Airborne Toxic Event’s Mikel Jollett Talks Twitter, Trump, Creativity, Addiction, and Escaping an L.A. Cult

Before the release of Jollet’s New York Times best-selling book ’Hollywood Park,’ Los Angeles mag’s editor-in-chief sat down with the musician turned memoirist
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Mikel Jollett was five years old when he was rousted from bed one night by a virtual stranger, shoved into a waiting car, and driven to a safe house in Oregon, hundreds of miles away. It was the early 1980s, and Jollett and his seven-year-old brother were living at Synanon, a Venice Beach drug and alcohol rehab center that had gradually devolved into a notorious cult. He’d been separated from his parents early on, and raised by random adults. The middle-of-the-night stranger turned out to be Mikel’s mother, a drug addict who’d basically dropped her kids off at Synanon when they were babies, and returned some years later, after she’d gotten clean, to ferry them to safety.

But life outside Synanon was hardly an improvement. Jollett’s mother proved to be as selfish and distant in sobriety as she was in addiction, and for several years Jollett’s childhood was marred by poverty, violence, and more addiction. Ultimately, Jollett’s life turned out all right—he ended up in the care of his dad and his dad’s second wife, Bonnie, a maternal figure who, oddly enough, had been one of the people who helped raise him at Synanon.

Eventually Jollett graduated from Stanford, spent a few years as a magazine a journalist, and became the lead singer of the Airborne Toxic Event, a wildly popular indie-rock band that regularly sells out venues across the country. He’s now 45 years old, married, and living with his wife in a house in Silver Lake, where they’re raising a toddler and a four-month-old baby.

Several years ago, Jollett began writing Hollywood Park, the gripping and brutally honest memoir of his life. Published in the middle of the pandemic, it has gone on to become one of the summer’s most celebrated books—a New York Times best seller that is reportedly being optioned by a major studio. Since Los Angeles magazine published an excerpt of the book in May, Jollett has been featured in an eclectic array of publications, from the Poetry Journal to People to NPR. Los Angeles editor-in-chief Maer Roshan spoke with him shortly before the book’s launch.

You’ve said that you started writing your memoir after your father’s death because you needed answers to some things. What kind of answers were you seeking?

I don’t know. My dad had been sick for a while and I knew that he was going to die. I expected to be sad when it happened, but I didn’t know my life would fall apart. After his death, it felt like the universe was completely transformed; the laws of physics suddenly stopped working. My dad was absent for my early life, but over time he became the first person I ever trusted. I didn’t understand a world that didn’t have him in it. I spent a lot of time just walking around in a fog, trying to make sense of all this. And when I finally got my head together I decided to write a book. I thought that examining my past would help me make sense of the pain I was feeling.

Your book starts off with your escape from Synanon, the rehab-turned-cult where you lived with your brother. You left there when you were five, but the experience seems to have shadowed your life for much longer.

Synanon was a troubled place, as you know. It started out as a movement for people who were seeking help for really debilitating addictions, but over time it devolved into a dangerous and depraved kind of cult. There were lots of desperate people there looking for help, and obviously the program worked for some people. It was certainly not a good place for a child. You’re pretty much separated from your parents and raised by strangers—kind of orphaned, really—and everything seems hazy and fragile. You have no one to protect you. When you’re in a cult, all your information is controlled, you’re constantly pressed to justify the actions of some bat-shit leader, and lots of bad things happen. That’s how it went with Synanon. I’ve been in touch with other Synanon kids, and most of them had the same experience. I felt like it was an important story to tell. 

The book portrays your father as a damaged but loving hero and your mother as an icy narcissist who basically ignored you and your brother. Your dad is gone now but your mom is still alive. Did you worry about how she’d feel about being portrayed that way?

This may sound selfish, but no, I didn’t think about that. If you want to tell an authentic story, you need to take risks. You have to confront things that are really uncomfortable about yourself and about your relationships and the people around you. You try to tell it as it happened,

What kind of responses have you gotten from other people you wrote about?

