Initially a partnership between singer Tunde Adebimpe and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek when they self-released OK Calculator in 2002, TV on the Radio has since eventually expanded to a five-piece force of nature. At each evolutionary step, so too has the band’s music continued to grow and develop. Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, the band’s first proper full-length and first to feature singer and guitarist Kyp Malone from 2004, was a breathtaking melding of icy dynamics, resonant vocal harmonies, and bubbling grooves just under the surface. Two years later, Return to Cookie Mountain was an equally impressive record cut from the same gilded cloth, this time for major label Interscope. By this time, the band had expanded to its current formation, with bassist and keyboardist Gerard Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton staying on after being added to tour for Desperate Youth.
Following the critical and commercial success Cookie Mountain brought, the band recently released its newest concoction, Dear Science. With a more diverse range of textures and song types, the album would seem a departure from the band’s comfort zone—if they had a comfort zone. TV on the Radio has proven itself comfortable and capable of juxtaposing many ideas at once. Here horns butte against fractured electronic tones, while soulful reveries occupy the same space as glitched beats. It comes off at first as lighter fare then its predecessors, until one realizes the density of each and every moment on the record.
I caught up with Smith to discuss the new album and the innerworkings of TV on the Radio.
With Cookie Mountain receiving such good reviews and featuring somebody like David Bowie on it, did you feel like the bar had been raised pretty high for this record going into it?
Gerard Smith: No, and I just keep saying the saying the same thing: We’re always so busy and preoccupied and we’re so old and curmudgeonly that we’re not these awestruck kids. Not to say that we’re too cool for school or that we’ve got some sort of confidence, but everyone is more interested in the craft of what it is that we’re doing. And it’s not like we’re in the scenario where we’re being goaded by label executives to come up with a hit or that we have people coming into the studio. The recording process is isolated—or at least a lot more isolated than, say, Cookie Mountain.
Cookie Mountain seemed more in line with previous records and working with the same sonic palette as Desperate Youth, at least to my ears. I don’t know if you’d agree, but did you go into this record trying to make something more eclectic or to depart from the past?
GS: Not to sound like a complete asshole, but having two vocalists and two primary songwriters in terms of lyrics and vocal melodies is fucking weird. And it’s definitely contributed to the landscape of the songs. Tunde has more of a traditional sense, in terms of songwriting, whereas Kyp is definitely more from an experimental background. He’s always trying new things, always goofing around with new instruments, and using alternative methods to come up with songs.
Just having so many talents, is it difficult to get things done with so many ideas floating around?
GS: The thing that’s difficult is the complete opposite of what you’d imagine it to be. You’d imagine that there would be this clusterfuck of people fighting over one another to get at the helm or get their point across. With us, we’re older and we have respect for one another. It’s difficult finally settling on something because everyone is like, “Oh, that’s a good idea!” “That’s a good idea, too.”
Yeah, that’s what I had in mind—having so many good ideas.
GS: I don’t know if there’s that many good ideas. When I was asked to join the band, I understood that it was purely for live touring. I had never been in a band before. I had never played bass before—I never really played electric guitar, for that matter.
So why did they ask you then?
GS: I was playing in the subway. I used to make my living playing in the subway after 9-11. I played all fucking day long, day in, day out. I don’t know what the eventual reason was. They had asked Jaleel to join because they needed a drummer as Dave’s brother was unable to continue. So Jaleel had joined and I guess at some point they figured out they needed someone to play bass and they were thinking of people. They mentioned me to Jaleel and he was like, “Yeah, definitely that dude.” I’m a brutish sort of person. I’m sort of a... stupid, Jesus-complex, busting ass person. I was going and playing in the subway, and there’s so many cheesy possibilities for doing that. But I wasn’t singing, I wasn’t playing any cover songs. I was playing nylon-stringed guitar and I was able to support myself off of playing purely instrumental music that I had written myself. I guess from having done that for so long, they imagined that I’d be the right choice. I didn’t have any other responsibilities to other bands, and I was dumb enough to accept.
