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A Quietus Interview

The New Scientists: TV On The Radio Interviewed
Alex Denney , September 24th, 2008 15:03

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Frequently lauded as one of the best bands of their generation, TV On The Radio have sometimes come across as too coldly cerebral a concoction on record. That their dispassionate brand of sonic alchemy – an assiduous mix of post-punk, soul and free jazz influences - comes wrought at painstaking expense is part of the Williamsburg, New York outfit’s great appeal, of course, but there lingers the impression that for all their mastery of texture the band are occasionally guilty of overburdening their records with a borderline arbitrary collection of whirrs, scrapes and atonal walls of sound.

Dear Science is an attempt to correct that problem; a lightening of the sonic load that jettisons the muddied tans and ochres of 2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain in favour of a technicolour template which frees the band up to explore some of their most funky and direct songwriting to date. It’s also a record that wears its heart on its sleeve more prominently than before, broadening the band’s emotional range to embrace the cautiously optimistic as well as the browbeaten, the rapt and the splenetic in one fell swoop.

Central to all this is the vocal contribution of Tunde Adebimpe, whose glazy tones are lent greater prominence in selling the newfound spaces between the suddenly ambiguous sounds of impending apocalypse, and he responds in assured fashion. The Quietus parties like it’s 1999 with the frontman in a hotel in Shepherd’s Bush, which might as well be the end of the world for all the time it takes us to get there on the tube.

Was there a weight of expectation going into this record with Return To Cookie Mountain figuring prominently in so many end of year polls?

Not really, every time we decide to start another record the only conscious thing we go into it with is that nothing we did before matters. That way we can wipe the slate clean before we go in.

But was it a factor maybe in the sense that you were instinctively reaching for a contrasting approach?

It probably factors in that way a little bit. I think this record is sonically a lot clearer than the others, which I think was just a matter of, ‘Well we tried it that way before so let’s go the other way . . .'

Is it difficult for you guys avoiding temptation to keep adding tracks to songs? Dear Science feels less suffocating than the last record.

Totally. I think this time there was this thing of knowing that we’d finally got to the right point and then leaving it alone; we didn’t need like this solid boot of sound coming out of the speakers, ha ha.

How do you feel about Return To Cookie Mountain listening back now?

I think it was a really accurate representation of where we there at the time. I like it but I don’t really listen to it that much… Reinterpreting those songs live you realise there’s a billion things you wish you’d done in the studio but you just didn’t know how. I like this one better though…

Musically it’s a bit less oppressive in terms of tone…

Yeah musically at least. I mean we went into it, and this might be an effect of being on tour for so long, but you know something that make a tour fun for us is to be able to lose yourselves in the performance and it’s always better when you’re in a room full of people obliging you in the same way, it’s a real pain in the ass sometimes to be playing to a room full of people who have their arms crossed and are staring at you and you start to wonder what you’re even doing there. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t enjoying themselves either, that’s the other thing you realise, and I think we just wanted to make a record that…

People could lose their shit to?

Well yeah definitely, and between those brackets you can fill in whatever you want, it doesn’t have to be just one way, it’s not like it had to be always up or always down.

Is it difficult having so many band members contributing material in terms of combining interests and finishing up with a coherent end product?

It’s weird because lyrics are primarily divided between Kyp and myself and we never really ask each other what our songs are about, it’s more the fact that we tend to spend so much time around each other, we usually end up on the same page, but it’s cool because if one of us comes up with something that’s kind of super far-out lyrically then the other usually comes up with something to balance that out.

Lyrically as an outfit you’ve never been ones to shy away from the weighty topics of the day and there seem to be some angry songs on this record, but at the same time they’re quite opaque – is that a difficult balance to strike?

Well you want to talk about things that are bothering you and in writing about them you just hope that you’re not presenting yourself as someone who has the answers to any of these things.

Just thinking about Radiohead when OK Computer came out it felt like a lot of people were hanging on their every word for answers, and that’s something they’ve had a tough time living down since then…

Well that’s a strange thing too because I’m sure they weren’t writing something that claimed to have all these answers, I mean OK Computer to me sounds like a record that is… screaming with questions, haha, but you know I always thought the function of music is to make you feel not so alone in the world with these sometimes rightly terrifying thoughts. But I guess it’s a weird thing… if someone made a bunch of terrified and confused paintings I would definitely not go to that person for help, even if I did feel somewhat comforted by their paintings, it’s like, okay this is how they’re processing their problems but they’re not gonna care about my issues…

‘Family Tree’ seems quite a personal song from a lyrical perspective, and dark too, especially the line “in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree / there’s a hundred hearts or three / pumping blood to the roots of evil” Is this song about a desire to transcend your own history in some sense?

Well sure, I mean that song specifically is in the direction of love, wherever somebody experiences something like a racist or homophobic parent saying 'I will cut you out of my life if you decide to be this way', which is obviously a very damaging thing. But it doesn’t even have to be a generational thing, it’s just this idea of someone thinking they have jurisdiction over someone’s heart which seems such a bizarre thing to me, you know? To me that song’s about things I’ve seen happen to people I know where someone from the older generation – maybe they’re protecting that person but actually they’re kind of fucking over someone of the younger generation in the name of fear.

Sins of the father and all that?

Pretty much… and all that, haha! And the Mother and the Holy Ghost.

The record’s also quite upbeat in parts which is strange given you’ve been tagged as this dystopian outfit in the past. Was that a conscious break or no?

Yeah I think of it in terms of something a friend said to me, he described something as a one-scream fall turning into a four-scream fall. You know where you’re pushed off a cliff and after your first scream you’ve got time to think and who knows, maybe by your third scream you’re laughing.

…so the four-scream’s preferable then? Because you get to enjoy the fall?

Yeah definitely, because it’s confused. Whatever comes out, it’s going to be more like ‘aaaauuuhh?’ than ‘aaaaaaarrgh’. It’s like, as bad as things are I have to acknowledge that it’s my decision to make the best or worst of those things…

At the risk of sounding trite is there any political inspiration for that optimism?

I think if we were gonna write something reflecting the political situation at the moment I’m not sure how optimistic it would be. I mean it wouldn’t necessarily be depressing but I feel it would be a very, uh, interesting piece of music. I mean talking specifically about Barak Obama winning the elections, I think that would make good on a lot of the boasts that the country has made since its inception in one way, but at the end of the day it’s just another politician getting elected into office and who knows what they’re going to do.

So you’d feel quite guardedly optimistic about an Obama win? I mean there’s been a lot of talk about whether his policies are really that radical…

Right, and they’re probably not because how can someone get elected if they were that radical?

So you never felt like vocalising your support for any politician in particular?

Oh that’s not true at all, I mean I hope he wins. That’s as much to do with me being the child of immigrants to that country and at certain points… I’ve been led to believe I could never achieve that sort of office because I was not in the majority of that country… and then very shortly afterward realising I didn’t have the math scores to achieve that sort of office, haha.

So they were right?

Yeah, they were right for a whole host of different reasons.

Was that something instilled at school?

Well it was kind of like, you know just look around you. There were no role models and that gets very subtly reinforced by people like teachers either consciously or subconscious. You’re taught all this history about how our country is founded on change and being able to cure a sociological ailment for the greater good, but at a certain point you’re also taught how a lot of these people who were fighting for freedom did not mean for everybody, only for a certain set of people. I mean a grade school teacher can only do so much, but a grade school teacher letting you know that actually you can change all of this, that’s something that tends to get omitted.

Read our track by track review of Dear Science here.