TV on the Radio: Three feet high and rising

TV on the Radio have very big hair, a great deal of talent and a bright future. Charlotte Cripps gets with the programme
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The Independent Culture

The lift doors open, and TV on the Radio, an oddball, five-piece outfit based in Brooklyn, emerge into the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Camden, north London. Lacking the customary rock swagger, they look like the members of a hitherto undiscovered school of hip-hop in which being geeky and nerdy and sporting thick-rimmed glasses is de rigueur. But, as their cover version of the Pixies' "Mr Grieves" on last year's Young Liars EP suggests, they are closer in sound and spirit to indie rock.

The lift doors open, and TV on the Radio, an oddball, five-piece outfit based in Brooklyn, emerge into the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Camden, north London. Lacking the customary rock swagger, they look like the members of a hitherto undiscovered school of hip-hop in which being geeky and nerdy and sporting thick-rimmed glasses is de rigueur. But, as their cover version of the Pixies' "Mr Grieves" on last year's Young Liars EP suggests, they are closer in sound and spirit to indie rock.

To describe that sound specifically is a little harder: in the attempt, journalists have been flinging around references to everyone from Brian Wilson, Peter Gabriel and Prince to classic Motown. TV on the Radio draw on post-rock, gospel, NYC new wave and dub. But the point is that they sound like no one else.

Their debut album, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, is an uplifting synergy of layered vocals, droning guitar and abstract beat-programming. And "Staring at the Sun", the beautiful upcoming single, has an unforgettable soaring falsetto by the guitarist Kyp Malone.

There has already been a groundswell of excitement around the band since the release of the Young Liars EP last November. Subsequently, TV on the Radio signed to the home of the Pixies, 4AD, and they went down a storm at this year's South by South West, the Texas music conference that introduced The White Stripes to the world in 2001.

Today, Malone is wearing a floral shirt with a green camouflage military jacket and student glasses. It's all topped by his very big hair. "I've walked around London and I've seen plenty of people wearing naturals," he says.

In a deep Brooklyn accent, David Andrew Sitek interjects: "But it's like, when we walk into places, people go, 'Hey, look. It's TV on the Radio,' when they see Kyp's hair." Sitek is the studio boffin (and the only white member of the band), a sound guru and multi-instrumentalist. "It makes me want to cut my hair, but that is exactly why I shouldn't," Malone says.

The band are so laid-back that it is touch and go whether we will even make it to the coffee shop across the road. But we move, slowly, out of the hotel lobby, while they take photographs and hum to themselves. Sitek remarks: "We are astonished - as is our record label and everybody else - at the speed at which all this has all happened."

Certainly, it is extraordinary that, without much hype, they have risen so quickly. They have already appeared in the US on Carson Daly's late-night talk show and are set to play Reading and the Lollapalooza tour this summer.

Did the band go out after their gig the previous evening at Bush Hall, in west London? "No," Malone says, with his customary deadpan expression. A silence ensues. Sitek says: "I went back and stared at the ceiling, smoked a joint and listened to the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony."

"I sat in the bath and sang into a Minidisc recorder," Malone says, the sun shining through his bubble of hair.

How has gaining all this attention so quickly changed their lives? "We no longer have any personal space and we live in a tour bus," Sitek says. The band are set to tour until October. "Then we are taking a break - a year is long enough for a band to live and breathe together," he says.

After watching them play live, it's easy to see why they might need time off. Sitek plays his guitar with such fervour that he is in danger of injuring himself. He also turns into a human beat-box and swaps instruments with the dreadlocked drummer, Jaleel Bunton. The tall, gangly vocalist, Tunde Adebimpe, performs like someone testifying; he samples his own voice and then sings against the resulting sound. Malone plays guitar and sings vocals, while the bassist, Gerard Smith, plays with his back to the audience.

It all began when Sitek moved into the same apartment block in Brooklyn as Adebimpe. The two had a lot in common. Both were musicians and painters. They soon realised that they could make music together and produced a "getting-to-know each-other" 24-song CD called OK, Calculator.

"When we took on Kyp, after the EP, we had no idea what he would sound like with us," says Sitek, who is usually on the other side of the fence as an in-demand producer. "People think that it was a deliberate move on our part, but it was just like, well, you can't get more different than Kyp Malone. Let's get him to join the band," Sitek laughs. "Whatever will be will be. What's the point of forcing this shit? You only get haemorrhoids and heart attacks if you try to crank it out," he adds philosophically.

Who are the band's influences? Sitek replies: "Stuff you might not even imagine. Carolyn Sanders, Nina Simone - even stuff like A-Ha's "Hunting High and Low" and Duran Duran's "Hungry like the Wolf". But there is a lot of stuff that influences us, not just music."

The band are clearly pleased when it's put to them that their music is very uplifting. "It is good that you hear that. A lot of people say that it is really negative and dark and gloomy," Adebimpe says about the thoughtful and subtle lyrics - free-form meditations on love and war - that have been misinterpreted in some quarters as miserablist.

"We are not victim rock," Sitek insists. "It's not about falling into familiar ways of singing things. We are like, 'OK, we are going to make sure you know what our identity is and through that you may identify with us.'

"In your early twenties, which a lot of bands are, you use music to talk about girls, but we are in our thirties," Sitek continues. "It is hard not to be affected by September 11. I mean, how can you sing about girls after all that? And even if you do, why sing about the bad parts? There are some awesome parts, too."

'Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes' is out now on 4AD

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