TV on the Radio (David Sitek): Interview
“I’ll put my two cents in, but I’m perfectly fine if they get thrown right back.”
TV on the Radio is an anomaly. Trapped within a prism of punk, funk, soul, and rock, the band's music sounds like nothing else. Their last album, Return to Cookie Mountain, became not only a critics' favorite, but a fan favorite. Even David Bowie loved this band enough to guest on a song.
It's no surprise, then, that I looked most forward to TV on the Radio's set during Portland's MusicfestNW. There is just something exciting in the unexpected, and with the new album Dear Science on its way, I knew the band would definitely be airing new material.
Guitarist David Sitek agreed to meet me on the band's bus. During this generous hour, we discussed topics as disparate as Bowie, the internet, race, aging, and Fleetwood Mac. Like their music, Sitek was a thoughtful and dynamic subject.
How did you get hooked up with MusicfestNW? Is this part of a tour?
Yeah, it's part of a tour. Our record comes out in two weeks, so we're going to try out some new material ahead of the release date. We love it up in the Northwest. There seems to be a good vibe up here for us to do such a thing.
So you've been to Portland before?
Oh, many times.
Any highlights for you here?
I have really good friends here that are in a band called Get Hustle. I've been up here plenty of times and eaten plenty of good food, gone hiking, rode Vespas. It's a good time up here.
Any thoughts of relocating?
Well, that's the thing -- my studio is closing down in Brooklyn, and I have to find a new place, and I'm not quite sure if I want to build another studio in New York. It's a royal pain in the ass. I'm looking on the West Coast, and the more and more I talk to people up here it seems to be pretty manageable to do something like that. So, I'm looking at here and Los Angeles. I'm also looking at Austin, Texas, but I'm still scared to live in Texas.
This is a smaller city than Los Angeles. I would never live in LA, personally.
That's just me. So what can the crowd expect tonight in terms of material from you guys?
Hopefully, we won't screw up. A lot of wild, pent-up excitement. We haven't played any of this stuff out live yet, so tonight's the first night. So there will probably be a nervous jitter about us, if all goes well.
The new album is called Dear Science, and it comes out later this month. What do you have to say about the album in general?
This is the best thing we've done so far. Every single time we make a record, we're just really stoked that it sounds nothing like the last record, and this one, I think, is an even larger valley between what we did before and what we're doing now. It's very bright and clear. I think people make the mistake that they hear the beats or the clarity of the music and think that it's totally optimistic. It is in parts, but it still has a healthy dose of doubt. [Laughs]
What do you think the biggest progression between this and Return to Cookie Mountain is?
Well, I don't know if it's necessarily a progression or a lateral move; it's just sort of a different direction. I think it's just locally; rather than Kyp [Malone] and Tunde [Adebimpe] singing at the same time, one always takes a predominant role. From my perspective, the effects were ramped down a whole lot. I've been obsessing about crystal clear sounds, like, just I hate to say it, but “Eyes Without a Face” from Billy Idol. I just love the mix of that and I wanted something... I don't want people to think... I don't care; people can think that it sounds exactly like Billy Idol, but the goal wasn't to make songs like Billy Idol, but to have that kind of clarity. There was a period between 1981 and 1987 where they gated out every single extraneous noise possible, and I have been obsessing about that a little bit.
"I think we lean more towards Motown than punk."
Do you consider yourself a big techhead when it comes to production?
Absolutely not. I'm faking it till I make it. I passively read about technical stuff if I'm really bored, but generally speaking, almost never. I usually don't even talk about it. When people start talking about equipment, it makes me a little anxious.
Well, I've actually had the opportunity to hear the new album.
The record company sent me something that I couldn't even download...
The streaming thing? The paranoia stream?
Yeah, it grabbed me on the first listen, which is something that doesn't happen very often. One thing I noticed on this album is there aren't as many layers as there were on the previous one. It seems it's more about the singing than the atmosphere around the song. The guitar doesn't seem to be as drenched in effects.
