Artistic restlessness is not a quality normally associated with rookie rock bands. It applies more to established groups who’ve outgrown their signature sound. TV on the Radio, a Brooklyn quintet whose second album, “Return to Cookie Mountain,” was already being touted by tastemakers as the year’s best long before it was released in Europe and Japan last month, is restless on principle.
Their shape-shifting songs defy categorization, even description. Vocalist Tunde Adebimpe melds upper-register gospel-soul singing with the band’s raucous guitar rock — on stage he thrashes about as if being attacked by a swarm of bees.
Fierce originality doesn’t guarantee a big audience, much less a sympathetic ear in the biz, but earlier this year TVOTR signed with major label Interscope, who will release the group’s recordings in the United States. Indie stalwarts have looked askance at the deal, and may have a point since “Cookie Monster” has yet to be released in the U.S.
But it’s unlikely Interscope will tamper with the music. You don’t sign a group like this thinking you can mold them for mass consumption. The masses, however, can be nudged. TVOTR opened for one of Interscope’s biggest rock bands, Nine Inch Nails, on the latter’s spring arena tour.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” shouted TVOTR’s drummer, Jaleel Bunton, into his cell phone from a restaurant in San Antonio, Texas, where the group was grabbing a bite before the next gig. “The Nine Inch Nails show is like Broadway. I wasn’t sure if their fans would be accepting, but it’s been encouraging. I mean, this is big — 20,000 people a night.”
According to Bunton, they were approached by several big labels.
“We thought we can work with Interscope since usually the biggest concern with a major label is that they’re always saying, ‘Hey, do this.’ Interscope is more like, ‘Well, you guys are already self-contained.’ They know what we’re about and they want us to be ourselves.”
Being themselves could be a nightmare for a label publicist. One truly has to hear TVOTR’s records or see them play live to grasp what they do. In fact, their records and their concerts are different animals, even if the songs are the same.
The band’s first full album, “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes,” was at the top of numerous critics’ best-of-2004 lists, but it’s the kind of record some people think puts up a fight just for the sake of being difficult. Veteran rock critic Robert Christgau dismissed it out of hand (“All told, pretty dull”). The mainstream press had no idea what to make of TVOTR and settled on the novelty of black men playing indie rock, having forgotten rock ‘n’ roll’s roots were in black music.
The one thing critics do agree on is that TVOTR is less a conventional rock band than a confluence of competing sensibilities. The complex rhythmic dynamism of Bunton’s drums and Gerard Smith’s bass creates tension when set against Abimpe’s vocals, which he has described as “painterly,” with influences as disparate as Nina Simone and funk-metal pioneer Mike Patton. Add to that lyrics, mostly written by guitarist Kyp Malone, that are politically confrontational, and a dense sonic texture created by producer David Sitek, and you have music that is visceral and thought-provoking.
“One reason I joined this band instead of sticking with my own was that I think Tunde is an amazing singer and songwriter,” said Bunton. “I wanted to write songs, but actually, I like his better.” He also adds, “but we’re a bit of a hive. We have lively political conversations.”
The group’s peculiar methodology is a function of its members’ free-form artistic ambitions. Adebimpe and Sitek dabbled in animation and painting and collaborated on tapes where they impersonated instruments with their voices. Sitek was interested in recording (he would go on to produce Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Massive Attack) and Adebimpe liked to sing, though neither had any musical training or experience.
“There was this bar in Brooklyn where we all hung out before we knew each other,” said Bunton. “They had open-mike nights, but it was different — total insanity. Sometimes they were really brilliant and sometimes they just sucked. It wasn’t about ‘You need to do this,’ it was just a place where you could play and people would listen.”
Adebimpe and Sitek made an EP, “Young Liars,” that caused a sensation, and started recruiting other Brooklyn musicians to add muscle to their ideas. Bunton, who moved from Kentucky to New York in the early ’90s, was in a band he called “a rock and electronica hybrid.”
“Cookie Mountain” goes even further sonically than “Desperate Youth.” Though the tracks sound more like conventional songs, the sound is denser, the feeling of spontaneity more pronounced. Sitek just added layers of ideas as the members came up with them. Consequently, the songs might be difficult to reproduce in concert. Bunton didn’t see a problem. “When I was younger I was into the whole psychedelic scene — Cream and Hendrix — and I would track down live recordings because they had the kind of improvisation I liked. Those people never tried to duplicate a song live, they’d always interpret it as they felt at that moment. We’ll never have the resources on stage that we have in the studio. It’s going to be different every time, and that’s OK.”
Since TVOTR is more interested in indulging inspiration than forging a distinctive sound, anything can qualify as a contribution, and there’s no mistaking that voice on “Province” off “Cookie Mountain.”
“The story goes, David Bowie’s doorman bought a painting from Dave, Dave gave him ‘Young Liars,’ and he passed it on to Bowie. Much later, we were at a gas station in Oklahoma, and this guy calls Dave’s cell and says [soft Brit accent], ‘This is David Bowie,’ and Dave said, ‘Don’t f**k with me.’ ‘No, no, it’s really David Bowie.’ ” Bunton laughed. “Of course, we had to ask him if he wanted to sing on our record.”