When I joined the band, I understood that I joined for the live thing. I already had so much respect and appreciation for OK Calculator and Young Liars that I had no delusions. It’s not like they needed help—what they did blew my mind. I still love songs like “Me - I” and “Netti Fritti” and “Buffalo Girls.” And then I hear songs like “Blind” and “Satellite”? Jesus christ, man. These are just two dudes, and then they added a third dude and it got even weirder.
I was playing in the subway, and it didn’t make sense to me. I only made music to make money. I equated a song in terms of whether or not someone was going to give me a dollar after I finished playing it. I had a real mercenary mentality. Not to say that I don’t love music, but what it meant at that time was so different from what they were entering into. It was weird, like “Wow, you guys just do this whether or not you’re going to be able to feed yourselves. That’s crazy!”
So has that viewpoint changed?
GS: No! (laughs) No, despite the fact that I made music to make money, I understood my responsibility to my craft. So even after playing in the subway all day, I’d still go home and work on a whole new set of material to play the next day. Then I’d save up money, and I would record as sort of a studio project, where I was coming up with concepts and putting together a band just to record the song.
On the past records, it seemed like “less is more” and on this one it almost seems like “more is more.”
GS: Yeah, man. It’s funny to me because I used to say that I wrote coffeeshop Lilith Fair music. I’ve always been attracted to female vocalists and I definitely lean towards the dramatic and theatrical. I’m a big fan of the Tindersticks, especially their earlier records. Definitely Nick Cave, definitely This Mortal Coil, definitely His Name Is Alive, the Creatures—love the Boomerang record. So that’s always been my sensibility. I’ve always wanted to throw strings on top of things and have it be elaborate, theatrical events. Dave is more for of the electronic ilk. He’s about Eno, Kevin Shields, Aphex Twin, whereas I’m more about 10,000 Maniacs or The Frames’ Fitzcarraldo record. So I guess the relative thing is that where I’d build textures in a traditional sense, Dave builds them out of more contemporary ideas.
Relating that to the new record, how hard was it to get these songs together?
GS: Relating that to the new songs on the record, I see it as a progression. I can see it in the way Tunde and Kyp handle themselves in the studio. They were definitely more savvy in the way that they expressed themselves to the engineers. Dave’s cousin, Danny, who engineered a large part of the record, is amazing. And it’s also the experience of us having been on the road for so long and sharing our lives the way we do. We’ve always known each other as friends, and have grown to be family. It’s pretty tight knit. The production values changed on this record, but the spirit and the ideas of this band that have been established, developed, maintained and continued on this record, especially in the lyrical content, despite however a song’s structure might sound or the production on it. You can hear it in songs like “Red Dress”...
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that one specifically...
GS: Kyp and Dave did that almost instantaneously. I remember I stepped out of the studio and came back and they were nearly done with that one. I threw that hokey keyboard line on the end. While I was doing that, Jaleel suggested I try this other thing, and I was like, “No, fuck you!” Then I tried it, and it sounded great. And that’s a perfect example: Dave and Kyp had laid down the foundation and then added some horns and then I added that little tag on the end.
There’s the lyric on that song about being scared about living a life not worth dying for. Is that you something you think about: whether or not being a musician is a noble pursuit?
GS: Yeah, obviously that’s the great thing about what Kyp and Tunde have to say. They’re not just talking about some drug-laden experience. It’s a universal idea of “Am I living a life worth dying for?” Yeah, that lyric floors me. The ideas in that song floor me. And of course, it’s going to relate to what we’re going through as a band and the climate that we’re in. Given the landscape of the music industry, it’s like “Shit, what does this mean to us?” We’re not on private jets. I don’t have a handler—I still worry about parking and parking tickets.
The band’s often painted as being somewhat political...
