Musicians, like all artists, are a strange breed. They either profess to showing their true selves through their work or present a public face that they think the people want to see. It’s very rare that a musician or artist will open up and give you a glimpse behind the persona. One of the most tried and tested forms of getting some truth from musicians is to lull them into a false sense of security by asking them seemingly random and bizarre questions, then hitting them with the incisive stuff. It works like sodium pentothal. They struggle but eventually they can’t help themselves.
This is the job of The Interrogator – the journalist tasked with getting a peak behind the stage curtain at the person behind the rock star. This week, MIKEL JOLLETT, frontman and songwriter with The Airborne Toxic Event gets grilled.
Which great American novel do you wish you had written and why?
East of Eden. John Steinbeck. I think it’s probably cooler to say something like the Great Gatsby or American Pastoral by Phillip Roth. You know, something filled with analyses of America’s worst impulses.
But I feel comforted whenever I read East of Eden. It’s a hopeful book. Steinbeck writes like a bull, pushing his characters through large swaths of time. He’s also got a canny understanding of the aspirations of poor people and the power of hard work.
This tendency is comforting in an age obsessed with people’s moral failings and the voyeuristic draw of celebrity, money and pornography.
Is being a rock star everything you expected it to be?
No. It’s just another role one plays in life, like “uncle,” “son,” “friend,” “writer,” or “miserable failure.” Which is to say, it’s temporary and nothing is to be taken too seriously.
What do you feel more comfortable in: nice suit or jeans and t-shirt?
Nice suit. That’s the worst part of living in Los Angeles. It’s always too hot to wear a good jacket.
Have you ever hunted anything, killed it and eaten it?
Sort of. My parents raised rabbits for food when I was a kid. We used to slaughter them every few months and make stew. I still have dreams about it. I think to them it was about respecting the life cycle: you know, if you’re going to eat something, you should kill it yourself so that you understand the sacrifice. To me, it was just another chore and I always wanted to go to Wendy’s.
I think about the rabbits sometimes. How they died. It wasn’t some romantic thing like death always seems in stories. It was just a dull thud, a kick of the legs, then silence. It’s not like a Silence of the Lambs sort of thing where they’re screaming and haunting me or whatever. Just that the very banality of how they died sticks with me. I read somewhere that in a study of black box recordings on airplane crashes, for 80% of people, there last word is, “shit.”
How much of an influence does your medical condition have on your life?
Some. It keeps me within certain boundaries I would otherwise probably transgress. The only way to deal with Autoimmune Disorder, generally, is to live a balanced life: you know, sleeping well and eating well and avoiding stress and that sort of thing. Which of course is the way one is supposed to deal with life. Otherwise, I don’t really think about it except that every now and then when I’m really stressed I lose a clump of hair or an eyebrow. It’s kind of funny.
When it comes to a night out on the tiles, are you a full-on dancer or an appreciative nodder? What gets you on the dance floor?
Full-on dancer. Old soul, new hip-hop and Swedish electro. Put Al Green, Kanye West and the Knife into a blender and hit “puree.” Lately I’ve been into new dance moves like “the jacket toss,” “the tie-straightener” and “the sleeve brush.” There’s also been a lot of pogo-ing at shows lately.
Who are your heroes in music, literature and life?
What are the benefits of fame?
Your friends think you’re rich. Your ideas seem more important. These are also the drawbacks of fame.
If you could front a band of musicians, living or dead, what would the line-up be?
Eric Avery and Stephen Perkins from Jane’s Addiction in the rhythm section. Jason Lytle from Grandaddy and whoever plays all those greats lines in Passion Pit on keyboard, playing songs co-written with Regina Spektor in a production conceived and orchestrated by David Bowie
Would you ever wear a cowboy hat, either seriously or with irony?
Are you mentally compiling notes on life in the music industry to turn into a book one day? Would such a book be complimentary of the industry or a warning to others?
No. There really are no secrets. The best moments in music are the ones that happen between your ears as you listen to your favorite song. The rest is all folklore and mythology of a world which doesn’t really exist.
Away from the on-tour catering, do you cook? What’s your specialty?
Salmon and various types of breakfast scrambles.
