Pittsburgh-rooted TV on the Radio returns as one of rock's most acclaimed and innovative acts

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The story of TV on the Radio begins in a crowded loft in the bohemian center of Williamsburg, N.Y. But before and after that, there were two critical coffeehouse encounters, one of which was at the late Oakland Beehive.

That's where Tunde Adebimpe first met Kyp Malone in the early '90s. Although nothing came out of it initially, it laid the groundwork for the two former Pittsburghers to become the co-frontmen for TV on the Radio, a band widely considered to be at the forefront of whatever innovation rock has left.

TV on the Radio: Kyp Malone, left, Gerard Smith, Jaleel Bunton, Dave Sitek and Tunde Adebimpe.
Click photo for larger image.

TV on the Radio

With: Dios.
Where: Mr. Small's, Millvale.
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: $22; 1-866-468-3401.
Listen In:

Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio talks with the PG's Scott Mervis:

On downloading music

On youth pop culture

Hear excerpts from songs by TV on the Radio:

"I Was a Lover," from "Return to Cookie Mountain"

"Wolf Like Me," from "Return to Cookie Mountain"

"Staring at the Sun," from "Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes"

"Dreams," from "Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes"

At a time when people say everything has been done, TV on the Radio has come along with something no one can easily label -- an aggressive mix that blends the vocals of two would-be soulmen with tape loops, drones, tribal percussion and churning indie-rock guitars.

Throughout the band's rise to the top of the critical heap, it seems as though TV on the Radio has been everywhere but here. It did one show in Pittsburgh, for about 50 people, mostly friends and relatives, at the Quiet Storm in 2003. Now, it finally returns more triumphantly for a show Friday night at Mr. Small's.

"We were still getting it together as a band," Adebimpe says of the last performance here. "We were still trying to figure out what we could do."

As it turns out, they could do quite a lot.

From Hampton to Brooklyn

Tunde ("Ton-day") Adebimpe, 32, was born in Nigeria, and grew up in Hampton, his mother a pharmacist and his late father a noted psychiatrist and classical pianist. He spent several of his childhood years in Nigeria, doing his best to keep track of American pop, such as Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Clearly some other influences seeped in.

From 1989-93, he attended Shady Side Academy, "not really doing well," he says, "in anything except art ... and maybe English."

While at Shady Side, he and his friend Nick formed a high school band called the Apocalyptic Polyester Horsemen, thinking "it would kick us up a notch from only being known as the people who just read comics."

While Adebimpe has only praise for the band's back line musicianship, he says, "We were not good, not good at all. Nick and I got it in our minds that we were rappers, which was far from the truth, and we managed to prove that to everyone with show after show."

Upon graduation, he followed the Warhol path to New York City, where he got into film school at New York University. He specialized in stop-action animation and began working on such projects as MTV's "Celebrity Death Match." Among his episodes were Michael Jackson vs. Madonna and Beastie Boys vs. Backstreet Boys, so, he has said, "There's a lot of carnage in my past." Adebimpe also played the lead in an acclaimed indie film called "Jump Tomorrow" in 2001.

Around that time, he and friend Martin Perna, who plays in the heady Afro-pop band Antibalas, moved to a Brooklyn loft, scene of a "rotating cast of characters."

One of them was David Andrew Sitek, a talented painter, guitarist and producer who knew his way around a four-track recorder. They began working together with a musical approach akin to "piecemeal collaging," Adebimpe says. "You put in the things that excite you and take out all the things that don't excite you."

In 2001, Adebimpe and Sitek conjured "OK Calculator," a sort of sketchbook of 18 lo-fi electronic recordings with a title that played on Radiohead's "OK Computer." How surprised was he when they distributed it around the neighborhood for free and started generating a buzz?

"Totally," he says laughing. "Any time I'm involved in making something, I get so wrapped up in it that finishing it is a matter of wanting to do something else. Then you send it out to the world and it comes back to you in a million really unpredictable and great ways. We were kind of shocked, like 'Hey, someone likes it.' "

The buzz got bigger with the Touch and Go EP "Young Liars," which featured friends from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as guests and showcased Adebimpe as a voice to be reckoned with, one that the tastemakers at Pitchfork referred to as a "sterling, gospel-blues croon."

Tunde Adebimpe in the 2001 film "Jump Tomorrow."
Click photo for larger image.TV on the Radio on the cover of SPIN magazine.
Click photo for larger image.

Shortly after, Adebimpe ran into Malone (he of the unforgettable afro) at a coffee shop in Brooklyn and just stared at him, thinking, "Didn't I meet you in Pittsburgh forever ago?" Malone, who grew up in Moon, had worked at the Beehive and was now serving lattes in the Verb Cafe, while acting and leading the Black Magic Orchestra.

