The Road From Hell: On Tour with The Airborne Toxic Event

tate

It would be fair to say that you’re having a bad week when your doctor diagnoses you with a potentially life-threatening auto-immune disease; your mother reveals she has cancer and your girlfriend walks out on you all in the space of a few days. In such a situation, many people would question the fairness of life; a few may even sink into despair. Mikel Jollet probably did both before channeling his energy and feelings into a collection of songs which would eventually become one of 2009’s outstanding rock albums.

As the old saying goes, out of adversity often comes creativity. Jollet came out of his “week from Hell” with a new perspective and, after deciding to leave his promising literary career behind, set about taking his band, The Airborne Toxic Event, from local LA celebrities to nationwide phenomenon. In the six months since releasing their debut album in August last year, the Los Feliz five-piece have been the band to name-drop in the US. Now it seems the juggernaut of critical acclaim has overtaken the band’s tour bus somewhere on a distant highway, leaving The Airborne Toxic Event to put the pedal to the metal in an attempt to keep up.

The result has meant that, here in Europe where their album is not even released yet, Jollet and Co. are arriving at smaller venues expecting to play the kind of “paying your dues” shows that all new bands from the US have to go through, only to find packed, breathless crowds clamouring for their stories of damaged goods, broken hearts and lost souls. “We’ve been pretty shocked by the reaction,” Jollet says. “It’s not something that we ever expected because the record’s not even out in Europe for a couple of months. It just seems weird that so many people know who we are. It’s like we’ve been on this whirlwind. We’re this local band from LA who made this homemade record…We just figured we’d slug it out like every other indie rock band in history and tour for ten years.”

“It’s hard to get some perspective on what people like about us,” he adds. “I think the live show is a real factor; we tend to have a lot of screaming, jumping around and a lot of movement so that might have something to do with it. As for the record…I don’t know. I’m just glad that people seem to be connecting with it.”

Their current European tour has taken TATE to toilets and bus shelters up and down the length and breadth of the old continent, putting them in contact with the weird and wonderful characters that Europe has lurking in its most distant corners. Jollet and his band, it seems, take playing to a bunch of backwater weirdoes in their immaculately suited stride.

“We’re probably the weirdest people in the room when we play,” the singer deadpans. “We come to get down with people, we like our fans a lot and half the time we’re in the audience and half the time the audience is on the stage so we don’t make a lot of distinction about those things. We come along and play some songs and, you know, we’re in the room too. We hear of bands coming over here and meeting people who want to get into fights but we haven’t had that. We’re more likely to be the first to jump into the fight anyway. We’re just as wired to mix things up as anyone.”

While the album has been steadily reaching new levels of popularity back home, it’s the single Sometime Around Midnight which has provided The Airborne Toxic Event with their breakthrough in Europe. A slow building narrative based on a personal experience of heartbreaking rejection, it’s a song which shows Jollet’s undoubted talent for storytelling and his willingness to lay bare his life and experiences. Apart from its rolling musical power, the song has an honesty that legions of fans have connected with.

“Kurt Vonnegut used to say that the first rule of writing is that the writer must impugn himself, to not be afraid to look like an idiot and not be afraid to say things that are true,” Jollet says. “A politician’s job is to say popular things that aren’t true whereas an artist’s job is to say things which are true but unpopular. I think there is something in saying ‘well, you know, this happened and it’s all fucked up’. I think some people relate to that. Others are uncomfortable with that. They want their rock bands to be disinterested and cool but that’s not who we are.”

More calculating rock stars may have tried to suppress the personal traumas which have become intrinsically linked with the story of his band but Jollet accepts that his period of trial is now public knowledge and continues to feed his own experiences into his work.

“That’s the deal if you’re an artist, right? People are going to know you,” he says. ”I feel it comes with the territory. My job is to write stories and to observe the world. I try and write about things that are affecting me and hopefully relate that to other people. I’m just writing songs and it seems that if you’re a songwriter you have to trade on some pretty personal stuff. It feels fine to me.”

“This whole thing of music as a coping mechanism, that wasn’t true for me,” he adds. “All that stuff happened but then a lot of good things happened too. I just wrote a record about it. It’s not like I needed to do it to cope or have catharsis.”

