“I’m surprised that I’m not still working at Kinko’s, especially making our weirdo music,” deadpans TV on the Radio guitarist-producer David Sitek in his Brooklyn studio. He’s working on a remix for an upcoming Beck single at the moment, but in just a few days, TV on the Radio will be leaving to tour behind their major-label debut, Return to Cookie Mountain. “Artists like Brian Eno and John Coltrane were on major labels. It’s not that case anymore, so I definitely think that we are the wild card. It’s kind of Dada,” he ponders, referencing the anti-art cultural movement that emerged in protest of World War I. “I can see someone saying, ‘Well, if TV on the Radio can get on Interscope, maybe I can fly.’ ”
No shit, considering how unlikely it is for a band as iconoclastic as TV on the Radio to be sharing a label with the Pussycat Dolls and Black Eyed Peas. It’s been a surreal ride for the group from the moment they first dazzled the indie underground with their ’03 Young Liars EP (Touch & Go). Mirroring the shaky mood of a post-9/11 New York City, the five-song collection of post-indie art rock (including an a cappella take on the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” — equal parts gospel reverence and barbershop quartet) sounded like nothing but itself. While it pulsed with dense swaths of orchestral guitar noise, majestic samples and sublime electronic beats, it was the voices that really commanded attention. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s aggressive, heartfelt croon — intertwined with guitarist Kyp Malone’s soaring falsetto — put an indelible stamp on the sonic liturgy. Sad and mournful, yet full of hope and possibility, their sound perfectly captured the sense of uncertainty that blanketed the country at the time. The repercussions were felt far and wide. Discriminating DJs such as Diplo even produced white-label remixes of the single “Staring at the Sun” to take that feeling to the pretty young things on the dance floor.
Their L.A. debut was a packed, sweaty affair at the Silverlake Lounge, surprising fans with stripped-down arrangements and an unexpected torrent of aggression. “We had no choice,” Sitek recalls. “Our sampler got crushed in the luggage hold of an airplane coming back from Europe. So we just turned the guitars up and called it ‘The Rock Tour.’ ” Still, the band’s grandiose heart shone through, particularly the passionate delivery of Adebimpe, whose live-wire presence sparkled with a new romantic spirituality like an interstellar Sam Cooke.
To me, TV on the Radio were a revelation. Somehow, they juxtaposed shards of My Bloody Valentine’s slow-motion guitar shimmer with echoes of the Beach Boys’ teenage symphonies to God, and the ghostly, brokenhearted dream-pop of post-rock pioneers A.R. Kane. Still, they were completely original. A band hadn’t stirred my wide-eyed eternal-adolescent hunger for something so decidedly other since the early ’80s, when I used to covertly tape Detroit DJ Mike Halloren as he played then-burgeoning acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Smiths, and Echo and the Bunnymen for the first time.
I wasn’t their only evangelist: David Bowie was also a huge fan, eventually becoming a band confidant and ad hoc adviser (and quietly contributing background vocals to “Province” on the new album). It’s appropriate, as their melodically discordant transmissions could be blood-related to the Thin White Duke’s fertile Lodger/Scary Monsters era.
“[Bowie] didn’t break down our star signs or anything, but he’s been an open ear to us,” laughs Sitek. “He made his feelings about our music known pretty early in the game. Right after Young Liars came out is when we first heard from him. He’s been very encouraging. He’s a remarkable man with an incredible wealth of experience and probably one of the few people I’ll actually listen to on this Earth.”
Following Young Liars with the equally outstanding Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (replacing drum machines with the flesh-and-blood rhythm section of Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith), TV on the Radio proved to be more than a fluke or moment in time, but a force worthy of my (and Bowie’s) reckless admiration.
Now they’ve taken the precarious leap to the murky major-label world to release the ambitiously beautiful Return to Cookie Mountain, which finds the quintet flying even closer to the sun, shimmering with disembodied samples anchored by treated acoustic sources and those captivating harmonies. Combining the atmospheric majesty of the first EP with the grittier buzz of Desperate Youth, the new album hums with an experimental fervor. The manic “Wolf Like Me” is all machine-gun tempos and psychosexual allusions as eerie as the video, which features werewolves and America’s Next Top Model Cycle 4 winner Naima Mora (“. . . When the moon is round and full/Gonna teach you tricks that’ll blow your mongrel mind”).
“This record was a lot more time-consuming and complicated than the others,” sighs Sitek. “I guess you could say there was a lot more addition at the beginning, followed by a lot more subtraction,” he adds somewhat cryptically. “We recorded every possible way and on every medium you can imagine. Every member of the band took ownership of different parts. We’re chronic overdoers.”
When Sitek brushes off the idea of the band’s being upset by the rampant Internet leak of Cookie Mountain earlier this year (“We just knew right then and there that we could make a big deal out of something we had no control over, or we could just get some pizza. We chose the pizza”), it’s obvious that music is not foremost in his mind these days.
“In the grand scheme of things,” he muses, “given situations like Katrina and wars overseas, we’re way more concerned about other, far more important things. We didn’t set out to make a political record. We were just trying to cover all aspects of what it’s like to be a human being right now. It was just impossible to ignore what’s going on in the world.”
That’s obvious, from the new album’s opening line (“I was a lover/before this war”) to songs like last year’s free-download single “Dry Drunk Emperor,” which harshly criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the Katrina situation.
“I’m not surprised, but definitely disappointed [by the lack of more message-driven music]. I do think that it’s happening, it’s just not supported by the music industry,” says Sitek. “I’m more surprised about the lack of Abbie Hoffmans than the lack of Bob Dylans at this point anyway. Huxley would say that the government doesn’t have to bother controlling what people can read, since most people will just take Soma and not be interested in reading anyway. I’d say what we’re experiencing right now is a combination of fear and Prozac.
“I’m obsessed with the idea that there are billions of people without clean drinking water. It’s really fucking with me. It’s kind of hard to be talking about music and simultaneously thinking about that fact,” he says. “I’m really into the work of Dr. [Masaru] Emoto, who wrote The Hidden Messages in Water” — which postulates that water can absorb and transmit human emotion. “I read that and The Secret Life of Plants in the same month, so now I’m really sensitive to the idea that as a human species, we’re all connected, and how our thoughts can affect outcome and physical properties. What kind of overwhelmingly positive experience can occur in the world to drown out the sound of doubt and fear that’s so prevalent right now?” he asks.
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TV on the Radio’s music poses the same question — and answers itself with itself. Modesty aside, Sitek knows there’s no need to belittle its value. Music is not a luxury.
“Instead of focusing on the world falling apart, we should be thinking that something beautiful and possible could explode right in front of us,” Sitek continues, animated. “Music is an immediate way to break a cycle. You can blast the speakers and overwhelm yourself. With this record, we really wanted to contribute to the positive power of that feeling.”
Can I get a witness?
TV on the Radio play the Hollywood Bowl, Sunday, Sept. 24.