Well, after my Bonnie read the book, she cried—she was very supportive and very proud. I wasn’t sure how she’d react to the Synanon stuff. She thinks of it as a better place than I do. Some of the people who went through Synanon early on believed it had some redeeming characters. That’s her perspective, and I’m fine with that. I think there’s a generational divide between kids and their parents about Synanon.

I was most nervous about how my brother would react. He knew he’d be in my book, but I don’t think he realized how big a role he would play in it. After I gave him the manuscript I was on pins and needles. I went over to the house and he sat me down and he was like, “This book . . . I don’t always look good, but neither do you.” He was generous and OK with the uncomfortable parts of our story being told.

When we were growing up we both felt like we’d survived a plane crash that nobody else had witnessed. We always used to tell each other, “Nobody understands what happened with you.” It’s a hard to explain, but for most of our childhood no adult really bothered to talk to us; no one sat us down and asked us about the violence and loneliness we suffered. We never saw a therapist. We were treated as accessories. But when we both became very, very angry kids, people wondered why.

One of the most poignant scenes for me was your description of taking your brother to Brotman  Hospital, a rehab in Culver City, to get help for his alcoholism. It was incredibly vivid.

Oh, do you know the room?

Yeah, because I’ve been there myself. A couple of times. A very sad and scary place.

You might have known my brother and me. My brother was part of the Brotman group for seven, eight years. He kept going to it while he was getting sober. I gave him four different cakes at that meeting.

Both your mom and your dad were addicts. Your brother, too. How did you escape that fate?

Well, I think there’s definitely a genetic component to alcoholism, but it plays out differently in people. There are type-A and type-B alcoholics—AA doesn’t make that distinction, but that’s been my experience. And what I’ve heard from type-A—the genetic alcoholics—doesn’t jibe with my own experience. My brother was like, “The first time I had a drink, that was it. It was the greatest feeling ever, and I didn’t want to ever stop.” He was 13 when he had his first drink, and he continued to drink every night from then on. It was different for me. I drank a lot but if I had a drink I got really drunk. I fell straight down to the ground. I had a different physical and emotional reaction to booze than he did.

But you know, people also react differently to their circumstances. If you would’ve asked me ten years ago, “What was your brother like as a kid?” I would have said, “He’s a jerk. He was a jerk to me. He was a bully. He beat me up all the time. He broke my shit.” Writing this book gave me a lot more empathy for him. He was traumatized. He was abandoned. He was abused. He was left in this place where no one took care of him, and suddenly he’s living on the run and people are wondering why he’s so angry. If he was pissed off, he was pissed off for a good reason. And I’m almost mad at myself, just a little bit: for a long time I was trying to please everybody. My brother was exhibiting a more honest reaction.

Did you also come to empathize with your own situation as you grew up? Did you realize that you were also a vulnerable kid?

No, for a long time I thought of myself as the one who had to take care of everyone. When you’re a smart kid growing up in awful circumstances, there’s a part of you that believes you’re smarter than everybody, and invincible. You can take care of everyone. You can handle things other people can’t. It’s your job just to holds things together. That was me as a kid.

A few years after Synanon we lived with my mom on a farm in Oregon , and I spent all my time in school or taking care of the rabbits that we were raising. I was always changing the water thing, where you have to take the hot water in a pitcher and unfreeze every single bowl in 50 cages—it takes forever. And then you go pack your lunch and make yourself breakfast and go to school. Then you come home from school at 3 o‘clock to do another two hours of rabbits and chores. You hope your mom isn’t crying and that your brother isn’t trying to break stuff. You hope your stepfather isn’t out drinking or passing out. You just try to hold everything together. I soldiered on. I didn’t allow my own feelings to get in the way.

When did that change for you?

