With a Little Help From My Friends: An Interview with Dave Sitek

Between playing in the heralded TV on the Radio, his production gigs and frequent musical collaborations (including work on Scarlett Johansson’s debut album), Dave Sitek’s restlessness is well documented. He is a self-proclaimed workaholic. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he recorded an entire album while TV on the Radio is on hiatus under the alias Maximum Balloon. Sitek was bashful about putting his own voice front and center so he corralled a group of his friends to add vocals to the songs he had been working on. This esteemed group includes both his bandmates (Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone) and friends (Katrina Ford, David Byrne, and Karen O).

Maximum Balloon is served well by these relationships. Each collaboration feels instinctual, organic, and absolutely alive. Although the songs are unmistakably the work of Dave Sitek, they are also more loose and fun than the average TV On The Radio song. Even his TVOTR cohorts sound invigorated working in a different context.

PopMatters recently spoke with Dave Sitek about Maximum Balloon’s origin, West Coast life, and the joys of landscaping …


I was surprised to hear you’re a West Coaster now. Has the change in locale influenced your songwriting or work process at all?

Not enough time has passed to really say, but I will go out on a limb and say “How could it not?” It’s not a conscious thing. Like, “Oh my god, the cymbals sound so much better!” [Laughs] But I think time will tell. I kinda feel like I would do the same thing in a tent, you know what I mean?

What did you want to accomplish with Maximum Balloon that you didn’t feel that you could with TV On The Radio?

It wasn’t really so much pitting it against what I do with TV On The Radio. It was more like “Oh, I can just write these three-and-a-half minute songs about whatever.” It was more like “I’m just going to make some crazy pop music” and I think that with the band we do have interest in doing that. We just haven’t done it. I didn’t even really have any goals. I would say this was largely guided by an unconscious effort to just make things.

Were the songs that ended up on Maximum Balloon things you stockpiled over time, or was it something you started working on when the band went on its hiatus?

It was stuff I was working on when we went on hiatus. The first track that really came into fruition was “Tiger” and I had no intention of really making a record. I was just like “Oh, I’ll make a song with Aku [from Dragons of Zynth].” Well, I made a song and then screwed it up. Then I asked Aku to come redo the vocals and write his own parts to it. Once I did that, I was like “Oh, I should do that again.” And then I had a bunch of other instrumental music and I played for other people — the usual suspects. And then some of them were like “Yeah, I like that. I’ll do something on that.” When we were five songs deep, I was like “Maybe this is a record?”

It sounds like it was an organic process. The album just sort of happened.

Yeah, I mean all my past band experiences — being in them and working with them — is that, usually, you say “I’m in a band!” and then you go buy a T-shirt and then you make the music. But you haven’t even designed the T-shirt yet.

The Maximum Balloon stuff definitely feels more immediate, danceable and fun than a lot of your TV On The Radio stuff. So, I’m curious what influences were in play when you were writing the material for Maximum Balloon?

Again, I wasn’t really writing anything for a record. I do see what you’re saying. I’ve been equally influenced by being asked to co-write a bunch of music for a bunch of other people. I’d just gotten to explore other things and, when you know the song is probably not going to be about global warming or gender politics, you can brighten it up a little bit. [Laughs] I had already been in that mode or mindset. So, [Maximum Balloon] wasn’t too big of a leap from what I was already doing.

You mentioned you’ve been co-writing with other people. Who are you co-writing with?

Oh, a bunch of top secret stuff. It will come out or it won’t. I don’t know yet. I just started working on a bunch of stuff. I work very closely with my publisher and just give them tons and tons of music and then they link that with different songwriters and stuff. I’m basically a workaholic. So, I figured I might as well just start working outside. I haven’t been doing as much producing — as far as bands are concerned — as I used to.

I really enjoyed your cover of The Troggs’ “With A Girl Like You” that you did on the Dark Was The Night compilation and I was curious why you decided against handling the lead vocals on any of the Maximum Balloon stuff?

Well, I think at the point that I realized that [Maximum Balloon] was going to be a record and have singers that it would probably be a big mistake to bookend myself with Katrina and Tunde. It would just be ridiculous.

Your voice fits in pretty well with Kyp’s and Tunde’s. So, I figured you might just go with it.

Yeah, I have stuff that I’ve been working on. I just didn’t put it on this record. I think that if I were going to explore that medium, I’d probably wanna do it over the course of a couple songs just to give me the flexibility to play around and see what my strengths are. Under this circumstance, I would have had to finish the song myself and get it on the record and I don’t know if I was ready for that.

