TV on the Radio: Turn on, tune in

There's nothing quite like the music of TV on the Radio - but if David Bowie believes the band have the gift of sound and vision, perhaps you should too
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The Independent Culture

"They have a strong link with the great body of American poetry, especially Beat poetry. The sampling, multi-tracking and mashing identifies them as the spawn of a techno-industrial society. I love the new record. I play it about three times a week, which is, like, saturation level for me." That's David Bowie acknowledging that there is nothing quite like the sound of TV on the Radio.

Like their ambiguous name, the music of the Brooklyn-based group is a paradox of disparate elements that takes all the vicarious strands of music culture to date and mashes them up in spectacular fashion. If people were surprised by their first album effort, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, then the follow-up, Return to Cookie Mountain, is a revelation that marks the band out as the US answer to Radiohead: intelligent, enlightening rock music that thrives on experimenting with ideas, forms and recording techniques.

One of the biggest media draws to the band's new album is the fact that Bowie appears on the track "Province" and marks one of the few vocal appearances since his heart surgery in 2004. It's something that the band - as collective Bowie fans - are keen to talk about, but no doubt will start to irritate them after a while.

The bespectacled lead singer Tunde Adebimpe remembers the day when Bowie turned up at their Brooklyn studio: "He walked into the studio and headed straight for the recording booth, and didn't leave until he was done. It was really funny to see Kyp [Malone - guitarist/ vocals and joint lyric writer with Adebimpe] leaning over the console, pressing the intercom button, saying: "David that was really great, now if you could do it one more time...", then taking his finger off the button and slapping his forehead in disbelief."

Bowie became aware of the band through the fashionably geeky bass player (and all-round production/gadget guy) Dave Sitek, who first moved to New York (from Baltimore) to sell paintings. "I was selling paintings on the street," he tells me while sitting on the band's tour bus before their Washington DC performance alongside Nine Inch Nails and Bauhaus. "I knew someone who was working with him, who liked my paintings, and told me where Bowie lived. So I went down and showed his doorman my paintings and he said that David would like them. A few months later, I dropped off our record. Then he rang to tell me how much he liked what we did and that when we were both in New York, he'd like to come down and talk to us."

Sitek says the band started up after he had asked Adebimpe to help him record some songs "so that I could learn how to use [the multi-tracking software] ProTools. We were basically just a karaoke vodka-energy-drink collective, so it's kinda funny that it wound up being what it is".

The studio experiments became the Young Liars EP, which they gave to close friends and family. One of the friends happened to be Touch and Go head honcho Corey Rusk, who pestered them into putting it out. "We were like, 'Y'know, Corey, we're not really a band and we don't really play live', but he insisted because he thought it was a great record," says Sitek, 33, who'd previously produced a number of bands, including Lovelife (which mutated into Celebration), Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars - all of whom he retains a close affinity to.

Before TV on the Radio, Adebimpe was directing short films and animation projects. Bushy-haired guitarist Malone (most noticeable musically for his high-pitched backing vocals and Hair Bear Bunch guitar theatrics) had been in a succession of bands and worked on solo projects. "I think that everyone had been in a band of some description before," says Adebimpe. "I was in a band called Strugglepuss. Our main aim was to pretty much drive everyone out of the room."

The quietly spoken singer spent part of his childhood living in Nigeria but he admits that he didn't get into Nigeria's greatest musical export, Fela Kuti, until a New York flatmate reignited his interest. "I'd always seen it as my parents' music, and you're never really into what your parents are listening to."

Adebimpe also grew up in Pittsburgh, where his earliest memories were of hearing his dad playing classical music. "He played piano so there was classical music in our house, but also jazz and music from Indian movies," he says. "But when I was about 14, my friends introduced me to bands like Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, The Pixies. Everything else sounded stupid. Suddenly I'd found a vessel for how awkward I felt, and I met people who were in the same boat as me."

Considering his hardcore punk roots, Adebimpe's voice is remarkably soulful, finding a melodic path amid fuzzy guitar swathes and complex rhythmical time signatures. "I think it's the flip side of being a really disgruntled punk who wants nothing to do with the world," he says. "There are times in your life when you're exposed to real beauty, whether it be aesthetically, or whatever. That goes for beautiful music, and I suppose that singing a few harmonies sounds better to me."

Sitek confides that making their second album was a painstaking process, because "we didn't want to be misunderstood. I think this is something that the band's suffered from the onset. No one has known what to call us, and they make up all this stupid shit, like dark-wop or whatever. So we wanted to make a really solid representation of the kind of music we make together and that took a long time."

He believes that the trajectory from Desperate Youth was so intense that they didn't have time to concentrate on each other's creative needs. "As a backlash, we shut everyone out of our lives and didn't accept anyone's help who didn't play music," he says. "We tried to focus on each other, because Jaleel [Bunton] and Gerard [Smith] joined during the whirlwind of Desperate Youth and we didn't have time to explore their contribution. So we shut everyone out for five months, which is a tough thing to do when you're in the same neighbourhood as your friends.

"I walked many lines during that time. I don't think I saw the sun for an entire summer. It drove us mad. At the moment, we're like 'that was then, this is now', but a lot of the subtleties of that period will come out later when there's nothing better to do than talk about it."

'Return to Cookie Mountain' is out now on 4AD; the single 'Wolf Like Me' is released on 31 July