It first started to dawn on me when I was in my late teens that my life was not normal. By the time I entered college, I was full of rage. So that’s when I became estranged from my mother. We stopped talking. I went through therapy and tried to empathize with that kid I had ignored. I wrote the book in part to give a voice to this kid that never really had one.

You once said that you spent most of your life in L.A. occupying the negative space in the background of the city—the random freeways and places that most people never discover. Is that the part of L.A. where you still feel most at home?

Oh, 100 percent. I think outsiders have this very specific idea of the city—Disneyland, Staples Center, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, maybe Compton and South Central. Those are the neighborhoods that define L.A. to the world at large, right? But that’s just a tiny slice of a diverse and sprawling world. Most Angelenos—ten million of them—live outside those borders, in places like La Habra, Culver City, Pacoima, Saugus. They’re the working-class of people who are going about the business of living and dying, working, having children. Even now, as the American experiment seems to be failing, I think the California experiment is mostly working. It’s a far more authentic and cohesive city than most outsiders imagine.

Have you ever thought of living somewhere else?

Not seriously. Mostly because my father was sick for a lot of years, and I wasn’t going to live in a different city if I thought he was going to die.

You named your book Hollywood Park, after a now-shuttered racetrack in Inglewood, so obviously it loomed large in your life. Why was it so important to you?

Oh, man, it was hugely important! Hollywood Park was where my dad went just about every Saturday. We’d go there with him and hang with all his shady buddies. “Hey, Jimmy, got the boys? Teaching them the family business?” And he’d sit out there with a racing form and a little pair of glasses in the sun, and we’d sit there and watch. We’d be like, “Why are you picking this one, Dad?” He’d bring up all the stuff about who ran what, and what the time trials were, which horses were better closers and which are frontrunners, which horse runs better on grass. So those weekends were family time for me. My brother and I were sons of a single mom and lived on the run for years, and there was this sense we were finally safe there. And it was something about being out with the men. Because at the time we didn’t really know the world of men very well. But we really knew the world of women.

At Synanon you were raised mostly by women, right?

Yeah, mostly women there. And after that we were mostly surrounded by my mom and her friends. So men came to seem like these magical creatures to us—these mysterious, oversized beasts. Obviously, we knew that we’d one day become men ourselves, but we weren’t sure what that entailed. I think that’s what drew us so close to our dad. He was so warm and affectionate and funny. He loved us but he also liked us. Growing up in Oregon, there wasn’t a lot of empathy for us; it was an emotional desert. We weren’t used to it.

When we first went to live with him and Bonnie, they were like, “You can eat all our food.” We were puzzled by that. We’d be like, “We can have string cheese any time we want?” And they looked at us funny and said yeah. But that wasn’t our experience before then. So we went to Hollywood Park, and through the years, that’s where my dad and I had a lot of talks.

In my experience, the racetrack doesn’t usually lend itself to deep conversation.

[laughs] Trust me, it wasn’t always deep. Usually we’d just bet on the horses, screw around, and then we’d be home. But whenever he wanted to have a serious talk with me, that’s where we’d go. He’d say, “Hey, you want to go to the track?” And I knew what that meant. We continued that tradition even as I grew older. And then soon after my dad died, they tore it down. It became this big, blazing metaphor for me. I was so outraged that they demolished it! This is where I discovered family, you know? This is where I learned to . . . I don’t know…be loved.

Early in your career you were offered a chance to go to Yaddo—a rare opportunity for an aspiring writer. But you turned that down to start your band instead. Is your music more integral to your life than writing is?

At that point in my life, in my twenties, I just wanted to be out on the road, out at night. I felt really housebound by writing.

Are there different muscles involved in writing music and writing prose? Parts of your brain that you use differently?

Oh, yeah. Songwriting almost feels like a party trick to me. I don’t know what the exact rules are, but I’ve just done it so many times that when it comes to performing, that muscle is pretty well-developed. Music is more intuitive and physical than writing. It’s very emotional. It’s the kind of thing that you get better at with practice, like juggling or dunking a basketball. 