GS: Yeah, “Red Dress” is a perfect example. Above all, that’s definitely the notions that that song discusses. When I hear the lyric “home from another tour”—great lyrics have a universality and there’s more than just music tours. We know the other tours going on, so I imagine a tour of duty.
I wonder if with the band being majority African-American...
If it’s more natural for you to be politically concerned than your average pasty white guy?
GS: Oh shit! Dave’s a pasty white guy! Tunde’s folks are from Nigeria, and didn’t grow up here. It has a different influence on your life when your folks are immigrants. My folks are from Trinidad, but Kyp and Jaleel’s families have been in this country for longer than mine and Tunde’s. Someone brought that up the other day, commenting on calling Obama African-American. His dad was from Africa. He wasn’t descended from American slaves. And when I think of all these zealots that are celebrating this historic victory, I always say that a lot of countries have had black presidents or prime ministers. Trinidad has had black prime ministers.
But Trinidad doesn’t have the same history as the U.S.
GS: Yeah, exactly. I’m definitely a black American, but there’s intricacies and that inevitably influences a person’s ideas.
The lyrical content seems to be more personal, but some people paint you as being overtly political so I wonder if it’s just more a part of everyday life for you guys.
GS: OK Calculator has some R&B influenced music and lyrics and more than once Tunde brings up the term “black,” but I’ve never acknowledged it in that sense. But then on Young Liars, it’s the formulation of the ideas that TV on the Radio is built on. But then with the introduction of Kyp on Desperate Youth, on “Wrong Way” he says “nigger” in it. When I heard that, I was really miffed, because it seemed like that wouldn’t have to be an issue with TV on the Radio. Even though I wasn’t part of the band, I didn’t imagine that that was a necessary expression. But I shy away from that, given my personal history. My parents would usually laugh at me if I tried to discuss race issues because they grew up in a place where they had a huge amount of integration of blacks, Indians and Chinese on a small island. They didn’t have the same agenda as black Americans would have. So for Kyp to bring that up, me with my background, I cringed at first. But Kyp is definitely more political. He’s the author of “Wrong Way;” he’s the author of “Dry Drunk;” he’s the author of “Red Dress.” In the end, as difficult as it is for me to confront those ideas, I inevitably realize that they were important and appreciate him expressing those ideas.
But as a band, I don’t know that we’re so much political. Like in “Red Dress,” he says “tour” and I’m sure people would think he’s just meaning to tour like a band because they’re hearing it from the horse’s mouth. But when I heard it, I imagined returning from a tour of service. Also with “Wrong Way” it was about hip-hop becoming this bling thing, and he discusses bling and diamonds in that song. And I feel that those are all strong and pertinent issues to have been addressed and done so with tact and consideration. He was able—and still is able—to address ideas that I shy away from. In my whole career of writing songs—and I’ve written quite a number of them—I think I’ve written one song addressing race. I shy away politics. I shy away from confrontation.
You worked with Antibalas. Was there a desire to introduce an afro-beat sound?
GS: Since Desperate Youth, you see the introduction of horns, once again with “Wrong Way.” That was another thing I was impressed with on that song. Not only is it a huge political statement, but the way that song sounds is just crazy. Kyp’s voice has this weird quiver to it. And then there’s a crazy drum beat and the horns coming in. Those horns were laid down by Martin Perna of Antibalas, who went to NYU with Tunde. Since then, it’s been a gradual progression. Dave has a fascination with horns and its evolved to him working more and more with those guys. Stuart Bogie, who has been a member, is on tour with us. King Sunny Ade and Fela and the ideas that Talking Heads pulled from African music—all those influences have been incorporated into TV on the Radio.
I didn’t know that Tunde was of Nigerian descent...
