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Music writing

TV On The Radio’s curse

interior-tvotr1 This article appeared in The Big Takeover in October 2009.

TV On The Radio are victims of their own success. After three albums, they are indisputably the most critically adored band in the western world, but every ecstatic review draws them deeper into a game they don’t enjoy. They write political songs, but are contemptuous of politics. They’re angry, but don’t like raising their voices. Although they make uplifting, exhilarating music, everyone thinks they’re miserable.

Dear Science was voted album of the year by the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork and MTV. This is not something they boast about. It certainly hasn’t made them rich. It does amplify the buzzing noise that follows them wherever they go, meaning more interview requests and less time to write songs. The night Barack Obama was elected, they were at a magazine photoshoot, surrounded by strangers. They had waited years for this moment and it turned out to be “totally fucking lame.”

Mid-afternoon, between lunch and sound check, their dressing room smells faintly of grass. Producer Dave Sitek and lead singer Tunde Adebimpe are lying down, on benches by the wall. Guitarist Kyp Malone is modelling his new dashiki shirt, in purple and yellow kente cloth. “I tried on something more formal that I couldn’t back up,” he says, which makes me wonder who could, if not an avant-rock star with Spike Lee glasses and a wild west pioneer beard. Sitek offers him a Billy Idol badge, found in an old lunchbox, to complete the look.

Over the next hour and a half, there will be many stoned silences. They will take the piss a lot, laugh loudly and veer off on wild tangents about communism, gentrification, the death of Ahmet Ertegun and whether Gandhi changed anything, without ever quite explaining how a group of friends who detest the music industry signed to a major label and became the media’s favourite band.

TV On The Radio formed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, back when it was affordable, before the luxury high rises went up and an army of ‘creatives’ moved in, proud to live in the same neighbourhood as Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, the Rogers Sisters and Grizzly Bear. Adebimpe’s room was cluttered with art materials, spilling over a mattress on the floor. Sitek’s was full of synthesizers, guitars and tangled wires. After a drunken karaoke session, they decided to make music together. On their first, self-released disc, OK Calculator, you can hear them getting high and trying out beatboxing, drone rock, dub reggae and barbershop. It’s mostly unlistenable, but it announced their determination to do as they please, without regard for professionalism or boundaries.

Sitek attributes this desire to “half-ass every genre and ape every style” to being teenagers who hung out in record shops, confronted as adults with the internet’s infinite bargain bin. “It’s like a digital older brother. You can passively touch every kind of music that’s ever been made, at home, on the same computer you’re making music on. So you can listen to something, think ‘that hi-hat sounds good, I’ll rip that off’ and go straight back to the song.”

Like William S Burroughs reading literature, pencilling Good Enough To Steal in the margins, they searched for sounds and ideas. By their debut EP, Young Liars, they had found a style of their own. They built songs around crushing electronic loops, with flutes as air raid sirens, martial beats and doo-wop harmonies. As Prince fans, they would sweat out the apocalypse in bed. Adebimpe, a black Peter Gabriel, sang about “fucking for fear of not wanting to fear again.”

Sitek’s ambition is to create intricate stacks of frequencies, worthy of Quincy Jones or Nile Rodgers. He uses clipped eighties guitar here, a burst of feedback there, afrobeat horn stabs, shoegaze washes, motorik bass and kick drum. Two vocalists fly above and below the storm, at octaves.

Their first album proper, Desperate Youths, Blood Thirsty Babes, won the American equivalent of the Mercury Prize. For their second, Return To Cookie Mountain, David Bowie crossed the East River to sing backing vocals. True to form, rather than announce their special guest, they buried the Thin White Duke’s voice beneath a deafening squall of noise.

They would never admit to doing it on purpose, because experimentation on their own terms is an article of faith, but Dear Science is much more accessible than its predecessors, with more memorable melodies and a lot less static. Lyrically, it is also more direct, dressing its millennial dread in fewer layers of poetry and code. Malone’s Golden Age and Lover’s Day are essential doses of euphoria, acting as release valves for an album about war, disease, prejudice, apathy, environmental disaster and “the dawn of a loser forever.”

It’s easy to forget that TV On The Radio are armchair revolutionaries, because they don’t write slogans on their hands, go on marches or do their good works in public. From The Wrong Way and Staring At The Sun onwards, their collected lyrics are an indictment of American capitalism. They won’t say if they’re socialists, communists or anarchists, but they passionately believe the system is sick.

“There are things that make me want to go and get a gun,” Malone says. “There are things that make me want to pick up something blunt and change things immediately but history has proven over and over again that that is not a sustainable method. Art and music are the only tools that I trust.”

Four years ago, as George Bush ignored the human tragedy caused by Hurricane Katrina, TV On The Radio released a free download called Dry Drunk Emperor. Unusually, for a band that prefers cryptic messages, it contained an explicit rallying cry: “What if all the fathers and the sons went marching with their guns drawn on Washington? That would seal the deal, show if it was real, this supposed freedom.”

The track was a one-off. “Even if we do make a political statement on our records, they’re for sale and can be played in a store where they’re selling clothes that are made in a sweatshop,” Malone says. “I’m very sincere about it and it feels like a hypocrisy that it’s for sale on a fucking plastic disc.” He has no interest in activism, rocking the vote, or becoming a spokesman of any kind. A song called Red Dress, on Dear Science, laments that “you’ll all dance to this without making a fist” but proposes no alternative.

Dancing Choose is an explicit attack on their audience. When I put it to Adebimpe that “angry young mannequin, American apparently” is a pretty good description of the average TV On The Radio fan, he nods furiously. “I feel like it’s spitting out what it’s been fed. I know exactly where I was when I thought of that line, and the kind of people who were around me, and they might have been listening to our music.” “You were in the bar too,” Malone reminds him. “Yeah, and I’m wearing American Apparel underwear right now.”

At their recent outdoor gig, in Central Park, it rained heavily all evening. In true festival spirit, we put down our umbrellas and danced, getting soaked to the skin. For the first half hour, the band didn’t say a word, not even to acknowledge the sheer bad luck of drawing a thunderstorm in June or to thank us for coming out anyway. The slick, pummelling set they played was a reminder that, although they started out sloppy, amateur hour is long since over. With the Antibalas horn section on board, there are few better live acts.

The last time they toured Europe, their bus caught fire, the driver was arrested, Adebimpe lost his voice and it rained every day, so it’s understandable that they have little enthusiasm for the trek that takes in Brixton Academy and T In The Park next month. “Whichever band doesn’t have to do press, or tour, is the band I want to be,” Sitek says, laughing bitterly.

His services are much in demand, particularly since he produced Scarlett Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers, as well as defining the Williamsburg sound that ruined the neighbourhood. Adebimpe has his acting career to consider, having played the groom in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, plus years of experience as an animator to fall back on. Malone has his side-projects, his family and an urge “to just do it for the sake of the doing, without any attention or support from the outside.”

They have a track on Guitar Hero Five, Wolf Like Me, but no clue whether it will make them any money. The New York Times hears their influence in Kanye West’s latest album, but Malone would rather throttle himself than accept it. Although bands often affect not to care how many records they sell, it appears that TV On The Radio really mean it, which is good, because despite the outpouring of critical praise, Dear Science has only sold 60,000 copies in the UK.

“I don’t even feel like we have to be a band,” Sitek says. He sounds like he’s serious, but in the moments when they bring the dead to life in a studio or on a stage, the idea that they might walk away seems preposterous. Taking their example from “Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Yusuf Islam and Madonna,” they will carry on, shutting out the noise all around them. When the backlash comes, they’ll be glad.

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