The backstory attached to Mikel Jollett and his band, The Airborne Toxic Event, is one that promises no small amount of residual misery.
Legend has it that Jollett formed the band after, in the span of one week, he learned that his mother had cancer, his girlfriend left him, and he was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that led to a condition which typically causes all of your hair to fall out. Eyebrows included.
The band’s first hit, “Sometime Around Midnight,” was a dark, dramatic pop song about the emotional turmoil of seeing the aforementioned former girlfriend with another man. Cue a single teardrop.
So when Jollett called from his home in Los Angeles to talk about an upcoming show with the Louisville Orchestra, it seemed like a good idea to have a crisis counselor holding on the other line just in case things took a bad turn.
What followed instead was a rambunctious 40 minutes of sudden detours, hopeless music geekdom, random debates, the joys of sporting a cool jacket, more questions than answers and, occasionally, a few words about Airborne Toxic Event, or ATE.
The band’s Jan. 30 show at Whitney Hall is part of the BB&E Strings Attached concert series, which pairs the orchestra with bands not usually associated with orchestras. While ATE makes significant use of Anna Bulbrook’s violin, the band has never used more than a standard string section.
“We’ve done a show with a string section and we’ve done a show with a marching band,” Jollett said. “So we’ve done strings and horns and strings and horns together, but we’ve never worked with a symphony.”
ATE asked friend and composer Douglas Pipes to write charts for songs from the band’s first album, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” and several new tracks. Both the charts and the new songs are helping Jollett avoid death by boredom.
“At this point we’ve played maybe 500 shows on these songs, and it’s like you know every inch of every song, you know?” Jollett said. “And I’ve written probably 100 songs since then and it’s, like, I want to play these other songs. I almost want the next record to be a double just to have more material to draw from.
"Hey, what do you think about that, just a double album where you go from like a country song to a …”
Back to the Louisville show, Jollett. Has writing charts changed the way you hear the old songs?
“We noticed there are a lot of melodies on the record that were just sort of buried, so when we started orchestrating we got to make them more pronounced and that was actually really fun,” he said. “We’d be like, ‘Oh you remember that little keyboard melody — let’s give that to the oboes’. That was really fun.”
ATE has finished nine songs for a new album to be released later this year and has 10 to 15 more in various stages of undress.
“It feels great, it’s a wonderful feeling,” to be making new music, he said, “but it’s a bad thing to talk about because it’s sort of like when someone says, ‘How’s that novel coming along?’ You know what I mean? ‘Well, I don’t know, man.’ You gotta write it. You can’t really talk about it.
“Do you write anything else? Novels? Books?”
Back to the new songs, Jollett.
“There’s one called ‘A Letter to a Georgia,’ which is about a letter I wrote to this girl in Georgia. One’s about a girl who used to come over all of the time. But the funny thing is they’re not all about just heartbroken girl stories. People are gonna be all like, ‘Hey, how come you’re in a better mood?’”
ATE’s rise was a quick one. After his hell week in 2006, Jollett distracted himself by writing some songs, eventually realizing that the ideas he’d been exploring in a novel were better served by songs. The band slowly fell together, starting with drummer Daren Taylor and growing to include Bulbrook, Noah Harmon and Steven Chen.
In 2008, before signing a record deal or releasing an album, ATE had a hit with “Sometime Around Midnight,” even appearing on “Last Call with Carson Daly” as an unsigned artist. “The Airborne Toxic Event” was released in August of 2008 on Majordomo Records and was well-received, excepting an infamously savage review at www.pitchforkmedia.com that seemed to be based on the writer’s idea of what an indie band was supposed to sound like as opposed to what the album sounded like.
ATE, in fact, has sparked so many debates about what genre it belongs to and what bands it sounds like that Jollett has dismissed the whole idea of genre.
“The whole idea of genre is kind of silly, and at the end of the day I think people want to hear good songs. I don’ think the rest of it matters that much. Critics care, for some reason, but I think that’s because when you’re a new band you’re analyzed to death.”
Even your health. After all the attention given Jollett’s health, you half expect him to be calling from a wig shop with a portable respirator humming in the background.
“I’m fine,” he said, laughing. “I run probably four times a week, seven, 10 miles. The press really played that up a lot. I think if you’re a musician or writer, people want to turn you into some kind of character, but the reality is actually pretty boring.”