It isn't every day DiS finds itself jettisoned to one of the most romantic cities in the world purely in the call of duty. Nevertheless, we find ourselves in the delectable surroundings of Paris. Even less likely is the request that today's first meeting with our hosts for the next twelve hours takes place in a graveyard. Not that Le Cimetiere Du Pere-Lachaise is any old burial ground, being the last resting place for such esteemed figures in the arts and music world as Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Indeed, the plan to visit the latter's grave whilst talking about more serious matters such as "the difficult second album" with The Airborne Toxic Event's Mikel Jollett and Anna Bulbrook becomes hastily aborted as the unreliable source that is Google Maps leads us in a merry dance of contorting directions until solace is found elsewhere.
As frontman, lyricist and principal songwriter in the Silver Lake originating quintet, Jollett has a lot to get off his chest. While the word prolific is bandied around like sweets at a child's party these days, here's a man who spent three whole months writing, constructing and then re-arranging no fewer than fifty songs, only to shelve two-thirds of them for the time being at the bequest of his fellow band mates. Rewind the clock back even earlier to the summer of 2008 and after an admittedly quite preposterous "review" on indier-than-thou webzine Pitchfork, took on the Holy Grail itself with a quite public riposte that pretty much said what many observers had been wanting to say for years. With notoriety and acclamation fighting toe-to-toe for the band's seal of approval, The Airborne Toxic Event spent the next year-and-a-half doing what every fledgling outfit has to in order to gain respect from its peers. Tour, tour and tour some more.
Although their self-released album followed suit in the early part of 2009, it was undoubtedly their relentless tour schedule of a few months earlier that buoyed them to many a British audience. Genuinely captivating and innovative live, their subsequent shows made a mockery of the "horrible imitators inspired by market research" tag adorned by the aforementioned piece. Indeed, spending several hours in the company of Jollett, classically trained musical all-rounder Bulbrook and their three fellow accomplices Daren Taylor (drums), Noah Harmon (bass) and Steven Chen (guitars) prior to their show later this evening at the city's La Fleche D'or could easily write itself as an extra chapter of Nick Hornby's 'High Fidelity'. As discussions rage long into the night around the guitar and bass overdubs occurring simultaneously on Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon to debates on whether Catherine Wheel or Black Box Recorder qualify as being the most underrated UK bands of all time, to a shared love of confrontational Brooklyn hip hop trio Das Racist, it's clear The Airborne Toxic Event are as passionate and obsessive about music as you or I.
In April, the band release their sophomore record All At Once, produced by Dave Sardy whose previous credits include The Walkmen's Bows And Arrows, Oasis' Don't Believe The Truth and Band Of Horses' Infinite Arms. It seems the most logical vantage point to start our interrogation of Mikel and Anna...
DiS: When did the songs for All At Once first begin to take shape?
Mikel: I wrote some of the stuff on the road. For example 'Numb', which I actually wrote at Reading and Leeds festival in 2009. 'All I Ever Wanted' I wrote in Cologne during the last German tour for the first record. It's kind of overwhelming coming home from spending two-and-a-half years on the road and playing around 350 shows to then making another record. It was a very different experience this time in that we had resources, which previously we didn't have. I know it's very un-rock-and-roll to not be unhappy with your label but they told us to "take as much time as we needed, do all the research you have to, and by the way, what producer do we want?" Straight away, we asked for Dave Sardy so that's who they got hold of and they gave us as much time as it took and when we came back with the record a year or so later their only comment was "We love it!"
DiS: It's interesting you chose Dave Sardy. What was the deciding factor in choosing him and what did he bring to the sessions as opposed to Pete Min, who produced your debut?
Anna: Everything was different!
Mikel: He's known as a guy who's good at getting original sounds and he owns this library of guitars and guitar effects. That wasn't the main reason though, it was more about the fact that he has such a classical sense of songwriting. I remember playing him the earliest demo of 'Strange Girl' off the new record, which was a simple verse-chorus-verse arrangement, and his initial reaction was "I really like this song but I think it needs a middle eight" and I was like, "What the fuck's a middle eight?!?" and he told me to go and listen to Elvis Costello because he's the master of the middle eight. So I went and listened to the way other artists use a middle eight to reinforce the chorus, and then wrote one for 'Strange Girl'. But it was just little things like that, almost like reiterating a classic twentieth century songwriting perspective. He'd also come out with these really sarcastic one-liners like when we were playing a song in pre-production once he remarked, "That was OK but play it again, only this time like a band who's ever played together before!"
