Five Really Strange People: An Interview with TV on the Radio

It was late August in the summer of 2003 when I gathered around the small speakers in a dilapidated house in downtown Milwaukee. I was in the midst of a cross-country trip three months removed from college with less than a hundred dollars in the bank and no foreseeable game plan for the future. I had stopped in Milwaukee to visit my college roommate Adam, and we sat in a home that his friend was remodeling. The late summer breeze ran through the windowless frames and a single light bulb swayed from the rafters. We all sat on box crates, sipping on beers and passing a joint around the room. It was that evening that Adam smiled and looked at me hazily before quietly announcing that he “had something I had to hear”. This something was a band called TV on the Radio.

Immediately upon hearing the opening moments of “Satellite” I became transfixed. It sounded like electric radio waves were being drilled into the side of my head and the relentless galloping rhythm section made my heart race. The guitars glimmered like tops and felt like urgency. The music somehow began to fall into place predictably even though it was unlike anything I had ever heard. And each song was better than the last. That EP became my late night soundtrack over the next two weeks as we drove through the cornfields of Kansas, showered under the star-riddled nights of Nebraska, and stoned through the Garden of the Gods.

The first time I had the opportunity to see the band play, I drove three and a half hours to Toronto to catch their set shortly after the release of their first proper full-length debut, Desperate Youths, Blood Thirsty Babes. A certain mood permeated through the crowd that evening. Unlike so many other rooms I had stood in, this one was different because there was no unspoken tension. There was never a feeling of a scenester trying to latch on to this growing band for the sake of appearances. Everyone in that room knew that they were on to something special. Complete strangers beside me immediately became allies because we shared the knowledge that what was about to transpire on stage was something that would be told in stories for years to come. Everyone in that audience understood that this band was going to make it big if they could only hold it down live. When the band broke out into “Young Liars” to find their audience moaning every word in unison, hips shaking, shoulders lurching forward and hands pumping in the air, there was no room left for doubt.

After their blistering set, the band hung out until everyone in the room had their record signed or a picture taken. They were modest and seemed genuinely flattered that people seemed to care so much. I even convinced lead singer Tunde Adebimpe to call Adam. He thanked him for endorsing his band’s music and promised they would get out to Hollywood so he could catch them live. When I spoke with David Andrew Sitek, guitar player, producer and sonic mastermind, that evening and several times over the course of the next two years, he was gracious and genuinely in disbelief how quickly everything was happening and how revered his band had become. That was the type of band they were and some two and a half years later, a Shortlist Award under their belts and the release of their latest and best effort to date, Return to Cookie Mountain, it is comforting when I talk with Sitek to discover that this is how the band’ s attitude remains to be.

When I mention that many critics have hailed his Williamsburg, Brooklyn band as saviors of modern music and proprietors of a sound that is uniquely their own, he casually shrugs it off. When I suggest that some are calling Cookie Mountain the most important album since OK Computer, he quickly pipes up.

“I think that is pretty silly and that someone else would have to make that assessment because I have no objectivity. I couldn’t even speculate. That was a great record. To me it is fascinating that more than 250 people listen to this band. It is so unproven that this music works or relates to people. My perspective is, ‘Are we happy with it?’ and if we are happy with it, I am like okay, well we made five really strange people happy with it.”

Those five strange people who may have been privy to witness the beginning and evolution of this band have since grown significantly. Not only did the band recently part ways with the label that dropped their first two EPs and proper full-length (Touch and Go) for a shot in the big leagues (Interscope,) but the band has filtered into the masses, even finding a spot during the closing credits of an Entourage episode.

“To be totally frank we had no idea what the show was. It is usually people saying, ‘Hey this a show and a lot of people watch it.’ And that is pretty much our concern. We want the music to be out there. As long as it is not being use for a monster truck commercial … unless it is a bio diesel monster truck commercial, unless it is being used for something we are totally opposed to and the people we work with know our taste and know that we don’t want our music on FOX News. This is a way to reach people who normally probably wouldn’t hear the music.”

It is also clear Dave has no intention of making their split with Touch and Go appear acrimonious. “The majors don’t even know about music like this until a label like Touch and Go brings it to their attention with a lot of hard work and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. In terms of leaving Touch and Go, it was very difficult. I think it is just a different way, not necessarily a better way.”

The most common criticism I tend to hear when attempting to introduce TV on the Radio to the uninitiated is that it is too complex, too gritty, and too hard to digest. These arguments are acceptable, especially when taking a quick glance at the Billboard 200 these days.

Sitek adds, “We are still in that why-are-we-experimental phase. We still are bad at predicting that kind of thing. To me, Pharaoh Sanders would sell a thousand copies a minute and Britney Spears would sell none. If you turn on any of the TV stations or the radio, it is amazing that [our] music is even popular.”

I point out that the handful of times I had seen his band live; I find it hard to believe he doesn’t understand why this music touches the segment of people it has. I describe some of the comments and reactions I have heard in the crowds and assume he has observed this from the stage. He agrees and quickly adds that touching people live makes more sense explaining the band’s popularity than discussing their recorded efforts in the same breath as the genre-defining OK Computer.

And to see this band live is the only way to truly appreciate their talents because the energy and passion only adds more credibility to their recorded efforts. A few weeks back I jumped on a bus to Boston for their show at the famed Paradise. A few hours before the doors opened, I bumped into lead singer Tunde Adebimpe, who was apparently locked out. I suggest an alternate means of getting into the venue and he is appreciative in his characteristic soft-spoken nature. When I make a comment that I really enjoy his latest album, his reaction is a combination of pride and confusion. He still seems caught off guard that in the course of the past few years he has become a recognizable face in the music community. He smiles, brings his palm together in prayer, and bows, thanking me. Four hours later you wouldn’t even recognize it as the same man. His eyes rolling in the back of his head, Adebimpe throws his hand in the air, flicking his wrists at imaginary predators or unacceptable resolutions. It was said that legendary Otis Redding “sang every word with an ache in his voice that made it seem his world could end at any moment”, and I see this every time I watch Tunde sing. The man has the stage presence of a rock star paired with the personal modesty of an artist who values his expression above his recognition. When performing he transforms into a superhero on that stage and every ounce of him — and the rest of the band — is offered up to those who come to hear the sermon.

Cookie Mountain has been universally accepted as one of the year’s best by most critics and is uniting different kinds of fans at their shows. As hard as it remains to pigeonhole this band or exactly what they are doing, there seems to be very few casual fans of this band. The fan base for TVOTR is so rabid that when the album first leaked in February, some seven months before its official release, anyone who had any interest in the band had already heard the album. The songs were tagged improperly and the sequential order was also incorrect, but by the time the band did a small US tour in the early spring, most fans were belting out the words to these new songs whose names were all mistaken.

“I just try and not get mad about things that I do not have control over,” Sitek says. “I mean, I think I was kind of disappointed, but I wasn’t at all surprised with what was happening now. It just got to the point that I couldn’t do anything about it so it wasn’t worth worrying about any more.”

With so many things out of their control, the band has made it a priority to generate some discussion about the direction the world seems to be heading. Last year the band released “Dry Drunk Emperor” in response to the Katrina disaster and the lack of responsibility that permeated on all levels of our government. The chorus rang:

All eyes upon dry drunk emperor

Gold cross jock skull and bones

Mocking smile

He’s been naked for a while

Get him gone, get him gone, get him gone

And bring all his thieves to trial.

Easily their most overtly political song, the band usually leaves their songs open for interpretation as a means of urging their listeners to ask themselves the more important questions of the times we live in rather than suggesting any sort of solution. Their latest album opens up with a moaning proclamation, “I was a lover before this war”, and it is clear that though any of us can off the news and zone out to Dancing with the Stars, things aren’t going to take care of themselves. I applaud Sitek and the band for discussing these things on a platform where people may begin to examine them more seriously.

“A band like us, that is in our 30s, getting bigger bellies, can make it — well, that is surprising. We are grown men singing about global warming!” he says laughing. “It is like it is not just affecting homeless people, or poor people, it is affecting everyone and I think that is ultimately frightening. But global warming research is one of many things that is being concealed from the public. There are so many things that are shady about that administration and our government for that matter. It is like, once you admit that they have been lying, what else would they have to admit that they had been lying about? I think that frightens people more. To uncover the complete hypocrisy and wildly irresponsible behavior of the government would lead me to believe there is other existence of that. It is a big, dark, dirty mess.”

As I voice my frustration about the current dilemmas facing the world and the United States’ unilateral position on many of the important topics, I mention that this is a time everyone should be working together, yet our country is taking “our way or the highway” position. I ask Dave what he feels will finally act as a bucket of cold water into the consciousness of this country, and if he is optimistic that things can be fixed.

“I think that involves me predicting something about the future and I am not one of those people. I am accepting things for what they are at this moment. I don’t know if I have a positive or negative feeling at this point. I think that humanity is capable of so much good, so much harmony, and I hope that we are this age of enlightenment but it is not about what humanity can do, it is about what humanity will do.

“Think about this big erroneous, fabricated war and imagine if half those resources were spent on medicine for people who are your friends, who are your family, and imagine what sort of medical breakthroughs could be made with that money. But we are a culture of… [he trails off for a few moments before reasserting himself] I am not afraid. I think if we have outlived our youthfulness that wouldn’t bother me, but what have we done to contribute to the world in a positive way, and it seems to me that we are autoimmune to the earth and it is fighting us off [laughs]. You know what I mean? But until we start acting like the Earth is something that is living, breathing, and beautiful and conscious, then maybe we are just going to wipe ourselves off of this planet.”

The other members of the band are artists in other mediums and I find it interesting that they all gravitated towards each other and music. Sitek mentions the immediate effect of music and again downplays his role as some sort of spokesman to the masses.

