"I'm surprised that I'm not still working at Kinko's, especially making our weirdo music," deadpans TV on the Radio guitarist and producer David Sitek in his Brooklyn studio. He's working on a remix for an upcoming Beck single at the moment, but in just a few days, TV on the Radio will be leaving to tour behind its major-label debut, Return to Cookie Mountain.
"Artists like Brian Eno and John Coltrane were on major labels. It's not that case anymore, so I definitely think that we are the wild card. It's kind of Dada," he says, referencing the anti-art cultural movement that emerged in protest of World War I. "I can see someone saying, 'Well, if TV on the Radio can get on Interscope, maybe I can fly.'"
No shit, considering how unlikely it is for a band as iconoclastic as TV on the Radio to be sharing a label with the Pussycat Dolls and Black Eyed Peas.
It's been a surreal ride for the group from the moment it first dazzled the indie underground with its 2003 Young Liars EP. Mirroring the shaky mood of a post-9/11 New York City, the five-song collection of post-indie art rock (including an a cappella take on the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves" that was equal parts gospel reverence and barbershop quartet) sounded like nothing but itself. Though the music pulsed with dense swaths of orchestral guitar noise, majestic samples and sublime electronic beats, the voices really commanded attention. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe's aggressive, heartfelt croon, intertwined with guitarist Kyp Malone's soaring falsetto, put an indelible stamp on the sonic liturgy. Sad and mournful, yet full of hope and possibility, the band's sound perfectly captured the sense of uncertainty that blanketed the country at the time. Discriminating DJs such as Diplo even produced white-label remixes of the single "Staring at the Sun" to take that feeling to the pretty young things on the dance floor (see the video for the original version below).
To many, TV on the Radio was a revelation. Somehow, the band juxtaposed shards of My Bloody Valentine's slow-motion guitar shimmer with echoes of the Beach Boys' teenage symphonies to God and the ghostly, brokenhearted dream-pop of post-rock pioneer A.R. Kane. Still, it was completely original.
TV on the Radio had many evangelists. David Bowie was a huge fan, eventually becoming a band confidant and ad hoc adviser (and quietly contributing background vocals to "Province" on the new album). It's appropriate, given that the band's melodically discordant transmissions could be blood-related to the Thin White Duke's fertile Lodger-Scary Monsters era.
"He [Bowie] didn't break down our star signs or anything, but he's been an open ear to us," Sitek says. "He made his feelings about our music known pretty early in the game. Right after Young Liars came out is when we first heard from him. He's been very encouraging. He's a remarkable man with an incredible wealth of experience and probably one of the few people I'll actually listen to on this Earth."
Following Young Liars with the equally outstanding Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (replacing drum machines with the flesh-and-blood rhythm section of Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith), TV on the Radio proved to be more than a fluke or moment in time. It was a force worthy of reckless admiration.
Now the band has taken the precarious leap to the major-label world to release the ambitious, beautiful Return to Cookie Mountain, which finds the quintet flying even closer to the sun. The music shimmers with disembodied samples anchored by treated acoustic sources and those captivating harmonies. Combining the atmospheric majesty of the EP with the grittier buzz of Desperate Youth, the new album hums with experimental fervor. The manic "Wolf Like Me" is all machine-gun tempos and psychosexual allusions, with a video that features werewolves and America's Next Top Model Season 4 winner Naima Mora.
"This record was a lot more time-consuming and complicated than the others," Sitek says with a sigh. "I guess you could say there was a lot more addition at the beginning, followed by a lot more subtraction," he adds cryptically. "We recorded every possible way and on every medium you can imagine. Every member of the band took ownership of different parts. We're chronic overdoers."
Sitek brushes off the suggestion that the band was upset by the rampant Internet prerelease leaking of Cookie Mountain. ("We just knew right then and there that we could make a big deal out of something we had no control over, or we could just get some pizza. We chose the pizza."). It's obvious that music is not foremost in his mind these days.
"In the grand scheme of things," he says, "given situations like Katrina and wars overseas, we're way more concerned about other, far more important things. We didn't set out to make a political record. We were just trying to cover all aspects of what it's like to be a human being right now. It was just impossible to ignore what's going on in the world."
That's obvious from the album's opening line (I was a lover before this war) and also from songs such as the free-download single "Dry Drunk Emperor," which harshly criticizes the Bush administration's handling of the Katrina situation.
Though Sitek isn't surprised, he says he's disappointed by the lack of more message-driven music.
"I do think that it's happening it's just not supported by the music industry," Sitek says. "I'm more surprised about the lack of Abbie Hoffmans than the lack of Bob Dylans at this point anyway. Huxley would say that the government doesn't have to bother controlling what people can read, since most people will just take Soma and not be interested in reading anyway. I'd say what we're experiencing right now is a combination of fear and Prozac.
"I'm obsessed with the idea that there are billions of people without clean drinking water," he continues. "It's really fucking with me. It's kind of hard to be talking about music and simultaneously thinking about that fact. I'm really into the work of Dr. [Masaru] Emoto, who wrote The Hidden Messages in Water" which postulates that water can absorb and transmit human emotion. "I read that and The Secret Life of Plants in the same month, so now I'm really sensitive to the idea that, as a human species, we're all connected, and how our thoughts can affect outcome and physical properties. What kind of overwhelmingly positive experience can occur in the world to drown out the sound of doubt and fear that's so prevalent right now?"
TV on the Radio's music poses the same question and answers with the music itself. Modesty aside, Sitek knows that there's no need to belittle its value. Music is not a luxury.
"Instead of focusing on the world falling apart, we should be thinking that something beautiful and possible could explode right in front of us," Sitek says, animated. "Music is an immediate way to break a cycle. You can blast the speakers and overwhelm yourself. With this record, we really wanted to contribute to the positive power of that feeling."
Can he get a witness?