TV On The Radio

Brooklyn’s finest manage right time-right place production to place themselves soundly in the frothy mix of music, magic, and maximal rock and roll.

Circling a threadbare lampshade in an apartment in Wandsworth, five houseflies buzz lazily in random formations, cruising the dead heat of a late afternoon. About the room are strewn clothes, magazines, and a Ziploc bag bustling with weed, discarded half-smoked roaches resting on every surface, evidence of scattered minds at work. Oh, and musical equipment. Lots and lots of it.

We’re in the Beggars Banquet apartment, where the label’s overseas artists crash when in London. It’s a featureless, beaten room, like a chalet in a rundown holiday park. Mostly, its transient residents litter the rooms with porn and chocolate wrappers; not so with these current guests. Anyone wanting access to the kitchenette has to negotiate a mountain of gear, amplifiers and speakers and guitars and computers flickering with pulsing VU levels.

A shaven-headed, sideburnt Craig Wedren, formerly of Shudder To Think and passing momentarily through town, passes David Andrew Sitek a CD of his new band, Baby, by way of farewell. After he’s left the apartment, Sitek walks over to the computer and plays a track, a technicolor splash of twisted pop, jagged soul, and fluid acid beats. His stare follows one of the flies, his face impassive. In one corner of the room, behind a prodigious beard and moustache topped off with a mighty topiary of a hairdo, Kyp Malone leans against a hulking amplifier, looking aghast. Peering out a window at the pale suburban gardens of their neighbors, Tunde Adebimpe rubs his jaw, an infectious grin erupting across, enveloping his face.

“It’s good…” says Adebimpe, as the track ends.

“Shit…” murmurs Malone, absently. “I mean… Shit… It’s so good.”

Sitek sighs silently, then punches into a laptop, a Pro Tools file reflecting off the panes of his glasses. A low-frequency hum crackles from the sub-woofers, then a looped drone of guitar, then a muted drum machine pulse. A subterranean soul growl dissolves into view, accented by a feline high-register harmony, the two voices twisting within each other as the loops and drones shift and shimmer. Kyp leans across and punches a key on the computer, and a loop falls away. Tunde starts to hum another melody, entwining it with the voices drifting across the room. Dave tweaks several more switches, and the humming frequency contorts and contracts.

The dead heat remains. The flies buzz, aimless, regardless. But 3449 miles from Brooklyn, TV On The Radio are making their new music. Dark, unfamiliar sounds, potent with menace and mystery, but echoing with warmth and wisdom.

David Andrew Sitek, who sat across from us behind a wooden bench on a bar, is a jumble of restless, fitful energy, like he knows time spent talking is time not spent making music, but he has so much to say; like the ideas are percolating like lethally strong coffee in his head, and they’re going to tumble out of him somehow. He has that hard-edged staccato bullet-train delivery down pat, the manic motorspiel of Denis Leary in stand-up, spitting words at an impassive rate, his brow focusing a stare so intense it could fuse bone tissue. His glasses are a pair of heavy, black Ray Charles frames, shades popped to accommodate lenses that shrink Sitek’s face, so his eyes growl at you from a safe distance. His breath is pure coffee’n’cigarettes. His clothes, Fred Perry chic with a thrift store twist — a worn lime-green polo shirt, slacks, and lime green no-name skippies.

TV On The Radio are no single artist’s vision, but Sitek’s voice will dominate this feature. In some ways Sitek is the ‘silent’ voice in TV On The Radio, the only member who doesn’t sing. And the singing is what strikes you first, upon entry to TV On The Radio’s world, maybe because they feel like vibrant wells of human-ness laid on the band’s mostly technoid barren landscapes, eerie and soulful expressions of pain and joy in isolation. It’s these voices that influence comparisons to Peter Gabriel, even if these comparisons themselves misunderstand that Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s strangled midnight tones bear more than the cosmetic trace of Gabriel’s vocal.

There’s an echo also in the sense of dis-context and collision, Gabriel (playing diverse roles with each song) most anticipating TV On The Radio when he occupies a voice he identifies with ‘soulfulness’, with an artistic ‘blackness’, fictionalized or real, positive or negative (and all the social misconceptions that suggests). The most electrifying moments in Genesis’s catalogue are where Gabriel’s consciously soulful impulses jar hardest with the band’s self-conscious, quasi-folk/classical complexity and willingness to perform songs about Giant Hogweeds while wearing theatrical fox-heads. And so it is with TV On The Radio, Kyp and Tunde’s vocals jarringly adrift, soulful signifiers inhabiting an aggressively “cerebral” musical world (though in reality the soulful voices are every bit as cerebral as the textures behind them, and vice versa), reassuring or misplaced passages of ‘familiar’ pop in a most “unfamiliar” avant-garde context.

It’s Dave Sitek who’ll be doing most of the talking, mostly because he did most of the talking. But there is a sense of Sitek speaking safely for the band, in the sense of a shared creative outlook, a similar passion, for all that he states that a vast Venn diagram charting all their various influences would share a surprisingly paltry number of points. And the story begins with Sitek, so let us tell it.

