noise, about events surrounding a chemical spill.
"We just vibed really well," says Jollett. "Daren and I immediately clicked. Anna's a great performer and I just knew she was right. Steve and I have been friends for a long time, and Noah is just a stupidly talented musician —he can play the hell out of anything you put in front of him."
The quintet immediately wrote and recorded songs, sending MP3s into the blogosphere and posting them on their freshly minted MySpace page. Within a month of forming, TATE played their first show; by the end of 2006, Rolling Stone named them one of MySpace's Top 25 bands. Within a year, the unsigned band's song "Sometime Around Midnight" was in regular rotation on radio stations across the county, and iTunes named it the top alternative song of 2008. They signed to Majordomo, the indie label founded by Earlimart's Aaron Espinoza, and released their eponymous debut last summer. Still, they found that industry buzz didn't translate into label respect.
"I sat in the offices of presidents of major labels and they said, 'Your songs are never going to be on the radio. You've made a good demo, but this isn't a real record,'" says Jollett. "And I'm like, 'You only heard of us because you heard it on the radio.'"
With their recent Island signing and re-release of their debut which originally came out on an indie label, big things have happened for TATE. They played SXSW and Coachella and landed a slot on next month's Lollapalooza in Chicago. Their song "I Don't Want to Be on TV" was included on the soundtrack for the hit show NCIS ("It seemed like a post modern joke," says Jollett. "Andy Warhol would have loved that."). None of it has made a huge impression on Jollett.
"I know there came a point when I started caring only how the story turned out," says Jollett. "I was willing to be the butt of the joke. Philip Roth always says, 'You have to impugn yourself when you write.' You have be willing to look uncool. There's a lot of posturing in rock 'n' roll. The situations that shape you are the ones where you look really bad. The big change for me was the year where everything went sour, and I just decided to write about what I think and care about and not care if I look bad. These are the ABCs of being human."
While the live shows are getting bigger, Jollett insists nothing substantial has changed for the Airborne Toxic Event.
"This is all just kind of happening to us, and there's only certain things you can control," he says. "To worry about how big you get is maddening, and it's best not to think about it. So we're trying to think about how to stay friends, stay grounded, and have some measure of humility and not lose our bearings in the midst of this shithouse mad tour. There's a lot of just trying to keep our heads about us. There's no point in becoming the Beatles if, along the way, you become an asshole. You can't control whether you become the Beatles, but you can control whether you become an asshole."