It must be a magical time for TV on the Radio drummer Jaleel Bunton. The band’s new album Dear Science, is one of the most critically acclaimed releases this year and marks a distinct musical shift for the band. The songs pulsate with pop hooks and grand political and social themes and add a newfound warmth to the band’s arthouse tendencies.
But you might not initially recognize it. During a recent phone interview, the band was in the middle of a three-day tour stop in Brooklyn, where all five of the band members live. You’d think a few days at home would be comforting for a group that has shows booked well into next year.
“It’s been, like, ‘Hey, man, remember me? Can you put me on the guest list?’” Bunton says. “Or, like, ‘Man, we worked at so-and-so together and you know my cousin’s brother’s husband. Can you get me on the guest list?’ That’s been, like, 90 percent of the experience, which it’s great to have a lot of friends, but it kind of was annoying, too.”
TV on the Radio formed in 2001 and quickly earned critical praise for its 2003 debut EP, Young Liars. By the time the band released its second album, Return to Cookie Mountain, in 2006, TV on the Radio had broken out of the indie-rock underground and transformed itself into a funkier, American version of Radiohead. The five-piece band—Bunton, vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, guitarist/keyboardist David Sitek, vocalist/guitarist Kyp Malone, and bassist Gerard Smith—makes space-age progressive rock with the scattershot rhythms of post-punk and touches of electronica. It’s strikingly precise and often achingly personal.
“There are a lot of different emotions that are involved,” Bunton says. “I think the biggest one is really gratitude. I’m really lucky to be in this position where I’m getting to play music that I really like, and I don’t have that for a lot of areas in my life.
“The other thing is just translating these songs live. It’s a real challenge for a lot of reasons. Because of the way the band works, we’re kind of a studio band. And this album was really made in the studio. We’re not the kind of band that gets together and just jams. It’s more like there’s a giant sonic check board, and we all go in at different times and add input into the songs and we eventually come out with this end product that we’ve kind of all made. Translating that to a live setting is a different challenge. It’s another process and that process happens on the road so we’re constantly working on it all the time.”
While musically Dear Science, might be lighter than the band’s earlier releases, lyrically it reflects the 21st century’s darkest problems, like war and environmental concerns. It’s that dichotomy that drives the live show as well.
“Most recently we’ve been really working on how to move the set emotionally, and it goes in phases,” he says. “There are some patches of the set that are a little more brooding, a little more melancholy, more down-tempo. And, quite the contrary, there are those passages that are really dynamic and hopefully really exciting. It’s been nice to have the tools to do that. It just makes a show that I would really enjoy. I enjoy both extremes in music, and I definitely enjoy or experience and sometimes regret that same dynamic in my life as far as emotional experience. So when you go to a show, we try to make it a microcosm of that. So hopefully you feel both those things at the right times.”
As for the band’s roots, the band still calls New York home, even though they spend the better part of the year on the road. “Part of the allure of this band is similar to the appeal of New York, so, yeah, I guess we’re still a New York band. I don’t feel international, man,” he quips. “The character of this band stems from New York, and that is something I’m really proud of. That why I moved here: to have the kind of experience I’m having with this band, with these people.”