You’re trapped in a lift with a critic who has been very severe in his/her appraisal of your work (think Pitchfork review). What do you say to them?
You can’t use my phone.
Many of your songs are about heartache and loss in relationships, what are the most important lessons you’ve learnt about the affairs of the heart and what advice would you give about avoiding the pitfalls?
I’m probably not a good person to ask. And anyway, I think people figure out such things for themselves. It’s never anything you read. I will say that I tend to think that fate does not exist and that symbolism in relationships is pointless. You know, “this event means this.” et cetera, and that if you want to be with someone, the way to make it work is to work at it.
You can either have the problems of a single person or the problems of a person in a relationship.
What would be your first reaction to an Airborne Toxic Event?
I’d probably want to know my folks were OK.
Do you read your own press? If so, do you take any notice of it?
I try not to. I think it’s human nature to want to know what other people think of you but it’s the kind of thing that can also make you very self-conscious. It’s probably best to take it with a grain of salt. Most people have no idea who you are.
Having said that, I really like music journalists. They tend to be smart and kind of sarcastic. They’re cynics and true believers at the same time. We have a lot of good conversations about David Bowie and Sufjan Stevens.
There’s also something kind of great about a good writer who can capture in words why they love a piece of music. The feeling in the room. The excitement at a great show. The ideas driving the music. Why people are responding, jumping, clapping, screaming, swooning. Like it’s the last night on earth. It’s not easy. You know the old line about dancing about architecture… It’s true.
What’s your favorite (legal) vice and why?
Ambien. Europe is a whole other experience when you can sleep at night.
TATE are now a Big Thing, after being the Next Big Thing. Who in your opinion is the Next Next Big Thing?
Passion Pit. They’ve cornered something. I can’t decide if it’s a sound or an attitude towards songwriting or a gift for rhythm and melody, but whatever it is they are fucking talented.
What would your personal profile description be on Facebook?
“I am not on Facebook.”
What’s the deepest statement you’ve ever come up with and does it still resonate, or does it sound pretentious now?
In a drunken stupor I once scribbled on my wall: “Everyone is an orphan.” Yeah, it sounds pretentious as hell.
After meeting which famous person did your opinion of them completely change? What did you think before and after you met them?
David Bowie. He was shorter than I thought he’d be.
We talked for a long time about Nietzsche and moral-relativism and the death of God in the 20th century and we ended up having this oddly paternal moment when he asked me if my generation had a problem believing in anything.
I nearly wrote a book trying to answer that question.
Was Michael Jackson really the King of Pop? What’s your favourite Michael Jackson song?
Yes. Right now I’ve been into that song “Say Say Say” he did with Paul McCartney.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done when drunk, that you can tell me?
Hmm… When we were in San Jose for a show, for some reason I decided to go to the bar downstairs and play the piano. The bar was closed. Security showed up and told me to stop. I just kept looking at him and saying, “Hey man, someone’s got to be the piano player.”
He called the police. 10 minutes later (as I was walking away across the street) five police cars arrived. A block later one asked me if I’d been in that hotel. I said, “no. But could you tell me where Carl’s Junior is?” He gave us directions and we went for milkshakes.
I guess that’s not very embarrassing. There was a time when I was nearly passed out drunk in a field and I had this hour-long conversation with a very polite and well-spoken girl. It turned out she was a blogger. She printed an account of the whole thing including pictures of me lying passed out under a diesel truck.
Which is more expressive: literature or music?
Who knows? Every major change I’ve ever made in my life has been predicated upon a book. But then you never love anything like a song.
Are we doomed?
No. But it’s best to think we are.
You have won a major music award at a flashy industry event and are expected to take the podium – who do you mention in your acceptance speech? Who would you credit for inspiration and support?
Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Eric Bachman and the Henry Clay People. The first three because they were the ones that it seemed like they were whispering in my ear, you know saying things that sounded familiar and true, but a little incomprehensible and beyond my reach. And the HCP because they are a great local band from Silver Lake and I think they’d be excited to hear their name on TV.
Your album has been widely acclaimed and rated as one of the best rock albums of the year. Surprised or what?
