TV ON THE RADIO: OUR OWN PERSONAL APOCALYPSE
Stream: TV On The Radio “Dancing Choose” (Excerpt)
TV on the Radio is well on their way to rivaling Radiohead as far as critical acclaim goes. These guys should be given the task of writing a new national anthem—one with the same driving get-the-blood-up power of Cookie Mountain‘s hit single “Wolf Like Me,” but with lyrics like “This is beginning to feel like the long-winded blues of the never” from Dear Science‘s “DLZ.” Bassist and sample wrestler Gerard Smith speaks from Texas. This interview by Patrick Newsom.
Do you enjoy touring? Do you prefer the recording process? What’s your favorite aspect of being in this band?
Gerard Smith (bass/effects): Well, I’m a complete liar and I’m going to say to you that I got ruined by that movie 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. There’s a part where they discuss the point in his career when he decided to no longer perform live and that really kind of hit home for me. I was really impressed by someone who was so technically proficient being so adamant about not wanting to perform live because all the reasons he’d come up with for not wanting to perform live were all true for all types of live performance. You go to these places where you’re not familiar with the situation, you’re not on home turf and you have to overcome a number of obstacles. That’s always an issue and it’s about trying to decide how to translate these things live. I hardly ever listen to live recordings but I love recorded music because that’s an instance where you get to see people working creatively—an artist or a group—working creatively as one might approach a painting or writing a book. You have an isolated event where you get to cater and customize and shape things in an environment, hopefully in a healthy and safe environment, and really be able to express the ideas.
How did you come to be in TV on the Radio?
I owed them a favor. I’ve never been in a band before this. I never imagined I was going to be in a band. I studied mostly fine arts—drawing, painting—with a focus on art history. Renaissance to Modern—say mid-Renaissance through post-World War Modern painting and I just met those guys when I got a job in Brooklyn at a metal shop. They needed a drummer and a bass player to go out on the road with them for a month-and-a-half tour and I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.’ I just thought it would be a cute thing to say, ‘Oh, you know, I went on tour this one time.’ It was never really my intention… and this is another terrible thing for me to say, but I just never took it that seriously. I guess being in New York, especially around that time—the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were blowing up and the Liars and Interpol, the Rapture, you know, so many bands . . . and I’d never really studied music seriously, so I never imagined that this would be a position that I would be in.
Are you still working in visual art as well?
I swore off visual art. I had a difficult time, to say the least, toward the end of my fine arts career. I started to look around and see that I was one of the few—if not only—black fine arts students and I saw that again in the art world itself. I was really turned off one time when one of my teachers said I should apply to the Harlem Studio School. I kind of took offense to that. I had another teacher who was totally cool who was new to the school I was at at the time who said, ‘Hey, I’m going to try and put you up for this program in Berlin.’ And I was really impressed with that—really appreciative of that. But then when this other teacher said, ‘Oh, you should go to the Harlem Studio School,’ it was like, ‘Oh, because I’m black,’ you know? And that was a little disheartening. Just as disheartening as it is now when . . . you know, there was a time when a lot of people would be like, ‘Oh, you guys make white music.’ And they’re just presuming that this is a ‘black’ band and yes, a number of us are people of color, but my folks are from the Caribbean, Tunde’s parents are from Nigeria, Kyp’s parents are from here, Jaleel’s folks are from the states . . . for it to be summed up as that, it’s just a little odd.
Do you feel that perception is dying down as you guys become more popular?
I feel like now that the band has developed it’s allowed for there to be a little bit more of an interest in things other than ‘blackness.’ And it’s kind of funny timing given the election and all as well. But yeah, that’s become less and less an issue, and I think that, yeah, there have been enough feisty responses to those questions from the band members. This case has always been made, but I don’t think of Jimi Hendrix as ‘black’ music . . . or ‘white’ music . . . it’s just fucking music, you know?
A lot of reviews have been highlighting the political nature of some of the lyrics on this album. That’s always been there, but do you feel like there was an actual decision to make it a little more explicit?
