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Cookie Monsters of 'Rock'

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

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?"

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."


 

"It's like they solved some puzzle I'd been trying to solve," Bunton marvels of the crew. "I'd been trying to do similar things, combining a vocal presence that's honest but not so stock and categorizable, but also paying homage to more progressive music I really believe in."

The masterful Desperate Youth built on the frisson the band explored on Young Liars and gave it flesh. The songs were anxious and propulsive, rich with lyrics about upheaval, social and romantic. Their blend of cynicism and naïveté had become a fully formed aesthetic position: psychedelic rumble underneath ethereal vocals. "Blind Willie McTell, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Mike Patton—anyone who's kind of painting with their voice, that's what I'm going for in my head," Adebimpe explains.

"Tunde's voice is so classic to me that if there wasn't that juxtaposition with the tension, the music would just be really easy to digest," Bunton adds. "It never would have made any difference to me."


By the time they were ready to tour, TVOTR were a fixed unit. (An early experiment with a sixth member failed.) And for the world of indie rock, an odd one—apart from Sitek, everyone in the band is black. "I think it was naive to assume we weren't going to have to field comments or questions about that," Malone admits. "The frustrating thing was the cultural ignorance or amnesia of a lot of people, like, 'How does it feel to be playing rock music as black people?'"

While the band was met with underinformed inquisition in the mainstream press, it was all but ignored by black media. "We did something for Men's Health, but we've never been approached by Ebony," Bunton notes. "Why not? The bottleneck of black culture can be so restrictive. I look at some of the outlandish performers in the black community and wonder, how can we still be so conservative sometimes?"

TVOTR's entry points are different, variegated, fascinating: as much blues and gospel and doo-wop and electronic as postpunk and noise. One wonders how they must sound to someone raised exclusively on Matador and Drag City releases. "Indie rock has become the most alienating, asinine, snobbish horseshit I've ever seen," Sitek says.

"I don't like the idea that there's a sound, a specific sound, that you can associate with a band," Malone adds. "Hearing ideas that you've already covered and are refining, I think that's worthwhile, but I would like it if we kept trying new things." Indeed, they're approaching maturity as a band without form—their closest contemporary analogue is maybe Radiohead, another band preoccupied with texture and tension above any fidelity to traditional structures. And with Cookie Mountain, the band's imminent major-label debut, they're only beginning to mine the well of their eccentricity. (At press time, Cookie Mountain's American release date on Interscope was still under negotiation; 4AD will release it in the U.K. next week.) The sound is somehow both more structured and less accessible than ever, proudly flaunting its rock bona fides—prominent guitar and a newfound concern with pace and arc—yet still giving in to the band's digressive urges.

They're also continuing what's becoming a tradition of collaboration. In the past, Antibalas's Martin Perna, Celebration's Katrina Ford, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner have contributed to TVOTR records; Cookie Mountain features Perna, Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, Kazu Makino from Blonde Redhead, and an enthusiastic David Bowie (who's joined the band onstage as well).

"Some musicians are so stuck in what their hands know," Bunton says. "It's boring. I personally feel a lot of the best ideas come when you get away from what your hands can do, so we tried to make the record the same way." Rarely was the whole band in the studio at the same time, which meant that different permutations of ideas were constantly in rotation. Accordingly, songs came together one sound at a time, collecting around Malone and Adebimpe's lyrics (which are, Adebimpe says, "always rooted in something that's making me really, really elated or that's fucking me up").

"I'm really happy with what was brought to the table lyrically," Smith says. "I love the way they're discussing what they're discussing. Plus we had a lot more toys to play with in the studio." Where the band's whims went, so went the songs. Smith returned to the metal shop he used to work in to score some scrap metal for percussion. "The attitude is, 'It needs a cello? OK, let's find a cello,'" Bunton explains. "It makes a big difference. It's more honest music than just [mock serious voice] playing in a rock band."


 

As if rock were the most important thing, anyway. "I mean, look at what Reagan did to music, and Bush is like 50 Reagans—music should just really fucking go ballistic," muses Sitek, talking about TVOTR's decision to release the incisive post-Katrina protest song "Dry Drunk Emperor" in the days following the tragedy. "The music is mirroring what you're going through as a human being through this administration. It starts like it's a mild inconvenience, and then it becomes something very violent. I think the times are significantly more surprising and the absence of reason is more apparent. We don't need to stay in boxes anymore. There's no point. You can do whatever you want. We're really free as artists and musicians to put it all down. And I think that element of psychedelia or hippie or Dada in our world comes from the awareness that there's a complete absence of reason. There's absolutely no reason to make it regimented or understandable at this point."

In the studio, such freedom has been liberating for the band, but translating those creations onstage was a challenge that led TVOTR to make Cookie Mountain more of a "rock" record than any they'd previously done. "A big concern for us this time was we really wanted to write songs that were fun to play, no matter how 'complicated' they get," Adebimpe says. "Before, I'd been making the beats and the basslines and the guitar parts, and I could only pull off one-third of a good idea live," Sitek adds.

"Since there's so much to try and translate, performing it live offers a challenge," Smith admits. "It becomes like Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, where he gets obsessed with editing, just like edits the shit out of everything, and inevitably he stops performing completely. Onstage, you have one chance, and it's so difficult to play something perfectly."

All of this has left TVOTR facing one challenge: learning, as it were, how to become a rock band. Which is, of course, counter to the group's unspoken mandate to be five individuals working on one project rather than one sound drafting five people to execute it.

And so, in small ways, they seek to remain individuals. With what free time he can muster, Sitek is an in-demand producer. He's helmed records by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Massive Attack, Celebration, and the Ohsees, and is currently completing work on the debut album by Brooklyn's Dragons of Zynth, one of the first clear post-TVOTR outfits. When there's downtime, Bunton and Smith try to keep their chops fresh on their native instruments ("When we go on tour, its emotionally crippling for me to not play guitar that much," says Bunton, who, a few years back, fronted the now sadly defunct Pleasure Unit). And early this spring, both Adebimpe and Malone played solo gigs opening for other acts—Tall Firs and Scout Niblett, respectively—partly out of loyalty to friends, but also, one suspects, because no one wants to let his voice lie fallow.

After all, the moment might be ephemeral. Soon they'll be even older. Maybe they all won't live in the same neighborhood, as they do now. And maybe TVOTR are, despite all efforts toward rootlessness, very much a now sound. "You can't put our friendship in jail," says Sitek, back to the cigarettes. "Any time you want to do things your way, you really only have the people you're with. You don't have anything else. Money, you can be taxed on money. Your money can be taken away. And freedom? You can have that shit can taken away too. But your intent, that's something entirely different. We only believe in the things that you can't be taxed on, that can't be taken away."


TV on the Radio play the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of Celebrate Brooklyn with Matt Pond PA and Voxtrot, Friday at 6:30, suggested $3 donation, brooklynx.org/celebrate/schedule.asp.


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