Cookie Monsters of 'Rock'

TV on the Radio turn their frustrations into defiantly fascinating art

The amount of time that elapses between David Sitek jabbing out a finished cigarette and lighting a new one is pretty small and only shrinks as he gets more agitated or enthused, or both, as the case may be.

"We're not super-intellectuals," he protests, deep in analysis of his band's anti-methodology. "It's not like TV on the Radio is doing something that's so avant-garde or new or cutting-edge or anything. It's just that so many people are not doing that."

Sitek is well into his third cigarette by now. His face is hard and sharp, accentuated by bookish black glasses. ("People always think that I'm mad, but it's just the shape of my face," he says.) His features are soft, though, and even at his most frustrated, he radiates a peculiar warmth, a curmudgeonly passion. His Williamsburg apartment emphasizes utility over aesthetics: The rooms are, charitably, a mess, with production equipment, books, and CDs in search of shelves, and wires everywhere, some connected to things, some not. Sitek's last apartment burned down while he was on tour this spring, but all he lost were things. "I'm more concerned with other people losing lives than with me losing clothes," he says. "If I throw a temper tantrum, what will I get back?"

Not a rock band like everyone else is a rock band, hopefully
photo: Roman Barrett
Not a rock band like everyone else is a rock band, hopefully

So he did what he does best, which is begin from scratch. He resettled in this unadorned apartment, but his happiness is a few blocks away, at the studio he built, where over the course of several months, the band convened for the recording and cut-and-paste sessions that would yield Return to Cookie Mountain, its third album. "When we went to Cookie Mountain"—a figurative voyage that birthed the album title, Sitek says—"it was an astonishing trip, and it made us so much more . . . I don't know if pure is the word, but clear. It cleared us up to the possibilities. We went to places we never would have gone to."

Unlike so much New York rock of recent vintage, TVOTR's eludes neat categorization. You can't trace its influences back to a year, or a city, or a particular sound. They are by turns majestic, spastic, elegant, incisive, cynical, tremulous, delicate. Their songs are delirious epics, a collection of precision parts—sterling vocals, aggressive rhythmic patterns, layers of noise skirting each other—working together, even though those parts come from several different machines.

In fact, the best thing you can say about TVOTR is that they don't actually sound like a band at all. At least, not one band, one vision, one idea. Each song contains multitudes, a bevy of sounds and thoughts and directions that would leave most groups desperate to trim. But TVOTR are seamless, gleefully embracing their competing wills. Sitek is the band's producer. Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are the songwriters and primary vocalists. Jaleel Bunton plays drums, and Gerard Smith plays bass. Typically, you could stop there, but division of labor is not this group's strong suit. Everyone plays multiple roles here, largely because no one wants to be in a band the same way everyone else is in a band.

That eclectic ethic was there from the start, back when TVOTR were just Adebimpe and Sitek fooling around. Both were painters in addition to musicians, sometimes selling their wares on the Soho streets. (Adebimpe also had a brief stint as an actor and a longer run as a stop-motion animator on MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch.) At home, though, they made a racket—singing guitar parts and beatboxing the drums. They booked gigs around Williamsburg, never quite sure of what they were going to play until the last minute. Their first release, 2002's OK Calculator, was similarly loose, a set of home jams with ambition, humor, and loads of experimentation with harmony and rhythm. Not one jumping-off point, but 10.

The breakout Young Liars EP, released on Touch and Go in 2003, reflected the band's evolving worldview: A 9-11 pall hung heavy over the songs, which were absorptive and audacious, hurried and nervous. TVOTR were viciously musical, though—underneath their casual demeanors, Sitek and Adebimpe are great natural musicians and know how to productively exploit the friction between the music's seismic soundscapes and Adebimpe's vocals, clarion clear in their pleading and hope.

Slowly, new bandmates began to accrue. Malone was recruited after Sitek and Adebimpe saw him play with an earlier band, Fall in Love. The rest of the band was "destroying its instruments, exploding, dangerous, blowing shit up, and Kyp was standing there completely stoned, drinking a cup of coffee," Sitek recalls. "And then he sings two lyrics and it's so high out in the stratosphere we were like, we gotta get him in our band."

The trio began working on 2004's full-length Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, bringing in Bunton and Smith to round out the rhythm section (Bunton was a local music fixture, and Adebimpe used to see Smith busking at the Bedford Avenue L station). Neither had much experience on the instruments they were asked to play. "No one with the exception of Kyp does what they usually do in this band, and we had no idea what he would even sound like when he joined," says Sitek. "It started like an experiment, and then we realized that it could be this other thing where we just involved our friends."

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