WILLIAMSTOWN — As a young music journalist Mikel Jollett treated the job like a research project, a chance “to go meet my idols and ask them a lot of questions about songwriting.”
He got to talk craft with Stephen Malkmus, Robert Smith, Jack White, and one day he found himself sitting across from David Bowie having a surprisingly deep conversation about art, God, youth and lost illusions. During the conversation, the legend wondered whether Jollett’s generation could believe in anything.
That struck a nerve with Jollett. It opened a stream of thoughts about his own feelings of what had fallen apart and what didn’t work, and frustration with the contradictions he found within himself.
“Write about the contradictions then,” Bowie said.
“A light went on for me,” Jollett says. “Actually ignore the rules, actually take seriously my internal monologue, and actually take seriously capturing it in song.”
In 2006 he started his band, The Airborne Toxic Event, which found an enthusiastic audience with its anthemic, literate brand of indie rock music. And Jollett kept creating, eventually writing a memoir about his singular childhood — he was born into and grew up in a cult, lived in poverty with his mother and her mental health struggles, and eventually found some stability with his once-estranged father.
Exploring that tie between trauma and creation is something he’s thought a lot about: The contradiction of suffering and wanting to make it into some beautiful and with purpose. That’s the subject he’ll be speaking about at the Williams College ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 4, as part of a program dedicated to mental health, with some storytelling, some reflection, and maybe a few songs.
Steven Fein, a professor of psychology at Williams, coordinated bringing Jollett to campus. He has been a fan of the band since hearing them on WEQX around 2011 and he met the band when he helped arrange a guest spot on a radio show where he occasionally guests.
He said he was impressed by how deeply Jollett thought about these issues, using his experiences and artistry to describe psychological concepts in insightful ways.
“Pretty early on he struck me as one of the smartest and most creative people I’ve met,” Fein says. “There’s something incredible about his mind.”
Jollett’s band became a Los Angeles fixture, taking its name from a Don DeLillo novel “White Noise” about an industrial accident that becomes a recurring reminder of our impending mortality. The music was powerful, rich and often euphoric, guided by Jollett’s storytelling instinct and expressed in layers of acutely literate lyrics. Their first self-titled album came out in 2008, with a hit single in “Sometime Around Midnight,” followed by five more albums.
Even as the band continued to succeed, Jollett was shook by the passing of his father in 2015. They had stayed close, and he describes losing him as “waking up one morning and instead of the sky you just see a gaping hole in the universe.”
He had a hard time dealing with the wave of grief. “It was confusing how hard it hit me,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
So he got to work, to write to find a way to externalize the pain and understand it. That began with songs, but he soon realized the story wanted to be a book. His memoir, “Hollywood Park” came out in 2020 (along with a companion album by the band). It is an emotionally tough book to read, and many fans and even friends didn’t realize just how difficult his journey had been.
Jollett and his brother were born into a cult. Synanon began in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a kind of tough-love treatment program for drug addicts, but by the ‘70s had evolved into a paranoid, abusive cult under its tyrannical founder and leader. The boys lived essentially in an orphanage on the cult’s compound in Northern California, rarely seeing their parents.
The family escaped when he was 5, but had to live in hiding, having witnessed cult members beat a family friend who had also left. They moved to Oregon, where money was tight and his mother struggled with mental health issues. Eventually he found stability and purpose back in Los Angeles with his father, a former convict and drug addict who had met Mikel’s mother in the cult which had, ironically, helped him straighten out.
“I just wanted to give the uncomfortable, honest, whole, ugly, beautiful truth,” Jollett says. “You owe the reader that.”
It took three years to put the book together, in which he followed his instinct to listen to his own voice. That included experimenting with some novel narrative experiments, like using an “unreliable narrator” perspective to inhabit his world view at each stage of the story. It can be both insightful and amusing, as you realize what his mother’s worsening bouts of “deep-russian” are all about.
The book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, and — despite its extreme stories — it explores a host of interesting topics: about the dynamics of stepfamilies, how to discuss addiction and mental health, about life in poverty and precarity, and the rapidly changing understanding of masculinity and gender roles since the 1960s.
Jollett’s visit to Williams is sponsored by the Cohan Family Forum series on Mental Health and Trauma. This is a new speaker series on campus that Fein suggested when he was on the school’s Lecture Committee last year, based on a poll given to students in his statistics class. The topic of mental health and wellness was clearly at the top of the mind for a lot of students.
Fein said he has noticed that the readjustment to post-pandemic life has taken longer and been harder than anticipated. “It really does seem there’s a malaise, and I do think there’s a trauma,” he says. “They lost their social world for a chunk of their developmental lives.”
The series includes a talk by 2022 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow Kiese Laymon, originally slated for March 15 but postponed because of a winter storm, and one upcoming on April 7 featuring author Tracy Kidder and Dr. Jim O’Connell, about a program to care for Boston’s homeless community.
Fein met the band over 10 years ago when he helped to get them on a Sirius XM show where he was often a guest, hosted by renowned music journalist Dave Marsh on the Bruce Springsteen Channel. Fein had heard an Toxic Airborne Event cover of “I’m On Fire” and got them in touch.
After seeing them at a show last year, Jollett mentioned he hoped to begin speaking about his experiences and Fein thought this would be a great opportunity to bring him to Williams.
Jollett approaches the idea of speaking like he does all his other creative projects, as a process of exploration. “Sometimes you write because you want to know what you think … and by doing it you can dive into what you think and feel about whatever is tugging at you.”
He was curious why trauma and creativity are so deeply connected. He thinks it stems from the sense of alienation that negative experiences create inside you, which in day-to-day life are dismissed with humor or just covered with a mask to get by. “But there is this relic inside that I can’t express, and the shape of it is unknown even to me.”
“Through the arts I’m creating a new language for it,” he says.
It is a way to externalize it, and to experience the self-soothing of mapping out and understanding. And then once it is expressed, there is the urge to make it presentable, to answer the question “What am I going to do with this?”
“And now I’m engaging with hope, with dreams, with a part of myself that is very positive.”
Fein looks forward to seeing what Jollett comes up with. “I didn’t want to probe too much,” he says. “I want him to create it how he wants and be surprised along with the audience.”
IF YOU GO”Trauma and Creativity: How Your Experience Becomes Your Purpose”
What: Talk by Mikel Jollett, author of “Hollywood Park,” musician and frontman for The Airborne Toxic Event.
When: 7:30 p.m. April 4
Where: Main Stage, Williams College ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown
Admission: Free, no tickets required.
COVID Policy: Audience members are required to wear masks.