“I sat here for five years of working on this,” Airborne Toxic Event frontman Mikel Jollett tells Apple Music about Hollywood Park, the band’s sixth album and first since 2015. “Five years ago my father died. We were very, very close, and his death hit me really, really hard. I kind of lost it.” Grieving and deeply depressed, Jollett began writing songs as a form of therapy. “I didn't have any particular destination in mind. I didn't think about hooks or choruses or any of that stuff,” he says. “It was just storytelling. It was like I'd gone back to my original reason for writing songs: to try to make sense of my life. The songs were all about my dad and his life and his death—and my life.” Jollett’s father’s early life was checkered by crime and substance abuse that led him to try and get clean at Synanon, the infamous 1970s California-based cult. Hollywood Park shares both its title and themes with Jollett’s memoir, which details his early childhood in the violent cult, his escape from it, and the resulting traumatic upbringing.
But the record stands as a cohesive work in its own right. “We were trying to make a big-concept record,” Jollett says. “Nobody really does that anymore. I grew up on The Final Cut. I grew up on The Wall, I grew up on Disintegration. I wanted to make one of these records that hung together—that lyrically and musically and from a narrative standpoint were all one long project.” When Jollett and the band were finally able to record the long-gestating project, they eschewed the orchestral trappings and synth-pop stylings of earlier work in favor of four-piece rock. The goal was to infuse the heady, and heavy, songs with a sense of immediacy and intimacy, rawness and life. “We wanted the whole record to be studio-live,” Jollett says, “so it felt like you were just right there in the studio with us. We just mic’d everything and played. You can literally hear the kick-drum clutch if you have headphones on.” Here is Jollett's track-by-track rundown of the project's songs and stories.
Hollywood Park “Hollywood Park was this seedy racetrack my dad was at every weekend. They tore down the grandstand three weeks after he died. I just thought it was such a blazing metaphor for his life, and the family that I spent my whole life sort of seeking. I guess I was trying to write a song I thought my dad would like. He was really into classic rock, so somewhere in my mind I just was like, ‘Fuck this, let's just make a big rock record.’ I sat down with our drummer, Daren Taylor, and I said, ‘Listen, I had this idea for a galloping drum beat, but I don't know that any drummer could play it.’ He sat down and was like, ‘You mean like this?’ And then we all got in a room and just played—just four guys just trying to make rock ’n’ roll music, like in times of old.”
Brother, How Was the War? “It's written from my father's perspective while he's in Chino state prison. It's a letter to my uncle, who’s in Vietnam. They were wild, just running the streets. Fast-forward 10 years, it was like their lives had been touched by tragedy. I used to hear all these stories about my uncle Donnie: ‘He went off to war.’ Nobody really knows what happened to him there, except for the thing that always happens to people in war: His life was never the same. I had written all the lyrics and I had written the parts on piano, and then I took it to [bassist] Adrian Rodriguez. The two of us were like, ‘Let's have this long intro. What if we just hold it for like two minutes? Can we even do that?’ We figured then by the time the hammer fell, it would just feel so big—like, boom, boom, boom, boom, crack. It's these big guitars, massive keyboard, huge drums. It's supposed to feel a little like that's the moment the bombs fell. That's the moment that tragedy struck.”
Carry Me “By this point, the cat's out of the bag: It’s a concept record—and it's all stories from the book, from my life, my dad's life. ‘Carry Me’ is mostly lyrically based. It’s about the story my dad used to tell me: He fell asleep shooting heroin and watching TV and he woke up with just straps across his chest and tubes in his arm and he didn't know where he was. Then, some friends took him to Synanon and he kicked heroin on this ugly couch in the living room at the Synanon facility. My dad sat there for a week, shaking and shivering and puking and screaming and just doing all the stuff you do when you're going through heroin withdrawal, but he said he knew that if he ever used heroin again, he would die. He always said it was close.”
