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TV on the Radio

Written by Michael Carr on January 19, 2009

“I don’t know what neo-soul is? TV on the Radio’s Gerard Smith (bass/keyboards/sampling) tells me in regards to how the media often describe the band’s music. Did soul die? Was there an end to soul, like a synthetic soul and an organic soul?”

“I don’t understand those terms. Like IDM, some kids just told me about it, but ‘Intelligent Dance Music’, I mean, I think the Bee Gees are pretty smart. But really it’s fucking music man that’s all it is.”

We’re browsing the aisles of a dingy second hand record store hidden away in the bowels of Brooklyn. The man behind the counter knows Gerard by name, and there is a big poster announcing the release of Dear Science on the wall, despite the fact that there isn’t one copy of the CD in the store.

“I still like to buy CDs,” he tells me, “ I just got given my first iPod, but to me CDs and vinyl are so much more real and personal than just downloading. I think what should happen now is that people should be encouraged to make packaging in vinyl then offer a free digital download with that.”
“Also I feel like fuckin iTunes has got to step it up and make sure that all the artwork is sorted out properly. Like if you could have the option to flip over the cover and actually see what the liner notes look like, you know missing all the artwork is such a shame.”

He picks out a few Talking Heads CDs, as well as a copy of The Fragile on vinyl. I ask him about the tour TVOTR did with Nine Inch Nails and Bahaus and a childish light comes into his eyes.

“I fuckin had breakfast with Peter Murphy,” he squeals with glee, “and I think Trent Reznor is beautiful, just as beautiful as I had imagined as a kid. But that was a strange tour for us because it was our first big tour, and it was a bit intimidating just being on tour, let alone with Trent and Peter.”

“A couple of great things happened, like we got to do this radio thing where we had to play Bela Lugosi’s Dead with Peter Murphy and Trent Reznor, and Trent was singing, which was crazy; just to see him snap into gear was amazing.”

“I mean, I don’t know how to read music and all that, and he was just like ‘do this, do that!’ and just got me in order and I was like, ‘I can’t fuck this up, this is Trent Reznor,’ you know. That’s definitely my like rock n roll story to tell the gran kids.”

Despite the fact that the band are recognised as one of the biggest and best in the world at the moment, Gerard still comes off more like a fan than an artist. There is no diva, no ego, and apparently none of the sex and drugs that usually goes hand in hand with being a musician.
“We’re fuckin boring, we’re in our mid thirties, nothing exciting goes on with us at all,” he says with a laugh, “real rock & roll.”

We leave the store, Gerard waving to Samson behind the counter, and head over to a café down the road.

Having received more critical acclaim than Charlie Sheen has paternity suits, I ask him about what he thinks makes the band so popular amongst the music press and fans alike despite being unilaterally described as ‘eccentric’.

“Stepping outside of the band, I know that I’ve always appreciated what they’ve all done. What Dave and Tumbe did together, and then with the addition of Kyp (Malone, guitarist) in there, I thought that was just totally crazy, I mean what a crazy addition.”

“Everyone has their own interests, like I’m more pop and classically focussed and Jaleel definitely more soul and r n b oriented, you know he’s a huge fan of Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Prince, and Dave I know is hugely influenced by like Eno and My Bloody Valentine. I myself, along with Tunde, am always listening to They Might Be Giants and by myself I love Tindersticks.”

“I don’t know, obviously the combination of all of that had something to do with why our sound might be described as eccentric, I mean the seed where the band sprang from shows an interest in variety and development. If you look at OK Calculator and Young Liars, those are very texturally different records and then to move on to Cookie Mountain… like I don’t know, we’re all just throwing into the pot and this is what we’ve come up with.”

The waitress, Becky, arrives at our table greeting Gerard with a kiss on the cheek and an apology for keeping us waiting. She takes our order – his flat white making my double shot cappuccino look quite rock star indeed – and comes back to chat, asking Gerard about how his son is.

With his son just over a year old, Gerard seems to be slowly sliding into the role of fatherhood. I ask him if it’s changed things for him.

“It’s definitely changed things, I’m definitely more scared of what I’m saying to you right now and how that might reflect on him in the future and what his mom might think of me. So I think I’ve tried to be more conscientious with things, and that I’ve been trying to develop a conscientiousness.”

We finish our coffees and he leads me back to the subway station. We emerge from the maze like streets and alleys suddenly and Gerard points out the station, turning to leave.

I ask him what we can expect from their upcoming shows, shouting after him as he walks away. “Just the usual cacophonous mess really,” he says over his shoulder, laughing as he adds “nothing too eccentric.”

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