TV on the Radio eliminates static and maintains innovative edge

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:: TV on the Radio :: Ogden Theatre :: March 20 :: 

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By Gina Pantone

There remain very few musical acts that can maintain a concurrent level of success and innovation in an industry so crippled and corrupted by the dollar. The will to be famous often supercedes the drive to be important, to have a purpose, and to possess a true passion for the craft of musicianship.

But critically acclaimed sonic innovators TV on the Radio seem to be doing everything right — from musical trend-setting to their laissez-faire attitude, to even their location (the north side of Brooklyn, NY, known as Williamsburg). Their second LP, the facetiously titled Return to Cookie Mountain, gained massive attention and accolades. While some critics find it a step backward in the band’s experimental stratosphere, others have it pegged as brilliant. Regardless, Cookie Mountain is more than just a sophomore effort — it’s literally a structure of sweet sonic proportions.

“A truck full of chickens fell over in front of my house and they all came running into my front yard,” singer Tunde Adebimpe recalled in a technologically-turbulent cell phone conversation with The Marquee. “There will probably be a song about it. It wouldn’t be very good and no one would care about it, but it would be valid as an experience that I had.” This tale seems to encapsulate Adebimpe’s perception of their music. Inspiration doesn’t have to come in the form of epiphany. Randomness can be just as valid of a muse, though the mood of their lyrics often revolves around politically-oriented chaos.

“You take your paranoia, your fear, and (you) channel that situation and turn it into words on a page so you can understand it for yourself,” Adebimpe said. “You can show it to someone else and help them understand it, and get different ideas going. It helps to not be so disengaged and disenchanted with the situation.”

Listening to their sound solidifies this laid-back mantra. Sometimes their soulful harmonies and spacey grooves give off the impression that TV on the Radio is really just five men looking to jam out in a basement or subway (in fact, bassist Gerard Smith was recruited from frequently playing Adebimpe’s Manhattan subway platform). This is not to say that their sound is amateurish or haphazard — it’s quite the opposite, in fact. It’s more about a vibe. Their intricate melodic layers (note guitarist Kyp Malone’s stratospheric falsettos) and investigative song structure is what makes them unique — in addition to their lack of the superior attitude that often fogs the perception of many such critical darlings.

“I’m regularly amazed and thankful to be making music that’s not easy to categorize in the world,” Adebimpe said. “We kind of have a job doing it right now, which is the most anyone can ask for.”

TV on the Radio has built their career on complete artistic control — a power incredibly difficult to obtain. Their long stint with Chicago independent label Touch and Go came to an abrupt and controversial end when Interscope Records took an interest — leaving many fans disillusioned. Although band co-founder and producer David Sitek has recently expressed animosity in the press over the situation, Adebimpe clarified the situation. “When we were signed to [Touch and Go], we were told, in essence, that any time we wanted to move to another label that it would be fine and amicable. When that time came and it was a reality… I have a lot of weird feelings about it. I feel no ill will towards anyone at that company. I feel like it’s a lesson for me about art being handled by people who handle business. You’re not really feeling the same thing. Hopefully, you’re on the same path, but you’re not doing the same things for the same reasons. I don’t know. It just got really hairy for a while,” he said.

Regardless of the often-dreaded transition from indie to major label, TV on the Radio has still maintained their sharp creative edge. An internet ad campaign that surrounded Return to Cookie Mountain depicts child actor Brandon Ratcliff (Me and You and Everyone We Know) as “Mr. President” — an 8 year-old commander-in-chief of an unknown organization or government. In the piece, he fires the band, as well as everyone in the surrounding area at will, and advocates veggie dogs to the soundtrack of the album while dressed in a tiny business suit. Is it a satire depicting their administration changes? Is it spreading awareness for meat substitutes? The message is not clear, but Adebimpe is clearly to blame.

“That was mine,” Adebimpe said. “It is sort of odd to be involved in the marketing of your own record. They suggested that it be a ‘viral’ campaign. It’s when you start inundating people’s computers with ‘oh my God, this record is coming out in two months’ and you can’t check your email without knowing it. When I asked what would go into a campaign like that, they responded with ‘anything’ — as long as it was seven minutes worth of content. I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll just make three short films.’ Then there was my friend Suzi Yoonessi, who also was the assistant producer on Me and You and Everyone We Know, which Brandon Ratcliff was in. I had already written a skit out that starred a president, it doesn’t have to be of a record label or a country — it’s not really clear. He’s just ‘Mr. President.’ He’s in charge. He’s not really qualified to be in charge, but he is anyway. We sent [Ratcliff] a script and he was really into it, and we were really flattered to get to work with him. He’s an awesome human being,” Adebimpe said.

Return to Cookie Mountain seems to encapsulate a different mindset than the band’s debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. It’s more upbeat and full-bodied, with the notable addition of Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton. Unfortunately, their trademark foreboding moments are few and far between, though the lyrics remain just as haunting (notably in “Wash the Day Away”). The record is melodic and cohesive, proving that adding more compositional structure need not have a predictable outcome.

Whatever the final ruling, Return to Cookie Mountain is undoubtedly a triumph. “I think it is possible to be a success and stick to what you’re doing,” Adebimpe said. “Some cases it just goes that way, that you’re happy with what you’re doing and it’s working out, but in other cases it’s the opposite. You just have to remember what the important thing is about it, and also what your definition of success actually is.”

:: TV on the Radio ::

:: Ogden Theatre :: March 20 ::

 

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