Come On Out “‘Come On Out’ is a song I wrote after I'd written a scene in my book—chapter 22. My second stepdad, he wasn't a good guy. We used to fight all the time and whatever. One night, it got really out of hand, and so I left. I ran away. I was 10 years old, and I just got on my bike and took off. I ended up at the West Salem bridge throwing rocks, and I thought about jumping. The song is as much about just kind of that wounded righteousness of children in abusive situations. It's a mixture of self-pity and pride and anger and a desire for freedom with a strong sense that there's nowhere to go—you're too young to really leave. Daren had the idea of this buildup and kept referencing the Talking Heads. Each round, we’d add harmonies and do something new with the beat. Then at the end, there's this screaming catharsis, like, ‘Oh, that's what was behind all that.’”
I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore “That's from the section of the book after we escaped Synanon. We woke up one morning, and you understand, we didn't know who our parents were. We were just living in an orphanage, because the kids were taken away from their parents. One day, after years of this, this woman shows up and she's like, ‘Hi, I'm your mom. We have to leave.’ We ended up at this house in Berkeley, California. We spent most of our time in this playroom in the garage—we weren't allowed to go outside, because we were always told the bad men were going to come and take us. I just remember that refrain so much as a kid: ‘Watch out, the bad men are going to come. You can't go outside.’ It was real. They were kidnapping kids. They had goons. These two guys walked up behind our roommate, who was also an ex-Synanon person, and beat him into a coma. Then, they looked up and they said [to me and my brother], ‘Where's Mikel and Tony?’ because they were there to get us. That's when we got in the car and, without telling a soul, drove all the way up the coast, over the mountains, to Oregon to hide. The song is kind of about that journey. I didn't want to be in that room anymore. I just want to go outside. Being a kid and not understanding what any of this stuff was and feeling kind of abandoned. A lot of the book and this record is me trying to give that kid a voice. That's the thing I always admired so much about Pink Floyd’s ‘we don't need no education’—the empowerment of the children. Let's give them voices. Let's let them fucking talk for once. That's what I was trying to do.”
All the Children “It's about all the stories that have emerged of all the Synanon kids that were trying to escape. We left when I was still quite young, but there were people that were there until they were 18 and then stayed. That's all they knew. All these stories have emerged—every kid in Synanon was molested, every kid was beaten, every kid was neglected, every single one of us. There's a reason why you have parents—because you're so vulnerable as a child and you need protection. Musically, it was just really tricky to record. It was another one where we just wanted to go down the road and see where it went. And that ‘stop staring’ line was all from the kids. They would walk us down into the town near Synanon. We're all there with our white shirts and our shaved heads and everyone's looking at us. And you're just like, 'Fucking stop staring at me. Just stop.' And it's this feeling of, ‘Man, I didn't choose any of this.’ And again, you're powerless.”
Everything I Love Is Broken “That song was one of the first songs I wrote. The opening line of the second verse is actually the opening line of the book: ‘We were never young.’ This part of the record starts to get into: What does this look like as an adult having gone through all this childhood trauma? You end up having these very rocky relationships. And the title, ‘Everything I Love Is Broken,’ it's not in the song—it's actually from a line in the book, in the conclusion, about my stepfather: ‘I didn't care that it was broken. Everyone I love is broken. That's how we recognize each other.’ The idea with that line is, the broken part is how the light gets in. I'm sort of drawn to people who have at some point been broken. Not because I like drama—I don't—but because I can relate.”
