When the grandstand of Inglewood’s Hollywood Park racetrack was demolished in May 2015, Mikel Jollett’s sense of family and of self came crashing down with it. Jollett, the frontman of Airborne Toxic Event, watched on local TV as the run-down track where he’d spent so many formative times with his father crumbled in seconds, in what was called a “controlled implosion.” His own collapse was far longer and less orderly. Jollett’s father had died just days before the track where he’d spent every weekend was torn down, and Jollett was left reeling, bereft and baffled by his pain and loss. While the track was cleared to make way for a sleek multi-billion dollar sports complex, Jollett decided to erect a gritty, gut-wrenching tribute to the old man and the old track without any or sentimentality. He spent the next five years memorializing his father’s life and death and his own troubled upbringing in the metaphorical dust of the racetrack.
The results are Hollywood Park, Airborne Toxic Event’s sixth studio album—the band’s first in five years and first on Rounder Records—and Jolett’s acclaimed memoir of the same title, published in May by Celadon Books, a division of MacMillan. Taken together, Hollywood Park the album and book represent a towering musical-literary achievement that shows both the breadth of Jollett’s talents and the powerful ways they intersect. Jollett uses songs to tell stories and the written word to hit lyrical high notes. He has woven together references ranging from Shoegaze to Springsteen into a cohesive musical tapestry and produced an unsparing memoir full of intimate, often painful personal details that unlock universal coming-of-age themes. With these towering twin works, Jolett has channeled his artistry into a compelling and multi-layered pop-cultural milestone.
Both the album and memoir tell the story of Jolett’s traumatic early life. It begins with a four-year-old Mikel and his brother, Tony, being spirited out of Synanon, the notorious and violent Santa Monica, CA, cult, by their mother. Jollett spent his life to that point with no parents, and no idea of them, in what cult leaders called a school but which was, in reality, an orphanage meant to keep children from their families. On the run from Synanon with their dangerously narcissistic mom, Jollett and his brother embarked on a harrowing journey that eventually led them to Salem, OR. That’s where at age 7CK Jollett finally met his father, a man who had lived a wild early life, serving time in prison and becoming addicted to heroin (he had entered Synanon, which began as an extreme rehab program, to kick his habit). As Jollett began splitting time in Los Angeles with his father and his father’s girlfriend/stepmother, who had helped raise him as a baby at Synanon, he started to get a sense of family for the first time.
Over the course of his youth, Jollett endured poverty, neglect, emotional injury, and sporadic physical violence. He overcame those challenges to become an accomplished distance runner and honor student, earning a full scholarship to Stanford then worked as a correspondent for NPR and music journalist before becoming a musician himself. In 2006, Jollett founded Airborne Toxic Event, a reference to the 1985 Don DeLillo novel White Noise (although referring to a chemical spill in the book, the name presciently evokes terror of the COVID era). Quickly making waves in the indie-rock scene, the band often performed with orchestral groups, and released memorable tracks such as “Sometime Around Midnight,” “Changing,” “All I Ever Wanted,” and “Wishing Well.”
The long road to Hollywood Park began five years ago. Following the death of his father, Jollett spent nine months grieving and depressed, crying every day and barely leaving his house. “My father was a permanent fixture in my life, like air, water, or gravity,” he recalls. “You expect grief to be sad. I didn’t expect it to be baffling. It was like the laws of the universe didn’t make sense anymore.”
As Jollett slowly began to process the loss through songwriting, he found the old rules of composition didn’t apply either. “I didn’t think about hooks or choruses or any of that kind of stuff. It was just storytelling,” he says. “It was sort of like I’d gone back to my original reason for writing songs: to try to make sense of my life.”
As he kept writing more songs, Jollett slowly realized he was making a concept album, a raw, contemporary counterpart to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The title became clear to Jollett: Hollywood Park, the humble racetrack in Inglewood where his father went the day he got out of prison and the day he left Synanon, and then visited every weekend often with Jollett. “I just thought it was a blazing metaphor for his life,” Jollett says, “and the family that I spent my whole life sort of seeking and found at this crappy old race track they tore down three weeks after he died.”
Jollett continued the songwriting process with his now-streamlined four-piece band—original members Daren Taylor (drums, percussion) and Steven Chen (guitars, piano) as well as Adrian Rodriguez (bass, piano, guitars) who joined in 2014CK and co-wrote two songs on the record. The band tried out the songs in a series of shows at Los Angeles’ El Rey theatre, trying out new arrangements and approaches. “The idea was, Let’s do like we did back in the old days and just road test it,” Jollett says. The resulting album combines the feel of that back-to-basics live experimentation with refined, ambitious compositions.
Hollywood Park opens with the title track, an anthemic call to arms that evokes Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and U2’s “Beautiful Day.” Over a big galloping beat, Jollett sings about the rundown racetrack which was a fixture of his father’s life: And nothing could come between you and I/As the horses ran wild at Hollywood Park. “I grew up on the railing there. Throughout my life we spent a lot of time there together,” says Jollett. “We had some serious talks, but mostly we’d just joke around or cheer on the horses.”