Baltimore, several years ago. Following crazy events in his private life, Sitek moves in with his brother Jason, in a loft in Brooklyn. He had no money, he had no furniture, but he had his paintings, quasi-children’s art, set in an adult context; one depicted a matador falling in love with a bull, which, he explains, “explores the weird relationship between masculine and feminine, nature taking over and putting humanity back in its place”. He also had a ton of musical equipment, which robed his bare room like sofas, chairs, or a bed might have.

His Spartan existence amused Dave’s brother’s other housemate, Tunde Adebimpe. He was also a painter, though he subsidized his art through freelance animation jobs. He stared through Dave’s doorway the day he moved in, at the array of musical gear, and chuckled. “Oh, you’re one of those people.” The thing was, Tunde was one of those people as well; he’d bought a four-track some months before, and he used it like his ever-present sketchbook, as a place to explore ideas. “I’d be scribbling out drawings, and sometimes an idea would make a better song than a picture, you know? It was nice to find a comrade in Dave.”

Sitek describes the duo as “Functionally unemployable. So we’d set up and sell our paintings in the street. We’d sit out there all day and beatbox, and improvise what would become our songs. We wound up going to a karaoke night at the Stinger Bar, which our friends owned, doing our beatbox stuff. Then we’d go home and play each other tapes. We started writing down the stuff we were joking around with, and a couple came out way better than we imagined they would. It didn’t seem like such a big joke anymore. So we went back to the Stinger bar and put on a regular night.”

Drunk and high, they made stuff up as they went along, performed bizarre covers, and reproduced their now-infamous Karaoke performances. As weeks passed, to their amazement, they began to draw a loyal following.

“Finally, we decided, ‘okay, we’re a band’,” remembers Sitek. “We compiled all the stuff we’d recorded and put ‘em on a disk we passed out at shows.”

That CD, OK Calculator, is an intriguing snapshot of a nascent TV On The Radio, the kind of four-track slacker experimentalism that exploded in the aftermath of Pavement, Sebadoh, and Guided By Voices, crossed with cLOUDDEAD’s fluid-rubber delivery and sense of dank surrealism. Some, like the bawdy rap “Buffalo Girls” and the poppy “Me – I”, beam and bustle like early Beck or De La Soul: lackadaisical, loose and literate. Others, like the brooding “Hurt You” or the haunting “Say You Do”, come from a darker place. Others still, like “On A Train” (revived as B-Side to their new single, “Staring At The Sun”), reveal the nascent TV On The Radio creative ethic in full bloom.

“Young Liars sounds like it was recorded in a hovercraft on the top of some Scottish mountainside, so far out of the realm of possibility,” laughs Sitek, “intentionally overproduced. Then we moved to a proper studio, and I wanted to make it sound like a bedroom.”

“Dave had been tapping a water glass, recorded it and then started chopping it up as a rhythm track, and played it to me,” recalls Tunde. “I went for a walk, came back, and he was still tinkering with it. I said, ‘Slow it down’. So he did, and it worked. It was totally haphazard, we didn’t go in with any ideas written down, but. . . . It worked. If the experience of TV On The Radio has taught me anything, it’s that chance is an important force.”

And chance was just about to deal TV On The Radio a rather impressive hand: a flush of friends and contacts who would ultimately deliver the band from obscurity.

Dave Sitek met Corey Rusk, honcho of legendary indie/hardcore label Touch & Go, through the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Sitek met the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose debut singles he had produced, through his work with Lovelife. A harrowing post-punk quartet, Sitek loved Lovelife’s squall so much that he bought a proper 16-track deck, to record their debut LP, The Rose He Lied By, in an abandoned carpet warehouse. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs adored the album, and Sitek soon joined the band for their first tour across America, handing Rusk a copy of OK Calculator along the way. “I thought, I’m nuts, you’re nuts, here’s some lunatic music you might appreciate. I didn’t think anything else of it.”

Next, he went into the studio to record Fever To Tell, YYYs’ debut. While there, Karen O’s paramour Angus Andrew approached Sitek to produce their forthcoming album, the spooked avant-funk meisterwerk They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. Purchasing a Pro Tools rig, he decided to get the feel for the machine beforehand by recording some of TV On The Radio’s material, an experiment to see how far they could push it. Halfway through finishing “Staring At The Sun”, Tunde’s soulhowls prowling a most soothing My Bloody Valentine throb, they realized their joke-y intentions to make a “big, slick record” for peanuts was somehow coming together.

It’s easy to see why Young Liars, TV On The Radio’s first EP, sparked such fevered early interest; from the squalling glam-pop of “Satellite”, through the eerie, somnambulist soul of “Staring At The Sun”, the crawling paranoia of “Blind” and the icy grandeur of the title track, to the hidden a cappella take of Pixies’ “Mr Grieves”, the record oozed confidence and audacity, and a sheen that belied its ludicrously modest budget. “They can do anything they want,” enthused their 4AD A&R to me, recently, and Young Liars confirms this, teeming with the bandmates’ near-viral creativity and Sitek’s considerable technical skills.

