This week, TV on the Radio drop their remarkable new album Return To Cookie Mountain. You should buy it, especially - ESPECIALLY! - if you've been "sampling" it before the official release. It's that good. We showcased TVOTR guitarist/songwriter Kyp Malone in FADER 37 as part of our "Artists At Work" feature (along with Akon, Eightball, and Mira Bilotte), taking some time to find out just what makes the man behind the beard tick. Read the full article after the jump.
The intimate protests and fuzzbox faith of Kyp Malone
By Nick Barat
Before it was the Trash Bar, 256 Grand Street in Williamsburg was a gay spot called the Toybox, and before that it was a tiny club called Luxx. For a few summers in a row, Luxx gave a real home to rising Brooklyn bands—from electroclash combos of questionable merit, to then-new screamers Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and particularly to a group of neighborhood dudes who were calling themselves TV On The Radio. Following their 2003 residency on Grand Street, the band launched themselves towards much, much bigger things in worlds indie and otherwise, but on a Sunday night this past February, their guitarist Kyp Malone came back by himself to play some songs of his own.
The room was still loud, the alcohol was still cheap (“PBR and well drink open bar, 9-10 every night! After midnight, $5 Jack-and-backs!”), but the crowd was not “rocking out”—just sitting cross-legged on the floor and laying over each other on couches to the side of the room while Malone picked hazy, feedback-buoyed guitar lines out of his Epiphone goldtop.
The playing was loose but extremely confident, the work of someone who can wail ferociously but just chooses not to. He sang in a voice you might have only known from the high harmonies on TV On The Radio songs, but that tenor was now whispering and gargling and croaking around lines like When your lover/ Oh, and your mother/ Gifted you or blew your father/ With dick in mouth, these sacred beings/ They were cocksuckers/ And with their cocksucking/ Brought peace of mind. “I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re in school, or in church when they’re at a show,” Malone would later say. Yet that Sunday, the audience was on the floor, folding their hands and looking up, hanging on every word and every note in rapt attention while the Trash Bar’s stage lights illuminated Malone’s massive hair and full-face beard from behind like a stained-glass aureole.
“I like playing shows,” Malone says, while brewing tea in the kitchen of his Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment. “Any time I’m not touring a lot, I feel like it’s better for me to play as much as possible. I value my time more than I have in my past. I feel like if you’re in New York, you have to be working.” The soft-spoken, quietly gregarious songwriter moved to Brooklyn about five years ago, right before his daughter was born, after a long stint in San Francisco. There, among other things, he booked and promoted DIY shows, starred in art films and started up avant-y bands with names like Rocket Science And The Nigger Loving Faggots. When his first Brooklyn band, Fall In Love, opened for an early incarnation of TV On The Radio, the group’s founders Tunde Adebimpe and David Sitek immediately invited Malone to come aboard full-time as another guitarist and collaborator.
Even with the “new New York” rock revival still in its heaviest throes, TVOTR’s music stood out as unique from their rest of the scene. Malone’s stretched falsetto and Adebimpe’s Peter Gabriel-esque vocal delivery were as distinctive as the band’s chopped-up songwriting and production techniques. The two of them were really singing, in a voice-as-instrument way that’s more than just a reference to the handful of songs recorded accapella. The songs on the Young Liars EP and the album Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes captured city living in all of its promise and near-constant tension, all strange love and “storefront cemeteries” wrapped inside stuttering MPC heartbeats and honking distortion. As an unexpected by-product, the band found themselves the subject of rapturous press attention, praise and awards in a phenomenally short amount of time. “It’s a really small world of people who are picking these awards,” Malone says. “I know first hand about how any kind of recognition can be helpful, but it feels like so much in this world and this culture is just some shit somebody made up. If you introduce me to someone who’s a Nobel Prize winner, that has an impact because there’s a history behind it from before I was even born—but the Nobel Prize is still just something that some dude made up for feeling weird about making weapons.”