Jollet may have strayed from his initial career path, one which he hoped would lead to him writing the Great American Novel, but the latent novelist in him is being put to good use in TATE’s growing cannon of narrative-driven rock songs. However, while bouncing along the highways and byways of Europe, the singer-songwriter still wonders aloud about his choices, his new artistic direction and the one he left, maybe only temporarily, behind.

“I was a writer for a few years and all this feels a little absurd,” he says. “I should be on my second novel right now and married with a kid or something but I’m in this bus with a bunch of my friends, touring around and playing all these shows all the time. So sometimes this feels weird but most of the time it’s very natural.

“Suddenly, for whatever reason, all I wanted to do was play music…which was a kinda irresponsible decision! I had quite a promising writing career going and then I fucked it up with this rock band.”

The prospect of writing the next record, the almost mythic “difficult” second album, doesn’t faze Jollet. But questions remain. Where will the stories come from now that the “week from Hell” has been dealt with? Is he now living experiences which fans will get to hear about in the next year or so? Where will the inspiration come from now things are finally looking up?

“Who knows? Am I going to make another heartbreaking record or write an album without having to go through some horrible times, I hope so and I think so,” he says. “We already have about seven songs for the new record. Joe Strummer of the Clash said if you want to write songs then just look around you, everything you want to write about is where you look so I think that’s pretty much where the second record will come from.”

Right now, the sometimes raw subject matter of Jollet’s songs from that dark period is their stock and trade. And far from shying away from it, fans have embraced the vulnerability and honesty.

 At TATE’s show at the Muziekodroom in Hasselt on April 24, their first time in Belgium, the crowd is packed in like sardines. For a band which has yet to release its album in mainland Europe, they soon find that, with all things, where there’s a will there’s a way and the crowd sing along to songs they have no right to know about yet. The band responds in the way which has helped drive on the monster they have created. They rip through their set with an intensity and physicality as though it could be their last. Knowing that life can change in a second, maybe that’s how Jollet works. Maybe that’s why his band is living for the moment and maybe that’s why so many people are willing to join them.

While you can never really be sure what’s going to happen next, you wouldn’t bet against The Airborne Toxic Event being one of the biggest bands on the planet by the time they return to Europe later in the year for festival performances which could be triumphant, and, dare I say it, life-affirming.

Originally Published in The Bulletin Magazine, Brussels (www.thebulletin.be)

Advertisements

Paolo Conte: Farmhand, Lawyer, Jazz Legend

best_of_paolo_conteThe road to success more often than not starts off as a tiny strip of flattened grass. Simple beginnings which lead to greatness can make the rise to fame that much more intriguing. An upbringing miles away from the bright lights of the pinnacle of a career makes us all believe that this is possible.

One wonders if Paolo Conte, Italy’s grand old man of jazz, ever thought that he would be treading the path to concert halls the world over when he and his brother started their piano lessons as children in the early 1940s. Perhaps he thought that he would join the long list of relatives who had practised as solicitors in the small city of Asti, in the north-western Italian region of Piedmont, for generations. Perhaps he thought the idyllic days spent at his grandfather’s farm would lead to a life tending the land.

But music was all around him and his contact with a wide range of styles soon convinced him where his life would lead. “My home was always filled with music,” Conte says. “This made it clear to me that listening to good music was paradise.”

While music had been a constant in his early life, so had law and Conte was still on the path to becoming a solicitor when his life took a turn which would lead him to the stage, not the bar. The American influence in Italy after the war had brought jazz to his ears and while still studying for his law degree at the University of Parma, that seductive genre led Conte to put his piano skills to good use in a number of amateur jazz bands around town. “Jazz had a sexiness that the other music did not have,” he says. “Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, the great masters of the sintassi and the drammaticità, they all had a great influence on me.”

It would prove to be not a fleeting affair but a passionate and deep love. While his own playing career took longer to reach fruition, Conte found early fame as a writer and composer. Already coming from an area of Italy where the French influence was deeply felt, he found himself drawn to the likes of Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, developing his own style which combined traditional Italian rhythms with the dry wit and cynicism of the Francophones. It proved to be hugely popular. His work with Adriano Celentano in the late 60’s brought him his first number one hit, a Coppia piu’ bella del mond. His second success with Celentano, Azzurro, was a classic-in-waiting and has since proved to be, being performed by countless international artists.

