Bowie’s Darlings

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.

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