Sitek and Adebimpe were playing shows at a local bar with Sitek's brother Jason helping on drums and other instruments. When Jason left, they thought of continuing on as a duo until David said, "I think the perfect third person would be Kyp."

Malone added another guitar, another soulful croon and a fine set of songwriting skills. An early high-profile booking was a two-night stand in Chicago opening for British punks The Fall, the first night of which Adebimpe says was a "total train wreck."

In 2004, TV on the Radio took it to the next level with its full-length debut, "Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes." The record turned up on Top 10 lists and won the Shortlist Music Prize over the likes of Wilco, the Killers and Franz Ferdinand.

Few reviews went past without comparing Adebimpe to Peter Gabriel.

"You know, it's better than being compared to Phil Collins," he says, laughing (Adebimpe says almost everything with a laugh). "I didn't really ever think about it until people started bringing that up. I'm not against him at all. I mean, Genesis was better when he was there. It's not a conscious thing. We just have the same kind of larynx."

The 'Cookie Mountain' boys

When a band reaps the kind of acclaim TV on the Radio got for "Desperate Youth," it often sets the stage for the disappointment to follow.

But there's no sophomore slump in this tale.

Rather, in the summer of 2005, TVOTR began work on "Return to Cookie Mountain," an Interscope debut that landed in September 2006 and proceeded to blow away its past work. "Cookie Mountain," the first record to feature a full-fledged rhythm section (drummer Jaleel Bunton and bassist Gerard Smith), is a breathtaking sonic trip layered with a push-and-pull of guitar fuzz, looped effects, humming synths, horns and explosive percussion, all topped by Adebimpe's howl and the competing falsetto of Malone.

"The whole thing with 'Cookie Mountain,' " he says, "is that we had been touring as a five-piece band for about a year and a half, which is the worst thing to do, but also the best thing to do. It's the best thing to do for your musical confidence and finding out what your musical vocabulary is. But it's really bad for your actual mind and your sense of reality."

Once the members recovered from that touring burnout, he says, there was a turning point where they were really excited to see what they could do in the studio as a full band. Count David Bowie in on the excitement. After calling TV on the Radio one of his favorite bands, he called TV on the Radio.

"We were at a gas station," Adebimpe says, "and Dave [Sitek] got the phone call and hung up the phone, 'cause he thought it was our friend Julian pulling another joke: 'Yeah, you're David Bowie, right.' He called him back two more times and, said 'No, I'm really David Bowie.' "

He was interested in collaborating, and when they got back to New York, Bowie followed through, blending his voice to the song "Province." "He listened to the record half-finished and chose that song," Adebimpe says. "It's not like he landed on the roof of the building and it was 'And now David Bowie.' He was just part of the whole thing."

Not even Bowie, though, steals the spotlight from Adebimpe, a compelling and mercurial narrator who begins the record wailing, "I was a lover/before this war," and goes on to illuminate the personal and political. TVOTR had released an MP3 called "Dry Drunk Emperor" the year before that called out Bush on Katrina, but "Cookie Mountain" veers to the abstract.

"Anything that makes it into the song," he says, "is a result of being in the world and using yourself as a filter for what's helping you and what's hurting you, and you can put all these things in a line together, knowing they all existed. Like, knowing your heartbreak over a relationship existed at the time of probably the worst political corruption in the United States. Things all coexist.

"As far as message songs," he adds, "I don't know a single person our age who is qualified, really. If someone has the answer to solve world problems, they should probably not be in the music industry. They should be doing something way more important."

"Cookie Mountain," a challenging listen even for indie-rock diehards, isn't the kind of record that burns up the charts. It made it to No. 41 and the most accessible song, the throbbing rocker "Wolf Like Me," hit No. 37 on the Modern Rock Charts. But the critics went crazy again. Spin named it Album of the Year and it was No. 2 on Pitchfork and the Village Voice critics poll.

Is TV on the Radio satisfied with being a perennial indie darling? Or would TV on the Radio actually like to be on the radio?

"We totally want to make music that everyone can listen to," Adebimpe says. "It's not simple as making music that sounds like everyone would listen to it. That's why so many things are totally hitting a wall. I find that when someone is not pandering to me, I get there faster. I think we want to be big enough to have jobs and be able to go to the dentist every once in a while."

The other thing is that Adebimpe, ever modest despite being on the cover of Spin and touring the world, still doesn't see himself as a rock star.

"It's kind of the last thing I should be doing," he says, laughing again. "I'm not the kind of person who likes to get up in front of crowds very much. I feel like I should be a person who should be doing animation, where you're essentially sequestered for the rest of your life and most of the evidence of your presence in the world is people receiving it through weird characters or something. I feel like the band started off as a really good chance to make something you like with your friend and now that it's turned into something that people are into. That's just icing -- like nine stories of icing on a super flat cake."

Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.


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