When you look at the best-of lists at the end of the year, you might find the name Mikel Jollett more than once. His autobiography, Hollywood Park: A Memoir, received unanimous acclaim upon its release in May. On top of that, he and his band The Airborne Toxic Event released Hollywood Park, a stunningly accomplished concept album full of themes inspired by the book.
The memoir tells the story of how Jollett, his mother and older brother escaped the commune-turned-cult Synanon in the late 70s. Jollett’s childhood was marred by his mother’s emotionally manipulative ways and her refusal to let her kids deal with the trauma of their experience. Only when his ex-con father enters the picture, and the pair bond over the titular race track, does the narrative take a turn for the better. Just for good measure, David Bowie and Robert Smith make cameo appearances as well.
As far as the album, it manages to evoke the emotional potency of the book without turning into a rehash of the story. Jollett recently spoke to American Songwriter about his dual triumph. Here are the contents of that interview, edited for length and clarity.
You must have the only rock music book endorsed by TVG (a national horse racing network.) How does that feel?
I’ll tell you a story that wasn’t in the book. My Dad was going in for a stent operation. It was probably the riskiest operation he went through in the last ten years of his life. And we were all a little scared because it was one of these 30 percent mortality operations, but he really needed it because he had cardiomyopathy.
He’s in the bed at the hospital and he called me up and said there was a carryover on the Pick 6 from the (Kentucky) Derby. And he said, “Listen, it’s like a million-dollar carryover, I need to get in this Pick 6. I’ll give you my TVG ID.” I’m like, “Dad, you got fucking surgery tomorrow.” He said, “I know. You’ve got to log in and you got to give me my horse.” And he gave me his TVG log-in and gave me his picks. While he was under, I went on TVG and I put all his picks in. We’re sweating the operation and he’s under for like eight hours. They bring him up and he recovers. He kind of wakes up in the bed and he looks at me and the first thing he says is “Did we hit it?” (Laughs.)
What was this process like in terms of how one project informed the other?
My life fell apart when my Dad died for all the reasons that you read in the book. I was just broken. I hardly left my house for about nine months. I put on weight. I cried every day. I was rough. It was what they call a major depression, which I’d never gone through since college. I couldn’t move forward in my life. I was just broken, and so I started writing about my Dad and writing songs about my Dad, just organically.
I visited a lot of places. I did a lot of interviews. I did a lot of pre-writing. I would take a place and I’d write about it and then go to the place and unload all the ideas that I could think of and all of the different narratives I could remember. Then I would call people that were contemporaries. Really trying to get into, all right, here’s what my head was like when I was 7, 12, 19. So I’d have these long documents that weren’t part of the book. They were just me trying to create the emotional, metaphorical world of the book.
I was so in it that, as a songwriter, I started writing songs from that perspective. It was weird because it simultaneously felt like new ground and then sort of a return to my songwriting roots of not really thinking about anything but the story. In the music industry, the second you get in it, everyone tells you how to write songs. I put my first record out and had this sort of left-field record that was embraced by critics, but the music industry itself was like, “You got to learn to write a middle eight, you got to learn to write a downbeat chorus, a hook.” And I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
I just needed music when my Dad died for the same reasons that I needed it when I was trying to deal with my life in my late 20s and early 30s and all the confusing relationships. I needed it because it was a way to deal with something, kind of get wrapped up in something, externalize it and look in at it. At first it was just about my father’s death. I wrote these very sad songs about him dying. I think “Hollywood Park” was the very first song I wrote for the record. And then I was really into my own childhood and escaping from the cult and everything. So I really tapped into who I was at that age and started writing songs like ‘I Don’t Want To Be Here Anymore’ and ‘All The Children’ which were just angry, angry songs. The last thing I was thinking about were hooks or any of that shit. I was literally thinking about how do I tell this story, how do I express this world?
And this entire process took?
Wow, how daunting was that?
Jim, I like lost my mind for a while. My poor wife. There was a good nine months to a year where we didn’t have any social engagements. I worked six days a week, 12 hours a day. I didn’t shower much. I have a little basement studio office I built. I just lived down here and kind of lost touch with reality for a while. I was so in it.
