TV on the Radio: Coming in Loud and Clear
Friday, April 13, 2007
As for terms critics use to describe art-rockers TV on the Radio, singer Tunde Adebimpe admits "there are a lot of funny ones" but none that really capture the band's indefinable sound and character.
"I feel like as soon as you give something a name, you might as well write an epitaph for it, too," Adebimpe adds, and, really, it's much too soon for obituaries for the critically acclaimed quintet, whose 2006 release, "Return to Cookie Mountain," was Spin's Album of the Year, as well as No. 2 in music Web site Pitchfork Media's Top 50 Albums of 2006 and No. 2 in the annual Village Voice "Pazz & Jop" critics poll, right on the heels of Bob Dylan's "Modern Times." (We'll get to that story later).
Given the source of such plaudits, TV on the Radio might be described as indie rock with dollops of punk, funk and hip-hop, twists of jazz and techno, and a sprinkle of doo-wop, soul and gospel. Adebimpe's tenor, both melodious and ominous, and often layered with looped vocal effects or guitarist Kyp Malone's falsetto harmonies, has evoked comparisons to Peter Gabriel -- if he were fronting Pixies.
The Guardian of London called "Return to Cookie Mountain" "an experimental album with a pop heart that avoids self-indulgence," all the more heartening since it came out on a major label, Interscope. The band's earlier releases, two EPs and 2004's "Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes," appeared on feisty indie label Touch and Go. Almost as a dare, "Cookie Mountain" opens with the mournful zeitgeist of "I Was a Lover," a typical melange of hip-hop/free funk/post-rock/exotically accented sounds conjuring a post-9/11 world gone both mad and sad. The album as a whole is dense and challenging, thrilling recombinant pop in which one of the band's biggest fans, David Bowie, contributes to the chorus of the hopeful "Province" mixed so subtly you know it only from the credits.
Commercial? Hardly. Risky? Absolutely.
A smart way to make a move from indie margin into the mainstream?
"Actually, the record was done before we made the move to Interscope," Adebimpe says, adding that escalating buzz led to TV on the Radio being courted by several major labels. "But at the end of it, Interscope were the ones who said they would leave us alone the most."
Band buzz began with the group's 2003 EP, "Young Liars," but got louder after "Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes" won the fourth Shortlist Music Prize (for albums with sales of fewer than 500,000 copies). Like "Cookie Mountain," "Desperate Youth" was disjointed and all over the musical map stylistically, reflecting a band intent on experimenting with ideas, forms, sounds and styles, perhaps necessarily incoherent in their quest.
Adebimpe says: "With a couple of exceptions, 'Desperate Youth' is pretty much the sound of us figuring out how to speak that language. Then we toured for about two years and developed our internal logic as people, too, hanging out with each other. When we went back for 'Cookie Mountain,' we just knew better the vocabulary we were working with, and the textures and feelings that we had to play with. It made it more like we weren't choosing a palette anymore; we knew what the palette was, and we could work with the ideas. It went a lot quicker, sounds a lot more together."
Not that Adebimpe could have envisioned this discussion when the 2000 graduate of New York University's acclaimed film school was working as an animator for MTV's "Celebrity Deathmatch." Back then, Adebimpe was just another visual artist looking for a different creative outlet by messing around with layered vocals on a four-track in his Brooklyn loft. That's where he met keyboardist-guitarist David Andrew Sitek in 2000, after Sitek moved into the building with a bunch of recording equipment.
A shared obsession with Radiohead's "OK Computer" eventually led to 2002's lo-fi "OK Calculator." Adebimpe and Sitek burned CDs and put them out on their own Brooklyn Milk label, distributed borough-wide in local coffeehouses, bookstores and furniture stores (behind cushions and under seats). "OK Calculator" sounds very little like how TV on the Radio does now -- Adebimpe has joked that the disc is more hiss than songs, but, fans being fans, it's easily available online and, Adebimpe says, will probably be reissued some day. One senses it's not a high priority.
The duo did some local club work, mostly improvising songs from topics suggested by audience members. By 2003, Sitek was producing records for fellow Brooklyn bands Celebration, the Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; Adebimpe produced and animated the latter's "Pin" video. And Adebimpe and Sitek began work on their own "Young Liars" EP using their newly acquired Pro Tools (digital audio production workstation) skills. Duo became trio with the addition of guitarist-singer Malone, and after a few chaotic gigs suggested that more help was needed, trio became quintet with bassist Gerard Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton.