Tuning Into T.V. on the Radio
Brooklyn N.Y. has become an ultra-trendy birth place for a batch of indie bands that have become darlings of critics and scene hipsters alike. While most dabble in trying to redefine striped down post-punk rock, it is also here where one would find one of the most original and far-reaching exploratory bands currently working, T.V. on the Radio. As their name would suggest T.V. on the Radio, attempt to paint a vivid picture by using an audio paint brush. Their pulsating, dramatic, and danceable album Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, manages to combine almost everything you have ever listened to, into a vibrant musical collage the likes no one has ever heard. The album was one of the most exciting releases of last year. Making the accomplishment all the more impressive is that the music on the album is almost all totally improvised.
The album is the second from the band made up of Tunde Adebimpe, David Sitek, and Kyp Malone. Together, they have created a musical landscape where sonically all genres can be combined and anything is possible. The saxophone blast and odd rhythmic thump the opens the album serve as an alarm letting the listener know that this is something different. This idea is drilled home with the opening lyric, "woke up in a magic nigger movie," this introduction makes it clear that you have entered an alternative realm, and are left feeling like Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole. This feeling of lost wonderment lasts throughout the magical journey as the band gives us plenty to explore in their grand kaleidoscope of an album.
T.V. on the Radio started has an informal project between neighbors Sitek (who had produced albums for several Brooklyn bands including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Adebimpe (an artist, who among other things spent two years animating MTV's Celebrity Death Match). As Adebimpe explains at first the project, "For me, was an extension of painting and making films and deciding I've got nothing else to do to be productive. So, let's sit down and try to make music together." At first, the two would just sit and improvise with all sorts of instruments, loops and samples. Both had recorded some stuff previously but for Adebimpe, it was done, "not really with the intention of doing anything with it, it was more like keeping a sketch book or something. When we came together we had some music and some vocals, most of my stuff was acapella."
As grand and adventurous as their music is, one of things that makes the band so thrilling is Adebimpe's vocals. He lays down numerous vocal tracks creating harmonies on top of harmonies. He displays a tremendous range, while using styles that vary from British alternative and new wave circa the 1980s, to classic doo-wop, and many points in between. Adebimpe also does a lot of singing with out words which makes it quite inviting for the listener to join in and sing along, adding to the revelatory experience. The band's debut EP Young Liars contains an acapella version of Pixies’ Mr. Grieves.
After releasing Young Liars as a duo, Sitek and Adebimpe fooled around with other configurations (including having Sitek's brother Jason on keyboards, and drums), before adding guitarist Kyp Malone, a friend also from the neighborhood, who used to regularly swap equipment with Sitek. "It's funny," explains Adebimpe, "the day after we decided that we would only be a two person band, we asked Kyp to join. We thought if it was only going to be the two of us, then Kyp would make the perfect third member. So, it's like everything else with the band, it makes very little sense."
Malone's background was largely based in free-jazz, and his philosophy easily messed alongside the vision shared by the duo. As Adebimpe says of Malone, "He has a very free style, and we don't have many rules with the band, especially when we're writing. It's just a lot of improvisation and what sticks, sticks, and what doesn't, doesn't." He continues, "So, he's so instrumental, and he changed the direction of the band. Not that there was a clear direction the band was going in, but with what he can do, he opens up so many other possibilities." With the addition of Malone, the band was able to take the promise contained on Young Liars and blossom it into the opus that is Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes.The album, as with most of their output, is by and large a byproduct of improvisation, as Adebimpe details, "The first thing we did was hole up in David's basement studio in New Jersey. We would spend four hours a day, the three of us just improvising with samplers, guitars, loop petals and different microphones. We'd then put the whole thing into pro-tools and listen back to the scroll of music, and find a few minutes from each session that sounded like the beginning of songs, and went from there." He explains that songs like "Wrong Way" and "Don't Love You" came directly out of that. Other stuff like "Dreams" and "Staring at the Sun," I had written on four-track, but they needed different arrangements and instrumentation, so we jammed on those till they worked." While, "Poppy" was a song Kyp had four different versions of and we worked on the last one with lots of instruments he brought to us. He told us what he wanted and pointed us to where he wanted to go and we went off from there."
On an album that is so orchestrated it becomes easy to get lost in the music and lose sight of what is being said lyrically. The band's lyrics tend to be dark, cryptic reflections that range from the apocalyptic "All your dreams are over now, and your wings have fallen down," found in "Dreams," to quirky romanticism in "Ambulance," "I will be your accident, if you will be my ambulance, and I will be your screech and crash if you will be my crutch and cast" I asked Adebimpe if he thinks the music takes away from the band's message, "I don't think there's a danger of a message getting lost because I don't think we're really a message based. Lyrically, it's more what I'm thinking, rather than instructions. It's telling a story and not pointing a finger telling you to do something. I hope it's sewn together neatly enough that it all works."
Adebimpe admits that the band tries to serve as somewhat of a filter, "We'll listen back to something three or four times, with the feeling that either we get it or we don't get it, and then we have the confidence that somebody else will get it." He feels that the music is the hook to get listeners to accept their dark ramblings. As they attempt to make people think while they dance. "The trick is to get them dancing first and thinking later. I love songs like that. You don't really know the words, but you like the melody or the cadence. Then you get to into it and learn the lyrics, and it's like; "Wow! That's not something I was thinking about before." He adds, "It's like I'm wrapping something that's not so pretty in something beautiful, so it's easier to digest."
When it came time to perform live after releasing the album, the group again expanded both literally and figuratively as they added drummer Jaleel Bunton and Bassist Gerard White. The addition of a live rhythm section has added a whole new energy to the band. As Adebimpe elaborates, "They rounded everything out and the live shows are so amped up because of them." He said the band needed this energy in order to perform their material. "The album is one thing, and I think the way the album was made is the way you can listen to it. Over a long period of time, listening to the songs over again and letting them sink in. But, with the live performance it has to be more immediate as far performing and the audience receiving something immediately." He continues, "You have to be a performer. When you go see someone one stage, there has to be some sort of energy transfer. It's not like, here's the album, and this is what I said before. It's not an oil painting. Anything can happen live on stage, and we want to set it up so that's always a possibility."
While improvisation is the seed for their recorded output, it plays a different and more limited role in their live performances. "At the beginning of a set, one of us will go up and just start messing around, and the others will come on gradually. That's how we try to figure things out, especially on a new stage, you want to fill it up with scribbles, just to hear how things will sound up here, and that's a good way to get to the songs and warm up." He adds that this is also a way to get new ears tuned to T.V on the Radio, "So, you send out a lot of noises into the crowd to get people on the same page, and in the right mindset." For now, their songs are so complicated and intricate that it leaves little room for them to go off and improvise, but as they continue to grow both as a quintet and as a live band it is something they might start to incorporate more of, as Adebimpe says, "We'll use and try anything that helps us connect with an audience and gives the show the added energy."
T.V. on the Radio seems to be a band that is continually evolving. Bunton and White have become full members of the band and will join them for their next recording, "We're excited about that because the two of them are so talented and so full of ideas. They make us better. Jaleel's funny, as good as he is on drums, he feels it's his worst instrument, and he's so eager to show what else he can do, and I can't wait to start recording with them and seeing what they come up with."
The last couple of months have been a busy time for the band. They released their second video for "Staring at the Sun", which can be seen at the record label Touch and Go’s website. After an extensive fall tour, they have recently played shows opening for Pixies and George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars. They now look ahead to the next album, and continuing to evolve and finding new directions to explore and conquer. What ever direction they go from here, I'm sure that it will be something that will be well worth tuning into.