TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone is talking about "Dry Drunk Emperor," a track that indicts the Bush administration's damaging and senseless choices about where to direct its resources during its time in power -- the choices which, obviously, left us up a sludge-filled city without a paddle. The lyrics, laid over gospel-punk fuzz, directly reference the war in Iraq and bilious disgust for the president: "All eyes upon / dry drunk emperor / gold cross jock skull and bones / mocking smile / he's been standing naked for a while / get him gone, get him gone, get him gone / and bring all the thieves to trial." Although the song doesn't mention Katrina specifically, Malone says that the way the track was released -- Web-only, on the advice of their friend David Bowie -- and its release date in early September of last year was a response to the grievous screw-ups perpetrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"It's about the gross misappropriation and misuse of money and power. And the amount of money that's gone into the war effort versus what could have been done towards rebuilding the Ninth Ward and the Gulf Coast in general ... which is a necessary and smart and patriotic thing to do," Malone says. Political isn't necessarily the right word for TV on the Radio; they're more a conscientious band, or just a conscious band, funneling a more holistic awareness of the world around them through their music. The lyrics on their new album address personal setbacks, offenses and triumphs as much as they reference those happening in the outside world; it's an album in which disenchantment with love, as on the biting track "Playhouses," easily slides in with the greater, more impersonal betrayals perpetrated by government. They look at war -- and love -- as equal potential assaults on humanity, and approach the idea of protest with caution.
"People absolutely should protest with music, but it's not the only thing people should talk about with music; music would be super f***ing boring if they did," Malone says. "Fighting all the time doesn't give us any humanity. It's not a worthwhile life to live. And if you're going to speak the truth, do as good a job as you can on the art end. You can do a disservice to the cause you're trying to promote if you do a s***ty job."
Their debut, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (Touch and Go, 2004) was an utterly original shock to the system, blending desperately organic vocals from Malone and founding member Tunde Adebimpe with crackling feedback and thudding drum machines. Their sound is dense but strangely easy to sift through -- the mixing wizardry is such that its overall feel is that complete but lonely scraps of music are floating through space and occasionally being drawn into patterns by some kind of otherworldly magnetic force, one plaintively clean doo-wop vocal pattern here, one crashing, sparking comet of guitar fuzz there, and a Tibetan singing bowl to round it all out. They have a lot in common intellectually with space-jazz cosmonauts like Sun Ra's Arkestra, but their result is much more postmodern. It's practically deconstructionist.
The new album Return To Cookie Mountain, their first on major label Interscope Records, has more of a howling, dissonant wall-of-noise-thing happening on many of the tracks, in contrast to the cleaner mix on Desperate Youth. They've said in the press that the album is at least in part a reaction to events from the latter half of last year, which include the escalating mess in Iraq, Katrina and personal losses for the band; does that make the music scarier?
"Well, it's a rare thing that music is scary to me," Malone says. "I'm afraid of a lot of things. ... I'm afraid of the dark, even, but I'm not afraid of music. [Music] is the reflection of the thing, not the thing itself."
On a technical level, the record is full to bursting. The band has expanded, for one, from Malone, Adebimpe and David Sitek, who handles the production, to adding two more full-time members (multi-instrumentalists Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith) and a host of guests from bands in their Brooklyn neighborhood.
"It's more produced," says Malone. "There's more instrumentation, more space is filled. My visual memory of looking at a ProTools screen for tracks on Desperate Youth versus tracks on the new record and the difference in the amount of colored bars on the screen is amazing. Keeping the computer from crashing was an insane endeavor."
"There's a level of dissonance that has to be in something for me to trust it at all," he says. "Because the natural world as I see it isn't completely symmetrical. It's full of bumps and rifts. When something is too clean, it's false." 9 p.m. Thu., Sept 14
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- Roman Barrett
- TV on the Radio plays at Republic on Thursday.