TV on the Radio: From Cable to Network

In a rare interview, <strong>TV on the Radio</strong>'s Gerard Smith talks to <strong>Paul Mitchell</strong> about keeping a leash on their career and buying Beyoncé's wardrobe.

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 01 Jul 2009

It was a routine opening question, designed to get the conversation flowing to some degree. “So, how are the band coping now that you are a global phenomenon?”  Pretty standard, but only if you happen to be a global phenomenon.

Gerard Smith pauses for a second. “Things are going terribly, man. Every day seems to bring a new facial sore and we’re still getting used to the drug addictions.” Then he segues straight into “I've heard Madonna, or Beyoncé, I'm not sure which, has something like 72 costume changes on her new tour. Holy Fuck!” Is this something TV on the Radio are considering? “We’re just looking into the budget right now. You’ll find out at T in the Park.”

Bassist Smith, who joined TV on the Radio as they were recording their first full-length album Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, happily admits that he’s not used to dealing with the media – though evidence already suggests he should speak out more often. “I usually only do that once in a while. I've made that a point because as an instrumentalist I've tried to make that my focus. I usually take a back seat when it comes to a lot of things in the band.” He goes on to suggest that this is because he (and drummer Jaleel Bunton) joined when the band had already established its modus operandi under the leadership of Dave Sitek, Tunde Adebimpe and subsequently Kyp Malone.

“I think when Jaleel and myself joined we were interested in understanding the role that we'd just taken on, and that we weren't necessarily shaping the sound of the band or forming the ideas. These were ideas which had been long established, and they just got built upon.” Does this suggest a certain hierarchy in the band, one that might be oppressive at times? Smith is having none of it. “Whilst I have nothing to do with the lyrics, vocals and melodies, I’m a big fan of their content and narrative arc. But as a band, we’ve definitely evolved together nicely.

“Myself, I've been working a lot more on the technical end in terms of drum sampling and drum programming, stuff like that, while trying to become a better musician. But when we get together we really attack things in the studio and everyone hears each other out, it’s definitely not about ego battles.” Smith certainly sounds like he won’t be developing an ego anytime soon, and this group harmony is what led to the production and release of last year’s Dear Science – album of the year in many a publication, number three in this one – then long may it continue.


But back to the original ‘icebreaker’. Surely, being pushed quite rapidly into the ‘mainstream’ collective consciousness brings its own pressures? Smith is fairly circumspect. “The response to the new record has been great, we've been fortunate as a band in those terms. How we're structured as a band hasn't changed much since however. We've maybe added one extra crew person and a few extra pieces of equipment, that’s about it. But it's been so great, I feel it's really difficult to complain, so I won't.”

So well-grounded is the Brooklyn-based musician that he remains perfectly aware, that despite TVOTR’s continued upward trajectory, it could all come apart quite quickly without a sense of vigilance. “Aside from being in a band we're still also running a business so we have to treat it as such. We get involved in all aspects like dealing with the equipment, stage set-up, the parking of our van and things like that. Ok, it's not like a nine to five job but if you just left it all entirely up to fate and whoever you could be paying to do certain jobs you might just end up ruining your business and crushing yourselves. We've always tried to stay within arm's reach of every aspect of what is ultimately our job.”

Not that his sights aren’t set high; Smith cites the Rolling Stones as a prime example of what he’s talking about. “Those guys are like fucking Apple, they're billionaires. And they affiliated themselves with Budweiser and the likes, and those are motherfucking business people, you know? Their merchandising is amazing. The lips with the tongue out, that's genius. Look at Coldplay! I'm not making any statements about their music, but they’re doing the same and people are obviously concerned about what the new business model is for the music industry. It works for the hippies too. I mean, the Grateful Dead, how many of their T-Shirts have been sold? And all their old bootlegs are now available on iTunes. These are the new ways, and you need to keep on top of them. I think if anything it's arrogant and childish of an artist to imagine differently, to perhaps say 'Oh well, I don't have to worry about the business, all I gotta do is make art and it's fine'.”


Smith is perceptive enough to recognise that these issues are not limited to the realms of art and culture. “I don't know what's going to happen, but it's obvious that a lot of things are going to change in the world. At least in terms of how businesses are run and finances are dealt with. How that equates to the little guy, who has very little say, and smaller companies, who knows? In our industry it's getting more difficult to make money unless you're in the live realm and focus on your audience and get them wrapped up in what you're doing.”

It then seems pertinent to ask what exactly TV on the Radio are doing right now, and where their next record might be headed. Almost contradicting what he’s just said about the industry he responds with “No idea, there’s never a plan or anything.” Then, ending with the levity he began with, he offers Skinny readers an exclusive preview. “There'll probably be some drums on it, and some bass. I think there's also definitely going to be some guitar on the next album too.”

You read it here first.

TV on the Radio play King Tut's Wah Wah Tent at T in the Park on 12 Jul.