YOUNG LIARS[Feature on TV on the Radio, Part II; continued from yesterday]
Cookie Mountain is a small, grass-covered mound situated between Soda Lake and Butter Bridge, right next to Ludwig Von Koopa’s castle. Whether the reference is intentional or not, Cookie Mountain also only exists only in the video game Super Mario World
, and there’s a good chance you’ve never been there.
Many have attempted to intellectualize TV on the Radio’s sound, lyrics and album titles, but perhaps the band simply prefers to be weird for weird’s sake. “What could have greater meaning than a mountain of cookies?” Adebimpe explained to Filter
magazine. And after ruminating over his brief explanation, I still have no idea what he meant by that, or if he meant anything at all. In my life, I’ve seen many piles of cookies but would never consider their presence as profound. Moreover, the Filter
article suggests that Return to Cookie Mountain
is an “absurdly straightforward name,” but no explanation is offered as to why that is. From my understanding, there’s never been anything straightforward about the members of the Brooklyn group. Especially their responses.
When I ask the band if Cookie Mountain
is politically relevant, Malone responds, “We skipped all relevant lyrical content and just made a singing cookbook about the different kinds of cheeses.” The rest of the band laughs.
Despite Malone’s elusive humor, listening to the album’s ferocious energy makes it apparent that the record has more substance than a concept album about Gouda. But the mistake of attributing too much political context to the record would also prove wrong, even though the album’s opening lyric is “I was a lover / Before this war.”
“Over thinking is a bad idea,” Malone eventually tells me in his slow, meandering demeanor. “You should write about the more human things. When you’re a political prisoner, like under the current administration, you’re thinking about your mother, your lovers, food, music, art—the things you appreciated more when you were free.”Return to Cookie Mountain
’s document of humanity begins with a bouncing drum loop and a disjointed horn sample. Adebimpe’s distinctive croon emerges moments later and sounds neither rehearsed nor flawed; it’s a wounded, soulful voice. The disorienting guitar effects are layered as if the chords were multiple Xerox copies of the originals. And then, a couple minutes in, a piano imitates a steel drum. The production of “I Was a Lover” is masterful and sinister, suggesting Cookie Mountain
is not standard major label material. “Wolf Like Me,” the obvious single and fifth song, pummels forth like rolling fists. The fuzzy, bottom-heavy guitars vibrate the teeth and ears like cell phones on silent. It’s a genuine, inspired rocker until exactly two minutes in when it catches its breath and then revs up again a minute later. Overall, the record is consistently confident—the sludgy noise perfectly balances with the intertwined harmonies. But the record is also challenging and expertly executed for patient listeners.
“We don’t write three-minute songs; we write five-minute songs that can’t be edited down into a radio edit,” says Sitek. “We’re not a hit-making band. We will always be the weird cult band.”
“I predict that 20 years from now in Dubai there will be an awesome hip-hop song sung by a Korean kid who uses a sample from our new record,” Adebimpe says. “That’s how we’ll break the mainstream—by being a sample.”
So, how does a self-proclaimed cult band with a propensity for weirdness get signed to a major label run by Jimmy Iovine, the man who mass-marketed Eminem and Limp Bizkit? The answer, it seems, is not simple. Despite the fact that Return to Cookie Mountain
was actually finished in September 2005, at the time of writing this article, the band has yet to complete the contractual negotiations between Touch & Go and Interscope. During one of our interviews, the band members also tell me that they don’t actually believe the record will ever come out. Although that’s not a likely scenario, I have heard of three separate release dates, each one a month later than the last. When I ask an anonymous industry insider about the hold-up, he tells me that the label has gone through four different lawyers to broker the deal. Coincidentally, all three initial lawyers have had family emergencies and passed the thick stack of legal documents to another pair of fresh eyes.
To make matters even worse, after sitting around for more than half a year, Cookie Mountain
leaked onto the Internet, making it available to anyone with a modem. Fans that wanted to hear TV on the Radio’s sophomore triumph could have done so as far back as mid-March.
“I’m confident in saying that Interscope leaked the record,” Sitek says. “I made four distinctive copies, and the one circulating on the Internet is the one I gave to them. Why they did that, I don’t know. But it definitely wasn’t us.”