No! I mean… oh God, no! Actually one of the most terrifying things for me before that first tour… well, Kyp had joined between Young Liars and Desperate Youth. He’d written ‘Wrong Way,’ and he’d written the lyrics for ‘Wrong Way,’ and he says ‘nigger’ in that song. I kind of cringed a little bit when I heard that because that was something that had been avoided and now it kind of brought that possibility out and that’s one thing that would inevitably alight the fascination with wanting to discuss race with this band. And that song overtly discusses and considers race. But for all that I cringed about that song, I’m still impressed with the way it was recorded—the song itself—and the sentiment of it. And that’s something I had to get over in myself because I guess when it comes down to it, my parents are from the West Indies so it’s a completely different race dynamic—AND I grew up in New York, you know? So I didn’t experience a lot of racial issues the way other guys in the band might have experienced. My parents are from the Caribbean and we would travel back down there and they have a different M.O. there than, say, for black Americans. Like if I was to bring up racial issues or race relations to my parents, they would be like, ‘C’mon,’ because they came from a place where they had black politicians and everything was black-owned and run. So—I guess from my folks—I kind of shied away from and didn’t want to give too much weight to the American dynamic of race. And I’m both fortunate and also a little bit handicapped by that because I’d be lying to you if I said that there were no race politics and everything could be fine and da-da this and da-da that. I know how—even to this day—I get treated sometimes when I walk into a hotel. So despite any reservations, that line and that sentiment and the whole song was an important thing. I’ll definitely say this: personally, I know that Kyp is definitely more vocal politically. It’s sort of obvious in the songs—the things he addresses. But in terms of it being MORE overtly political, I’d say that’s been apparent since Desperate Youth. Given my art history training, if I were to give it a breakdown, it’d be like, ‘Oh, you never hear this word until this point in this art.’ You don’t see Giacometti start to tear away the flesh off his characters until a certain point in his career. And Goya, for instance, after he loses his hearing you see how dark his images get.
Are there times when you look at your ever-increasing audience and find that there are elements you’d prefer not be there?
I’m going to make another art history reference. I guess Degas, who was supposedly… and I don’t know how true this is but supposedly he was an anti-Semite so take that as you will. But I guess what they would do—every year at the salon in France, the École des Beaux-Arts would have this yearly salon where the students or faculty would display and that would be the big thing in Paris at the time. Everyone would go and see these paintings. You have your landscape paintings, you have your portraiture, you have this, that and the other. So the Impressionists were having problems because they were too loose with their paint. They weren’t as academic as some of the other painters . . . say, Ingres. So I guess at one point what they were doing—much like SXSW or CMJ—they would have these other more independent shows on the side, and people would still show up to them and the Impressionists would get a hard time. And at some point it had come around to where they would go into the studios to see what these painters were working on and Degas had this whole thing where he was like, ‘I don’t know why I would invite the public into this situation.’ But that’s become a thing that has been utilized to this day, you know? People go into the studio and see how it is that people are working. You try to get a deeper understanding of the artist, you get an understanding of the working methods, so—how this relates to your question? We’ve been at this now—this month, it’s five years I’ve been in this band and I thought I was only going to be in for a month and a half, and a lot of things have gone on over this amount of time. Our audience has definitely increased and I guess it is strange to me. Like the other evening some young kid was like, ‘Hey, Gerard!’ I don’t usually do interviews. I usually try to stay off to the side because I don’t write the lyrics for the songs and I try to stay mostly peripheral because I don’t want to become this nuisance. So that’s always strange. That was a strange thing when some young kid who I’ve never met in my life says, ‘Hey, Gerard!’ That was strange to me. But we haven’t really necessarily increased the size of the venues that we play in in a long time, you know? And I feel—and I’m sure you’ll sympathize with me on this—that the music industry is changing, you know? There was an article in the Times just yesterday about CMJ and about all these bands that are playing and how they’re getting all this attention but they’re not going to get rich, you know? And it’s a different day and age for music. Although I’m part of it and it would benefit me to make more money from it, I almost wonder if this is probably the better way for it to be now given the influence of technology, given the obvious influence of the international economic downturn . . . yeah. But in terms of the audience, I’ve always liked playing smaller venues. Sometimes you get into bigger places and the sound’s not as good. These are spaces that weren’t necessarily designed to handle or to deal with rock music with blaring guitars and huge bass notes and thunderous drums. And I wonder about how that translates to the crowd and if anything, that’s the only thing I’m concerned about. But in terms of the crowd in itself—people are going to see what they want to see, or people will see things as they see it. One thing you have to get a hold of is, ‘Well, OK, you can only try so much and then what happens after it’s let out into the world…’ I hope that I’m not inspiring anything hateful or ignorant and that’s a thing I do like about this band—one thing I will always appreciate about Tunde and Kyp both is their sensitivity in the way that they translate their ideas. It’s not just about ‘I hate Bush,’ or ‘I like to fuck,’ or ‘Oh, oh, I’m having a hard time for being on a bunch of drugs and I love you and I need you,’ you know? There are definitely a lot more ideas going on and that’s definitely always been one thing that’s always kept me around and kept me interested in this band for sure. I understand where you’re coming at with the conversation about the audience thing though. I mean, I love Fiona Apple’s records. I love Sarah McLachlan’s records. Don’t tell anyone else in the band that. I listen to a lot of what, you know, I guess would be considered lite-rock or cheesy Lilith Faire sort of music.
Yeah, me too, man.
