Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Last night, I saw TV on the Radio perform live at Irving Plaza and it was pretty impressive. A full review will appear on the Jane website.

A few backs, though, I spent some time with the band on tour for a cover story of DIW Magazine

I've never posted that piece before so I will do so now (I believe the issue is now sold-out). The TV on the Radio feature is pretty long so I've decided to post it into two parts (second part comes tomorrow). Special thanks to Andrew Parks and Aaron Richter for editing this story.
And of course, thank you for reading.

This Is a Test of TV on the Radio’s emergency broadcast system
By Arye Dworken

“Every reporter inhales skepticism. You interview people and they lie. You face public figures, diligently making notes or taping what is said, and they perform their interviews to fit a calculated script. The truth, alas, is always elusive.”
— Pete Hamill, “A Ringside Seat”
The New York Times Book Review

The tastefully designed, year-old Doug Fir Lounge is empty, but in a few hours, it will be filled with local trend-conscious youth, just as it is on most nights. The Portland, Oregon, lounge is clean, cleaner than any venue I have ever been in before. The orange hue of the lights creates a subdued atmosphere, while the rich mocha walls and wooden log motif add to the earthy feel. It’s almost a shame to ruin the calmness by inviting more people in, but all the tickets for tonight’s show have been sold. I’m sitting in the restaurant/venue at four o’clock in the afternoon, five hours before the opening band even takes the stage. I’ve been flown across the country to conduct a follow-up interview with New York’s TV on the Radio while the band is on tour. What I haven’t been told is that the band members only have an hour for the interview later that evening, so in the meantime, I’m just watching them unload their equipment. I could intrude during their private time, but that would be risky—trying to spontaneously interview a band on tour is like waking a baby from a nap.

TV on the Radio bassist Gerard Smith, a modest presence, sits in the adjacent corner and picks an intricate composition on his acoustic guitar. Dressed in a plain white T and standard issue khakis, Smith seems meditative and undisturbed by the sound technician’s banter. I hesitate to approach the bassist, but I’ve heard Smith is “beyond the nicest guy,” so I sit next to him and try to admire his virtuosity. I begin small talk with a standard interview opener.

“How did you meet the band?” I ask.
“I met Tunde [Adebimpe, singer of the band] on the street,” Smith answers.
“Just on the street?”
“Yeah. On the street.”
“Any street in particular? And under what circumstances?”
“We just ran into one another.”

After flying cross-country, spending eight hours on a plane and being told that I have limited time with the band (moreover, TV on the Radio’s publicist informs me the day of my flight that the band would prefer privacy after the show), I ask Smith what he would write about if he were in my restricted position.

“Write about the room we’re in,” Smith says. “Write about the atmosphere, what’s going on in here. Write about the world, um, what’s going on in the news. You’re from New York, right? Write about this city. This is a completely new place. There seems to be so much to write about.”

“But I’m here to write about a band,” I say, “not a city.”

Some time later, the merch girl, an old acquaintance of mine, informs me that Smith was once a subway musician and performed regularly on the same platform that lead singer Tunde Adebimpe waited on when he took the L train into Manhattan. After a series of conversations, the singer invited Smith to join the band.


For our first interview (weeks before Portland), the band’s publicist arranges for us to meet at an old fashioned Brooklyn diner with a filthy décor and picnic table clothes. All five members sit outside while Smith and producer/guitarist David Sitek smoke cigarettes. I ask Smith how long he’s been smoking, and he tells me 15 years. As we are ushered inside, complete with relatively new drummer Jaleel Bunton, I turn to make a comment and notice that Bunton and Smith have both left the interview without saying goodbye. “They’re probably just really tired,” Adebimpe says.

Tunde Adebimpe is tall and unassuming—I can’t imagine him ever losing his temper. The singer intermittently looks downward and speaks intentionally, but he leaves too much room between his words, allowing the more verbally aggressive to dominate the conversation (in this case, it’s his bandmate Sitek). Adebimpe is likable but not in the typical charismatic lead singer way. With his thick black glasses and scraggly facial hair, his uncoolness is disarming, and his sense of humor is both dry and subtle. On the other hand, Sitek, who also sports thick black glasses, has a strong disposition and seems like he could lose his temper instantly. In fact, even when he’s laughing, he sounds slightly perturbed. We all order food except for Sitek who is drinking a murky orange concoction contained in a plastic bottle without a label. “It’s a dietary supplement for cleaning out the toxins from my body,” Sitek says. “I’ve been consuming too much shit recently.” The bottle is a mixture of 1.5 liters of water, three-fourths of a cup of fresh lemon juice and Grade B honey, respectively (Sitek insists that it must be Grade B), and half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. This fluid, called the Ultimate Cleanser, is the only liquid or food he’ll be consuming for the next couple of weeks. “If I deviate from this regiment, it doesn’t really work,” he says. Sitek is not a moderate personality, but that’s also a part of his undeniable brilliance.

