"Have you got any Sinead O'Connor?" a female New Yorker asks the man behind the counter. "Sorry, don't have it," comes the bright reply. The woman contorts her face as she tries to remember the other reasons for entering the record shop. "You have anything from Cher - her recent stuff?" she says eventually. "Sade? Anything by the group Kiss?"
After each request, the shop-owner - Radio 4's front man, Anthony Roman - shakes his head. "We sell mostly punk rock, alternative and reggae stuff," he tells her amiably. Seemingly satisfied, the woman heads towards the door, but before she makes it over the threshold, she asks: "When you say 'punk rock', do you mean Smashed Pumpkin Heads?" She doesn't wait for a reply to her musical mistake; clocking Roman's huge bemused grin, she cheerily waves goodbye and leaves.
This surreal encounter feels like a scene from a David Lynch remake of High Fidelity, yet Roman has seen it all before. "We get that a lot," he laughs. "This is Brooklyn. That's the way it is here." The smile on his face says he wouldn't want it any other way. Looking after his small, independent record shop - Somethin' Else, which he runs with his wife - is clearly something Roman enjoys. But, these days, the opportunities to idly chat to punters are few and far between. After a brief holiday upstate with his wife, he's setting out with his band to promote their third album, Stealing of a Nation.
Inspired by the vibrancy of Brooklyn, Roman opened the little shop - which is on a sleepy street a few blocks from his house - as a place that "was community-oriented, promoted underground music and was somewhere where local people could come and hang out". Nearly five years on, it has become the community mainstay Roman hoped for. Just as his affection for Brooklyn moved him to start a record shop, his love for New York City has inspired him to write songs about it: odes to NYC's clubs and underground, its politics and problems. And with his band's breakthrough second album, 2001's post-punk rallying cry, Gotham!, Radio 4 marked themselves out as a protest band.
Named after the song by Public Image Limited, Radio 4 formed in 1999, initially as a trio: Roman, the guitarist Tommy Williams and the drummer Greg Collins. The percussionist PJ O'Connor and the keyboard-player Gerard Garone joined in 2002. As veterans of the hardcore punk scene, they were no strangers to the notion of speaking (or singing) their minds. But the continuing reign of NYC's then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, was wearing away not only the atmosphere of city they loved but their patience, too. As Giuliani's "zero-tolerance" policies chipped away at New York's foundations, Radio 4 were spurred into action.
While Giuliani took the brunt of their fury, Radio 4 also used Gotham! as a platform to take on wider social issues affecting New York - such as its Aids education and arts-funding policy. But Gotham! was not just about its lyrics. Helped by spiky, razor-sharp production - courtesy of critically lauded knob-twiddling duo the DFA - Radio 4's clash of post-punk and bass-driven rock fitted right in with the new wave of similarly highly charged New York bands such as Interpol and The Rapture.
Promoting Gotham! in the aftermath of September 11 was to have a profound effect on the band. "Inevitably, you're in your own little bubble over here in America," says Roman. "You think everything's fine and then you venture out into the world and you find out that no, things really aren't cool." Roman had been blissfully unaware of any anti-American sentiment in the wider world. Radio 4's first inkling that all was not well with their nation's image came when the band arrived to play a sold-out show in Hamburg and were welcomed by a notice on the venue door saying, "No Americans Allowed". On other occasions, they found that just having American accents could elicit a barrage of abuse.
But far from feeling defensive, these acrimonious encounters only re-enforced Roman's own feelings of anger - particularly with regards to President Bush's foreign policy. "The way this country has operated since September 11 has been unnerving," he says. "After the terrorist attacks, we had the sympathy and the compassion of the whole world. We had the opportunity to build on that goodwill and do something positive. But instead, all that was thrown out the window and we used violence again. We acted very poorly."
In his measured way, Roman is fired up. He's still perched on his stool, seemingly relaxed. But there's deep disappointment in his eyes. "In America, in 2004, you don't have much choice but to say what you think. You've got to - it's your duty to speak out." And with his new album, Roman has done just that.
Starting from its accusatory title, Stealing of a Nation is the sound of Radio 4 getting a few things off their collective chest. "America's values, the ideals that I feel the country was founded on," says Roman, "just seemed to have disappeared." And he's not just referring to foreign policy. "It doesn't seem like people have the opportunity to have a modest life anymore," he says. "There's no health insurance, taxes are outrageous - there's no safety net at all, and that should be a human right."
Stealing... is a satirical attack on the US administration. It rails against the subtle curtailment of civil liberties under the guise of the war on terror ("No Reaction") and the way the faith of American citizens has been hijacked by anxiety ("State of Alert"). "It's a pretty confusing time to be an American," he says. "People are operating under constant fear - we're all waiting for this impending attack. But the government is using this fear to further their own agendas and that's pretty sick." The record's centrepiece is the searing "Nation": an ominous, electro-pulsed tune that ends in a rousing appeal to those listening to "do your life justice" and vote. In July, Radio 4 played a Music For America benefit show aimed at recruiting young voters for the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry. "We just want Bush to go away," says Roman.
Although he's passionate about his politics, Roman insists he's not the ranting sort. "Not even slightly," he laughs. "I'd never go to a party and start telling people what I think. It all comes out in my lyrics." But although, lyrically, Stealing... is a political record, musically it doesn't always sound like one. This was deliberate. "I wasn't really in the mood to bum people out too much," says Roman. "There's got to be some relief." The driving exuberance of the album ensures it is never weighed down by its lyrical themes. Radio 4 have always been a band you can dance to. On Gotham!, with songs such as "Dance to the Underground", they encouraged people to dance in clubs where Giuliani had banned it. And sonically, Stealing... is an even sleeker beast than Gotham!. Far more accessible than other Radio 4 records, the album is filled with driving, New Order-esque basslines, disco-tinged rock riffs and furious hypnotic rhythms.
And it's exactly this combination of infectious grooves and rabble-rousing lyrics that make Stealing... such a great record. It's heavyweight without being worthy, fun without being empty or frivolous. "For us, music is about sound and sentiment," Roman says. "We want to spread awareness and inspire dialogue. When we can achieve that every time - then I'll feel successful." He leans back on his stool and smiles. With Stealing... he has just taken a giant leap toward his goal.
'Stealing of a Nation' is out on Monday on City SlangReuse content