Sometimes. Sometimes I wonder how anybody ever even listened to it, because it’s just like a role and not real and feel like it’s all absurd and it was just a home recording we made at our friend’s house and I should be somewhere writing a book. Other times, I feel like it was two wrenching years of life poured body and soul into 38 minutes and I guess I understand it.
You’ve been given your own state to govern – let’s call it Mikelistan – what would be the five most important laws of the land? (And remember – you’re the boss, it can be anything!)
It would be a terrible idea. Power corrupts. Always. I think all five rules would have to be about how to equitably share power and make that power based on a democratic system. That and that everyone would be required to listen to the Final Cut by Pink Floyd.
Is there really no place like home? What do you love and loathe about LA?
Los Angeles is widely misunderstood because most people think L.A. is Hollywood and Hollywood is dominated by white people and Los Angeles is not. It’s mostly Latino and black and Asian immigrants. It’s sort of like how 4 years ago if you went to Europe, everybody thought everyone in America loved George W. Bush. We only exported the worst caricatures about ourselves.
L.A. is like that. All it exports is Hollywood. Hollywood is a tiny island of 90,000 power-seeking, white people surrounded by an ocean of 14 million working people from all over the world.
Which is to say, I love the tacos. I love playing basketball in the park, I love the Korean Barbecue, the Ethiopian food, the empty beaches by the airport, the weather at my parent’s house, Fox Hills mall where all the black people are rich and the white people are poor. The Armenian ladies at Hollywood Park who try to steal chips when they lose a hand. The Vietnamese noodle shops. The hills above Griffith Park and the way rushing, muddy rivers form in the gutters when it rains.
What would you say to the 16-year-old Mikel Jollett if you could go back in time and meet him?
Don’t waste your time on math.
What is your opinion on rock stars using their standing to address political and social issues? Can musicians save the world?
We all can. It’s like a billion ton boulder we all have to push together.
Which is more difficult: writing a novel to learning to play guitar?
Writing a novel. Playing guitar is fun.
What are your initial impressions of President Barack Obama? Are you optimistic about the future of your country under him?
I’m worried he’s going to be shot. All the extremist right wing redneck rhetoric is frightening. It’s like the anti-Semitic propaganda of the middle ages or something. There’s so much blind hatred. All these people worried about socialism and that n***er president. And here he is just trying to make sure people have health care.
I picture some guy with an ailing mother threatening Obama’s life because he’s trying to reform health care. The mother is dying in bed of cancer and her son is at some rally screaming “Socialism!” It’s madness.
The Republican Party in America has convinced poor southern white people to vote against their own interests by fanning the flames of racism, nationalism and xenophobia. They are out of ideas.
Having said that, I think Obama is the most promising politician the world has seen since Roosevelt. He’s a pragmatist at heart and I like this about him since our system is designed to reign in the schemes of ideologues. He’s not a revolutionary; he’s an exceptional steward with a silver tongue. Every great elected leader in history has shared these two traits.
Does being a guitarist automatically make you awesome at Guitar Hero? Ever tried it? What song do you rule at? Any of your band colleagues any good?
It’s actually the other way around. I suck at Guitar Hero. Daren is pretty good. I think the game appeals to the drummer world-view which mostly revolves around hitting things in rhythm.
Cold beer or scotch-on-the-rocks?
Yes, thank you. How kind.
What are your expectations for the band? Do you have a plan to become the biggest band in the world?
I don’t think you can plan for that. It’s out of your control. We don’t talk about it. We focus on more basic things like staying friends or maintaining balance in our lives. This is getting harder though. The balance part (we are better friends than ever).
I think we’ve all lost our minds a little bit. Life is beginning to feel like some endless waking dream. Like my band mates are just recurring characters and every new face I see looks like the composite of a few I’ve seen before. I’m currently typing this on a laptop on an airplane in a string of endless flights, shows, wild nights out drinking, phone calls home, quiet hung-over mornings slumped over a guitar, deafening wild-eyed evenings slumped over a microphone, meet-and-greets, sound check parties, signing tents, band meetings, rehearsals, bus trips, jet-lagged days where you wander aimlessly through the streets of a foreign city reading signs and looking for basic necessities like some kind of bleary-eyed zombie in tight black jeans.
The whole thing is kind of silly.