Guitarist Kyp Malone sits to my right and says very little. But when he does occasionally pepper the conversation with a hysterical one-liner, his words are small and soft. If patience were audible, it would sound like Malone. His large head is mostly covered by thick, Brillo black hair (a hairstyle called “natural”), and he too wears a pair of glasses (I can only wonder if a TV on the Radio contract includes optometry coverage). He gives off a calming and alluring glow, so it is understandable how he became a cult hero in Brooklyn, a mayor of the fringe rock crowd.

Throughout our interview, Sitek has a formed opinion about pretty much everything and is quite comfortable in sharing them with me. It takes him only a brief while to abandon small talk and transition into a metaphor about brandishing firearms. “Everyone kept telling us how important [our second] record was going to be before we had even begun working on it,” he says, “and those are the people you need to keep a shotgun blast away from anything creative.”

“Or just a dry wall,” Adebimpe apologetically amends.

But as much as Sitek wants to deny it, TV on the Radio’s sophomore release is important. Since the unexpected success of its Young Liars EP and full-length debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, TV on the Radio has sold close to 100,000 records, joined the ranks of Sigur Ros and N.E.R.D. as the recipients of the coveted Shortlist Prize and garnered the attention of such elders as David Bowie, Trent Reznor and Morrissey. Critics called the band’s debut “one of the most eagerly awaited records of the year,” “a wholly fresh and original sound” and “a record five years ahead of its time.” All this praise was attributed to TV on the Radio’s debut. Multiply that anticipation exponentially for a second effort, and you get the heightened expectancy of the fans, the critics and the record executives, all eager to hear the follow-up to the band’s underdog triumph.

Then there are the elitist naysayers with their unequivocal allegiance to the independent philosophy and their trigger-happy “sellout” protest signs. Nearly a year after expressing dissatisfaction with the incubator Touch & Go Records, which has released all of the band’s material until now, TV on the Radio decided to join the ranks of 50 Cent, Black Eyed Peas and the Pussycat Dolls by entering into talks with Interscope regarding the release of its sophomore album Return to Cookie Mountain. Sitek is fully aware of the cynic’s readiness to dismiss the band as sellouts. And he’s prepared. “I don’t believe in indie-anything anymore,” he says. “As anyone who is mildly close to anyone who makes music knows, the streams of income have been diminished. There is no such thing as sellout. It’s a joke. And besides, in my mind, indie just means “half-assed.””

“[Initially], we got this impression that Touch & Go was doing this thing for fun,” says Adebimpe, who speaks about the band’s turbulent transition from indie to major with noticeable reluctance, almost as if he was talking about an ex-girlfriend. “And after three years of doing this, we realized that the band was our job and there was no other source of income. So we welcomed the discussions with Interscope and Geffen.”

I ask the band members to elaborate on the circumstances that disenchanted them from the independent business model, the one that nurtured them from status of experimental unknowns into a celebrated zeitgeist, but they’re hesitant to discuss it any further. So Sitek has the final word.

“I can’t go into it that much, but I will say that when I was growing up, yes, I really believed in Touch & Go, but I also believed I could be an astronaut or President,” he says. “Things change over time. We saw so much avarice and greed and deception after the release of [Desperate Youth], and we got so tired of it.”

When I contact Touch & Go about the band’s departure, label head Corey Rusk responds, “I really don't care to perpetuate any negativity. Everyone at Touch And Go put their heart and soul into working the TV on the Radio records that we released. We obviously accomplished a lot while we worked together, and we all had a lot of fun during the process. Touch and Go is [also] known for the good relationships we maintain with our bands. I can't control how other people feel. I can only try my best to do a good job for the bands I work with.”

Ultimately, I never resolve the discrepancy between TV on the Radio and Touch & Go, but there is indeed one shared, unarguable opinion. “Return To Cookie Mountain is an amazing record, and TV on the Radio are a great band,” Rusk added in his e-mail. “[And] regardless of what label releases it, I'm sure [the record] will build on that success.”

[To be continued tomorrow]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A former subway musician, that is a meteoric rise...

I think anyone even remotely evolved has attempted the Ultimate Cleanser and no one makes it more than a few days.

Looking forward to the next installment

12:01 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home