I think that's a fair estimate. I bypassed the mixing board entirely. I unplugged it. It's not even on. So there's a lot less nickel. The sound is running through a lot less nickel and copper. So all the guitars were direct, all the bass was direct, all the keyboards were direct. It would be awesome if the vocals could be direct, but we used mics for those. The really funny part is there is just as many layers, but they are not all simultaneous. I think Return to Cookie Mountain was in an ascending trajectory; it starts with one sound and then another comes in, but nothing leaves. [Laughs] I learned on this record that a cut is worth a thousand boosts. So I would say that's a fair assessment.
It just seems, and this is in a good way, that there is a shroud hanging over Cookie Mountain, where the sound is really impenetrable, and here it is more on display and easier to get to the heart of the song.
In a way, it's almost more vulnerable. I think that you can hear the space, especially on songs like “Love Dog” or “Family Tree.” It's like vocals and maybe one other sound going on at the same time. I think that type of intimacy was missing from Return to Cookie Mountain in a lot of respects, so that was definitely intentional.
I think one thing that you do have, and I think it's something you're learning to exploit as your records come out, is a kick-ass vocalist.
Yeah, it's ridiculous. We have two kick-ass vocalists. Actually, Jaleel [Bunton, drummer] is an incredible vocalist too, but he doesn't really sing on this record. But he sings on our last record. Pretty much everyone in the band can sing, except me.
It seems like the vocals are more in the front of the mix this time.
Yeah, definitely. That was a priority. Those guys can sing like nobody's business, and I think we've had so much stuff competing with their range on Return to Cookie Mountain that I think we were a little more conscious this time. I hate to use sweeping generalizations for something that had so many different pieces to it, but this leans more on percussion whereas Return to Cookie Mountain leant more on ambience. You know what I mean? I think there was a whole lot of switches in fidelity to accommodate the vocals this time.
Now, you guys are considered -- and I hate labels -- to be post-punk, but at the same time what I enjoy most about TV on the Radio are the melodies behind the sound. There are some really sweet melodies in a lot of the songs.
Yeah, and it comes from a much older music than punk, and that's not to say we haven't borrowed from punk and we haven't borrowed from all different genres, but there is just as much of a Sam Cooke influence on this band as there is a Bad Brains influence as there is a VSS influence or what have you. Tunde accidentally comes up with some of the most -- he sings something when he's just fucking around, and it sounds like you've heard it a million times. It sounds like a classic. There is this almost instant Al Green aspect to it. But we grew up listening to Earth Wind and Fire and The Commodores and all these other bands. Even Smokey Robinson and The Miracles had a profound impact on all of us that I think we lean more towards Motown than punk. I think the deception lies in the instrumentation that we're using. We would probably be kicked out of some of those bands if we showed up with two phaser pedals. [Laughs]
It seems like a lot of bands are looking back towards soul and funk, like My Morning Jacket. I don't know if you've heard the new album, but there is definitely a funky undertone to it.
I think that's great! The days of not tuning and singing out of tune and hacking it are... Don't get me wrong, I love a lot of bands that have monotonous singers, you know? A lot of bands that lack melody. Some of my favorite bands are just goofy. But I think the ability to write a song that someone can sing by themselves in a shower or a bathroom or on their way to the grocery store or something like that is very, very difficult. If a human voice can translate it without all the extras, I think that's a good sign.
Well, “A Method” off of Cookie Mountain is a cappella for at least the first part of it. That's one of the ones I feel like comes off better live than it does on the album. I liked it on the record, but seeing it live was like, “Holy shit!”
