I’m far too practical to bother much with nostalgia, most of the time; too preoccupied with what might go wrong tomorrow to appreciate what went right yesterday.
But something about seeing a big, fat book with my name on the cover sitting on my coffee table this week has put me in a reflective mood.
I’m not too proud to admit that, like the shiny new toy the child discovered under the Christmas tree, the first printed copy of Toxic History has come with me almost everywhere I’ve gone this week. Most of the time it just sits there, unopened. But I can’t stop looking at it, and thinking about the journey that led to this moment.
So, if you’ll forgive the self-indulgence, I thought I’d give you a bit of a peek behind the curtain. It may get a little rambly. It’s more a series of snapshots than a sequential retelling, but then, nostalgia usually is.
When people ask me how long it took to write the book, I say three years. And that’s kind of true.
It began on July 13, 2013: the day I posted the first article on This Is Nowhere: my first attempt at writing it all down. More than 300 posts followed, and though I wasn’t consciously writing a history of the band when I started out, many of those early thoughts eventually found their way into the book in one way or another.
Somewhere along the way, I connected with Julie Stoller on the recommendation of a friend. Julie, through her blog The Boston Survival Guide, had written prolifically about The Airborne Toxic Event since their earliest days.
In my first e-mail to Julie, I told her about my nascent fan blog, and asked her if she might be interested in writing for it sometime. She swiftly declined, probably mistaking me for a fly-by-nighter, but generously granted me permission to reprint any of her old posts that I may wish to use. I quickly took her up on that offer.
I can’t quite recall exactly when things changed, but presumably it was sometime after she realized I was actually rather serious about this endeavor. However it happened, we soon began corresponding on a very regular basis, debating the latest happenings with the band. If memory serves me as to the timing, chances are our earliest conversations revolved around how long Noah’s baby leave might last.
By this time, I had assembled a long list of topics that I thought I might tackle in future blog posts. A few of them involved looking back on key events in the band’s past. I wasn’t sure if people would be interested in reading old news, but I was interested in writing about it.
I hadn’t gone too far with any of these ideas yet, mostly because I was intimidated by the amount of googling I’d need to do to gather the information needed to tell the stories accurately.
Whether I told Julie about my plans or it was just a happy coincidence, I’m not sure. But at some point she mentioned that she had collected some of the old articles, interviews and press clippings on the band, and I was welcome to them.
Of course I said yes, and it wasn’t long before she sent me a link that took me to a private page on her website, which contained five or six folders, which, together, contained links to hundreds of files, all diligently organized by date.
Clearly, she had been modest about the extent of her collection. I scrolled… and scrolled… and scrolled… and realized that Julie had catalogued virtually every significant scrap of Airborne-related content published through the first seven-plus years of their career. Everything – and I mean everything, from the most prestigious feature interview to the most insignificant blog post by some kid in his basement whose entire readership probably consisted of his mother – was there.
And not just web links (thankfully, since many of them were long since dead). No. Julie had copied the full content of each piece and preserved each one in a Word document. Saving it all for a rainy day, I suppose.
The moment I scanned her list of files (God, there was A LOT of coverage from 2009-2011) was the moment Toxic History was born. The five or six “historical” articles I had sketched out on my spreadsheet grew to over 30 as I envisioned what a complete history of the band might look like. It would eventually hit 43.
Over the next six months, I went through every single one of Julie’s files, copying and pasting portions of each article into 43 new Word documents that I had set up, one for each chapter. For some chapters, I had over 60 pages of raw material to work from when I turned to writing.
To say that I knew I was writing a book when I started would probably be an exaggeration. It began as a blog series, with the intention of publishing one “chapter” every two weeks for a year and a half. It was only after the first two or three chapters, when I mentally multiplied the word count by the number of planned installments, that I realized I would have a book’s worth of material by the time I finished (and a long book at that, as it turns out).
From that point, the idea of publishing a book loomed as a possibility, but it just seemed so far off. It wasn’t until I was well into writing my way through the Such Hot Blood era that I began to believe this could actually happen.
In the fall of 2015, I conducted the second Airborne Toxic Event fan survey. Tucked away at the bottom were a couple of selfish questions. I needed to test the waters and see if anyone would be interested in the book. After all, it’s a lot of effort to go through if there’s no market for it.