His production career is a crucial symbiote to TV On The Radio’s music, sharing ethos and approach, and a sense of hungry liberation. “I always thought you had to have strippers and money and cocaine to make records,” he laughs, “until I heard Minor Threat and Bad Brains and thought, ‘wait a minute, I can make records?’ And then I got a four-track and could play a drum part and then a guitar part over the top of it. I’m fascinated by having the ability to make a record without resources. The people who have all the resources generally don’t make the music that I like. The most important piece of equipment for me is courage – all this equipment will only make a great record if the mindset is right.

“If Jimi Hendrix had Pro Tools… That’s where music should be going,” he chuckles. “I was listening to The Beatles’ Revolver yesterday, thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, they did this on a 4-track?!?’ And now there are 16-year-old kids taking ecstasy with 36-track Pro Tools rigs at their fingertips. Since the advent of the home studio, there’s a tremendous amount of freedom. And the price of that freedom is you don’t get to live in some coked-out, stripper-laden Dave Lee Roth fantasy, but since when has that been the goal of genuinely creative people, anyway? I don’t think even Dave Lee Roth had that dream, I think he just found himself jumping up and down, high on cocaine, thinking, ‘this is entirely crazy’. I don’t think he sat down and said, ‘I want to be high on cocaine and jumping around in a pair of tight pants. . . .’ Maybe he did, I dunno. The whole point should be to make great, great stuff. How many people made great works of art through history and never got any credit for it? For you to have access to 32 tracks means you’re light years ahead of where Van Gogh was in his painting, in terms of accessibility.”

Sitek met Rusk once again, on the YYYs duty, and handed him a copy of Young Liars. Instantly, he asked to release it on Touch & Go, to Sitek’s amusement.

“When Young Liars came out, we couldn’t imagine anyone would hear it. I still can’t believe we’re signed to Touch & Go. People liked Young Liars so much, so many people. Like, over 20 people.”

Sitek is being overly modest here. At the peak of Brooklyn district Williamsburg’s notoriety as International Hipster Hideout, Young Liars’ sprawling inventiveness went some way to artistically redeeming the district after the fallow stream of identikit post-punk chancers hitching up to its fleetingly lucrative, fashionable bandwagon. Sitek wasn’t around to bathe in local adoration, having just been evicted from the loft for noise violations. Karen O had the answer for Sitek’s housing woes: moving to the rickety house in the haunted wilds of New Jersey she’d just snatched for herself and Angus, and recording They Were Wrong, So We Drowned in their basement.

The moment recording with Liars ceased, work on TV On The Radio’s keenly anticipated debut LP began. Tunde moved into the house, along with a new member, Kyp Malone, an old friend added to the line-up because, explains Sitek of their Oblique Strategies, “We didn’t know how it would work out. We don’t do deliberate things, and if we ever get comfortable, we change things. We play ‘inconsistency’. That’s what keeps things interesting for us.

“Tunde, Kyp, and I would walk half an hour in the middle of the night to the grocery store,” he continues, of the sessions that would deliver Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. “We’d smoke a ton of pot and be beatboxing, just making stuff up. A lot of times we’d be working on something, and then we’d go out and sing an a cappella version of it. If it still held water, we know the song’s okay. We sat with our microphones and our loop pedals and put the songs together that way.”

The results echoed Another Green World-era Eno, Riot-period Sly Stone and MBV’s walls of texture; intimate, almost womblike bedroom music, mysterious and potent. A departure from Young Liars in many ways, it purposefully eschewed the colorful breadth of that EP in favor of exploring what might arguably be described as Songs In The Key Of ‘Staring At The Sun’, so influential seems that track’s elemental voodoo over the album.

Young Liars sounds like it was recorded in a hovercraft on the top of some Scottish mountainside, so far out of the realm of possibility,” laughs Sitek, “intentionally overproduced. Then we moved to a proper studio, and I wanted to make it sound like a bedroom. I wanted to reveal the process behind it all. Like if you listen to “Poppy”, when it goes into the vocal breakdown you hear the finger-snaps, a cue for when the music was going to change. We left the cue in there, because it sounded cool. To give a dog like me a bone. I want people to hear that you can just drop random vocal breakdowns into a piece of music. Anyone can do whatever they want.”

This seems to be the essence of TV On The Radio, if you can express it in words at all: freedom and creativity, and both in boundless quantities. Sitek talks breathlessly, impatiently, of the music he’s heard and not heard, of the “exponential” villainy of the Bush regime in relation to the Reagan era and how punk should’ve served us “Extreme Dead Kennedys” by now.

“I’m pro-evolution,” he buzzes. “I’m sick of the whole creation process — or the way the creative process is constantly overshadowed by the exploitation that follows it. I’m obsessed only with that first part. I could sit here and make all my plans for the future, and be only two Pepsis and a cigarette from being creamed by a bus. I want to be spending my time in the process of developing myself. I don’t see any interest in leaving any footprints or building any monuments, let me just make things, and if this is supposed to happen it’ll happen. I have this universal faith in the whole order of things, I’m supposed to make things, I’m not supposed to relax. I’m not a very relaxed person, y’know?! Not in a bad way, but my enthusiasms are always for something new…

“Did I answer your question?”