Why do you think people tend to identify more with musicians than other kinds of artists?

That’s a good question. I think because there’s something transcendent and universal about the sound of the human voice, the rhythm of a drum, the rhythm of a melody. The rhythm of the feet dancing is ingrained into us from way back.

But it’s also a more economical artform. In four minutes you can listen to, like, Hello by Adele, and you’ll know everything about her emotional world. To capture that complexity in a novel would take at least 150 to 200 pages. If you’re a really great writer, maybe 50 pages. But Adele gets it done in four minutes.

I imagine having your book come out in the middle of a plague isn’t easy. How much has the pandemic altered the rollout of your book?

God, a whole lot! We had an entire national book tour set up. We seriously thought about canceling it, then we realized that if we did that then all these independent book stores that sponsored all the events would lose out. So we ended up just moving everything online. We tried to figure out a way it could still feel special. I’d given this talk in Baltimore a while ago that was a one-man-show kind of thing. So I thought, what if I take that and try to find a way to broadcast it. I could give this talk, and sing some songs, and people could ask questions. We sold a lot more tickets when we moved the tour into a virtual space, and people really seemed to like it. Instead of viewing you as a speck on a stage in some big hall, they could see every little expression, and the sound was balanced and whatnot, whatever. Did you see it?

 Yeah, there was something weirdly intimate about the whole thing. People got up to ask you questions, and it was fascinating to watch their expressions close-up, and to see into their living rooms. You don’t get that close in a bookstore.

Did it seem bizarre that I was just rambling into a camera for an hour?

[laughs] You’re obviously very gifted at rambling into a camera. It can’t be easy to get up and just talk with all these strangers and sound smart and speak in complete sentences. And then to sing on top of that.

The singing is easy. The harder part for me is just summoning the energy it takes to connect with all these people remotely. You have to imagine an audience, then you also have to imagine their collective reactions so that you can respond to that reaction and keep going.

What’s your life like now in quarantine? What do you do every day?

Not much. I’m a dad with two kids under three. One’s just four months old. So it’s been really good to have family time, even though the first month or so we were really struggling. Some days you feel almost normal, and then other days you’re just so bummed out. But I know I’m much more fortunate than others. There are people who are dying, and people who have lost loved ones. Luckily, we haven’t done either yet.

You talk in your book about feeling like a stranger in most of the worlds you’ve inhabited—from Synanon to Oregon to Stanford. Has the success you’ve enjoyed also made you a stranger to your old friends? Do they treat you differently because of it?

No, not at all. It’s not something we ever talk about. I have a tight group of old friends who are all like brothers to me. We have lots of shared experiences that bond us. I’d lay down in traffic for those guys and they would for me, too. It’s good to have people like that in your life.

But there is something about being an outsider that’s not necessarily a shared experience. You feel the same way, right? I have read up a little about you, and It sounds like you’ve been through some of the same things that I have. You feel like, “OK, I’m not having the same collective experience as 90 percent of the people in this room,” right? Inside your brain there’s a smart person who’s processing everything in real time, and having an emotional reaction as well. There’s something about that feeling of apartness that fuels creativity. You learn to thrive on your own thoughts and your own story, which is a good habit for creative people.

I think that may be creatively useful, but not always personally fun.

No, no, it’s definitely not personally fun. Feeling like an outsider all the time is not a ticket to mental health. But a lot of horrible experiences make for good writing. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said, “An early experience with death is always a good thing.” It was one of his rules for writing: An early experience with death. A problematic relationship with your mother. Awful stuff like that. 

Your book is also a lot about parenting, both good and bad. Have your early experiences made you a different kind of parent to your own kids?

