How Mikel Jollett of the Airborne Toxic Event writes his music – San Bernardino Sun

Mikel Jollett, frontman of the Airborne Toxic Event, doesn’t always create a narrative around his music. Sometimes it is fine-tuned like a staticky radio frequency finding its clarity.

While songwriting can be technical or formulaic, Jollett said in a phone interview that sometimes it’s a matter of telling a story or a more authentic process with the words of a song naturally surfacing over a melody. He said that he doesn’t think about it too much. He just writes.

“The best songs feel like you don’t write them,” Jollett said. “It’s almost like they already existed, and you were just the person lucky enough to write it down and put it out into the world.”

With the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic receding, the band’s tour to promote its 2020 album “Hollywood Park” has gone into full swing with a tour stop at the Greek Theatre on Saturday, April 30.

Long before forming the Airborne Toxic Event, a 15-year-old Jollett remembers seeing his friend’s acoustic guitar and thinking it looked hokey and something that a cowboy would own. He was used to seeing the electric guitars of the rock stars he listened to and admired. Later that day, his friend showed him how to play “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, and at that point, it didn’t matter what the guitar looked like.

“Suddenly, we were in this room, and David Bowie was sort of with us too,” Jollett said. “It was like magic.”

Jollett said his grandma gave him his first instrument, a Spanish guitar with busted strings and a hole on its side, but he made it work. He would play it for two hours a day until he harnessed the craft.

His music career didn’t start right away. When he graduated from Stanford University, he went on to teach English. He later found himself in music writing and as an editor at the music magazine Filter. Jollett scored interviews with some of the music icons of his youth such as Robert Smith of The Cure and Bowie. The conversations would usually derail from interview questions to ones more focused on songwriting.

“It was really me trying to pick their brains because I admired what wonderful songwriters they were, and I wanted to be one,” Jollett said.

In 2006, Jollett decided to commit to making music and formed the Airborne Toxic Event. In the beginning, Jollett said it was just him on guitar and Daren Taylor on drums locked in a room in downtown L.A. bouncing ideas for music off of each other. Later, the band added other members and found success with its self-titled album in 2008 and toured frequently.

One of their last albums before “Hollywood Park” was “Dope Machines,” released in 2014. Jollett said after the tour promoting “Dope Machines,” he needed a break and space to deal with his father’s death, which inspired him to write “Hollywood Park: A Memoir” during his time of mourning.

“It hit me pretty hard, so I needed some time to recover,” Jollett said. “It took three to four years to write it, and I don’t think the band thought it was going to be that long, but they were very supportive.”

He said he was writing songs every day while working on the book, which led to the album “Hollywood Park.” The emotional themes of grief and childhood naturally made their way from the pages of the book the lyrics of the songs.

Jollett’s vulnerability in his songwriting isn’t new. The band’s lyrics often involve emotional themes complimented by symphonies. The raw experiences of his life are channeled into his songwriting, whether it’s on purpose or not.

“I don’t even think about it until it’s time to perform,” Jollett said. “What will happen is the song will come out, and I’ll go, ‘Oh wow, that was really personal.’ I was drawn to people who did that. I always liked when people took risks and let me into their inner psyche. I think it makes certain music feel more alive.”

The album and the memoir were written as a tribute to Jollett’s father. He said he spent a lot of time writing them in a confined space during the pandemic, so going back out on tour and playing the album’s songs live feels like a collective and celebratory experience.

“It’s been amazing at the shows because everyone knows the words to ‘Hollywood Park’ and is singing them back to us, Jollett said. “I picture my dad and how we would have loved seeing all these people sing these songs about him.”

If you go:

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30

Where: The Greek Theatre, 2700 N Vermont Ave

Tickets: $19.50-$59.50


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