At the kitchen table, we talked as much about pollution in Greenpoint as we did recording techniques. It was no surprise, since his songs evince a genuine, heartfelt concern for the world at large, and a desire to change it. Malone is continuing the bloodline of American protest singers, but his songs are not proclamations or chestbeaters—even the anti-Bush “Dry Drunk Emperor” is a particularly understated rallying cry, where a sense of empathy with everyone else who’s hurt and confused comes through stronger than any impeach the prez vitriol. “I’m a very tiny, tiny, tiny little thing in this universe,” he says. “But I have more of a forum now and more of a voice than I’ve ever had in my life, and more of a voice than most people do. It’s not that I know what to do to save the world—but you can do good. I think about like, Vice magazine and shit like that, where anything short of total cynicism is ‘not cool,’ giving a fuck is ‘not cool.’ That’s a total waste of time and wildly irresponsible.”
But it’s easy enough to sing from your heart and out of your ass at the same time. Good intentions have made for lots of terrible music. Rather than soapboxing, Malone sings about “giving a fuck” the same way he sings about love and confusion. His music blurs the personal and the political until you can’t pin down which is which. “Today I Was A Desperate Bitch” is a slow and jangly, Pavement-on-’ludes pop song Malone has burned on CD-Rs with a handful of other demos to sell at solo shows; over steady amplifier hiss and clipped strums, he sings Green is the color of my true love’s eyes/ A Jackson would do but a Benjamin just might make me cry tears. He later breaks down about “being naked and blue before you” and yelps “Pimps down, and hooooooooes up!” It’s never clear whether or not Malone is the “desperate bitch” in question, or if the prostitution metaphor is about being turned out by a relationship, art versus commerce, America’s obsessions with sex and wealth, or maybe all those things at once. After the last verse, Malone whistles until the song is over.
On the brand new TV On The Radio album, Return To Cookie Mountain (a reference to all that’s “fantastic and absurd” in the world, Malone cryptically offers), there are no thin guitar parts and lone whistles; instead, songs like the galloping “Wolf Like Me” make you imagine “I Will Follow”-era U2 in a blast furnace. The melodies are bigger, the drums hit harder and there are more multi-tracked coatings of melodic grit than anything the band has recorded to date. Cookie Mountain is an expansive—and accessible—album, and that leap was entirely intentional; early in the recording process, the band realized they wanted to leave their indie label Touch And Go and release the new LP on a major. “For over a year, we had been trying to figure out the best way to continue doing what we’re doing, and trying to switch labels—there was a lot that came along with that, a lot of frustration and dumb situations,” Malone says. “There was a nostalgia for the time when we were all working on music and not having it be that connected to the world of commerce, and not having to worry about anything to do with money—you didn’t have any, you weren’t going to make any, you were doing music because you had to do it.”
That DIY worldview is exactly why Malone was so psyched at the Trash Bar solo show, and why he’s on his cell setting up as many more as he can before the new tour starts, and why he continues to record new demos of songs just for himself. Cookie Mountain shows off perhaps Malone’s most distinct contributions to the band thus far—along with the muscular guitar work, he sings lead on the raw and pounding “Let The Devil In”, and plays counterpoint to fuzz and saxophone with all manner of trills and vocal tics on “Blues From Down Here”—but he still has to concede to the rest of the group. “The process of songwriting for TV On The Radio really just comes out like, This is the song, this is how it is, play these parts—it’s collaborative but ends up being put through all these different filters,” Malone says. “When I heard the roughs of the Young Liars EP”—recorded by Sitek and Adebimpe before Malone joined the group—“I already thought it was the best music I’ve heard from any of my contemporaries, so that set a precedent at the start of this musical relationship, and how I see myself in the band.”
Of course, he insists that he’s more than fine with that creative dynamic in which he’s equal, if not not standing at the center of the stage. But after watching him play solo and listening over and over to the demo jams, diving into lyrics and talking politics in Greenpoint kitchens, it becomes obvious that Kyp Malone writes music to work problems out for himself on his own terms, a process as literal as it is musical. You can hear parts of that inside TV On The Radio songs, but it translates full force in the solo songs, where Malone’s inimitable voice warps lines about burning crosses and “cock crushing hearts” over pedal-looped guitar parts. “I’m excited to work on a proper solo album when the time comes, so I don’t have to…drag everyone into this,” he grins. “It’s like playing two different instruments. If I’m singing backup on something in TV On The Radio, it’s generally because it’s one of Tunde’s songs, and I’m trying to do my best not to fuck it up, to enhance it instead of detract from it. When I’m doing my own songs, I can be as idiosyncratic as I want to be. But I still don’t want to fuck it up.”