It's two different worlds entirely, and I never underestimate the power of an audience. You look at what it did, in particular, to jazz music in the '60s in Paris, for instance, where it's not constantly roaring, but it's this breathing thing, and I think when we get a chance to take a break from the mid-range explosion on stage it all of a sudden accelerates the human aspect of what we are doing. When things quiet down, you start to respond. You can hear people coughing. [Laughs] I think that that ramps us up in that particular way. “Ambulance” was a very different song when we recorded it, and then we started playing it out live, and it just took on this different interpretation. I think, for most of our music, we would have to tour with five 18-wheelers to bring all the shit we use on a record. But getting a capella stuff is as we get older and have less tolerance for electric instruments, we will probably just go in that direction. Like The Kingston Trio, you know? [Laughs]
Are you involved at all in the lyrics?
No, that's all Kyp and Tunde.
Some people consider the lyrics dense. They have no idea what the hell is going on. Do you have a key, even though you are not the lyricist, or do you just think that sounds good and go with it?
Generally speaking, I'll put my two cents in, but I'm perfectly fine if they get thrown right back. I definitely don't want to misrepresent them, and they definitely don't want to be misunderstood. You're talking about the actual lyrics, the words? There's some heavy shit in there.
What do you think are the forces at work? Some people sing about love, some sing about depression, politics. It's hard to discern sometimes.
Number one, it's silly for me to be talking about lyrics. But, I know with Kyp and Tunde there is not a need to be specific; there's not a need to nail it down; or there's not a need for you to have to see it their way. I think they write metaphorically in a more... It is very rich writing. Some of the words that Kyp throws into songs you're like, “What?”
Could you give me one in specific?
Jacaranda, the type of flower. How do you fit that into a song, I have no idea, but he does. It leaves these specific clues, and then there is this whole other vague quality about it. I think “Dry Drunk Emperor” was a good example of that, where the idea of representing the lyrics visually, I think, is a really important thing to those guys.
Difficult question now. You're in a band that's mixed in terms of race. It seems that indie rock is a white boy's game. Do you feel you guys have bridged any gaps by having such a mixed group? If you look at the bands that are here at this festival, you have African-American artists doing hip-hop and the more Pitchfork-type of music are white guys. So has this group done anything to bridge any gaps?
It's really hard to say. I can definitely see that. We get race questions a lot, and I can definitely see how it is that way, but I think it's less that way than it ever has been, and I think that's losing its power. With the advent of the iPod and the internet, you have access to 10,000 times more music. It's really funny because if you go to a hip-hop concert it's mostly white people. I saw a few hip-hop artists at festivals, and you know most of those people at that festival listen to those artists. I don't think it's as cut-and-dry as it used to be.
In the same festival, I saw GZA, Clipse, and De La Soul, and it was a mostly white audience.
I think race is something that doesn't have a forward dialogue about it. People are too afraid to say what they really think. Because what they really think is what they have been bombarded with since the dawn of history. Indie rock is a little bit different, I think. Because rock music, I mean Chuck Berry, comes from black people. There might be a lot of layers of denial, but you can look back at most of the origins of the styles of the big white rock guitar players...
Little Richard, Bo Diddley...
It's amazing. You can look at Jimmy Page who is considered... [Laughs] There was this giant documentary about the history of guitar, and it's this three white boys. [Laughs] That's pretty funny. Anyway, I don't know. We live in New York City, and we're around every type of culture, so it's really easy to not think about it. But I did grow up in Baltimore, which is a very divided city. There's lot less blending of worlds in smaller cities in the U.S. I think it's something that is going to come up over and over and over again until people just spit it out. You know what I mean? I think that dialogue hasn't really happened yet. I don't know if music is necessarily the best arena for it either. We deal with it lyrically, certainly, and most of the time we wind up talking about it is in a press situation, not in a personal situation. It is pretty funny to be called the ‘token white boy,' though. There's plenty of things to think about, and race, well... [Laughs] I think there a lot of people who do need to have that dialogue, but we're not going to use this as a platform to hit it home all of the time.