Anna: My favourite was when he said "You sound like you're playing in a bar; an EMPTY bar!"
Mikel: He was very funny with it, but ultimately so ridiculously talented.
DiS: I guess looking at some of the artists he's worked with in the past he's had to develop a sarcastic sense of humour.
Mikel: I would imagine him to have been more polite with Oasis, that would be my guess, but we did spend an awful lot of our time with him taking the piss out of each other. When it came to mixing the record, me and Dave would both be in the studio wrestling over different mixes, which was good because I guess it showed how much we both cared about the way the record eventually turned out.
DiS: Moving on to your first choice of singles from the record, you've chosen 'Numb' in the UK and 'Changing' in the States to go out simultaneously rather than a universal lead track. What influenced your decision to release those singles in this way and will the roles be reversed in terms of each other as a follow-up?
Mikel: We've never really chosen singles. They've always been chosen for us by fans. We played 'Numb' on our last UK tour and people just flipped for that song, and we'd get bombarded with emails afterwards like "Song 3? What was that? When's it coming out?" pretty consistently so that made it an easy choice for the first single in the UK. A similar sort of thing happened with 'Changing' in the States.
Anna: It may have been Phoenix I think, and possibly on the second or third time we'd ever played the song but already people were singing along to the verses and chorus, which was pretty strange actually as we couldn't quite figure out how they'd previously heard it!
Mikel: That's the way we've worked from the start. There's no particular plan or anything.
DiS: It's similar to 'Sometime Around Midnight' I guess, which was the single which made the biggest impact in the UK off the first record, yet I remember the first hearing that album it didn't strike me as being that obvious a single at all.
Mikel: I didn't expect it at all.
Anna: That song was chosen for us too. I think people seemed to gravitate towards 'Sometime Around Midnight', and yet it's not a traditional radio single at all. It has no chorus, no hook, no repeated refrain, just a slow build.
DiS: Do you see any other future singles from All At Once at this moment in time?
Mikel: I don't know. We made this record as a complete body from start to finish, almost by way of a series of questions that are dealt with throughout the eleven songs on the album. I wrote 50 songs for this record, and then eventually 38 of those were demoed, and then that got cut to 25 in pre-production until we finally arrived at the 11 that we felt best told the story we wanted telling on All At Once. It was all very deliberate. We wanted it to be an engrossing experience for people. It's engrossing for us, we got caught up in this music and we want other people to get caught up in it the same way.
DiS: It's interesting that 39 songs didn't make the final cut for All At Once, as some like 'A Letter To Georgia', 'Echo Park' and 'Tokyo Radio' have been kicking around your live set for a while now. Will any of those resurface in the future?
Mikel: We decided not to do 'A Letter To Georgia' basically because we didn't think we could do a better version than the live one we already recorded.
Anna: We performed it at the Walt Disney Concert Hall which is one of the most acoustically perfect music venues in the world and when we listened back to the recording we knew it would be nigh on impossible to better that particular version of the song. At the time, some of our friends asked us why we were putting so much effort into that show with the string quartet and marching band and so they decided to make a documentary about it, which is where the idea for the All I Ever Wanted film came from, and one of the songs which stood out from that performance was 'A Letter To Georgia'.
Mikel: We just knew we couldn't beat it no matter how hard we tried.
DiS: It was quite a thorough and revealing not to mention ambitious documentary for a band that are still very much in the ascendancy. Do you see yourselves filming something of a similar nature in the future?
Mikel: It was really nerve wracking to watch, seeing yourself on a twenty foot screen. It's very different to watching yourself on TV or You Tube or something. All the little things you think you're hiding from the world suddenly seem really obvious. I remember watching it for the first time and thinking "I'm really neurotic!" We don't know what's going to happen with this record or in the future so I guess the only answer is...maybe? It's like, with the first record we didn't even know whether people were actually going to get to hear it let alone like it, so with this one we know there are people out there very eager to hear it, but at the same time there are also people sitting there arms crossed hoping we fail, if you know what I mean? In some ways I see All At Once as our chance to stand in front of the world and say something, which is maybe why we spent so much working on this album.
