When the Airborne Toxic Event took the stage at Spaceland in Silver Lake on January 31st of 2008, the 400-capacity venue was a madhouse. In the entryway, patrons squeezed in and pled their cases to the door girl. Another 400 people queued impatiently along the sidewalk outside, forming a massive line of a thousand people that snaked down Silver Lake Boulevard, surrounding the venue on all sides.
It was the final night of the band’s five-week residency at the legendary Eastside venue, and all that month, when they weren’t rehearsing or performing, they were busy self-recording their first full-length album at a friend’s home studio in Eagle Rock. For the past week their song, “Sometime Around Midnight,” had unexpectedly been played again and again on KROQ, the biggest rock radio station in the world. The highly respected Indie 103.1 had suddenly started playing it too.
It quickly became the most requested song on both stations, despite the fact that it had no “chorus” or “hook.” The song was essentially a poem set to music describing the desperate inner monologue of a man seeing a lost love at a bar with someone else. One critic described it as Leonard Cohen backed by the Jesus and Mary Chain.
At the time, the band had no label, no manager, no publicist, no radio promoter, and no distribution. In fact, both stations were spinning an un-mastered mp3 of the song, barely three weeks after it had been recorded.
It was an odd moment, one in which it seemed that whatever rules had been established in the music world suddenly didn’t apply and all the connections, money, favors and advertisements faded in the face of music people wanted to hear.
That night onstage, the conversation between singer Mikel Jollett and guitarist Steven Chen went something like this:
Chen: “This is really fucking strange.”
Jollett: “Yes. It is.”
Two years earlier, Jollett was a writer working on his first novel when he experienced the worst week of his life. In a span of seven days, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he in turn was diagnosed with a genetic autoimmune disease, he and his long-term girlfriend broke up, and after camping out in the hospital for several days for his mother’s surgery, he came down with pneumonia.
“Something in me snapped,” Jollett says. “Like, I literally just lost my mind and didn’t care about anything. Except music.” Emerging from a month-long haze (in which he also went through nicotine withdrawal, quitting a two-pack-a-day habit), the published author suddenly found himself with a mad desire to do nothing but play music. Which is what he did, alone in his apartment, every day for the next year.
Though he continued to write prose (a section of his novel is excerpted as a short story in the June 2008 McSweeney’s), at some point he realized that he was writing a rock and roll record instead of a book.
Daren Taylor had recently moved back to Los Angeles from Fresno and was looking for something to do. The 26-year-old former punk drummer met Jollett through a friend, and after briefly quizzing one another on rock trivia and playing some songs together, the two promptly locked themselves in a small room in a warehouse in downtown L.A. and for the next four months, worked out beats and breaks, screaming into microphones, stomping, drinking, dancing and wailing into the night.
They felt perhaps they were on to something.
Months went by, during which the two flirted with the idea of becoming a two-piece. Then they met Noah Harmon. Also a former punk rock acolyte, Harmon had recently earned a degree in jazz double bass from the California Institute of the Arts. He taught music to kids in East L.A. and was the rare melding of punk, jazz and baroque—somewhere between Brahms, Charlie Parker, and the Misfits. Jollett asked him one day if he could play electric bass. He could, in fact.
Anna Bulbrook was next. A classically trained violinist from Boston, she met Jollett at a taco stand at two in the morning one night. They were both a tad drunk and he asked her if she could play some viola for his band. A versatile musician who had spent 10 of her 23 years playing in symphonies, it was discovered on a whim one night, that she could also sing and play piano.
Finally, Steven Chen, who knew Jollett from halcyon days in San Francisco when they were both part of the same clique of writers, was asked to come by the warehouse one afternoon and play something on the keyboard. He insisted instead on guitar. After escaping to Tokyo for a few weeks, he returned to Los Angeles and joined the band fulltime.
Having discovered the postmodern writer Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, the band took its name from a section of that book in which the main character is exposed to an enormous chemical explosion—dubbed by the media in Orwellian double-speak: “the Airborne Toxic Event.”
As a result of being exposed to the cloud, he is told he is going to die. This realization changes him, making his life, his relationships, his desires, more vital, more real, more alive. The cloud becomes a living metaphor for the fear of death and how this fear transforms him. The band thought it might make an appropriate band name.
Airborne quickly developed a reputation for cathartic, wailing live shows, reaching the usually stoic East Side L.A. indie rock crowd on a gut level. Many danced. Some cried. Sing-alongs became the norm. Harmon played his bass with bow like a cello while Taylor pounded away on a car hood taken from a junkyard one afternoon. It was not uncommon for the band to throw thirty tambourines into the crowd or for Harmon or Bulbrook to jump into the ruckus among a chorus of handclaps as Jollett screamed from the stage while the audience screamed back.
“Everyone’s got to sweat,” Jollett says. “Something, as opposed to nothing, has to happen. You’ve got to wonder if a riot is going to break out or if the whole place is going to burn down. That’s what makes it rock and roll. Otherwise it’s just folk with a back-beat.”
It was this feeling of catharsis—the live energy created by the soaring, jagged songs—that the band set out to capture in the studio. Teaming up with friend Pete Min in his home studio in the mountainous Los Angeles neighborhood Eagle Rock, the band spent six months recording and mixing, remixing and obsessing over reverb. They made the album themselves, having turned down offers from major producers.
Soon the upstart West Coast indie imprint Majordomo offered the band a partnership indie deal (structured very much like Radiohead’s progressive deal with TBD), so they took it. At the time, they had exactly one label mate (the local Silver Lake band, Earlimart).
In their first year as a traveling band, the Airborne Toxic Event played more than 200 shows. During one stint in November, 2008, they played 30 shows in 30 days in the United Kingdom, managing to visit just about every corner of the England, Wales and Scotland—even tiny towns like Stoke-on-Trent, Yeovil, Barrow-in-Furnace and Fife—places that most British bands don’t go. Word of their raucous show spread, and when the record came out in the UK in February 2009, it debuted in the top 40 of the UK pop charts.
This was an unheard-of feat for a band that was self-releasing a record in the UK (since Majordomo didn’t have a UK division). Every single show of its follow-up UK tour in the spring was sold out. (As were future shows: one infamous London show in a 900-capacity venue sold out in 15 minutes)…
Back in the United States, the single “Sometime Around Midnight” continued to climb the radio charts, eventually cracking the top five. It was the first time a band on an independent label had done so in 20 years.
Around the same time, the song was named the number-one Alternative song of the year by iTunes (a list that included Band of Horses, Glasvegas, Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend and Coldplay). This was followed by a notorious appearance on David Letterman (the band had previously played Conan O’Brien), featuring their friends the Calder Quartet and one flabbergasted outburst by the usually indifferent David Letterman.
Throughout the spring, as records sold out in stores in the States and demand grew overseas, the band was pursued by major labels, but it wasn’t until Island-Def Jam offered the band the right deal (including the prerequisite that they remain partners with Majordomo and the record would not be changed) that they accepted. It was a unique record deal in the modern music industry, allowing the largest record label in the world to put out what is essentially a home recording.
Such things happen every now and then. An idea takes hold, or a piece of music strikes a resonant chord and suddenly it seems the world is infinite, that something real can exist among the mind-numbing fray.
The Airborne Toxic Event are neither icons, nor saviors (they would say “there’s nothing to save, it saved us,”), nor pop stars, nor disinterested hipsters… They’re just a group of friends traveling from place to place, playing oddly redemptive songs, written during some oddly painful times.
Maybe the world is changing around them. Or maybe nothing ever changes and all anybody ever wanted was to hear was an honest song.