Since the dawn of history, as you just said, it seems the musician and the artist has been there to keep the government in line. You guys threw your hat into the arena with “Dry Drunk Emperor.” Under the Radar magazine just put out an issue about protest music, and it has pictures of musicians holding signs. We're entering an interesting phase with the election. Do you feel it is your place as a musician to talk about what's going on out there?
Again, I'm not going to speak directly for the entire band, but I do think that this band is more concerned that people talk to each other in their community and be very responsive locally. The idea of being globally that way is questionable. It's like, what community are you talking to? You can't just say everybody. You would have to adjust your language to include which audience. There was the fall of Rome, so there's always going to be something that is giant, something that is really crazy, and something that we feel really strongly about. But I think that we are more concerned that you think about and arrive at your own conclusions; but really think it through and use deductive reasoning to arrive at whatever conclusion, [rather] than say "think the way we think."
Do you think most people do that?
I would never underestimate the intelligence of the general populace. I think that how we are described back to ourselves isn't how we are necessarily. The artist's role is more of a historical record than a confrontational; at least the kind of music that I am drawn to is more of something that accurately reflects the times. Do you remember the song, it's a Bob Marley song, it's [sings] “You're running/ And you're running/ And you're running away/ You're running/ And you're running/ And you're running away/ But you can't run away from yourself.” It had these great horn parts. That is the first song that he wrote when he lived in exile in England. The night that he got to England, it was right after the assassination attempt on him, and he left Jamaica and decided to live in England as a political refugee. No matter what gets written about Jamaica and the Mafia and the English government, no matter what gets written in the history books, that song will be the people's history. You can't erase that event.
The same thing can be said about painting or film.
Yeah, Guernica. When Hitler bombed Guernica and Picasso reacted violently on a canvass, no matter what gets written about that event... Picasso was Hitler's favorite painter and Hitler's favorite painter was like, “Fuck you. You have no respect.”
So something more abstract will be more powerful down the road than a song saying, “Fuck you, George Bush. Fuck you, George Bush. Fuck you, George Bush?”
There is a personal political that I think music can be immediate about, like The Dead Kennedys or The Dead Milkmen. You can choose either one of those. “Punch the clock because you don't punch your boss,” I think that's political. But by the same respect, the fact that there's the same six songs played on most radio stations, that's a political statement in and of itself. That people feel the luxury to not care what the song is about.
A lot of that stuff is pretty vapid anyway, isn't it?
I would venture to say, at this stage of the game, that is the goal of most music. I think there is some degree of “celebritism”or profiteering. But as the prize shrinks, people get more cutthroat, more competitive, and radio is fueled that way. It's not even radio anymore. It's kind of like the goal is to get your song in a Volkswagen commercial, because there is no more chance of being developed by a giant record label. I mean, you're going from one corporation to another, but it used to be that if you had a multi-album deal with a label, it meant they were going to invest money and time and all this stuff into it. Now, it has to be an immediate profit.
"I don't know if it's necessarily a progression or a lateral move; it's just sort of a different direction."
Now that you are on a major, do you feel that this is true?
I think we would be a lousy bet for any kind of trajectory in that direction. There's no telling what we'll get interested in, and I think that anyone who thinks that Dear Science means that we're going to make more brighter and clearer music may not be aware of where we've gone from before. We don't ever want to make the same record twice. From OK Calculator to Desperate Youth to Return to Cookie Mountain -- I don't think that we were an advertiser's wet dream.
It seems to me that most people don't like to work, especially when it comes to entertainment. I don't know if you've heard the new Portishead album, but it's fucking unbelievable. It's real dense, but it gives to you right away, but it's something you can think about. A lot of people like to hear a song, enjoy it for the three minutes, and then not think about it afterwards.
Yeah, it's passive. I think you have 8 million bands on MySpace or something. If everyone stopped making music, like right now, we can explore all the music that has ever been recorded and never run out in our lifetime. There's just so much stuff out there. I don't want to say people's hearing is perverted, but it's very difficult to write a song that is unforgettable for 20 something years. But you do remember “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and you remember all the parts of it. But there's a lot of songs you'll forget that were cool at one time. So it is really hard to write really simple, unforgettable, immediate songs. That's been a misinterpretation.
