The Airborne Toxic Event: frontman Mikel Jollett relishes his band's epic sound


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You're never too good, too old or too successful to learn something new.

For Mikel Jollett, frontman for The Airborne Toxic Event, it was how to sing the songs he wrote for the band's third album, "Such Hot Blood." So he sought out vocal training.

"I couldn't sing it," he says in a phone interview. "I had written these songs and the keys that fit the music weren't right for my voice. Lowering the keys didn't sound right. So I was like, 'Wow, I better learn how to sing those notes.'

TRAF Performance Schedule

TODAY

MUSIC

Dollar Bank Stage:

Noon-1 p.m.: Jazzam (jazz/funk)

5-6 p.m.: New Victorians (indie rock)

6:30-7:30 p.m.: Leagues (ethereal rock)

8-9:30 p.m.: The Airborne Toxic Event (indie rock)

Second Stage @ Gateway Center:

1:30-2:30 p.m.: The Grifters (folk-blues duo)

3-4 p.m.: John Valenti (tongue-in-cheek pop)

4:30-5:30 p.m.: The Armadillos (Americana)

Family Stage:

4-6 p.m.: Kira Willey and Friends (acoustic)

THEATER & DANCE

Second Stage @ Gateway Center:

Noon-1 p.m.: Continuum Dance Theater -- Objects of Desire

All performances are free. Information: 3RiversArtsFest.org or 412-456-6666.

"I don't know if you know anyone who learned how to do vocal exercises. It's really weird stuff, but it worked. My voice improved, and there was a sense of commitment, wanting to -- body and soul -- do anything I could do [for] the band and the record. I feel like it's a real opportunity when you have an audience and you get to be an artist, and I don't want to squander it."

The LA group, which headlines the Three Rivers Arts Festival at 8 tonight, formed in 2006, taking its name from Don DeLillo's novel "White Noise." Mr. Jollett is not only well-read, but also he's a fiction writer who has had his work published in McSweeney's.

The band, which has become a fixture at such festivals as Lollapalooza and Coachella, has been accused of following in the vein of U2 and The Arcade Fire, which is exactly why it has also been building a loyal fan base for its majestic sound. Airborne doesn't shy away from the "epic" label and has been known to turn to orchestras for a boost.

"I want to tell a story," Mr. Jollett says, "and not be limited by the tools available. In some ways, a story can be told best through a whisper and in some ways a story can be told best through a shout, and sometimes you need the full strength of things. Sometimes all you need is an acoustic guitar, and sometimes you require a dance beat. It just sort of depends, and so I guess I like having a broad musical spectrum in which to draw."

Mr. Jollett, who was raised on a California commune by hippie parents, initially wanted to be a novelist and approaches his songs with that kind of literary quality and detail.

"I tend to write in complete sentences, and sometimes I feel shut in by it because I listen to other artists and I'm like, 'Wow, how do they get away with that? They're just singing fragments.' Or, 'Hold on a second, you changed perspective, you can't do that!' I guess I tend to follow rules of narration and story, and it's not really a conscious choice. It's how my head works, I guess. Sometimes I feel like I wish I could just ignore it: 'She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.' I'd love to write a song like that."

And there is no shortage of songs on the radio now that are centered around "Yeahs" and "Heys."

"Oh my God, they're just jingles, dude," he says. "They don't have a structure, a narrative, a story, a perspective. It's like 12 seconds of music that gets repeated like nine times just connected by 20 seconds of music that gets repeated three times, and that's the song. But then I'm guilty of enjoying it as well. So I have no problem with it. I kind of feel like there's a place for everything."

Although The Airborne Toxic Event's songs tend to be a bit more fleshed out lyrically, Mr. Jollett says he is seeing fans in the crowd mouthing the words to songs he would never expect them to know.

"The fans have been unreal. I never expected to have a place in people's lives, and I take it very seriously. It's overwhelming sometimes. This is by far the biggest tour we've ever done. I don't know what happened between these two albums, but there seems to have been a sea change and our fans are fired up. They know all the words to deep cuts. You sort of expect them to know the single, but we'll sing 'Graveyard Near the House' and they'll know the words. It's amazing to me. I don't know what's happening."

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576.


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