The trouble with fronting a constantly touring rock outfit is that it leaves little time to finish a novel.
That’s what Mikel Jollett, singer/guitarist of the Airborne Toxic Event, came to realize as the momentum behind his band’s self-titled debut album stalled his prose output.
“I want to finish it, but I keep going on tour,” he says. “I like writing at home late at night, when I’ve just finished reading a good book. It’s hard to write on a bus; it’s a whole other lifestyle.”
Jollett probably won’t finish his novel anytime soon. The Los Angeles group has announced an 11-country world tour beginning June 28 at Summerfest in Milwaukee. The band’s itinerary includes stops in Europe, Asia and Australia with a North American fall tour kicking off September 17 at the Fox Theater in Pomona, Calif.
The trek follows the success of Airborne’s debut self-titled album, which has sold 110,000 copies since its release in August 2008 on Majordomo Records, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The attention still feels surreal to Jollett, who began his twenties as a budding novelist and freelancer. His writing credits include NPR, the Los Angeles Times and Filter magazine. In fact, Jollett was offered a column by NPR before Airborne formed.
But he abandoned his writing aspirations in 2006 when his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he with an auto-immune disorder within the same week. Realizing “I wanted to make my days count,” Jollett started writing four songs a week on his guitar. He soon recruited fellow Los Angelenos Steven Chen, Noah Harmon, Anna Bulbrook and Daren Taylor to form the Airborne Toxic Event.
The band — whose name is a reference to a Don DeLillo novel — quickly understood the importance of showcasing Jollett’s writing skills: The group’s original press kit consisted of the first quarter of his novel, which is about four friends all dying of different diseases. “No one really read it,” Jollett says, “but I think it made a statement.”
The album feeds off that literary prowess, incorporating various scenes from the novel. Jollett’s stark imagery is matched by an integration of compelling string arrangements. The third single “Wishing Well,” currently No. 35 on Billboard’s airplay-based Modern Rock chart, is a slow-building tale of escape buoyed by Taylor’s propulsive percussion and Bulbrook’s shimmering viola.
“Airborne” started attracting attention with the release of the dramatic first single, “Sometime Around Midnight.” The song peaked at No. 4 on Modern Rock and was named iTunes’ No. 1 alternative song of 2008.
The band continued to play sold-out shows before being approached by Island Records. Soon after signing the act, Island rereleased the album March 16.
“The thing about major labels is this: When you meet Satan, he’s not such a bad guy,” Jollett says. “We’re still partners with Majordomo, but Island’s been great for us. They gave us international distribution, which was important because our CD wasn’t available in a lot of European countries.”
Airborne has been honing its performance skills as the opening act for such groups as Franz Ferdinand, Silversun Pickups, the Fratellis and Kaiser Chiefs. Since then, interest in the group has been steadily growing. “Last Call With Carson Daly” ran a special episode May 20 devoted entirely to the band, with concert footage and interviews.
Jollett sounds as surprised as anyone that the band has stumbled upon commercial appeal. “When one of our U.K. shows sold out in 20 minutes, it was insane,” he says. “These songs were written in isolation, and now they’re letting us go out and engage people. I’m grateful for that.”