TV on the Radio Take the Stage
Published June 13, 2009
As the final fits of neat and narrow revivalism give way to a new era of outright genre confusion, the state of indie music in 2009 can disorient the casual music fan. In New York, hybridity is nothing new, and since 2003, TV On The Radio, Indie rock’s cerebral, oddball frontrunners, have redefined the boundaries from the mainstream with their juxtaposition of ghostly soul vocal arrangements and atmospheric post-rock guitars. Now, as eclectic pop finally has its shiny, submainstream moment, TV on the Radio release their third album, Dear Science, an effort that goes into melodic overdrive with maximalist pop riffs and drum lines. There are still the familiar, unearthly moments: on album opener “Halfway Home,” space-age soul and shoegaze drone converge into the band’s best extraterrestrial gospel hymn to date, but most of the album’s standoutsâ??like post-funk lead single “Dancing Choose”â??are newly urgent, modern, and polyrhythmic. To critics, Dear Science was the one of the best albums of 2008; to chart followers, it was something of a commercial breakthrough, reaching #12 on the Billboard Top 200; to bloggers, it was a (great) excuse to wax rhapsodic. But to TV On The Radio, drummer Jaleel Bunton says it is simply their “dance album.”
This summer, the band take Dear Science to the stage with Dirty Projectors. TV On The Radio’s act has always been surprisingly well suited to a live setâ??for one, lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s agitated stage moves channel both Ian Curtis and James Brown. These days, the band’s growing fan base showcase their own spazzy dance routines at shows, Bunton told Interview as his band kicked off Central Park Summerstage Summer Concert Series on Friday, June 5. That night, TV On The Radio played before a very wet, very sold-out crowd. Yes: there was dancing in the rain. Lots of it.
COLLEEN NIKA: This is your biggest tour yet. How do you feel before these new shows?
JALEEL BUNTON: I’m excited, but I’m always more excited to have my guest list anxiety be over with!
CN: I actually saw you open for Bauhaus and Nine Inch Nails in 2006. That was an epic tour.
JB:Â Wow. Which show?
CN: It was in Camden. And after you played, I distinctly remember Tunde, Dave, and Kyp handing out bowls of fruit to the front row. I thought it was a great gesture.
JB: [LAUGHS] Yeah, it was getting weird. That must have been towards the end of the tour. We were losing our minds a little bit…and so obviously, we handed out fruit to the audience!
CN: It’s almost three years later. Do you feel like a tour veteran yet?
JB: One of our technicians just got called a “road dog.” He took exception to that characterization. “Road dog! That’s for old people!” He said. [LAUGHS] I confess I do feel like … maybe not a road dog … but a road hyena or something. Because we’ve done this quite a few times now. We’ve spent a good part of the last five years on tour. We know what to expect now.
CN: How have those expectations evolved? Are the crowds bigger?
JB: We’ve been lucky. We’ve experienced really good attendance at these showsâ??which is a nice stroke to our egos! Every year we pick up a few more stragglers. But yeah, the crowds are a little bigger now … and oddly enough, a little more aggressive!
CN: Why do you think that is?
JB: I think it’s a combination of things: a response to the energy of the new material and, also, simply the mark of an ever-changing fanbase. Crowds are more familiar with us now. We are still the same band, but our musical identity has shifted; the energy definitely has changed.
CN: As the percussionist, how influential were you in the development of Dear Science‘s frenziedÂ pace? It’s quite danceable.
JB: It would be hilarious for me to say, “Oh yeah, all this was my idea! I wanted to push the band in a new rhythmic direction because I’m the drummer and they do what I say!” [LAUGHS] No, not exactly.
CN: That would be a victory for drummers everywhere.
JB: Well, you know what? Drummers deserve a victory story! But no, it was very much a mutual decision. We, as a band, have very few literal conversations about what we are going to do. We let intuition lead the way. This was the most natural expression of where we are right now.
CN: It’s definitely a more polished, punchier dynamic. Was Dear Science your attempt at a creating “commercial juggernaut?”
JB: [LAUGHS] :et’s use the term “juggernaut” with a grain of salt, especially these days. But I guess in a way it is aimed toward a more popular audience, but it wasn’t really calculatedâ??we’ve just matured. We weren’t really intentionally lo-fi before; those were the means we had at that time. Our artistic integrity is reflected in the fact that we do the best we can at any given time, including now. We are still learning. And look, every band gets old and wants to get “on the radio”! [LAUGHS]
CN: I actually did hear “Dancing Choose” once on the radio. On K-ROCK, which ironically, is now a Top 40 station.
JB: I know. It’s hilarious.
CN: Who determines how to market TV On The Radio?
JB: Not us! For better or worse, the band kind of lives in a bubble. None of us really absorb much of pop culture. None of us has a TVâ??or at least one that is ever on. So, we have to rely on people who are “cooler than us” to tell us what is going on and if we are doing something cool, because we don’t have mainstream perspective. Our managers and label get a feel for what will people respond to the most. And I’m still kind of blown away that it’s gone so well.
CN: Your tourmates, The Dirty Projectors, and other New York-based pop eclectic musicians, are also enjoying their own halcyon moment in indie culture. Did TV On The Radio make that possible?
JB: I feel like I don’t have enough distance from the situation to know, really. You can attribute the success of those acts to so many things It’s a whole different architecture nowâ??and I can’t claim to be the architect behind the success of bands like Dirty Projectors, Celebration, and Grizzly Bear and other incredible musicians who think outside the box. It’s a totally new climate: the way bands are tapping into audiences now is changing rapidly. Again, radio matters less and less. Word of mouth, by way of the internet, is far more important again, which is great. It’s how I’ve always discovered the best music.
CN: What is your favorite way to experience music?
JB: I do think that experiencing music live, in person, is the whole point. One of the things I love about music even more than other art forms is that is so kinetic and immediate. A musical experience can be a religious experience. Those physical vibrations can be simulated through visual representations to a degree, but it doesn’t compare to the actual experience. Way before video, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix viscerally connected to people in a room. The video era diluted that a bit, but we’re moving back to it again. It’s a return to roots.
CN: Are music videos on the verge of becoming obsolete?
JB: In my opinion, in the traditional format, they no longer hold much water. I barely watch themâ??I’m such a poor consumer! The last video I watched was the new Justin Timberlake and Ciara video. The format has become painfully so predictable. However, I am intrigued by the freedom the Internet gives video and film. There are less restrictions. I recently watched a Spank Rock video MTV never would play. It was lewd, it was out of bounds. And because it is so risque, it can change the boundaries of the format.
CN: Not to be nostalgic, but is there anything you regret about the end of the radio and music video age?
JB: Well, it’s a painful growing up process. It means there is definitely a shrinking pie, but we never got into this to get rich and famousâ??and we’re not! So mission accomplished!
TV ON THE RADIO ARE ON TOUR NOW; DIRTY PROJECTORS OPEN NORTH AMERICAN DATES.Â THE CENTRAL PARK SUMMERSTAGE SERIES RUNS THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER.