Nearly ten years ago, The Airborne Toxic Event singer-guitarist Mikel Jollett originally set out to write the Great American Novel. He ended up writing a collection of songs that would eventually form the band's debut. You could say he wrote a Great American Album instead of a novel.
"I don't know if it was conscious and I woke up one day and decided to do that," he says when asked about making the transition from essayist and novelist to songwriter. "It was an evolution. I had taken a year off to write a novel and in the course of a year, I realized I hadn't written a novel but had written songs. By the end of the year, the songs were where I was at. They felt honest to me. The novel was getting dusty."
Now known for its sweeping anthems that recall the likes of Bruce Springsteen and U2, Airborne initially formed as a stripped-down two-piece featuring Jollett and drummer Daren Taylor.
"Daren liked to play music and had always wanted to be in the kind of band I had wanted to start," Jollett says. "He had grown up on the Cure and the Pixies. We lived in the same world aesthetically. We met and I played him some demos and he liked them and it all clicked really well. We spoke a similar language about music. It was great. In the summer of 2006, the two of us were locked in this sweaty warehouse and playing songs from the first record and working out parts."
The band would eventually grow and add guitarist Steven Chen, bassist Noah Harmon and viola player Anna Bulbrook. Its self-released debut, the 2007 EP Does This Mean You're Moving On? immediately caught the attention of local rock writers who christened the band one of L.A.'s best up-and-coming acts. And the band's full-length debut, 2008's The Airborne Toxic Event, confirmed those early suspicions that the band was one to watch. The single "Sometimes Around Midnight" picked up enough steam to crack the Billboard Charts.
"I don't know why critics liked us so much," Jollett admits. "We just recorded some songs and people liked them. There's probably more to it than that. The band had a strong identity from the start, and the first recordings were really thought out. It's a snowball thing. If one person writes about you, someone else does. But I don't think that stuff is that important. At the end of the day, it's just music. It either speaks to you or it doesn't. That part of it is all a mystery. There's nothing anyone can write that will make me like one type of music or dislike a certain type of music."
The group's new album, Such Hot Blood, is an expansive and emotionally rich release. Jollett spent time listening to old Springsteen albums and watching documentaries about how they were made as inspiration. And it shows in the songs' themes.
"I liked the idea of presenting your struggles to people without presenting conclusions," Jollett explains. "There doesn't need to be some kind of summation. You're struggling with some kind of idea in your head and listeners are just looking to be in the room with you. You need to put listeners on your shoulder and right in the middle of your skull if you're struggling with an idea. There's a bit of a catharsis and a moment of recognition and almost a relief."
The song "Timeless," a terrific anthem about dealing with death, is a good example of that kind of struggle. It features a narrator who has a hard time coping with the death of loved ones and tries to assert his immortality by chanting "I can live forever, forever." It's a personal number based on Jollett's recent experiences.
"It's a defiant song and an angry song," he says. "[The narrator] doesn't quite believe the chorus. He's saying it because he wants to believe it. He's screaming it to the heavens. He's alone and sad. I guess I wrote it at a time where a bunch of people in my life had died. I was fascinated with these poetic and esoteric ideas of death. These ideas kept me up at night and really drove me and were really powerful and then a bunch of people died in my family — five people — and I didn't care any more. All of that didn't matter and I just wanted them back. I didn't want that to happen to them or to me. I was surprised by how I felt about it."
The album's lush orchestration also helps augment the passion at the heart of tunes such as "The Fifth Day," a tune about missing a lover but not wanting to go back to the person either.
"I think having a larger palette is a key to that," Jollett says when asked about his orchestral impulses. "Sometimes you say things best by whispering and sometimes by screaming it. Sometimes, what you need is an oboe. [The song] 'The Fifth Day' is a good example of that. The last three minutes of the song is a really good example. It's part of the story. I can't make it explicit what that is but the whole point is if I could write that down, I wouldn't need to write the song. The whole purpose of music is to communicate something you can't quite communicate in words. Having a larger palette to do that works to your benefit."
Jollett certainly digs deep for meaning on Such Hot Blood. In fact, he chose the album title to reflect the fact that there's so much passion at the core of many of the songs.
"We were trying to figure out what was the thing that connected the songs," he says. "What I like about the album title is that it connects the dots between the songs. There's some songs that are slightly electronic and sometimes folky. What do they have in common? They're all hot-blooded. There's anger and lust and lots of passion and sex and loneliness that accompanies loss. These are hot-blooded songs and themes and it made sense to give it a title that exemplifies that. It's a way of formalizing that idea. We're hot-blooded people making hot-blooded music."
And fans have responded. The band has already played a few dates supporting the album and the response has been terrific.
"I feel like we started off with these punk old-school rock 'n' roll values," he says. "We just wanted to get out there in the van. I've been shocked because these shows have been intense and the fans were really intense and knew every word to every song, even deep album cuts. To be a band on our third record and have that kind of following is really tremendous and intense. Everyone has Airborne tattoos and lyrics written on the side of their bodies. People are throwing flowers. I didn't expect that kind of following. It's fun and completely fucking weird and disorienting, but it's artistically where it's at. That's the whole point of doing this."