DiS: One of the other things that stands out about the DVD are the songs you chose to cover such as The Ramones 'Rock And Roll Radio' and particularly The Magnetic Fields 'The Book Of Love', which again highlight the eclectic nature of the band. Are you big fans of Stephim Merritt's work?
Mikel: I am. I'm not sure about whether everyone else in the band is or not.
Anna: I think we all share an appreciation.
Mikel: I think song for song he's quite possibly the most underrated songwriter ever. I just don't understand why he's not playing arenas and stadiums every night. 'The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be', 'I Don't Want To Get Over You', 'The Book Of Love', so many great songs. How are they not the REM of their time?
Anna: For me it's more about the variety of sounds that encompass most of Merritt's records, almost to the point where you can play one song after another and it almost feels like you're listening to two different artists. The only thing that stays the same is Merritt's voice, which some people might find confusing but for me is what I appreciate about the diversity of his work.
Mikel: It's almost like he's carrying the torch passed on by Morrissey. That sort of dark Wildean humour and wit, coy in many ways yet so deft of feeling too.
DiS: Anna, your brother Andrew also plays in the Calder Quartet who backed the band at the Walt Disney Concert Hall show. Is that how both parties came to be involved with each other and do you see yourselves working together again in the future?
Anna: It's part of the reason why we chose them, and I guess we do see them as part of an extension of our band family - or in my case literal family. Some of our songs like 'Sometime Around Midnight', 'Innocence' and 'Wishing Well' all lend themselves to an extension of strings, so it made sense to have this world class string quartet on board that can just turn up and play whatever is referred to them. They're the only other musicians we've ever had play on any of our records besides ourselves. They play on a few of the songs on the new record ('All At Once', 'All About A Woman' and 'All I Ever Wanted') and we've taken them on tour with us. It's been a musically enriching experience.
DiS: Do you see them becoming a wider part of the band, maybe in terms of writing and stuff?
Mikel: We talked about that quite recently. I hadn't really thought about it up to having lunch with Andrew (Bulbrook) and Ben (Jacobson) and they both asked me the same question about writing and arranging some songs together. It's maybe something we'll consider in the future, for sure. They're really, really talented.
Anna: Having them play on the new record gave us the freedom to write parts for them. We sat down and wrote some very challenging parts to play and it was really fun to have that tool. Noah and I can make Airborne Toxic Event sound like an orchestra from time to time. In 'Sometime Around Midnight' we are the orchestra for example, but then having the addition of these four incredible players who can make such complicated arrangements work so easily gives us so much more creative freedom as a band.
DiS: Going back to All At Once, having listened to it albeit only the once so far having received it literally hours ago, there are already a handful of songs that immediately leap out. The title track is possibly the most epic piece of music you've created so far, 'Numb' the poppiest, while 'Welcome To Your Wedding Day' has a Sandinista Clash feel about it. 'It Doesn't Mean A Thing' is probably the nearest in structure to anything off the first record being similar in style to 'Gasoline', while 'The Graveyard Near The House' is reminiscent of 'Innocence' if not musically, then certainly in its climactic feel at bringing the album to a close. Do you think people will be more likely to judge All At Once on its own merits rather than compare it to the first record?
Mikel: I hope so. I mean, we didn't really set out to either sound like or unlike the first record, or to make a concept album, although in some ways it kind of is. I think the songs fit together as an album much more than with the first record. Also, all of the things that I wrote about for this record started to feel like they weren't just my hopes, aspirations and problems, but part of some larger human narrative, you know what I mean? The other thing that happened was four family members died all in the same year, which wasn't so much tragic because they were all surrounded by people who loved them, but it kinda elongates your perspective. Suddenly I felt maybe there were bigger issues - things that I once felt were really important didn't seem so important any more. It all changed very quickly. I came back from touring, and suddenly my whole family is in crisis, and I just locked myself in my room and started writing and writing and writing...then one day I squinted and re-emerged and brought these songs to the band, and they came over every day for a couple of months. Then I started ripping the songs apart and wondering how it would all be able to fit together, and I guess when I try to analyse All At Once I start to realise just how many of these songs deal with change, or how it happens very quickly. I think there's this idea of evolution and I don't think it's true. It's almost as if an event happens and five minutes beforehand you're one person and five minutes after you're another person altogether. That's just the way life works.