“When the record finally comes out, I will go to the store and buy it,” Malone deadpans, “and I will look at it and say, ‘Finally.’”
An eager line has already begun to form outside the doors of the Doug Fir Lounge, yet TV on the Radio is not scheduled to go on for another two hours. Drummer Jaleel Bunton sits alone at the bar with a plate of mashed potatoes and roasted chicken in front of him. Bunton is handsome, tall and possesses a nonchalant confidence like that of a class jock. His teased dreadlocks are unkempt and untangling into a natural black thickness, and both his T-shirt and jeans are worn. Just hours previous, while Bunton set up his drum kit, I heard him joke about his lack of success with women while on tour (“Tonight, I’m just gonna come out and ask for it.”), but I find his self-deprecating desperation unlikely.
“You disappeared on me last time,” I say.
“Yeah, I’m mysterious like that,” Bunton says. “Want some roasted chicken?”
Eventually, we all make our way backstage where the opening band, Celebration, is hanging out. For the first time since I’ve been assigned this story, Adebimpe, Sitek, Malone, Bunton, Smith and I are all in the same room. Adebimpe is nursing a sore throat and sits sprawled out on a leather couch. He speaks to me softly, making it difficult to hear him over the laughter. The rest of the band jokes about a popular online series Yacht Rock
, the urban comedy Soul Plane
and a text message Sitek’s mom once sent him (“who the heck is Art Kelly?”).
The laughter soon fades as we discuss the journey from New York to Portland. TV on the Radio visited New Orleans before starting this tour, so the band members recount their experience of witnessing the destruction firsthand. Sitek, through connections, obtained a FEMA pass, which allowed the band to visit restricted areas, and the daunting conditions left a lasting impression.
“We were told that what we saw was already better,” Malone says. “ I don’t want to even think what it was like before.”
“You can get on the Internet, you can get to the moon, but you can’t f***ing help people when a massive wave crushes them,” says Adebimpe.
“We saw such a grotesque disregard for human life,” adds Smith.
This is the first conversation I have with the entire group and we’re discussing Hurricane Katrina. Admittedly, an important discussion, one the band tackled with its free download protest song, “Dry Drunk Emperor,” but also one that makes it incredibility difficult to transition into minutiae, such as chatting about songwriting or the band’s complex and mysterious chemistry.
“Look,” Sitek begins, “I don’t have medical insurance. I don’t have a college degree. I’m not more important than anyone else. I don’t have the luxury of ignoring situations like New Orleans. If I did ignore the world around me, that would make me a selfish d***. I think the true problem here is that there’s a divisionism mentality in this world. We need to focus as a human species on survival. Not on religions or races.”
Celebration begins its set, and Sitek, who produced the band’s debut album, takes a heavy interest in the Baltimore threesome. The backstage empties out, but as I join the crowd, I lose the rest of the band to the chaos. Nearly an hour later, TV on the Radio humbly takes the stage with a simple introduction (“Hi, we’re TV on the Radio”) and opens with “The Wrong Way.” The sound is deafening and robust, and I’m certain that the sound guy must be partially deaf, but the energy of the band and the intensity of the performance compensates for possible hearing loss. Every so often, Sitek excitedly bounces across the stage toward Smith who shyly hides behind the amps. Adebimpe towers in the center repeatedly thrusting his right hand in front of him to the beat like a darting serpent. Sweating profusely, he lunges backward when singing the high notes as if the catapulting effect gives him the lung capacity. With Malone’s accompanying falsetto, the two vocals intertwine, albeit, on occasion, jarringly. In fact, Malone smiles sheepishly from time to time throughout the set when he realizes he missed a note. But the evening is magical, if imperfect. Even the new material inspires an enthusiastic response from the Portland crowd. “We wish you guys could come to Seattle with us,” Adebimpe tells us. The night ends with a scorching “Staring at the Sun,” and amid a squelching wash of feedback, TV on the Radio leaves the stage.
Minutes later, I’m driving in a rental car back to the hotel and listening to Return To Cookie Mountain
, a masterpiece even at low volume. I still can’t identify where exactly this sound comes from. How do five seemingly diverse personalities create a product so inventive and cohesive? I mean, who is
this band? Ultimately, are they just five random guys from Brooklyn making impassioned noise? Possibly. But anything more than that, I really don’t know.