Okay. Fair enough.

But, I appreciate it! [Laughs] I’ll probably release something that I did with my vocals on it at some point or it will come out as some bonus material. Who knows? I always feel like I’m aping Lee Hazlewood anyway [Laughs].

You obviously have a very impressive list of guest vocalists. Were these just friends you’d been itching to work with? Did you use Maximum Balloon as an excuse to do so?

Yeah, a lot of them are just people that I’m friends with who had already heard tracks. When people heard tracks that I did with Aku, they were like “Oh, I’d like to do something.” And I said “If you want to do something, I’ve got this music.”

So, it sounds like your friends were actually the instigators?

We’re equally guilty.

[Laughs] A lot of the Maximum Balloon songs feel custom-made for their respective singers. Did you write any of the songs with a particular singer in mind? Or was it a “chicken-or-the-egg” type thing?

It was a “chicken-or-the-egg” type thing. The only one that I knew was “Shakedown”. Nobody I know could pull that off beside Kyp Malone. It was built for him.

I know you referred to Maximum Balloon as an “imaginary band” as opposed to your “real band” TV On The Radio. Do you plan on continuing this amorphous venture and collaborating with other artists under the Maximum Balloon alias?

If the mood strikes me right and I’m working on the right track and the right person is interested, then sure. If I don’t get fired, I’ll probably do it.

Fired by who? The band?

No. By me, by myself. [Laughs] “Go back to landscaping, Sitek!”

Hey, that’s a good job — the first job I ever had.

I love it. My favorite job I’ve ever had. You’re on your own. You got your headphones. I rocked a walk-behind — the three blade mower. That was my speed.

Yeah, I have plenty of fond memories. So, was there anyone that you approached for this project that you weren’t able to get?

Not necessarily. I think that guys started coming together so fast that it was more like “Oh, I hope I can do enough tracks.” Next time, I would love to work with like Thom Yorke or Bjork or someone else that rhymes with “ork” like Mork.

Did you approach David Bowie at all to do anything?

I think I loosely told him, but I feel like he’s contributed plenty to my jukebox, and if he felt like working, he’d let me know. [Laughs]

Right. Like he might hear a track and say “I have to sing on this!”

He’s done so much good stuff that I can’t possibly find a reason to make him go back into the studio.

Yeah, that must be daunting. Then again, you’ve got David Byrne on the record and that must have been intimidating enough.

Yeah, all I need now is David Hasselhoff and I’ve completed the trinity.

[Laughs] Now, I know you’ve been working with Aziz Ansari on the RAAAAAAAANDY! mixtape. How’s that coming along?

Yep. It’s great. You know, we both just have so many other time commitments right now. If we had our way, we’d both just be busting jokes and making raps all damn day, but he’s been really busy with his stuff and I’ve been really busy with mine. We’ll be back on it. You haven’t heard the last of it.

Yeah, it’s obvious you guys are both workhorses. California hasn’t helped you mellow out at all? Helped you lessen the work pace?

Not the work pace, but it’s mellowed me out as a person. I think that there’s something really powerful about the sun and its effect on the human psyche. I lived in a place with no windows for twelve years. It’s the reverse of that here.

Didn’t your studio in Brooklyn shut down a couple years ago? Did that play into your move at all?

Yep. I opened that studio at the right time and I accomplished all of my goals there. I far exceeded my goals there. I felt like my work there was done. So, I was looking to build another studio in New York, but the economics of it just didn’t make any sense. After three months of trying to find a space where I could sound proof and afford it, it was just ridiculous. So, I looked on craigslist in Los Angeles and found my place in 20 minutes and decided to move here 15 minutes after that.

That’s great. Do you have your own studio out there?

Yeah, I built a studio in my house, but it’s like a small, house studio. Living out here, if you need to rent one for bigger usage, you can pretty much just do it yourself.

Good to hear. What else do you have on the horizon? Is there anything stirring with TV On The Radio?

We haven’t made a plan yet because every single time we do, we curse it. I imagine that we’ll miss a bunch of planes, you know? [Laughs] When the time is right, we’ll step back into it. We talk all the time though. It’s not like we’re running from anything. We’re just taking a break.

Is everyone else still here in New York? Are you the one holdout in California?

Yep. I’m the hippie. [Laughs]