And you know, it’s funny how just like in high school, people have these ideas. I don’t really listen to Slipknot, you know, and I don’t own a Tool record. I’m not going to rule those people out and I’m not going to rule out what contribution they make in their respective realms, but in terms of the audience thing, yeah, once again you kind of just don’t have control over that. I guess it’s a classic thing with what Fugazi had gone through and with Ian MacKaye not wanting people to dance? That’s one way of thinking about it. And I guess maybe Consolidated was kind of like that too, right? Consolidated wasn’t into people dancing at their shows or something like that? And Tom Petty having people at his shows with Confederate flags? Artists don’t have control over that. I went to go see Tom Petty. Yeah, it was a little bit creepy but I love him. ‘Refugee’ was a huge song for me as a kid. I was totally blown away by that, and the video for it? So fucking crazy. That’s just another thing you can’t really have much control over. Like you don’t know what people are going to read into your lyrics, you don’t know whether people are going to like what you’re doing or not. There’s definitely been an increase in the audience and in the variety of people that are in the audience. That’s something else that I saw when we were on tour with Nine Inch Nails. When I saw the cross section of culture that Trent Reznor gets to touch? Like, I love that guy and Pretty Hate Machine? Constantly in my tape player when I was a kid, and yes, I said ‘tape player.’ He’s a huge influence for a lot of people and to see how he had this huge cross-section of people, if anything, that says to me that, like a few other things, it’s this meeting place for people. Music is this meeting spot where you can have a complete jock and a stripper dancing side by side singing lyrics. Or someone who’s in the military. Or some kid whose entire outfit came from a Hot Topic and a local head shop. So I think that’s the best way to sum it up. Some people listen to things I would never imagine. I had this good friend in Brooklyn who was a Mormon and a meteorologist and he would see me playing in the subway. I used to play in the subway. And this kid listened to so much music it terrified me. More music than I will probably ever listen to in my entire life. He turned me on to a bunch of stuff and he was always going to shows, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a Mormon who is a meteorologist and works for NBC and he went to a cookout at Al Roker’s house. Who am I to judge?’
You were discussing the current worldwide economic struggles. Can you tell a difference on the road in people’s moods now from how they were in the past?
Well, I’ve been asking. They say that ticket sales have slowed down. We’ve had a decent turn out and I don’t imagine that it will be so severe on us because we’ve had a very slow and gradual incremental increase in our ticket prices and it’s been to our benefit… and our detriment as well. I guess we could try to ask for a couple extra bucks, but I don’t know. I’m just wondering. I think it’s still yet to be seen. I still have no full grasp on the situation. If things still are at a point where no one knows where this is all going, then I feel like there are still some things to occur and still some changes that are going to happen.
Do you guys have any idea where you’re going from here in your music? There seems to be a general consensus with every album you release that it’s the best album you’ve made. Does that put some pressure on you guys?
Well, you have so many other things to think about. I have a new son in my life. I’ve been trying to work on some other projects and just getting over the hurdles. We’d taken a good bit of time off there—we hadn’t been touring. And I guess it was a much-deserved amount of time but you get off the road and you have to start putting the pieces back together and it’s hard to say, ‘Oh, we have this thing in mind.’ I don’t doubt Kyp and Tunde’s abilities as songwriters at this point. I’m always impressed. I’m impressed with the way they tackle things on this record. They were really really so professional when they came into the studio this time. I could see that, and I was really happy to see that, you know? It was so encouraging to me, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ They had a real rapport with the engineers instead of just saying, ‘Oh, I kind of want it like this,’ or ‘Maybe we should bring somebody in and get an idea from them.’ They had such a better command given the experience and the time and the development. I’m always waiting for the other foot to drop. I never imagined that this would last, and that’s why I never believed in the concept of being in a rock band. But as far as the future, I mean, you never know. As is the same thing with the economic situation, as is the same thing with the political landscape, as is the same thing right down to the dynamic of where we live. One weird and funny thing to me is the constant discussion about this band and apocalyptic feelings and ideas and sentiments. And I don’t know that it’s necessarily apocalyptic. I feel like it’s just a realism. We’re all individually headed for our own personal apocalypse, you know? For people to present it and state it in that way kind of gives weight—just the way everything stands still over the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays—it kind of gives weight to these Christian ideas, and I’m not saying anything against Christian ideas, but it just seems limiting to only use that idea. To use that concept as a way of conveying what I imagine to be not necessarily pessimism, but just realism. So in terms of the future, we’re going to continue touring for this record and we’ll see what happens for the next one. But it’s not like anyone’s going be like, ‘Hey, oh, uh, this has got to happen now like this right here and now.’ I don’t know—it’s weird. I’m thirty-four now—most of us are entering our mid-thirties now, so it’s different than if we’d been younger for sure.
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