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TV On The Radio Get Political

With last year's Young Liars EP, TV on the Radio rapidly became indie-rock darlings. Hailing from the still-pretty-hip Bohemian Mecca of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the band consisted of multi-instrumentalist/engineer/producer Dave Sitek, whose studio wizardry helped make the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Fever to Tell so damn raw, and vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, whose laser-guided, soulful wails immediately set the band apart from anything else currently going on in rock music.

Buoyed by critical raves and other positive feedback, Sitek and Adebimpe headed into the studio last summer to record their debut longplayer, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go). But first, the duo that created such beautifully experimental-yet-universal sounds on Young Liars decided to change things up a bit.

Kyp Malone, a local musician, was added to the fold as a prominent new songwriting member, and the hi-fi, surround-sound sonic sheen found on the EP was ditched in favor of a more lo-fi, warts-and-all approach — risky business for a burgeoning band with the hype and potential to gain a strong independent fanbase.

"The whole idea behind the band is 'What if we added this or did that?'," said Adebimpe, calling from New York City on the eve of the second leg of TVOTR's current nationwide tour. "It's all a big chance game for us — and it's working out excellently."

Adebimpe, whose calm, smooth speaking voice would work well on late-night radio, is not being cocky. With its conflation of doo-wop rhythms, post-punk minimalism and hazy, psychedelic freak-out flutes, guitars and saxophones — and politically conscious lyrics — Desperate Youth… really is the sound of something new — and vital.

For Adebimpe, who started TVOTR with Sitek in 2001, it's been an odd trip leading up to the release of Desperate Youth…. "At first, we were making really lo-fi stuff," the singer said, referring to early off-the-cuff demos and performances including a below-fi, goofy self-released record slyly dubbed OK Calculator. "Then we wanted to make a super overproduced-sounding album — almost as a joke. But when we recorded a couple songs that way, we soon realized it wasn't so much of a joke, and it actually sounded like something we would want to listen to."

Those recording sessions were cut short because Adebimpe was running out of money. "I had to go and do other things to make money, like sell my clothes and CDs," he said. But, after a couple months of TVOTR's sending the five-song EP out to labels, legendary Chicago indie Touch & Go offered to release it, much to the shock of the band.

Quickly after the release of Young Liars, alternative weeklies all over the country started praising TVOTR's fresh sound, and the duo began to build a cult following. "It was funny more than anything else," Adebimpe said of his first taste of popularity. "We played a show after the EP came out and one of the last songs we played was 'Satellite.' Everyone in the place was trashed and falling all over each other. Eventually, most of the sound dropped out because everything was fucking up — then we realized that the whole crowd was singing along. It was strange."

But, truth be told, there are hardly any songs as immediate and sing-songy as "Satellite" on Desperate Youth… At least some of the band's new, more difficult sound can be credited to the contributions of Malone, who was initially hesitant about joining the band.

"From the very beginning I asked them if they were absolutely sure they wanted me in the band, because I have never done anything as accessible as the stuff on the EP," said 31-year-old Malone, who contributed vocals, lyrics and guitar to the album. "I had a fear of dragging them into complete obscurity."

Calling from New Jersey, where he was making his weekly visit to his 3-year-old daughter Isabel, Malone is quietly confident. After spending nine years working in local cafés and playing in bands like Fall in Love and noise-poppers Iran with little to show for it, he is excited to be part of TVOTR.

How do his old bandmates feel about the new gig?

"They're being very polite about it," Malone said with a nervous chuckle. "They're excited for me but maybe a little bit — well, I know how I would feel."

Malone plays a large role on Desperate Youth… Although he planned on just playing guitar at first, he soon found himself adding backup vocals to nearly every song on the album, as well as writing the lyrics to about half of the album's nine tracks. Malone enjoyed the freedom to create his own role in the band, but he also admitted to being a bit anxious about singing with Adebimpe's naturally powerful voice.

"I got over being intimidated because, for one thing, I don't look to rock music for voices," said Malone, whose fragile falsetto adds a layer of vulnerability to TVOTR's sound and generally works well as a foil for Adebimpe's superhuman delivery. "If I want to be impressed by vocals I look to jazz and people like Nina Simone.

"I was encouraged to sing in the first place by people like Dylan or J. Mascis, who weren't singing because they had beautiful voices but because they had something to express," he continued. "At the same time, I find that the more I have to sing in friendly competition with Tunde, the stronger my voice is getting. I can listen to the LP now and I wish that I could re-record the whole thing."

Between Young Liars and Desperate Youth, it's hard to pin down TVOTR's sound — and that's undoubtedly how the band likes it. Whereas the EP is drenched with effects that turn distorted guitars into rumbling train engines and make vocals echo into oblivion, Desperate Youth… is more organic, more natural.

"When we got into the studio, the first thing Dave said was, 'No reverb on anything,' and we stuck to that for the most part," Malone said. "Everything that happens is happening in real time with all the fallacies shining through."

But no matter what sonic changes the band implements, the constant force of Adebimpe's high-definition vocals make TVOTR much more than a run-of-the-mill indie-rock band. "I sang a little bit in choir, but I never thought of it as anything more than a way to get an idea down," Adebimpe said. "It's nice that people like the sound of my voice, because it's one of my least favorite sounds — it definitely freaks me out sometimes."

