Before David Andrew Sitek and lead singer Tunde Adibempe joined forces to create the core of TV on the Radio, they were visual artists who recorded music mostly alone. Today they play with guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone, drummer Jaleel Bunton and bassist Gerard Smith, and each member makes a substantial contribution. After winning the prestigious Shortlist Prize in 2004 (essentially, the award goes to the best record that sold fewer than a hundred thousand copies), the band has built a strong fan base. When other artists are asked what they’re listening to, the answer is frequently TV on the Radio.
TV on the Radio has followed a path similar to fellow Brooklynites Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Both bands started with a buzzed-about EP (incidentally, Sitek produced Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ self-titled debut EP) and moved to a solid first album, following that up with a fuller, more mature sound. TV on the Radio’s sophomore album, Return to Cookie Mountain, is without question one of the most creative and courageous records of the year. After the album leaked on the Internet, it was on many critics’ year-end lists before it was even released, but the band trumped the bootleg version with improved sound quality, more concise editing and three excellent bonus tracks that have only further assured the critical acclaim.
The band members balanced their heavy sound and often politically charged lyrics with some hilarious YouTube promos posted just before the release of the album. I told Sitek I was going to miss their shows in New York but hoped there would be some fan footage popping up on the same site, he laughed, saying he was all for it and assured me the band wasn’t nearly as serious as people may think. After getting a chance to have a relaxed conversation with him, I had no trouble believing it.
When we first saw you guys it was at the shoebox-size Mercury Lounge [in New York City] just after the EP before the first album came out. Now you’re selling out Irving Plaza two nights in a row.
David Andrew Sitek: Yeah, that’s pretty crazy. I mean, we still do play small places. We just played in Fargo for a hundred and fifty people, so we still maintain some semblance of balance there.
But come on, man. That’s a pretty big difference.
Oh, yeah, don’t get me wrong: I still think it’s miraculous that more than fifty people listen to us. And I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that Irving Plaza wants to book us at all. I’m like, Are you sure? Let alone playing back-to-back nights there
I think it says a lot about you guys that people in New York still give you so much support. Because whenever there is some new buzz band, the first thing that happens is that people in New York completely tune out.
Well, I hope we’re not just a buzz band.
You know what I mean: When the press gets a hold of a name and suddenly all anyone can talk about is the Strokes or the Rapture or Clap Your Hands or somebody. But we were at your Prospect Park show this summer, and I’m sure a lot of people were there because it was free, but that crowd was showing you a lot of love. You were even getting big reactions playing new stuff before most people had even heard the album.
The thing with us is we’re not writing the kind of music that you listen to once and get sick of really fast. You know? But the loyalty astonishes me. Especially when we’re coming out there with really different music every time and people are still into it. But our band is pretty tied into our neighborhood and we have a lot of friends there — as you could see at the Prospect show, with half of Brooklyn up there on the stage. The truth is a lot of people have stuck with us through some pretty bad shows. Sometimes I think people come out thinking like, I wonder what’s going to happen this time? [Laughs.]
I don’t know if it’s because of the make-up of the band or because of the music itself, but you guys seem to have a pretty big hip-hop audience. I know guys personally who listen to zero rock music but love TV on the Radio.
We were just talking about that the other night. I think there is that crossover potential with us. But, really, as music evolves and people have access to home studios, obviously that distance (between hip-hop and rock) is going to be less and less. When you have an iPod, now you can listen to sixty different genres through the course of a shuffle, and you’ll skim over things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Division of genres is becoming less and less relevant. Why wouldn’t they merge more? Tons of bands are experimenting with sounds that push those boundaries, and the industry just hasn’t jumped behind them yet. How many kids are there on MySpace with a band made up of an MPC, drums and a guitar player? The hip-hop audience could also be polarized from rock because of the factory-stamp, cookie-cutter stuff they’re being fed on the radio and TV. You know?
Definitely. It doesn’t hurt your hip-hop cred to have a dope remix from El-P either.
Yeah, that one’s like listening to our music while drinking cough medicine.
How did that happen?
Jaleel is friends with him, and he was saying, “I’d love to remix you guys.” So Jaleel basically said, “Then do it!”
Ha. Pretty much
Yeah, at the same time we have friends in the hip-hop world — like Mos Def and Questlove and those guys. And I think they’re into our band because we’re not conventional. Hip-hop at its best is all about progressing and changing and being willing to embrace that idea, so it makes sense that they would be looking for people who work in a similar way.
If everyone in the band had to list their five favorite records of the year, would everyone’s list be completely different or would there be some common ground?
I think we would all have completely different lists, but I would venture to say that the Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead would make most of them.