To my pleasant surprise, over 90% of those surveyed said they would buy the book if it was published, representing over 300 copies. I was flabbergasted by the response, which cemented it in my mind: this was going to happen, even if I had to print it in my basement!
As I worked on the final quarter of the book, I started exploring publishing options. It was pretty intimidating at first; even paralyzing – so many potential paths to explore, and I didn’t know which one to test first.
On a most basic level, I wasn’t sure if or how hard I should pursue a “real” (ie. traditional) publisher, versus going the self-publishing route. On the one hand, I felt like I owed it to myself to give the book every opportunity to reach the widest possible audience. On the other, it quickly became apparent that the process of finding an agent, and then a publisher, could be a very long one, with no guarantee of success at the end.
I had good reasons for wanting to publish as soon as possible, aside from my own impatience (which, I admit, was not insignificant).
By this point, it was clear that The Airborne Toxic Event would be taking a break for the foreseeable future. I had written the final chapters of the book with that knowledge, building towards that “ending.” (While we’re on that subject, no, I don’t believe the band has reached The End. But for the purposes of the first edition of Toxic History, that is where the story concludes.)
I knew that if I took a long time to publish, the band could come back in the meantime, which could make the book outdated before it was even released. It would probably require me to put it on hold, scrap my current ending, and write more chapters. All of which may very well happen in the future; in fact, I hope it does. But as things stand, the book was written to be published now.
I also liked the tie-in to the band’s 10th anniversary, which I’ve taken the liberty of assigning to the day that falls ten years after their first show: Oct. 5, 2016. We can quibble with the exact starting date for the band, but however you slice it, this year is TATE’s tenth, and as such, the book serves as a chronicle of their first decade.
These factors, along with my desire to have full control over the final product (well, almost full control, as it would turn out), led me to the decision to self-publish. After researching several options, I selected Lulu Publishing, and began the next phase of bringing the book to life.
The next choice I faced concerned the scope of the book. My initial manuscript was 123,000 words – well over the recommended range of 50-80,000 for a biography. Aside from the marketability of a book that size, I was concerned about printing cost, wanting to keep the price as low as possible for the readers.
I briefly flirted with the idea of cutting the book down to size by removing chapters that weren’t essential to the main thread of the story. Perhaps I could make them available online as digital appendices.
But then I thought about my audience. As a TATE super fan, I had written the book I would want to read: which is to say, one that includes every minute detail. True, that might not be the book for everybody. But I suspected my core audience – the regular readers of This Is Nowhere – tend more towards hard core than casual. A quick poll one day on Facebook and Twitter confirmed as much: the vast majority of you wanted the whole enchilada, minutiae and all. So that’s what you’re getting.
The publication process has been educational. I guess you can never really know everything that goes into making the sausage until you roll up your sleeves and stick your hands in the goo.
The biggest surprise for me was the level of permissions required to quote from published interviews with the band. In my naivety, I thought that footnotes acknowledging my sources would be sufficient (and to that end, you’ll find a whopping 39 pages of notes at the back of the book).
On the contrary: in order to quote more than a small amount of material from any interview, I was required to obtain written permission from the original writer. Knowing that many of my sources were going on ten years old, and many of the websites now defunct, I can’t say I took this news very well. Off the top of my head, probably about half the words in the book are quotes from Mikel and other band members, drawn from published interviews, and now all of that material was at risk. For about half a day, I honestly thought it might sink the book.
But the next day, I began doing the only thing I could do: compiling the list of sources from whom I needed permission; googling, tweeting at them and otherwise stalking them on social media; and asking them if they would be so kind as to allow me to quote their work.
The list began with 23 writers I needed to chase down. Over the course of two weeks, I was able to connect with 20 of them, each of whom said yes. In the interest of moving things along, I cut my losses on the other three, reducing their quotations to the allowable level, and resubmitted my manuscript for inspection.
From there, it has been a whirlwind of design ideas and mock-ups and proofs and revisions and more proofs and more revisions, until I finally signed off on everything. Two weeks later, I held the first printed copy in my hands.
The Hardest Part
As I look back on the whole process, there were so many challenges along the way – not the least of which was my daughter’s cancer diagnosis, which led to a good quarter of the book being written in a dark hospital room while she slept beside me.
But on a pure writing level, the biggest challenge was something I never expected.
