By Michael Cerio
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Fourteen miles away from Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Parkway is the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA. As the masses pack the street this weekend for, well mass – and all the things that come with a visit from the Pope, The Airborne Toxic Event will lead their own faithful in concert at the Keswick.
“We timed it perfectly I thought because there’s no big events in town that day” jokes singer Mikel Jollett. “I don’t think we knew at the time when we booked it. I don’t think we were really aware that that was going on. I don’t think it came up.”
On Saturday, Jollett and The Airborne Toxic Event return to Philadelphia, fresh from the release of their fourth album Dope Machines. They might be the most sonically accomplished visitors for the weekend, but certainly not the biggest attraction. “I kind of want to see the Pope” adds Jollett. “He’s like punk rock Pope man. He’s no joke.”
Pope Francis has become somewhat of a rock star in his own right, beyond even the typical trappings of the pontiff. His voice on issues like poverty, inclusion, climate change, and immigration has been heard loud across culture and politics. It’s something that’s resonated with Jollett.
“You know how all the very right-leaning Christians in this country are just like ‘bible, bible, bible’ – but the part about that bible that’s like ‘help the sick, don’t pass judgement, feed the poor’, they just forget? It’s all like ‘tax breaks for the rich, and screw you if you’re poor, you’re not invited to our club’. I remember watching George W. Bush at a Christian prayer breakfast. There’s a hugely expensive ballroom, and it’s like five thousand dollars a plate, and their eating this expensive food. And I thought, what would Jesus, actual guy Jesus think about all this? I feel like if he saw it he would walk in and be like ‘what are you doing? take your food and give it to the poor people outside right now. Leave the room, stop everything you’re doing and go give this money and this food to the poor people that are within your reach outside this hall right now’.”
“I feel like if you made that point any other time in the last twenty years people would go ‘oh shut up’ like you’re making some weird esoteric point about the nature of Christ or the nature of Christianity” explains Jollett. “And I feel like what’s great about this Pope is that he made that point really well, and repeatedly, in a hundred different ways. So it’s actually like a legitimate case to be made again.”
Although Jollett isn’t Catholic, Pope Francis embodies the tenets and initial promise of Christianity he learned. Better yet, he’s put it into practice with physical acts.
It’s not uncommon to dive deep into subjects like Christianity with Mikel Jollett. Lyrically you can tell from the music of The Airborne Toxic Event that he’s a storyteller, but it’s likely his life as an accomplished writer before and during the band that makes him a better conversation than most on the back of a tour bus.
The album Dope Machines has been somewhat of a departure, at least in process for The Airborne Toxic Event. Electronics outweigh the presence of guitars on their fourth effort, a change that left Jollett bracing for a negative reaction that didn’t come.
“I think I was hand-ringing over nothing” laughs Jollett. “When you make something, you spend so much time on it, you feel like a lot of nervous energy about how it’s going to be received.”
“Early on there were people, like on Facebook that were so mad that we made an electronic record and I wasn’t sure if they were expressing some larger will, and it turns out they weren’t.”
With any worries of fan reaction behind them, The Airborne Toxic Event once again hits the road. On this day in particular though, Jollett is a little hazy, recovering from a recent near-death car accident that’s left him in the fog of pain medication.
“I hydroplaned on the 10 freeway and spun off and totaled the car” he explains. “It’s been interesting. We played a show the other night and I forgot the lyrics to a song, then we play another show in Toronto at Riot Fest and I forgot the lyrics to another song, and I put it in the wrong key, because I’m on all these muscle relaxers and pain killers. The show’s been loopy, but fun.”
“I’ve never been that into drugs, more than you’re average wayward rock and roll person in the big city I guess, but man, it’s been a whole nother experience” laughs Jollett.
Thankfully, the rest of the band has been understanding. It’s the card you get to play after the words “near-death” gets thrown around. Plus, it wouldn’t be a rock show without a little danger. “I feel like it does kind of add to the moment of the show. There’s got to be a moment of kind of flirting with disaster. If you, your bandmates, and a crowd can all sort of surpass that moment together. I find that it kind of makes the show.”
The Airborne Toxic Event play the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA on Saturday September 26th. To hear more from Mikel Jollett, listen to the full interview below.