TV on the Radio Comes to Town
by Alison Meeder
On September 12, the New York City-based five-piece group TV on the Radio released its second full-length album Return to Cookie Mountain on Interscope Records. This was the band’s major-label debut, the would-be golden meal ticket for many emerging artists. Unfortunately, there were a few surprises along the way. The album was leaked on the Internet months before its scheduled release. Declared a work of art by the cyber-masses, Cookie Mountain launched a swarm of buzz on music blogs. Pitchforkmedia.com, known mostly for its practice of gleefully tearing indie-rock artists to pieces, rated the album an unheard-of 9.1 on a scale of 1 to 10. Just as the Internet love fest was reaching its peak, David Bowie publicly declared TVOTR his new favorite band.
This is the kind of free publicity a young rock band only allows itself to imagine when no one is looking. With both the faceless über hipsters of the Web and the old-school champion of everything cool in their corner, both TVOTR and Cookie Mountain were squarely on 2006’s hot list. Good news … except they hadn’t sold a single copy of the record yet. Now, with the album finally in stores, the band has begun a new tour that includes a stop in Santa Barbara at SOhO on September 27. Speaking with drummer Jaleel Bunton, it becomes apparent that even without the past year’s tribulations, TVOTR has entered the rock game with a casual attitude about fame, the nature of being a musician, and Internet looting. Simply put, they don’t believe the hype.
TVOTR began in 1997 as collaboration between guitar player David Sitek and vocalist Tunde Adebimpe. At the time, Sitek was producing albums for other New York bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Adebimpe was working as an illustrator on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch. The pair’s compositions were distinctive (if unpolished) and live shows often included a doo-wop version of Hall and Oates’s “Maneater.” With both bandmates on the periphery of the New York rock scene, there was always a newly successful band in sight. Working alongside many “just discovered” artists may have aided in the duo’s original detached attitude regarding fame. Even now, said Bunton, “We’re artists first and a band second.”
In 2003, the duo expanded to include bassist Gerard Smith, vocalist Kyp Malone, and Bunton on drums. TVOTR began getting noticed — usually for its increasingly ground-breaking music, but also for being an ethnic anomaly. Four of the five members are African-American (Sitek being the lone Caucasian), and a black rock band will always get second-guessed. “We get comparisons to Living Colour because they’re the only other ‘black’ band anyone can think of,” said Bunton. “What is that? We don’t sound anything like that.”
When the group released its first LP, 2004’s Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, any questions about their legitimacy as musicians, black or otherwise, were laid to rest. The album was a critical success and the band landed spots on tours with electro-rock acts The Faint and Nine Inch Nails. They also inadvertently gained Bowie’s attention after his doorman turned him on to the band. Bowie became something of an unofficial adviser to the young band and contributed backing vocals on Cookie Mountain’s “Province.”
Bunton insisted that working with Bowie was very low-key. “He keeps himself very humble. He was so humble, in fact, it didn’t occur to me who we were working with. Then, when he was laying down his vocals, I could hear his voice coming through the speakers. Hearing that voice isolated — that was when it hit me: David Bowie is in our studio.”
Like Bowie, TVOTR’s sound has often been described as originating in outer space. It is fair to say the band’s music is advanced and seemingly from the future, but close listening reveals something far more natural: Percussion of lovely and subtle rhythms, keys and guitars depicting landscapes of water and sky, lyrics turning again and again to themes of desire. TV on the Radio’s sound may flirt with new definitions of rock and pop, but it is also inseparable from Earth.
The band will be recreating this sound on tour for most of the next few months. Ironically, one date will be the Download Festival in northern California. Asked how he feels about playing the festival after the album pirating, Bunton seemed almost amused. “The response we got when the album was leaked on the Internet was so positive … it’s hard to be upset. I don’t know if that makes me non-materialistic or vain or what exactly. I don’t feel like money was stolen from me. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have a family to feed … or maybe because I don’t need any rims right now. I’m very non-bling. Who knows?”
4•1•1 TV on the Radio plays SOhO on Wednesday, September 27. Call 962-7776 for tickets. For more on TVOTR, see tvontheradio.com.