While his composing and writing talents were sought after by everyone from Patty Pravo and Enzo Jannacci through to Johnny Hallyday and Shirley Bassey, Conte didn’t become a singing star in his own right until the 1974 album Paolo Conte on which he wrote, composed and performed. “Deciding to be the singer, I became the person for whom I had written,” he says. “It was for sincerity.” It was a connection with the genius behind some of the great jazz compositions of the 60’s and 70’s that his audience had been waiting for.

His success as a performer continued throughout the 1980s and 1987’s Aguaplano and 1990’s Parole D’Amore Scritte a Macchina, a change in direction and style with backing singers and electronic experimentalism, brought him considerable success throughout Europe. He followed up these successes on record with acclaimed tours throughout the continent and Canada. His greatest hits compilation released in 1998 brought Conte’s music to the land of jazz, bringing his influences full circle with his first US success and shows at the legendary Blue Note club in New York. He would return to the States for even bigger tours throughout the early years of the new millennium.

These days, established as one of Europe’s greatest jazzmen, Conte shows no sign of letting up. Despite all the success and with new and diverse albums and directions explored on an almost yearly basis, the 72-year-old is ever evolving. Asked what keeps him going, the Maestro says simply: “passion.”

The Rifles: Le Botanique, Brussels 07-04-09

rifles-004For all aspiring Mod bands, the choice is a stark one: you either aim to be the new Jam or face the heinous consequences; that being the possibility of ending up as the new Ocean Colour Scene.

 

On the face of it, it shouldn’t be that hard. Take a look at the unfair world around you, work yourself up into a state about dole queues and teenage mothers, write down your angst in venomous prose and then stick a choppy guitar riff behind it. In reality, however, it’s a tad harder to portray the authenticity of a generational mouthpiece if you don’t have the anger. You need to mean it, man.

 

The Rifles have the necessary, observational lyrics and pogo-inducing tunes in spades. The sold-out crowd in Le Botanique’s Rotunde respond deliriously to familiar hot steppers such as She’s Got Standards, Local Boy and Spend a Lifetime and cook up a sweaty storm to new tracks from latest album Great Escape. Both band and crowd move seamlessly between new and old material; the mainly male audience bellows out the words to Science in Violence as easily as reciting the chorus to the insanely catchy One Night Stand from the Rifles’ debut album.

 

And therein lies the problem with the Rifles. It all sounds so safely the same. There’s no danger. They lack that essential quality which separates the Paul Wellers from the Simon Fowler’s: anger. It’s okay to bark about knife crime and inner-city violence in Narrow Minded Social Club but when singer Joel Stoker delivers his treatise on modern Britain, there’s plenty of skill but no fire. It’s like having the front page of the Daily Mirror sung to you by four nice blokes in bowling shoes and Trilby’s.

 

For those in attendance tonight, however, the fact the Rifles have so far failed to evolve matters not. The band are preaching to the Fred Perry-clad converted. The lads down the front who still dream of scooter rallies and seaside punch-ups don’t care if the Rifles remain efficiently formulaic, churning out shedloads of tuneful yet interchangeable albums of Mod rock.

 

The Rifles are clinically professional in their look, their delivery and their product but they lack the heart which is why, in football terms, they’ll always be battling with the likes of Hard-Fi for a place in the play-offs while aggro-scamps like The Enemy will string the necessary results together to get promoted to the big league. All of which suggests their destiny is more likely to yield a Moseley Shoals than an All Mod Cons.

U2 Review: No Line (Change?) on the Horizon

Amazon-iTunes_packshot2In an interview at the start of this year, U2 announced their return to the rock arena by saying that if they got No Line on the Horizon right, then 2009 would be theirs. After listening to the new album by the Biggest Band in the World, the likes of Coldplay and Radiohead have – sadly – nothing to worry about.

U2 have always been about passion; passion for people, passion for causes, passion for music. Even when their vision was wayward and their tunes overblown, the belief and energy behind the band was enough to raise their output above mediocrity. No Line on the Horizon lacks anything that could pass as genuine passion and quickly descends into pastiche and parody, and not in the self-deprecating, ironic way which has been the case in the past.

The Irish rockers attempt to make a U2-by-numbers record with their 12th studio album but totally get their sums wrong. All the components are here; the chiming guitars, the heartfelt vocals, the cod-philosophical lyrical content, but it sounds as though each has been programmed into a computer and selected at random. It’s a choppy, ill-paced effort which lacks any genuine emotion and as a result is a huge disappointment.

The album begins with the title track, a reheated Kings of Leon B-side which is bereft of the impact of previous barn-storming openers like Where the Streets Have No Name or Vertigo. It starts encouragingly but gets stuck in a recurring riff which holds the song captive, preventing it from becoming a fully-fledged tune. At least it sounds contemporary.

Next up is Magnificent, which isn’t but at least it’s on the right path. U2 dig deep into their own back catalogue to create a competent and mature update of their early 1980’s material. The Edge’s guitar sounds full of adolescent fire as it chops through the verse and spirals energetically during the chorus while Bono wails over the squall. It’s a song which wouldn’t sound out of place on Boy or October but from a band which prides itself on pushing boundaries, shouldn’t we expect a little more than warmed-through nostalgia?

Moment of Surrender is aptly-tilted as it appears that this is the point when U2 decide they can’t be bothered any more. Borrowing Noel Gallagher’s “if it rhymes, then it’ll do” ethos from the mid-90s, Bono rattles off a number of badly-conceived non-sequiturs over an anorexic backing track. It sounds like it wants to be one of the band’s heart-rending anthems but it lacks any real conviction and substance.

Unknown Caller follows; a mish-mash which sounds as though U2 are trying to rope together all the threads of their previous successes but ultimately end up tying themselves up in knots. It’s a clumsy and shallow parody with the ubiquitous vocal acrobatics, soaring guitars and lyrical imagery but without any soul.

I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight as a title already suffers from unintentionally echoing Spinal Tap’s Tonight I’m Going to Rock You Tonight and unfortunately, this moment of knowing amusement is about as good as it gets. It sounds like one of those insipid chart-toppers from Rod Stewart or Tina Turner from the time when U2 were actually edgy and on the brink of eclipsing the dinosaurs of rock back in 1987.

Get On Your Boots, the first single off the album, promises redemption by opening with some down and dirty guitars with Bono free-styling over the top but all credibility is lost when the singer camps it up with a line about “sexy boots”. The song lacks a decent chorus when a booming refrain would have drowned out that heinous miscalculation. Bono keeps going on about “I don’t want to hear about wars between nations” in an attempt to convince us that he’s now concentrating on being a rock star rather than a peace envoy but if this is the best they can come up with, the band may be better served by letting the singer follow his quest to save the world while they go off and redecorate their castles.

Again, Stand Up Comedy starts encouragingly with a grungey riff which stirs memories of Jimmy Page and, more recently John Squire’s post-Stone Roses work, and manages to maintain its momentum throughout to deliver one of the album’s few highlights. It isn’t rocket science but at least it’s a genuine song with a bit of gumption behind it.

Fez – Born Again has the potential to be one of those soaring epics which set U2 apart from other rock behemoths but it never really gets going and once more, it is a song that lacks heart. For all its echoed, distant voices and mystical, swirling guitars, it never reaches the heights of similar experiments which graced The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree.

White as Snow passes almost unnoticed, a classic case of album filler which might have been found on Neil Young’s cutting room floor. It neither enhances nor further condemns those songs around it.

Breathe has been tipped by many critics to be this album’s One. Okay, if you had to pick one song from every U2 record to compare with one of their classics, then fair enough but in reality this song is not in the same league as Achtung Baby’s stand-out track. With Bono rattling off stream-of-consciousness social commentary while the band plods along underneath, it would, at best, tower above the majority of Rattle and Hum’s excessive Americana but it still lacks subtlety. It would have provided the album with an adequate closing track but U2 perversely decide to close with the soporific Cedars of Lebanon, an apparent concession to Bono’s eternal need to include a serious, political song at every opportunity.

No Line on the Horizon is disappointing because after rediscovering their form with All You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000 and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it seems that U2 have run out of ideas as to how they can move forward and remain relevant. One wonders from the majority of this record whether they have the desire to even try.