TV on the Radio find words do come easier

Three years after a bandmate's death, indie group TV on the Radio have returned with renewed strength and determination

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 December, 2014, 12:38pm

The main attraction at a sold-out gig, TV on the Radio aren't scheduled to perform until after 10pm.

But at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, California, a dusty little roadhouse off Route 62 near Joshua Tree National Park, sound check is far from a private affair. So on a recent afternoon, Tunde Adebimpe and Jaleel Bunton find themselves with an audience of grizzled bikers and late-lunching tourists as they test their gear hours before showtime.

"What should we play?" asks Adebimpe, the taller of the band's two bespectacled lead singers. Twisting dials behind a mixing board, the sound guy suggests a song from TV on the Radio's new album, Seeds, released last week. Bunton, on bass, has a different impulse, and soon enough the room is jamming to a breezy rendition of the theme from Ghostbusters.

A surprising bit of repertoire for these brainy critical darlings? Maybe. Really, though, TV on the Radio have been in the business of upending expectations since they emerged from the same early 2000s scene that produced The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Back then, this racially diverse, stylistically adventurous outfit were challenging ideas about what a New York rock band should look and sound like.

Now, three years after the death of bassist Gerard Smith led to a hiatus nobody was certain would end, TV on the Radio have returned with a bold record that shakes up the band's approach even as it emphasises their staying power.

"When I think of TV on the Radio, I think of a band that's part of a lineage that includes my favourite art-rock pioneers: Brian Eno, David Byrne, David Bowie," says Chris Douridas, a DJ at Santa Monica's KCRW-FM. "They're the heirs-apparent to that mantle."

And yet Adebimpe and his mates weren't sure whether they wanted that role after they finished touring behind their 2011 album, Nine Types of Light. The band's slowest, most contemplative effort - and the first made in Los Angeles after guitarist-producer Dave Sitek's move to the city in 2009 - Nine Types of Light came out mere days before Smith died of lung cancer, a tragedy the music seemed to presage with gloomy (if beautiful) tones and words about fading away into the night. Today the musicians decline to talk in detail about Smith's death but it's clear they're grappling with the loss: at Pappy & Harriet's, they play songs from each of their five records except Nine Types of Light.

"We just needed to take a break," Adebimpe says of the tumultuous period that followed that album. The singer is sitting with Sitek and TV on the Radio's other singer, Kyp Malone, at a picnic table behind the venue; they booked the date in Pioneertown between bigger concerts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. "After a while, no one had said, 'It's time to make another record.'" So the members spent much of 2012 concentrating on other projects.

Adebimpe formed the Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band, while Sitek started a label, Federal Prism, and produced records by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Beady Eye. Eventually, they agreed to assemble at the guitarist's home studio to "try to make one or two songs and see how that goes", says Adebimpe, who like Sitek now lives in LA. "And it went really well."

Last year the band released two singles - Mercy and Million Miles - then kept working. "At some point we had enough demos that it became pretty obvious we could make an album," Adebimpe says.

Whatever it is you do, it’s easier to see the special things about it when you’re not in the middle of it

In his parched smoker's rasp, Sitek says the time away has refreshed his enthusiasm for TV on the Radio. "Whatever it is you do, it's easier to see the special things about it when you're not in the middle of it," he says.

For him, though, those special things had changed: he was no longer as interested in the densely layered guitars and keyboards that defined the band's early work, particularly their 2006 breakthrough, Return to Cookie Mountain (which featured a cameo from Bowie, an avowed fan). Instead, Sitek was determined to construct the music around Malone's and Adebimpe's singing - to "get back to the storytelling aspect of songs", as he puts it.

Vocals definitely take a more prominent position on Seeds, be it Adebimpe's yearning falsetto in Test Pilot or Malone's breathy whisper in Love Stained. And though the songs are still streaked with trippy textures, they're far less shrouded in mystery. They're describing universal experiences (desire, fear, regret) in language unabashed about touching those primary themes.

Asked if that shift represents a counterintuitive risk for a band with an established sonic identity, the three laugh. "It means we're bad businessmen," Sitek says. "We made New Coke and Crystal Pepsi all in one record."

That may be the case: as the guitarist jokingly points out, none of TV on the Radio's albums has gone "aluminium", let alone gold or platinum. Yet the band's pursuit of their vision - especially in the wake of an event as destabilising as Smith's death - signals that they're thinking long term, building an audience that trusts them to evolve.

The Harvest label's general manager, Piero Giramonti, says he signed TV on the Radio to be a "cornerstone artist" at the newly launched company with major-label ties, something like Sonic Youth were on Geffen Records in the early 1990s. "In an era of disposable bands who have some hits and then disappear, this is a band that will have a lasting legacy," Giramonti says. And that credibility, he adds, attracts other talent.

Having lived through the transition from CDs (which people paid for) to digital music (which people can stream for free), the members of TV on the Radio are sceptical about what a label can do for them in 2014, even with an album as accessible as Seeds.

"I feel like anyone who's committing their lives to selling records right now believes in magic," Malone says with a chuckle.

"'What we're gonna do is take this car and crash it into that wall,'" Adebimpe joins in, impersonating a hopeful executive. "'Unless we go through the wall.'"

Still, Sitek reasons that although the musician's life has become "a grind" - not least "when you're in your 40s and people are getting married and having kids and you're still committed to this thing" - the dismantling of the record industry has made it easier to focus on art, since there's little assurance of financial reward.

"How is this a thing we still get to do?" Sitek says, gesturing towards the tiny stage where TV on the Radio will soon entertain the 4pm crowd. "When I look at all the people that I know who've been in phenomenal bands that couldn't make it past four years for whatever reason, and we're still here?"

"It's like the ground floor," says Adebimpe, "is possibility."

Los Angeles Times