Airborne Toxic Event

Airborne Toxic Event live on stage at the RBC Royal Bank BluesFest in July 2012. (Matt Schichter)

The Airborne Toxic Event are currently hard at work on their as-of-yet untitled third studio album in Nashville's famed Blackbird Studio with Grammy Award winning producer Jacquire King. The orchestration-leaning-alternative-rockers took a break from recording a couple of weeks back to play Ottawa BluesFest. It was there that lead singer and songwriter, Mikel Jollett gave MSN a sneak preview on the writing and recording process of the new record among many other things.

How's Nashville?
It's been really cool. I like the south. There's a lot of "mam's" a lot of "sirs". Every woman's like a "mam" or a "darlin". Southerners don't mind if you adopt southern ways. They really appreciate it, so, you become a little but more cordial, more polite and everyone's really friendly.

Is the record written?
It's written. We're about half way done. I don't know how to talk about it. I think I've decided that it doesn't matter what I say.

Well, on the last record you told me there were less sad songs, so are there even less ones this time around?
I don't know. I think it definitely has a different approach to lots of different things. I think I saw this record much more as scoring your life and trying to think of the record as a movie or something that you could just hear the music and know where you are at all times and know what's happening around you. There's a lot of that. There's tons of orchestral elements, folkier elements and tons of keyboards blended in. The idea is to be able to almost close your eyes and just watch it. I want people to really feel like when they hear it they know where they are. But again, I don't think it really matters what I say.

Sure it does, fans of the band are excited to hear it and want to know what it sounds like.
Gypsy folk [laughs]. No but you know what I mean? Particularly now, you hear a song and you like it or you don't. If I were to tell you, 'hey have you checked out Alabama Shakes?'. The first words out of your mouth would be 'what song?'. It wouldn't matter what I said, because in three seconds you would form your own opinion because you could hear it. The one thing that is different this time around, is that the last record I wrote 50 songs. The first record I wrote 100 songs.

Do you write everything?
Not everything, not all the music. I write all the lyrics and the 'songs' but the music we work on as a group. I wrote 10 songs this time. That was it. I was talking to my friend Fitz [from Fitz & The Tantrums] about it and he was like 'so you're just going to expect that all of them are good?' And I said 'I just like the songs'. He didn't approach his new record that way.

Well he has to deliver, he has all that buzz, and probably pressure. You must have had that pressure on the last record to deliver.
Yeah, the second record is either you're a blip or you're a band. And if you have decide what you are. There was a lot of pressure, and for us I feel like there are some things I would change about the second record. I'm very thankful for it, I'm glad it worked out and everything. Then with this record I haven't thought about that. I think the last record had a lot of expectations going in; what it was going to be or what it was going to mean. I honestly just haven't thought about it this time. I just wanted to make a record that I love. That's it, there's no other [thoughts] on if people will like it or hate it. If it's going to be huge or if it's going to fail. I haven't thought about it in those terms. I've just literally thought about each song and trying to make things that I love. That's not to say that I don't care if there's an audience but my working hypothesis is that if I love it, other people will too and trying to guess at as to what's going to be a hit or what's going to be popular is just f*cking stupid and doesn't work out.

You mentioned orchestration up there. You're recording in Nashville, do you have a lot of the session guys coming in?
No, we do it all ourselves.

Oh wow, so you can score music?
Yeah, absolutely.

Interesting, I remember doing prep for the last time we talked, and reading that you were writing a book, a bunch of things happened in your life and you realized you weren't writing a book but a record.
Yeah that was the first record.

But you weren't a musician at the time.
That's true.

So when did you pick up all the music knowledge? That was like 4 years ago!
I'm a hummer. I hum stuff. I've got really really talented musicians I'm working with in Steven [Chen] and Noah [Harmon], Daren [Taylor] and Anna [Bulbrook]. They're insanely good and they can come up with their own stuff and translate things that I want to work on and we all get in a room and toss things around and take it apart and put it back together. They're such incredibly talented musicians and kind of up for anything like, 'hey, let's add a sample or put a weird distorted horn over it and then let's put this low kind of string part that comes in a third of the way through.' It doesn't make sense, except it makes sense. It's like, if you decide to bake apple pies every day and you've never done it before. But tomorrow we're making apple pie, and you spend 10 hours doing it, and it was okay. A week passes and you've kept revising and revising this recipe, it'll taste pretty good. A month goes by and all you've done for 10 hours a day is bake apple pies, it's gonna be even better.

Is that what you did with the guitar?
Yeah I played music.

You say music, so you play piano too?
Yeah piano and I sing a lot, and I'm listening to a lot of music and I'm mixing a lot of music and producing. There's keyboards and singing and you're just in a world of it. So imagine then that a year went by and all you did between this interview and then, a year from now, we're back here talking and you're like 'bro check out this apple pie'. I promise you it will be the best f*cking apple pie I've ever tasted. So the same thing was with music, do it 10 hours a day and you get good at it. At first you're not that good, then you get better.

So you must be a lot more comfortable on stage now?
For sure, I don't feel like a charlatan anymore. I used to for a long long time feel like it was a sidetrack to my writing career.

Are we ever going to see a book?
Maybe, I mean not right now. Now everything is music and is 100% of my focus and attention. There isn't a lot of feeling like not a musician anymore, I used to. Also, I was really new at it when we started the band and suddenly we got successful and pretty fast. So I felt like survivor's guilt. This just got given to me and I've had friends who've been at it forever. So at a certain level it was like 'I know I'm just this dude who sort of showed up' but now I've played a thousand shows, I've played music every day for the last seven years. It's what I do.

Why is Jacquire producing the disc?
I will say there's a song called 'What's In A Name' that's on the new record that the second I wrote that song I knew Jacquire King was the guy. Technically it's the second song that I wrote for this record. The first song is actually a song from six years ago, that's actually the title track of the new record. Which is a song from way back when.

What's the one called, or can you not say?
I probably can't say yet. But, I love Tom Waits, I loved Good News. I was obsessed with that record, I knew every note. The guy's great to work with. Best ear I've ever been around. He believes in playing live. The whole record is live, I mean the last record we were never in the room the same time together once.

How about the first one?
That was live. And this record we're totally live. And we would ask like 'oh are you going to track the guitars separately for safety so if you want to re-amp it and change the effect you can?' and he's like 'no, do you like the sound? If you don't like the sound let's find the sound. We can spend all day finding the sound but once we get the sound we're gonna f*ckin record it and that's going to be your sound, so if you don't like it you better f*ckin say something.'

Vocals too?
No vocals are separate. Although on a couple of them we did use the scratch. Just the tracking vocal ended up being used. So that's what we did, get everything just right. We're in this beautiful studio and we'd find these tones and hit record and then find the one take that we thought was the magic take, and that's the one on the record.

Whether or not there's errors in it?
Sometimes the errors we left in, just because it's good to have some errors. Sometimes things would be a little blue or a little fast or off but it just works, for whatever reason it just works. Some of those old Motown recordings are almost a halftone off. The song's in C and they're almost in C sharp but it sounds good.

Five quick questions, one word answers.

Road or Studio?

Lennon or McCartney

When you hear a song, what usually hits you first, lyrics, melody or rhythm?
Lyrics, always

Song you've written that you're most proud of?
Probably 'Wishing Well,' because it was the first song. Every song in the Airborne world comes from that song, because it changed my approach to how I wrote songs was on Wishing Well.

We'll get back to the fifth question but what do you mean changed your approach?
Well I started editing. I think somewhere in my mind before that I was like 'oh well if the lyric comes out it's the truth.' When I wrote Wishing Well, I was like 'no, there's a very specific feeling I'm trying to capture'. I did twenty drafts of the lyrics, it took me eight months. Rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. And the music started as one thing and morphed into another and I added this thing and kinda took away some stuff and put it here. I really thought about it like a craftsman as opposed to like 'hey man I wrote this thing now let's go play it'. I took eight months to craft it so that when I finally recorded it and all the lyrics were down and all the parts were down and I did the first demo for our first EP in my apartment, I had a tiny little apartment in Silverlake. I finished it and I was like, 'that's how I felt'. It took me eight months to get from, 'I felt like this' to, 'here's a song that actually captures it'. Then every other song that we've ever done in one form or another followed that same search for it until it's right.

When did you start the gestation for this record?
Like I said the title track's from before the first record. The newer stuff, last summer.

On the road? Can you write on the road?
Yeah I was in Dublin. I spent a bunch of time in Ireland. I actually wrote a song about Dublin that didn't make the record, it'll probably be a B-side or something. The period started I guess last summer, and I really approached things differently for this record from a songwriting perspective than either of the first two records. It was very different. I think I thought about it differently. I thought more about not just the lyrics but how the lyrics fit together and when to let the music change and how to create parts that interlock, and there's a lot more moving parts on the songs. The last records, a lot of the songs were, 'there's two parts and that's it', the first record too, it's just one melody. This record there's a lot more, a lot of movements. I spent a lot more time thinking about how different pieces fit together and how to let the music lead and not just always have the lyrics lead.

Back to the fifth question, in one word, The Airborne Toxic Event.
I can't think of one word that encapsulates it. I can't I'm sorry. There's too much going on. The name itself is four words and it's reference to a unit that's part of a novel, that's part of a movement, that's part of a... You know what I mean? It's already so deeply steeped in all these other ideas that it's like one word.. uhh?