Shortly after TV on the Radio finished a show in Cincinnati, an audience member came up to singer Tunde Adebimpe to give him accolades, and then offered one of the worst comparisons ever. "He said, 'I don't know what it is, but you remind me of Living Colour,'" Adebimpe recalls. "It was like, 'Gee, I wonder why?'"
Adebimpe and guitarist Kyp Malone, who are black, surmised the comparison was based on skin color since TV on the Radio sound nothing like the band with the neon wetsuit-bedecked frontman. "It's really hard not to dismiss someone like that [audience member] altogether," Adebimpe says.
Not that any comparison to TVOTR is easy to make. Though the trio (multi-instrumentalist/producer David Andrew Sitek is also in the lineup) is part of the ballyhooed New York scene, it's neither a Television/Velvet Underground revival, a garage-rock homage nor an appendage of electroclash.
"I feel that we're lumped in there with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars," says Adebimpe. This isn't surprising, since Aaron Hemphill of Liars and Nick Zinner and Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played on TVOTR's "Young Liars" EP, Sitek produced the YYY's "Machine" EP and Adebimpe directed the YYY's video for "Pin."
"I feel like we're part of that [scene] in that we're friends. ... It's always been a weird thing for me. Geographically we're totally part of it. But we're really different. We don't have shag haircuts."
TVOTR released "Young Liars" this summer on Touch & Go. A 24-track full length came first, but was a small-run self-release that bears little sonic resemblance to the band's current sound. The EP is four songs of heavily layered electronics, keyboards, samples, loops, drum machines and the occasional searing guitar. But the showcase is Adebimpe's manipulated, effects-laden and multitracked vocals.
"Weirdo, glossy, semi-future rock," is the best taut description Adebimpe can give. "I'm horrible at describing our music. It's like vocally-based electronic rock," he adds. "People think you're pretentious if you say you just play music."
Soulful and with more than a hint of gospel, Adebimpe's voice also recalls Peter Gabriel, most notably on the EP's somber "Blind." "I think it's funny," he says of the comparison. "I hear it now when I listen," he says, but adds there's really nothing he can do to shake it. "I can't talk like Yoda. It's the most natural register that I can sing."
It's TV on the Radio's refreshing sound and inability to be easily pegged that has contributed to them becoming the next promising act to burst out of the hipster 'hood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, once a haven for artists, now full of poseurs. "I went through a time where I got really sick of the hipsters. When I first got there, you knew who most of the people were. Most were working artists, not people doing their thesis on café-sitting."
"Young Liars" may be densely layered and meticulously produced, but it also offers spontaneity in its bonus track, an a cappella, barbershop doo-wop harmonized version of the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves." During a recording break the stand-up bass player plucked the bass line to the classic indie song. "On a whim we recorded it. It was simply something to do."
It's that sort of free-spiritedness that encapsulates everything that TV on the Radio want to do with their music and has doubtlessly informed the sessions for "Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes," their recently wrapped full-length, due in March 2004 on Touch & Go.
"I still don't consider myself a musician," says Adebimpe, a filmmaker who specializes in animation. "I think it's important to sit down with some equipment and figure out how it works for you. I'm a big advocate of that sentiment. If you don't have training, it's always worth trying."
Which explains their early shows, hit-or-miss events of highly improvised music that encouraged crowd participation by passing out percussive instruments. For their first cross-country tour, they've added bassist Gerard Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton and ditched most of the improvisation. Still, the results of their shows can be varied, at least in the band's opinion. Much to their surprise, some crappy shows receive enthusiastic responses, which blows away Adebimpe. "If there's one person clapping, I'm amazed and happy," he says.