"Tunde sounds like a man," said Malone. "And there's not a lot of that happening in indie rock right now."

Malone's assessment is spot-on — Adebimpe's high-impact croon is an utterly unique combination of traditional barbershop, doo-wop and vintage soul that is instantly affecting and ear-catching.

On "Ambulance," the album's lone a capella track, a "dum-dum-dum" walking bassline and some sparse harmonizing accompany Adebimpe as he sings, "I will be your ambulance if you will be my accident."

"For 'Ambulance', we tried to think of different things to do musically, like a faster version with some Booker T. & the MG's-style rock instrumentation behind it," Malone said. "But when we were just walking around Jersey singing it, it sounded really good a capella — we always just walk in the streets and try to make up harmonies."

The band's political leanings are apparent and passionately portrayed on the album. "Bomb Yourself" includes the lines, "You've made a family/ Now kill 'em dead/ Oh it's not me ma/ It's what the TV said." The video to "Dreams" (included on the Desperate Youth… CD) streams footage of pluming explosions and soldiers as war-siren guitars screech and squeal behind the chorus, "All your dreams are over now/ And all your wings have fallen down." Such lyrics poignantly condemn current American hypocrisies and their troubling effects on rest of the world.

"With the EP, the lyrics were about the aftermath of September 11th and the confusion about our own humanity and our souls — overall they are more metaphysical," Adebimpe said. "But with the LP, we were at the point where we thought, 'Whether that metaphysical aspect exists or not, the bullshit that I'm seeing around me every day is something I really need to address and figure out for myself.'"

"If you have something to say about what's going on and you have a forum to voice your opinions, you should," Malone said. "A lot of people may think our stuff is heavy-handed, but if you're an American there's too much awful shit happening in your name right now, and it's disgusting. I don't believe that you can risk the lives of the citizenry and kill so many people over a lie like they did in Iraq. I don't see art as being separate from the rest of life — you have to care about what's going on around you."

The omnipotent specter of racism and hateful stereotypes is addressed on the opening track, "The Wrong Way." With live drummer Jaleel Bunton and bassist Gerard Smith ("They're both insanely talented musicians, and the plan is for both of them to be writing on the next album," Adebimpe said), plus Malone and Adebimpe, TVOTR are four-fifths African-American, making them one of the few predominantly black indie-rock bands garnering nationwide attention. This fact is not lost on the band, and they are not scared to write about the tenuous race relations still found in much of America or the detrimental effects of mainstream rap's bulletproof archetype.

"A few people have asked me, in effect, 'Isn't it weird that you're making rock music and not rap? Do you think you're going to get in trouble?'," Malone said. "And I would like to add something to the world that makes that question seem as retarded as it actually is."

"I've been asking myself the same question since I was 12: 'Why am I the only black kid at a punk-rock show?'" Adebimpe said. "An older friend of mine came up to me and hugged me after a show and said, 'Where were you when I was 15? I wouldn't have had to justify that Living Colour was good just to say there was a good black rock band!'"

The first words heard from Adebimpe on "The Wrong Way" are "Woke up in a magic nigger movie/ With the bright lights pointed at me." The song picks apart the stereotypical black image conveyed by mainstream media with such lines as "Oh loiterers united/ Indivisible by shame/ Hungry for those diamonds" and finishes off with sax blasts as Adebimpe pleads, "Hey, desperate youth!/ Oh, blood thirsty babes! Your guns are pointed the wrong way."

"I'm never going to advocate violence in my life," Adebimpe said. "But there are certain ideas about what makes a person valuable that need to be killed, or at least looked at a bit stronger."

"I'm not crazy about the macho attitudes in hip-hop and black culture in general, even though I know it's there as a reaction and a survival mechanism," Malone said. "I think that if people are going to be violent — which they are — and you're going to promote it in your art to people with no power, and you're going to sell them the idea that the enemy is the black person next to them, you're an evil motherfucker and you're stupid on top of that."

But Desperate Youth… is not all politics. "Wear You Out" closes the album on a sexy, psychedelic note as Adebimpe tries to simply get a girl off her feet. "See those boys tryin' to sweat you," he sings, "Watchin' grown men cry/ Like you're shakin' it." The song escalates from a bare-bones D'Angelo-style groove into a full on hippie-shaking whirlwind of flutes and tribal drums. "We thought there was room for a slow jam on the album — even though nobody else thinks so," the singer said with a laugh.

The track could be a precursor of what to expect next from TVOTR. "In some way we wanted it to be a cliffhanger to the next recording," said Malone, before cautiously adding, "We're going back into the studio in the fall and try to make the most psychedelic-yet-commercially-viable product we possibly can."

"We're going to keep making it different," said Adebimpe, attesting to his band's mercurial nature. "I'm anxious to start recording again because everyone is getting a better idea of what we're capable of — so it's time to make it infinitely weirder."

For more info about TVOTR including tour dates, check the group's Web site — Ryan Dombal [Monday, May 3, 2004]

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