There is a company called the Matrix that has broken down songwriting to where they know how many beats and how many verses are catchy. They just spit out songs for people.
I definitely think that's a pretty common thing. Look at how many bands sound like Wire Pink Flag. There's definitely templates all across the board.
But that's not a big seller. I'm talking about Christina Aguilera.
Oh, I'm sure. [Laughs] I'm surprised that R2D2 doesn't write that shit.
Well, we also have a vice-presidential candidate who read a speech that wasn't even written for her.
Yeah, it's pretty bananas that whole situation.
On the positive side, have you heard anything lately that has been, like, “Holy shit?”
There is this singer-songwriter named Diane Cluck, and she always blows my fucking mind. I've been very fucking insanely obsessed with Telepathy. They are just so inventive, and I just love them. Their way of thinking is just so open, and I'm really curious to see what they come up with. Miles, his records are just ridiculous.
Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. Kyp and Chris from Grizzly Bear worked on his record that's out now, and Kyp just did another record with him. His stuff is pretty wild. There's a lot of bands. There's this band Pink Noise from Tel Aviv that I like a whole lot.
You produced that Scarlett Johansson album? How do you feel about that after it's over?
I loved it. I had a great time. I'm such a big fan of Lee Hazelwood, Nancy Sinatra, Serge Gainsbourg, and Jane Birkin records, so I had the opportunity to make a cinematic record with an actress and have zero concern with being ambitious in the music business way. We made it for each other, just to try it out and see what happens.
So you're friends with her?
Yeah, definitely. I became friends with her through that experience. It was such a wild record in comparison to the 800 ambitious rock bands that want to be in a magazine. She didn't care if it was ever even mentioned in Pitchfork, and that was a really wild freedom to have.
It seems really ballsy to me, especially since Tom Waits is a sacred cow. Was that her idea or your idea?
That was her idea. That's part of what made it so bizarre. I was like, “Tom Waits?” He's obviously a giant piece of musical history. It wasn't like I was covering popular songs from 1971. It was a collaborative project choosing the songs, but we leaned towards the darker, harder, raspier stuff because that was even more challenging and more bananas. It would've been really easy to go in there and find the most easy of the songs.
Like “I Don't Wanna Grow Up” or “Hold On?”
Yeah, even like early, early stuff. There was a lot of songs on there that she could just put out in a jazz manner.
Well, the Eagles did “Ol' 55.”
Exactly. [Laughs] We just chose the more difficult ones, and I think that it was a lot of fun. How the world perceives it remains the same as how the world perceives anything that TV on the Radio has done. I'm not a big stamp-of-approval person for records under 15 years old. TV on the Radio could be totally forgotten in three years. Like some new, awesome band that's like all Asians and one African guy could be the most giant thing in the whole universe. Who knows?
That's one thing I like to talk to artists about: this weird phenomena in music now with websites like Tiny Mix Tapes is that you can be huge one day and then the next you can be kicked to the curb. It's crazy how much power the web has.
It's as much power as you allow it to have in your personal life. If you're making music because you love it, no article is going to stop you from doing it.
Not everyone has the same aspirations, though.
No, a lot of people want to be giant on the internet or whatever. But I'm in my mid-thirties, and I've far exceeded my goals in music. I just make things because I like them. At this point, it makes no difference what label it's on; it makes no difference who it is for. If it sounds interesting to me, it is interesting. The really funny part about the internet is if you're the kind of person who will change what you're doing based on an instant feedback loop, then I don't know if it's the best place for you. I personally kind of logged out. Two years ago, I was like, “All right, I've had enough of finding out what everything is.” [Laughs] It just became too abstract to me. I have 15 or 16 really talented people that I talk to everyday.
Is it also a sign of us, because I'm close to your age, becoming the next generation? You know how when our parents didn't understand Ataris and all that shit?
Yeah, it's like us going, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn.” [Laughs]
Exactly, I remember reading about this band I really like, and I had met them before. They all had beards, so I figured they were older. But in the interview, the guy said, “When I was a teenager, I liked downloading Beach Boys albums.” He's only 22 years old! I didn't have the internet until I went to college. Now I can't imagine living without it. There are a lot of new bands where the music is created entirely by computers. It's just piecing stuff together.
I'm definitely not against that. I'm not against computer music. I'm not against instant gratification. I'm not against people being able to put their music out immediately into the world, and I'm not against people who are really ambitious to have a lot of things written about them this year. But, for me, I'm taking a much longer view. I know that a lot of the records, even stuff I didn't like as a kid, I listened to later and I was like, “Whoa!” I had to go through something to relate to this music.
"Every single time we make a record, we're just really stoked that it sounds nothing like the last record, and this one, I think, is an even larger valley between what we did before and what we're doing now."
What are you thinking about?
Fleetwood Mac. I think that was probably the first one. When I was a kid, I was like [screams].
It's the same thing with me! You know “Go Your Own Way?”
I heard it on the radio growing up, and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” But now when I listen to it there's that part [sings] "You can go your own way." Then right behind it "You can go your own way."
I think that totally clinches the song.
Yeah, it's amazing. Also, between then and now, you loved someone that wasn't the right thing to do. So when that line comes on, [sings] “Loving you wasn't the right thing to do,” you have a picture and you know exactly who he or she is and there's no denying it. It's going through the human experience. A lot of people talk to TV on the Radio about a lot of things, and we're like, “The jury's out on the relevance of what we're doing. Let's take a deep breath and think about it much farther from now.”
An interesting test of that type of thing is the film The Graduate. When you watch it as a teenager, you relate to Dustin Hoffman's character.
Yeah! Yeah! [Laughs]
But the older you get, you think, “He's a little piece of shit!”
Totally, totally. That's really funny.
Just one or two more questions. You got to work with David Bowie. How did that happen and what was that like?
At that point, he had contacted me about Young Liars. He was really into that EP and just had a few questions and wanted to let me know he really liked it. After I changed my underwear from shitting my pants, a couple of months went by and I heard from him again. We were working on Desperate Youth, and I gave it to him before it came out. By the time Return to Cookie Mountain came around, we had talked a few more times. I told him, “If you want to come into the studio and be the boss of things, you totally can.” I gave him the demos of the songs, and “Province” just really resonated with him in terms of being a relevant song to our times and what the world needed to hear. He just wanted to do it. He just showed up my studio and did it. He's a spectacular person. At that point, I was like I could just not make records. There's no one passed that for me that I really want to work with. That was it. I just had a tremendous sense of relief after that experience. He's just a wonderful person; extremely intelligent. Pretty intimidating, in that respect.
He has some weird eyes too.
Yeah, it's something you don't get used to. It's wild.
I wish you luck with the new album. It's weird to hear it and not actually have it.
If it's any consolation, it's on two of our iPods, and no one else has it yet.
Even though music is just notes and sounds, it's becoming even less tangible than before.
That's the really funny part. They're going to start releasing things on ringtones, then eventually people will put out albums that are one note and then a laser will shoot into our Bluetooth eyes. It's just really wild. I'm really encouraged by the fact that vinyl is making a comeback as a format because I'm an old-timer. I like the idea. How many laptops have you had? How many computers do we have to buy? We just have to keep changing formats. I like the idea that something works. It's a foolproof system.
I look at my CD collection sometimes and I think, “I should just download this shit and sell it.” But then I don't feel like I own it anymore.
Also, your computer can very likely crash and then you lose your entire library. Just buy a CD player now, brand new, and just keep it in the box just so you can change formats whenever they figure it all out.