When I officially began this project in early 2014, The Airborne Toxic Event had enjoyed relatively smooth sailing to that point in their career. Apart from some snooty indie types who turned up their noses at one of their own actually achieving some measure of success, it had been a feel-good story all around.
The ensuing years, which represent the entire writing period of this book, have been a little more turbulent. Noah’s baby break never did end. Fans went into an uproar when he was fired in the summer of 2014. Other fans revolted around that same time when Mikel revealed his new electronic leanings. Still others got angry when the surprise release of Songs of God and Whiskey required them to purchase a second copy of Dope Machines. And then there was the band’s ill-fated performance in Denver last December, which may have topped them all in terms of the amount of vitriol directed at the band from its own fan base.
Each of these incidents forced me to think long and hard about how to address them, both on the blog and in the book.
I struggled with my role. Was I a fan? Was I a reporter? Was I both, and if so, how could they co-exist?
As a fan, my instinct is always to give the band the benefit of the doubt; to assume the best possible motive and interpret events accordingly.
As a self-appointed TATE historian, I knew that some measure of objectivity was required. Though I unapologetically write from a fan’s perspective, my work wouldn’t have much credibility if I was blindly supportive, glossing over troubling chapters in the story or ignoring issues that many fans were very upset about.
In the end, I landed somewhere in the middle. I tried to present all sides of every story, and all facts as best as I could discern them. If fans were angry, I acknowledged that and tried to give voice to their concerns, even if they were not my own. But in my final conclusions, I ultimately stood by the band each time.
I never imagined that This Is Nowhere would grow to the point where I would have the ear of a significant portion of the band’s fan base. I’m certainly grateful for the interest and support, but it wasn’t my intention, and it’s brought with it a unique pressure to represent both the band and the fans well.
Occasionally, readers have taken me to task for not being positive/supportive enough, as though my fandom has been sacrificed on the altar of This Is Nowhere. Others have suggested that I see the band through rose colored glasses, and need to be more critical when it’s warranted.
And you know what? Both probably have a point. But taken together, I guess maybe it means I’ve straddled the line fairly successfully. At the end of the day, all I could do was present the truth as I saw it, while trying to be faithful to the band. The reader can form his/her own opinion.
And, I want to stress this: My take on things isn’t any more or less important than any other fan’s. I’m not trying to speak for anyone else. I don’t have any inside scoops, so like everyone else, I’m just trying my best to make sense of the information that is publicly available. I reserve the right to be proven wrong, and to whatever extent I am, I take full responsibility.
My Weird Way of Loving
I have a very odd habit of turning the things I love most into a hell of a lot of work.
This is how I love things: I love the shit out of them.
When I was in junior high, my obsession was WWF wrestling. (Don’t judge; I just described virtually every pre-teen boy in the mid-eighties.)
Instead of channeling this interest in “normal” ways (whatever that may have looked like), I spent hour upon hour on a typewriter, creating homemade versions of the WWF magazine, writing all the articles myself, adopting the performers’ voices as I crafted fake interviews, and dreaming up my own storylines. (I did all this in between beating off all the girls with a stick, because clearly I was the coolest kid in school. Hey, I said don’t judge!)
My wife likes to tell people that I’m pretty much apathetic towards 90% of things, and completely obsessed with the other 10%. And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in that 10%, you’re liable to get loved to death. And if you’re in the top 1%, well, apparently you get a book written about you.
I’ve been asked: doesn’t it take away from the fun of it all, when it becomes more job than hobby? And when you put it that way, yeah, it does sound a little weird. But that’s me, I guess: weird. I analyze because I love, and through the analysis, I love more.
The irony – one which has caused me more than a few sleepless nights, if I’m honest – is that Mikel Jollett does not love being put under a microscope. Many times I’ve wondered if I would better honor him by just shutting up already.
But then I remember that he’s also said many times that he writes to feel less weird and less alone, by finding others who can relate to what he’s experienced.
And in the end, that’s what this whole madness comes down to. I do what I do because he succeeded: Mikel sent his words out into the world and they somehow found their way to me. He connected with me, and my response to that is to try to write it all down.
Everything I write, whether here on This Is Nowhere or in Toxic History, is written with the awareness that Mikel or someone else in the band might read it. If they ever do, I hope they will see the heart behind it: that it’s been written out of deep gratitude for the gifts they have given me.
My love for the band has only grown through Toxic History. My greatest wish for the book is that anyone who reads it will say the same.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.