The most damaging experiences I had with parents happened before I was ten, and they were really bad. They left a mark. It’s safe to say that my birth mom was not suited to motherhood. But after that, my life became much better. My dad took real joy in our existence. He was thrilled that we were alive. My mom, Bonnie, has always been on our side. That’s the relationship I want to have with my kids. I want to make sure they’re safe and get a good education and love the hell out of them. Try not to cause them pain.

When you’re writing a memoir, you have to sift through a lifetime of material. Is it difficult to decide what to keep and what to cut?

I wrote about three times as much as is in the book. It eventually became this massive project. But then, about a year and a half into it, I cut the entire second half of my book— 60,000 words. I deleted them all. Life is a big, messy thing. After 45 years, you’ve got to pick and choose the proper thread for your narrative. You have to edit it.

What do you see yourself doing in the next 20 years? Are you going to write more books? Are you going to concentrate on music? What would be the ideal trajectory for you?

I just want to . . . I don’t know, we’ll see. I think there will certainly be another record, at least, I’ll continue to make music. Ideally, I’d like this book to be my first foray into a literary career that also includes novels. I’m currently working on a very long outline for what’s essentially a science-fiction novel, though calling it science-fiction doesn’t seem quite right. I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll be around long enough to raise my kids.

I first got to know you through Twitter, where you’ve built an impressive presence— 266,000 followers the last time I checked. How much time do you spend to become a Twitter influencer? What do you like about it?

Nothing. [laughs] Nothing. I hate Twitter! I fucking hate it.

Really? It seems more like a love-hate relationship.

No. I hate it! I think social media is making everyone smaller and meaner. It turns everyone into weird, tiny caricatures. At its best, Twitter can seem like a newspaper lunchroom—lots of smart people sitting around bullshitting, making jokes, being ironic and gossipy. Sometimes it’s useful and enlightening, but often it’s just cruel and stupid. And in the end, I don’t think Twitter matters much to the real world. Have you ever been to one of those old casinos where you win chips that are only good in the casino? Every chip you get on Twitter is only good on Twitter—it’s not worth much to anybody else. For me, Twitter has been a political thing—an outlet for all the rage and frustration I feel in the age of Trump. We’ve all been watching helplessly as this sexist, racist, homophobic, shitty man uproots everything that’s good about this country. It feels good to speak out.

At the moment, Trump is down in the polls. How do you think this election will end up?

I don’t know. I’d say there’s a 30 percent chance he’ll be re-elected, which is shockingly high, considering what a horrible and incompetent person he is. You hear lots of pundits saying “Oh, he’s definitely going to lose.” And a handful who‘re certain he’s going to win. I don’t believe either of them. Events keep changing day by day, and how this turns out depends, to some extent, how on how we act in the next [four] months. The right wing in America has proved that it’s capable of all sorts of abuses. We have to be vigilant and fight like hell. This is our country too.

In your book you talk about meeting Robert Smith of the Cure who told you to ignore everyone’s expectations and forge your own path in life. What other people have inspired you?

My own personal Mount Rushmore would have to include Leonard Cohen. “Suzanne” is my favorite song in the world. I love Bruce Springsteen, like everyone else. Also Maya Angelou—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is such a masterpiece. Every time I read it I’m like, “You think you wrote a good book? Go read that again.” It’s so breathtaking and real and honest. Everything I want to be.

Before I started writing my book, I read a ton of memoirs, mostly classics but also some cheesy ones. Most of them were not very memorable, but a few of them blew my mind. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carry. Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club. This Boy’s Life, Angela’s Ashes. I really loved both of Obama’s books: Dreams of My Father and Audacity of Hope. After I was done reading them, I’d write about their techniques and the details they’d captured, just for me, not for publication. What was their style? What voices did they introduce? What made their books so fucking good? By the time I finally sat down to write, these other books loomed so large. It was like this chorus of voices that I kept hearing in my head. Whenever writing seemed most impossible, they kept encouraging me to go on.


RELATED: Exclusive Excerpt: Mikel Jollett’s Surreal Escape from a Drug Rehab-Turned-Cult


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