DiS: There must have been a lot of disagreements between you and the rest of the band over this period as to which songs made it to the next stage and so on. Who had the final say?
Mikel: (laughs) Yeah, I mean it tends to be a consensus. There's a reason we all work together and it's because we all value one another's talents and I think that's why we compliment each other's talents; we have different things that we're good at. A lot of the disagreements come from the fact everyone is so opinionated...
Anna: Everyone really cares about this record so much that it makes us all very passionate, and that's a strength. We all feel like we've invested so much work into All At Once that it would be wrong not to have an opinion about it.
DiS: Have the label set any particular commercial sales targets or expectations with the record?
Mikel: I know it's out there somewhere. They're a fucking business at the end of the day, but they also told us from the start that they see us as a career band.
DiS: The term "career band" can be interpreted in many different ways though. In Britain it has many connotations, from the "landfill indie" that appears from nowhere on a major label to bands whose ethos appears to be about musical and aesthetic change to fit whatever the current scene demands.
Anna: I think they mean it with us in terms of longevity.
Mikel: The label see us as being in it for the long haul, like U2 or Springsteen or someone that's been making music for decades. They realise we're about real musicianship and real writing, and anything but a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad band. It's funny how we're on a second record now so no longer classed as fresh meat. We're like sophomores now in the rock and roll world! How many times do you see these buzz bands come and go, and everyone's so excited because they seem like the biggest thing in the world and in doing so we handicap their chances even further...
Anna: And then a whole other crop comes along in the mean time and before you know it, both sets are equally long forgotten.
DiS: It's difficult not to feel sorry for some bands that get caught up in such hyperbole though, as it's the media rather than the artists themselves that create it.
Mikel: Absolutely, particularly in the UK rather than the States. Rock and roll is so beaten down there at the moment because hip hop and pop are so dominant that rock and roll has this ghetto of people with their own separate identity.
Anna: The US is also so much bigger and more disparate than the UK. There, things seem a lot more centralized and just the tempo of the press cycle moves a lot faster. You can almost get a whole country excited about something faster, but then they'll also get over it faster, whereas in the US literally every single state has its own individual publication, so nationwide exposure can never really happen overnight.
Mikel: In the States, the press follows your success and ability to put on concerts to prove yourself, whereas in the UK people actually seem to take the word of journalists! Nobody takes a music journalist's word for anything in the States.
Anna: Not any more!
Mikel: It's like how Americans treat sports or something...everyone's handicapping, everyone's in the middle, everyone wants to see it...what are they about or what are they about? You know, I actually like it. There's a real sense of rock and roll pageantry about the UK, and sure it can be bitchy and incestuous sometimes but they're believers. Nobody seems to believe in music so much as UK music fans do. We have fans in Scotland who've had the band's logo tattooed on their bodies and they'll be singing along to 'Happiness Is Overrated' like it's their own, and you know, it's easy to try and play cool in interviews or whatever and distance yourself away from that kind of thing but why would anyone want to, because at the end of the day we wrote that song and felt it ourselves, every single word of it.
DiS: You're currently on the final weekend of your month-long residencies in Germany, France and Holland and then you're doing a season-ticket style series of shows entitled 'Origins' in London, Los Angeles and New York respectively, playing five shows in different venues for each, starting with the smallest first. What gave you the idea for this and is it a further extension to your initial '30 shows in 30 nights' UK tour of November 2008?
Mikel: It is kind of, I guess. We just like to mess things up a little rather than take the conventional route. I mean, to play the Dublin Castle in London again is gonna be incredible!
DiS: Didn't all of the London shows sell out in a matter of hours after they were announced?
Mikel: Yeah, we announced the tour and within hours our server had crashed! It couldn't cope with all our traffic. Stuff like that kinda makes me feel like I'm in a different band. Moments when we're walking onstage at Lollapalooza to 40,000 people or appearing on television to a million viewers. It seems strange that this is my life! I've never expected it and I try hard at times not to want it too much now.
The Airborne Toxic Event will be touring throughout 2011 and appearing at numerous festivals over the course of the year. For a full list of dates visit their official website.
The album All At Once is out on Monday 18th April via Mercury Records.