All These Engagements “There was a moment in my late twenties when it really started to hit me that I was different in this sort of fucked-up way. Everyone else was getting married. And everyone else was starting to have kids. And I was still kind of going through the same ‘meet someone, didn’t work out, meet someone, didn't work out’ cycle. At the time, I didn't understand why. The song is about going to all these different engagement parties and weddings, and being happy for everyone but then kind of being like, ‘This is all bullshit. These fucking losers.’ Steven [Chen] wrote that little Johnny Marr guitar lick, which I thought was really cool. I was trying to do this croony thing, and then out of nowhere, I just started screaming, ‘All these engagements...they grasp for it, they pray for it, they smother it, they cling to it.’ It's a weird move in the middle of this kind of slow-burn song to all of a sudden go into this punk kind of scream. But I liked it because it sort of belied the whole song. At the very end, he believes in love. And so he believes that love is real, and love is true, and he was wrong, and he wants to make good on it.”
The Place We Meet a Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack “The opening is a riff Adrian wrote—a cool, echoey kind of thing. And I had this idea for this big, echoey beat. Then I picked up my guitar in this My Bloody Valentine kind of mood: ‘Let's just put more delay than any one guitar should have and see what happens.’ I don't think I thought about what I was saying. I just knew I wanted it to sound like this primal scream—this cry for something, this feeling of being in a storm. Because it was about my dad's death. 'The Place We Meet a Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack' is literally the metaphor in the book that my family sort of exists in this room beneath this dumbass, dirty, grungy old racetrack that doesn't even exist anymore. All the complex relationships are very simple and everyone's happy to see each other. All the people that have died are still there. So, of course, it's in my imagination. The other cool thing about this track is that’s my brother doing the lower octave on the lyric ‘I'll be there.’ And then the baby you hear, that’s my son. Something about having this echoey baby noise with this piano and this violin felt like I was in someone's head. Or maybe in space somewhere.”
The Common Touch “This is me coming to terms with my dad's death. In a lot of ways it’s like a song I wrote called ‘The Graveyard Near the House.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I want you to write a song about love and death and I don't want you to blink.’ ‘The Common Touch’ was that same thing, me saying, ‘I want you to write about your father's death and to write about what he would tell you. And I don't want you to blink. I don't want you to dumb it down. I want you to tell me what he would really be saying to you.’ He was always challenging me to take responsibility and work and work and work. My dad managed a tire shop and he was a mechanic. It's a very working-class blue-collar attitude. It's something I was raised with—'respect all people and don't get too big for your britches, kid.' I tried to weave those ideas into this song. I didn't write it to be a rock song. I didn't write it to be on the record. It was just too many parts and too many different things happening and it was just too long and too wordy. I just really literally wanted to see it through.”
The Place We Meet a Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack (Reprise) “It's one of my favorite tracks on the record. I just love this song. I love playing it, and singing it, and hearing it. It's just something special about the way the track came together. As a listener, I just sort of appreciate how absolutely nonsensical it is from a structural standpoint, but how exactly right it is from a storytelling standpoint. We decided to change the piano to electric piano—a Wurli—because I thought it would give it a slightly more angelic vibe. Then I added the sound effects. We're walking through a cave, approaching the room a thousand feet beneath. And then, of course, it ends with a short conversation with my dad in my head—just what he would always tell me, which is you only live so long. So enjoy what you have. And so it's true for everyone.”
True. “I wrote it about going to the hospital. It grinds you down. You often have a good week or two when you know someone’s going to die and they're just waiting for it to actually happen. This song's about that moment. And I was really obsessed with the metaphor of the dust. There's the dust in the opening song, the literal dust of the racetrack, and the scene in the book where I go to Santa Anita and fling my father's ashes onto the track as the horses go by. And there's the last line in this song, which I think is the most devastating on the whole record: ‘I'll see you in the dust.’ At the end I realize when I'm going to see my dad again is when I'm also dead. I'll follow him to wherever that place is. I'm not a highly religious person, so that place is probably just dust. It's this very begrudging and painful and cosmic realization I wanted to end on.”
Brother, How Was the War?
Come on Out
I Don't Want to Be Here Anymore
All the Children
Everything I Love Is Broken
All These Engagements
The Place We Meet a Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack
The Common Touch
The Place We Meet a Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack (Reprise)