And it was really daunting. There were times when it was so discouraging. I never showed it to anyone. I didn’t have an editor. I didn’t have an agent. We (the band) got dropped by Sony. So I didn’t have a record deal. I didn’t have anything. I just went to the band and we were like, “Well are we done?” I played them the songs that I’d been writing, and they were like, “We love this, this is great shit.”
We thought let’s just go in and make something for the reasons that we love music, the music we grew up on and what we want music to sound like in the modern world. Just fuck all that other noise and let’s do that. Making that decision was one thing and then it was two years from that point to making the record. And we took it so seriously. We rehearsed hundreds of hours. We had a children’s choir. We had gospel singers, a horn section and a string section. And we went over everything so many times. Cause we just wanted to make this one record. Maybe once in your life you have a chance to make something really special. Let’s do it as hard as possibly can. We made the whole thing on spec. We didn’t have a dime.
How did you prevent the album from getting bogged down by exposition trying to tell the story of the book?
I’ve spent a lot of time with The Final Cut and The Wall. Those records tell stories without having to fill in every detail. OK Computer is another one. You sort of understand the themes and the general arc of the story without needing to know everything. And the whole point is, if you’re writing a song well, that’s all you need. It’s such an economical way of telling the story that everything you need is in the song. That’s what I was trying to do. You know that mood and you know that story and you don’t need any other piece of information. That took me a long time to learn as a songwriter. So much of your work is done in the expression. How you deliver the melody and things like that can really tell the story without your having to say every little single detail.
You also managed to make these specific incidents from your experience capture universal themes, such as in “All The Children,” which is kind of about how kids’ voices sometimes are disrespected or unheard.
So much of the book and so much of the record is about the perspective of children that gets ignored. Children are smart and complex and the interior world, at least for me as a child, was very, very rich. We live in a world of metaphor and emotion and we just don’t have the words as children to express what we’re going through. That was a big part of what happened when I was growing up. No one ever asked us what we were feeling or what we were thinking, without even the words for the anger. Part of what this entire project is trying to do is give voice to these forgotten children and, in my case, orphans.
The last song on the album, “True,” is striking, because it’s really about truth being deceptive. There’s that line that says, “The truth is always wrong.”
It was a literal idea in my life. We were just told that my Dad was the bad guy. The reasons for that are complicated, but I think it came down to the fact that somebody was trying to exact revenge, in this case, my mother. ‘The truth is always wrong’ can also be that the truth can be hard to accept. And particularly, in this case, when it’s the death of somebody that you love so much, it’s an impossible thing to accept. For me, it felt like the laws of physics were being bent. Like a tear opened up in the sky and I didn’t understand how this world that I’d been living in for so very, very long had this hard truth, which is that the people that you are closest to, you love most, trust most, can’t live without, are going to be gone. And at some point, you’re going to be one of those people.
Now that these twin creations, which expose a lot of your personal history, are out in the world, what does it feel like?
Sometimes it feels like it’s all very personal and it’s exposing, like, ‘God, that’s a lot to put out there, Jolett.’ (Laughs.) Other days, I’m so proud of it, I’m just so glad I got to make it. And the connecting feeling between the two things is that I don’t feel like I left anything in the tank. I’ve never written about my childhood musically. To write about my parents and my family life is sort of a new thing. It’s a more authentic character than some of the voices I’ve used. The assumption you make is that you’re wrestling with the biggest ideas you’ve ever wrestled with. And you’re going to put them in song form and then people are going to react to that.
That’s a hell of an assumption. Because there’s plenty of pop music out there that’s just about being at the club, or all kinds of more lighthearted ideas. Which are great, I’m not disparaging that music. But it’s a hell of an assumption that your biggest fears, your deepest struggles, are the things that you should write songs about. Like I’m not sure if that’s true or not. But that’s the assumption I made. So there is that feeling of, man, I’m inhabiting a different place where art and reality are intersecting in as big a way as they possibly could.
All right, enough about the music. Who is going to win the fourth at Santa Anita?(Laughs). I’m actually not a big handicapper. I suck. For me, it was always kind of in my Dad’s world. What I do now is if I’m having a really rough time, I go to the race track. I go and I get a corned beef sandwich and a Carnation malted. I might get a beer. And I sit there in the stands at the top by myself and I just talk to my Dad.