“Brother How Was the War?” takes the form of a letter written by Jollett’s father while in Chino State Prison to his brother in Vietnam. With a long build from somber fol strains to crashing guitars, it traces the intertwined fate of Jollett’s father and uncle. “They were wild, just running the streets,” Jollett says of their youth. “Fast forward ten years and their lives had been touched by tragedy—my dad in prison and my uncle fighting this pointless war.”
“Carry Me” recounts Jollett’s father’s overdose and the anguish and pain of getting clean. “He fell asleep shooting heroin and watching TV,” Jollett says of his dad’s experience, “and he woke up with straps across his chest and tubes in his arm and didn’t know where he was.” His friends deposited him on the steps of Synanon, where he proceeded to detox on a green couch in the front hallway, where, in the throes of withdrawal, he realized the stark choice he faced: drugs or death.
The first track to be released, “Come On Out,” tells the story of Jollett running away from home as an 11-year-old, after a confrontation with his abusive stepfather. Riding his bike to the West Salem Bridge, Jollet contemplates jumping into the Willamette River. The narrative is captured in the accompanying video directed by Spanish filmmaker Silvia Grey and starring Jacob Sandler, who played Brad Pitt’s character as a child in Ad Astra.
A post-punk number in the mold of the Pixies and Joy Division, “I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore” evokes the feeling of hiding from Synanon thugs. “We were on the run so that these bad men wouldn’t come and get us,” Jollett says. The song plays on that journey and the frustration and isolation of confinement. “Writing that song was just like pure anger—the riff and the beat and everything,” he says. “Being a kid and not understanding any of this stuff. So much of the book and album is giving that kid a voice. ”
The next track, “All the Children,” is also about empowering voiceless children. A nod to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” the song is from the perspective of those raised and abused by Synanon and rises with the chanted lyric “stop staring”—the cry of the kids forced by the cult to wear white and shave their heads. “You’re like, ‘Just fucking stop staring at me.’” Jollett says. “It’s this feeling of ‘Man, I didn’t choose any of this.’ Again, you’re powerless.”
The first of several songs to directly address the after-effects of childhood trauma, “Everything I Love Is Broken” references the memoir’s opening refrain in the second verse (“We were never young”) and takes its name from another line in the book. “I’m drawn to people who have at some point in their life been broken,” Jolett says. “Not because I like drama—I don’t—but because I can relate.” The next track “All These Engagements” also deals with the toll Jollett’s childhood took on his adult relationships. “I wanted to weave together the historical forces and the childhood trauma that resulted in an adult attempting to understand it.”
Opening with moody echoing piano and guitars reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, “The Place We Meet A Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack,” takes listeners to the distant, dreamlike place where his family is reunited “It’s a place of celebration, warmth and kindness—the one spot where everyone dead is alive and happy and underneath a racetrack that doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “So of course it’s in my imagination.” The song does bring Jollett’s family together—his brother, Tony, lends backing vocals and his infant son’s cries are sampled into the soundscape. When the song is reprised as the penultimate track on the album, its mood is more ethereal. As Jollett puts it: “We gave it a slightly more angelic vibe.”
Between those tracks, Jollett imagines a conversation with his departed dad in “The Common Touch.” It isn’t sentimental, but real—born of his father’s admonition to stay grounded: He’s always saying/Stop complaining/You really can’t ever expect too much/Boy, you were born with the common touch. “I just wrote it to try answer a question honestly and not flinch from it: Write about your father’s death and write about what he would tell you—really tell you,” Jollett says. “He’d tell me ‘Okay, you had this setback, what can you do about it? It was just who he was. He was always challenging me.’”
That raw honesty continues in the record’s final track, the bittersweet “True” which finds Jollett spreading his dad’s ashes on another racetrack as the horses thunder past. “I was really obsessed with the metaphor of the dust,” he says. “It’s there in the opening song. And the last line on the record is the most devastating— ‘I’ll meet you in the dust.’ There’s the begrudging, painful realization that I’ll see my dad again but only when I’m dead, too.”
Hollywood Park is at once a statement of ambition and simplicity. “I wanted to make one of these records that hung together, lyrically and musically and from a narrative standpoint,” he says. “I first made music as a way of explaining the world to myself and others. With this record, we decided to write something we all loved.”
Signed to Rounder Records by legendary label founder John Strohm, who discovered Alabama Shakes, Bon Iver and The Civil Wars, Airborne Toxic Event turned to longtime collaborator Mark Needham (The Killers, Fleetwood Mac) to produce Hollywood Park.
The album, recorded at the legendary East-West Studios, is what Jollett calls “studio live”—the tracks laid down in a series single takes. When the “dust” clears, Jollett and Airborne Toxic Event are looking forward to performing these new songs for fans.
“My job is to entertain and engage, and my hope is, in the midst of everything going on, here’s a story to get wrapped up in,” he says. “I lived with this book for five years—all the emotions, the people, the relationships, and the attitude. I wrote these songs from the true, honest place I was in at the time.”
Just as Hollywood Park the racetrack was a real place, Hollywood Park the album is very real for Jollett as are all the emotions he poured into it. At times heart-racing and heartbreaking, the result is a record that aims to take its place alongside its legendary influences, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Radiohead’s OK Computer. Packed with both urgency and poetry, and at once uncomfortably intimate and unapologetically epic, Hollywood Park is Jollett and Airborne Toxic Event’s first true masterpiece.