Reprogrammed TV on the Radio still stays left of the dial

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

6 October 2008


Jaleel Bunton is feeling grateful and a little anxious. The drummer for TV on the Radio is still processing the overwhelmingly positive reviews that greeted the Sept. 23 release of “Dear Science,” the Brooklyn quintet’s follow-up to 2006’s breakthrough CD, “Return To Cookie Mountain.”

“When everybody agrees on something, I get nervous,” he says over the phone from Amsterdam. “You end up with, you know, another Bush presidency or something.”

Reconsidering his analogy, he adds, “We make music that is outside the mark, so uniformity of opinion is something we never anticipated.”

It’s also likely that the band’s many admirers did not anticipate TVOTR’s transition from the dark, uneasy, shape-shifting art-rock jams of “Cookie Mountain” to the snappier, more compact dance rhythms of “Dear Science.”

Still, although “Science’s” overall tone might be lighter than “Mountain’s,” the subject matter is no less substantial. Ambitious, often incisive lyrics by vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, guitarist-keyboardist David Sitek and vocalist-guitarist Kyp Malone address the ravages of war, unchecked technology, environmental damage and racism, albeit with occasional glints of clear-eyed optimism.

“It’s definitely a different kind of animal,” says Bunton “And it’s more definitely more groove oriented. When we started this record, we were still figuring ourselves out as a band. We’ve moved a lot quicker than anyone expected us to move.”

Bunton laughs when asked if he was pleased when it became apparent that “Science’s” direction would mean a larger role for the drummer. Again, he has mixed feelings.

“(‘Science’) is our most rhythmically intense record,” he says. “But my musical background is mainly guitar. I come from a blues-funk background.”

A short time later he says, “I’m a charlatan as a drummer. I started on guitar. I am absolutely a guitarist before I am a drummer.”

Asked about the circumstances surrounding his change of instruments, the 33-year-old Bunton says, “I was between bands when I ran into Tunde on the street.” (TVOTR, then a trio, had just finished 2003’s “‘Young Liars” EP.) “Dave said to me, ‘You have to play drums for us! You have to play drums for us!’ I told him I don’t really play the drums. He said, ‘Don’t worry!’ That’s definitely his style. I never really played drums before, but I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable over the last five years. But I still feel like a fish out of water.”

The California-born, Louisville, Ky.-bred Bunton got his first TVOTR co-writing credit on the electro-rhythmed track “Crying.”

“Until now I’ve contributed mostly as an arranger. But this time, everyone brought in a bunch of songs, or pieces of songs, maybe 40 or 50, and we whittled them down from there,” says Bunton.

“‘Crying’ was one of probably seven songs that I had started. (Bassist) Gerard (Smith) and I hunkered down with our instruments. Something clicked, and that melody just sort of came out. Kyp wrote the lyrics.

“Halfway through, I was ready to abandon ship. I was sick of it, but Kyp really pushed me to finish ... If it was up to me I would have sunk it.”

Does Bunton agree that the track calls to mind TVOTR fan David Bowie in his mid-‘70s “Young Americans”/“Station to Station” period?

“I guess Bowie,” he replies. “I have a hard time leaving the ‘70s. Big soul acts like Curtis (Mayfield), Sly (Stone), early Funkadelic, even T. Rex, those people seem to be my anchor musically.”

The “Science” track that most astonished Bunton was “Dancing Choose,” a jittery slice of electronic funk ‘n’ roll with a rap at its core. “Number one, it’s really hard to play,” says Bunton with a laugh. “Then I’m thinking, ‘Is Tunde rapping on this song?!’ He’s not, but I was just shocked at first. Now I’m really impressed that it’s (so) authentic.”

Was there any trepidation in doing the Malone/Sitek track “Red Dress,” a horn-fired fusillade of Prince, Talking Heads and Afro-funk influences that attacks the “stone cold shame” of racism?

“No, there was no trepidation, but you have to be delicate if you want to be relevant and informative,” Bunton answers.

“My first experience with a group that can entertain and teach was Public Enemy, but it’s really difficult. Kyp is really gifted in that way. There are some accusations, but the protagonist never takes himself out of the equation.”

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