I think the only person I’ve seen that goes as hard vocally as Tunde does live is Hamilton Leithauser from the Walkmen. It seems like they both really abuse their vocal chords to get that effect.
Yeah, Tunde does wear himself down from time to time, but he jumps into that scratchy sound with the same fervor. To be completely honest, I have no idea where he gets the motivation to push himself like that. Must be bee pollen. Or math.
Originally, you guys were barely even a band, and now you have a major-label deal. What has changed?
Nothing really. We weren’t on Interscope when we made this record. That all came after, so changes may be too early to tell.
So there was no big budget to work with this time?
Not at all. In fact, I was using other production work to help pay to get this record made.
But you guys have your own studio right?
Yeah, I bought a studio: Stay Gold in Brooklyn. I was going to call it Stu-Stu-Studio, but my friends told me, “Please don’t do that.” I thought it would have been a great name. But this name I got from The Outsiders. You know at the end when the Karate Kid dies and Patrick Swayze I think says, “Stay gold, Pony Boy. Stay gold.”
That’s pretty good.
Yeah, I like it. [Laughs.]
So it wasn’t being on Interscope that got David Bowie on the record?
Definitely not. We got David Bowie on the record because I asked him as a friend. In fact, if the label had asked him it might have worked in the reverse.
How much improvisation is involved in your recording process? Because it comes across as really loose.
The whole thing is improv. Being in a band is improv. Jaleel is a phenomenal drummer, so all of his stuff is live. It is loose. That’s how we work. We’re just doing what we can with what we have a lot of the time.
When you’re writing songs, where do you build from?
Every single song is different. Each song has its own life cycle. Kyp may give me a tape full of him just beat-boxing songs. “Wash the Day” was a tape I made on my own. Kyp gave me a tape of what was “Province,” and then I sat in an apartment in London and worked on ProTools to piece it into what it is now. Then I gave it back to him and he rewrote the lyrics to match what was there. That one was just me sitting in an apartment above [Beggars Banquet’s] office that they let bands stay at, and I asked Martin Mills if he could rent me some ProTools while I was there. He did, and I think he was really amazed at how much I just sat up there and worked.
There aren’t really any bands out there that can say they sound like TV on the Radio. How hard do you work to maintain a distinct sound?
We’re really trying to be the Commodores. [Laughs.] No, but even when we’re making songs that we think sound like other bands, you’ve got five personalities contributing five different points of view, and maybe because of that we never really achieve what we originally set out to do. And also, we all drink so much caffeine and I smoke so much grass that we couldn’t sound like somebody if we wanted to. The truth is we’re really only concerned with what things sound like after they’re done. Every song has at least four interpretations. For example, “Tonight” had an Eric Clapton, Tears in Heaven version. You’ll never hear that one, but we have wild interpretations. [In stoner voice] We get free, man.
You guys have covered groups like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and even the Pixies. From another band that might come off as pretentious, but you guys seem to belong in that arena.
It’s interesting: When we do those things, we’re just picking out the bare essentials and working from that. I’m always really surprised that people like it. Especially with a band like the Pixies; people could get really pissed at that really fast. But I think most bands would do a cover and use the same instruments on the original song. And that’s not us. We’d rather go the opposite way and say, “What did they use? Let’s not do any of that.” The reason that bands don’t do covers is because they’re afraid of being embarrassed. Well, we’ve gone through plenty of embarrassment, so we’re not intimidated.
But deconstruction seems to be part of your process.
Yeah, we’re perpetual adders, and we’re just getting good at subtraction. Especially for me. I know you guys had the Beck remix up for a while. Did you hear the original version?
Yeah, they sound nothing like each other.
Exactly. I heard that harmonica break, and that was the first thing to go. Matter of fact, I think I took everything out except the vocals and the strings.
You’re doing other outside production work too right? Massive Attack?
Yeah, I’ll be working with Massive Attack for the next couple months. Then right into Celebration’s new record.
I don’t know them.
They’re on 4AD. Katrina Ford sang on “Staring at the Sun.” They’re pretty much my favorite band in the world. I produced their last record. And before that they were Jaks and Love Life; I produced all that. So they’re stuck with me.
I doubt they’re complaining.
No, I think they’re happy with it.
What are the chances of TV on the Radio staying a band? You guys are working at such a high level it seems almost too good to be true. I don’t know if I’d really be shocked to hear you weren’t going to make another album.
Who knows? I think we’ll always work together in some capacity. If it was just us making music as friends we could probably go on forever; [what I worry about] is how long we can wrestle with all the dumb shit that has nothing to do with any of that stuff.