GS: On top of not having ever been in a band, I grew up in the cheesiest suburbs of Long Island, New York, which is the beginning of the suburbs. After World War II, the Levitt brothers came up with pre-fabricated housing and that started in Levittown, Pennsylvania and Levittown, Long Island. That’s how the suburbs took off. I grew up in a white neighborhood and went to Catholic school. These are things that are obviously going to have a different impact and influence in the establishment of the band. I realize that more and more. It never dawned on me how much an influence on my life my parents being from another country has had. It’s hard to understand what it means in terms or how you relate and what that means for you, especially as a black American. Like I said, my parents didn’t necessarily have the same agenda as black Americans. Same for Tunde whose father was a doctor in psychology. Tunde went to NYU and studied film. Just from my experience in studying fine arts, I’m sure Tunde was one of very few black film students at NYU.
The first time I saw you play was in Cleveland opening for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was so refreshing to hear what you were doing as opposed to the standard rock I was being inundated with. One of the things that, at least I perceived, that was so attractive was a heavy gospel influence. That seems to have dissipated. Is it just a matter of being interested in other things now?
GS: Yeah, there’s without a doubt a gospel influence. With the exception of myself, everyone is looney for Sam Cooke, and he’s had an influence on Tunde. And you can hear it in songs like “Blind,” with the back and forth with the backing vocals. Now there’s a different approach, but I must say at the end of “Lover’s Day” there’s a little bit of gospel. It ends in this huge marching band thing and then turns into yodeling, which suggests a gospel thing. I don’t know that there’s been a moving away so much as the type of songs on Dear Science are what people are calling more poppy or more bouncy or more happy.
In other interviews, your bandmates have said that there was a desire to make a dance record. Do you think that came to fruition in any way?
GS: Oh, without a doubt. Songs like “Dancing Age, ”Golden Age,“ ”Red Dress” are snappier.
Was there a greater emphasis put on rhythm?
GS: No. Since I’ve known Dave, he has been working with drum rhythms. He definitely has an affinity for rhythms present in, say, the music of Fela, and I don’t think those ideas have changed but developed a little more. For instance, “A Method” off of Cookie Mountain, the percussion on that... I used to work at this metal shop around the corner and Tunde, was like, “Hey man, I need some metal to bang on for this song.” So we took all the junk out of the recycling bin at the metal shop and took it back to the studio. I was totally floored with what they came up with in the end. I wasn’t even there when they were doing it—I just dropped the stuff off and went back to work. I guess the textures of the rhythms have changed.
One thing I’ve played a role in is sampling. I’m a purist and I try to keep all my samples license-free so I record and tweak all my own samples and then pass them off to Dave. You can hear one at the beginning of “Stork & Owl.” That weird boing sound, that’s a vibraphone that I sampled, and the cracking sound in “DLZ” is a pool break recorded at First Avenue in Minneapolis.
Is the title the beginning of a letter or...
GS: It’s the beginning of a letter, and that’s why the liner notes are like that. The letter began with Dave. He had heard about a group of scientists that wanted to blow a piece off a meter and inspect it. To think that you would try to fuck with a celestial body that’s on its course to see what it’s about instead of doing that through observation, he thought that was a little bit cocky and overconfident. So he wrote this whole letter to the scientific community asking them to quit fucking around. Like the Hadron collider. These Swedish scientists were going to take two atoms and put them in a magnetic field and essentially they wanted to reproduce the big bang. Now, they don’t know what they’re doing. No one was there the first time to see it happen. And they’re going to try to reproduce this thing that created where we’re at right now? They’re going to try to reproduce that and not know where it could take us? They wanted to create dark matter, or a black hole, and if they were unsuccessful there could have been miniature black holes all over the world. The idea that a handful of people were attempting this thing that could be horrifically catastrophic is where Dear Science came from.
Do you feel like it’s manifested elsewhere on the record?
GS: No, not so much. I appreciate the titling of the record, especially after Return to Cookie Mountain, which was just laughs all around. I’m sure you’ve been out with friends, and someone is like, “Oh I’ve got this great band name!” or “I’ve got this great album title!” So to make fun of that idea that some people hold so sacred was awesome.