“More than I am a musician, more than I am any of those things, I am a person. I share this earth with you, with volunteer firemen in Montana and teachers in Baltimore City. This misappropriation of attention from what I do for a living, we should be dialoguing others despite what my job is. Us being a band takes a second seat in this context. Is this the most change that I can effect through music? And at this point I am beginning to think there are some other things that I can tackle.

“Everything in this band has caught us by surprise. Once we get our head around what just happened there is something totally time-consuming that we did not anticipate. I think that after four and a half years of relentless touring and recording we have probably created a huge appetite to explore those mediums when we do have a break.” Sitek plans to spend the majority of his winter working on the next record from fellow Baltimoreans, Celebration. I point out that even though he is not working on a TVOTR project, he is still implanted in the music scene.

“I kind of think that my entire life has been leading up to recording Celebration. They are absolutely my favorite band and my favorite people to be around. After that album I will probably take a break and if I don’t, then Karen (O) from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Katrina [Ford] from Celebration is going to club me like a baby seal and make me leave for a couple months. It is long overdue to take some pictures and wander around doing some paintings for a couple months.”

Sitek and the band have always been very active in their adopted home community of Williamsburg, be it playing on friend’s records, Dave taking the producing helm on some neighbors records, or playing benefits to fight the re-zoning of their neighborhood and the creation of skyscrapers along the waterfront. Williamsburg, now a major New York IT-spot, is very different than the dangerous playground Sitek and Adebimpe lived as roommates forming the band over six years ago.

“My brother and my friend Eric moved there 12 years ago and it was unthinkable to live there. Even when you told your friends who live in the Lower East Side that I was staying with my brother in Williamsburg people were like, “What!?!” [laughs] It was kind of an unthinkable neighborhood but it was really cheap. That allowed a lot of highly creative people to move in. It is really hard to ascribe what happened to that neighborhood based on what particular event but I think that many bands that lived six blocks from each other, all getting a lot off attention made it a desirable place to live so a lot of very ambitious people from other cities moved there, space got scarce and then really expensive. So I think what happened to the New York bands kind of like contributed to that neighborhood blowing up but then it became so expensive that the kind of people who these bands were couldn’t even afford to live there anymore.

“I think that is very telling of what is happening right now is that the largest music rehearsal space that has been there for years, where all of theses bands rehearsed at one point or another, that place closed. The studio where I recorded the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s and TV on the Radio’s first record, as well as many other bands, that building was just re-zoned to be seven stories higher so they are forcing us out economically. They are moving people like Stratego pieces. Pitting people against another. New York is the dance capital of the world and you can’t dance in bars without getting a ticket. We went from a millionaire mayor asshole to a billionaire mayor asshole. You can’t dance, you can’t smoke — it is like this place is turning into Mayberry. Hopefully some other city will come along like Baltimore or something and kick its ass. Or the conservative grip on the country that is echoed in our city and all of the corruption and the fucking backhanded deals that profit six people will all be exposed and New York will be a bit grittier again.”

As his star continues to rise — both as a member of TVOTR and as producer in demand –Dave continues to be passionate about music in a fan’s capacity. He groans in indecisiveness when I press him to name a session he would have loved to work on.

“There are millions. There are some stuff that I have no clue what I would do, like Nina Simone singing “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” — I probably would just be sitting in the corner and weeping. I try to shy away about reading about sessions because I have these fantasy worlds about how these records were made. Joshua Tree has always been that because it was so bizarre for audio in relation to what was out there at the time. That and Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time and even like Big Country that were just gigantic. I have this mythical head about how those records were recorded when I know it was probably just in a studio that smelled like a foot that was very small with people staying up too late. It is really the impulse recordings that I would really freak out. Something that just happened before your eyes and it was exactly what it was.

“For someone who overproduces, I think that is my next direction I would like to start doing performance-only based work. I want to have a studio with a rat trap switch where we tell the band to set up and I flip the switch and tell the band, “Okay it is recording,” and then the song finishes and then I flip the switch and say, “Okay it is done,” and we don’t even have to mix [laughs]. I think that is going to be my next experiment.”

As I stand watching the band in the midst of their encore on the first of two sold out nights at New York’s Irving Plaza, some three years after we made our first introductions, I see a band that has matured rapidly before my eyes and hit its creative stride. The band introduces “Let the Devil In” and the members of tourmates Grizzly Bear and other friends come out on stage with various instruments. A slick bassline carries the song through the air, and Sitek punishes his guitar. The drums and various percussion instruments produce a cacophony of sound as the tribal chant takes off. Adebimpe and singer Kyp Malone both pronounce: “So when the chariot arrives / You’d best enjoy the ride / ‘Cause when we get to heaven’s gate / We’re not getting inside.” As I listen to the entire room break out into the raucous “Oh oh oh oh” chorus with the band, chills run through me as I witness the band reach their promise. They are no longer my secret but a band that has kicked down the walls and earned their fans’ hearts. But as they pronounced earlier in the evening during I Was a Lover”, “We are sleepwalking through this trial / It is a really a crime / It is criminal,” it best be time we all start opening up our eyes.

Cross me once shame on you. Cross me twice, well…