We would like to share with you what TV on the Radio has to say about its upcoming new release, Return to Cookie Mountain, or what its thoughts are on winning the prestigious 2004 Shortlist Music Prize for the full-length debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. We'd also like to know what motivated the quintet -- singer/guitarist Kyp Malone, singer-songwriter Tunde Adebimpe, bassist Gerard Smith, drummer Jaleel Bunton and producer/guitarist/ honorary wigga David Sitek -- to leave their independent home, Touch & Go, for a major label. Or how they feel about opening for Nine Inch Nails (the tour hits Charlotte on June 10). We'd like to relay all that and more from one of the most exciting bands to emerge out of the fertile New York City rock scene, but we can't. Interscope Records, a division of Universal, the biggest record company in the world, didn't bother responding to weeks of requests for an interview or a Cookie advance.
For music writers, navigating the Escher-like mazes and publicity moats of major label artists hardly qualifies as news. But the Interscope/TVOTR case begs the question: What does the future hold for one of the few predominantly African-American rock bands now that it's signed to a major? TVOTR may have the seal of approval of perpetual taste-maker David Bowie (who appears on Cookie), but will the band languish in the same major-label marketing purgatory that helped sink the careers of other recent black rock acts like Joi and Living Colour? Will the group carve out a niche among rock's overwhelmingly white audience, like Lenny Kravitz or Ben Harper have? Or can the band bring its unique brand of rock to a diverse audience more representative of American culture?
"It's amazing how many people ask us if it feels weird to be black people playing rock music," Kyp Malone recently told Rolling Stone. "That's the most absurd cultural amnesia you could imagine."
The industry side of rock & roll has never really come to grips with the music's African-American heritage; for the most part it's been able to sweep the issue under the carpet, one black rocker at a time. Once Elvis Presley expropriated Little Richard's hip-shake, Chuck Berry's licks and Chubby Checker's vocal mannerisms, the nascent music's race-based marketing dilemma was in effect resolved. Back then, peddling black artists to black consumers simply wouldn't earn you money, and selling black musicians to white Americans simply wasn't done (nor did it pay, as jazz had shown). But selling white musicians making black music to white kids turned out to be the golden goose -- just rebellious enough to piss off parents without exciting their fears of miscegenation. Since then rock & roll has excluded from its fan base the very people who helped invent the music.
The history of African-American rock acts doesn't exactly breed confidence that change is coming. Despite his posthumous reputation as an idyllic symbol of 1960s brotherhood, Jimi Hendrix was initially marketed like a circus freak -- the "African Mau-Mau Guitar Man Straight From Darkest Africa With the Wildest Show On Earth," as one sarcastic critic put it. Love's Arthur Lee, Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, Shuggie Otis, Sly Stone, Mother's Finest and other African-American rockers fared even worse during the music's adolescence, often only gaining notoriety years later when name-checked or covered by white musicians.
TVOTR certainly has the songwriting chops and cross-cultural musical pedigrees to break down some of these barriers. Chicago's well-respected indie label Touch & Go signed the band without ever having seen them live, based solely on the considerable strength of its 2003 EP, Young Liars. The five songs featured shoegazing guitar squalls, ominous, prog-ish space-scapes, and beat box rhythms gleefully cross-pollinated with layers of doo-wop harmonies, avant-garde jazz accents, field recording tape manipulations, and swamp dirge blues. TVOTR telescoped a half-century of rock history into a new musical beast, like Marvin Gaye fronting My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead while covering Willie Dixon and the Mills Brothers. Adebimpe's a cappella version of the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves" was the EP's high point, a loving, multi-tracked doo-wop re-imagining that stripped the song down to its bluesy roots without losing its creepy, indie-rock overtones.
TVOTR's follow-up became a highly anticipated release throughout the indie world. Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was a denser expansion of Young Liars' sonics with more urgent tempos, and seemed even more beset by post-9/11 angst. Embedded in layers of shard-like guitar and tribal beats, Adebimpe's captivating voice bluntly confronted personal, political and racial issues. "Don't Love You" and "Dreams" are heart-rending, love-gone-to-shit laments, while "Bomb Yourself" is a funk-driven, razor-sharp critique of blind patriotism and Bush-era jingoism. On "The Wrong Way," Adebimpe takes to task "bling" culture for its mindless materialism and political apathy -- "Hey, desperate youth! Oh, bloodthirsty babes! Your guns are pointed the wrong way!" -- and ends the record with the erotically charged "Wear You Out," featuring massed choir choruses and an elegiac jazz outro.
Desperate Youth won accolades from all corners of the music universe, including heavy hitters like Bowie, Mos Def, Morrissey and Trent Reznor. Naturally, the majors began sniffing around, and shortly after winning the Shortlist last November, TVOTR joined fellow Brooklyn scenesters the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Interscope.
"[We] have emotional ties to the people and philosophy of Touch & Go, but [leaving is] what we need to do," Malone told the SF Weekly. "[Interscope] is definitely high-profile, a wider audience to be met, [and] Interscope has a vehicle to get into different worlds."
So how's that working out for TVOTR? It may have helped land them this slot on the NIN tour, but with tickets beginning around $50 that comes with a cost: For every new fan earned there'll be a poverty ridden record store clerk or indie kid left out. Oddly, four months after signing to Interscope, TVOTR is still not listed among the label's artist roster on the Universal Web site. And Return to Cookie Mountain, copies of which can be found all over the Internet, has had its release date delayed; originally scheduled to coincide with this TVOTR/NIN tour, it's now coming out in September. Hopefully, these are just glitches and not a harbinger of things to come. TVOTR deserves better.
TV On the Radio plays Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre Saturday, June 10, at 7pm, between headliner Nine Inch Nails and opener Bauhaus. Tickets range from $55 to $150, available at www.ticketmaster.com