New Year's Eve might be the equivalent of the Superbowl for working DJs; it's a daunting responsibility to provide the perfect party soundtrack as 2010 segues to 2011 (let alone the pressure of sensing what to spin leading up to midnight and beyond). WFUV's Rita Houston caught up with Dave Sitek of Maximum Balloon and TV on the Radio and they discussed, among sundry things, the art of the DJ. Dave, who did a club DJ tour as in lieu of touring behind his Maximum Balloon debut, chatted about the making of the album, the immediate future of TV on the Radio, and played us some of his personal earworms.
The interview below is edited from a WFUV broadcast which you can listen to here.
Rita Houston: You’ve got a nice radio voice!
Dave Sitek: I’m trying to get your speakers pregnant.
Rita: So we can add guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, producer ….
Dave: Landscaper, griller ….
Rita: and a man who is trying to get our speakers pregnant on your resumé. Fantastic new record. This is as much a solo record for you as it is a side project? It seems that this is a bit of a pleasure journey for you, is it?
Dave: It is, but solo might not be the right word for it because there is 13-18 heavily involved people on it. Almost as much as me. But I think in general, I made the record for fun. The traditional trajectory is: I’m going to start a band, and then you design a t-shirt, and then you find a practice space and then eventually you write a song (laughs) to catch up with the t-shirts. But I never even designed the t-shirt; for me it was just making songs with my friends and I knew I wouldn’t have to go on tour with it and they wouldn’t have to go on tour with it so it just became about the song. I think a lot of times in the traditional architecture, it’s about all of the other things. But there are no other things, except my scratch ‘n’ sniff sticker collection that I might be selling.
Rita: That is an interesting distinction, though. There’s no pressure of having to tour this stuff. You can just play it and get it right.
Dave: And just have fun. I mean, I have fun, in varying degrees, doing my day job and I definitely have fun with my band, but there’s all these things that come [with them] that are just not musical. That’s not to say that they’re not fun or interesting, but they’re just not musical and I think this was a concentration on “what does it sound like” which is ultimately what I’m getting into (laughs).
Rita: You definitely have the power, the originality, the experimentation that we’ve come to expect from TV on the Radio records which much more of a dance thrust behind it. Is it like pulling the curtain back and going, “Dave Sitek’s a dance head!”
Dave: Well, I’ve always been a dance head. And I think that the arena for TV on the Radio, it’s a very human and giant dynamic and we’re trying to accurately represent what it’s like for these times, which isn’t always a dance party. But I’ve always made TV on the Radio music; when I started it with Tunde [Adebimbe], it was made on dance music equipment so most of what you hear on TV on the Radio that most people think is a drum set is a drum machine (laughs). Most of what [fans] think is a guitar is a synthesizer. So there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve been doing in the past, I just never really cut loose at 130 beats per minute. I think it would sound kind of corny if we were singing about global warming over 130 bpm! (laughs) I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but we just haven’t cracked that code yet.
Rita: Why did you decide to call it Maximum Balloon? I’m getting the sense that there’s a deep sense of humor that runs through your stuff and of course the puns abound when you call your record Maximum Balloon.
Dave: Yeah, and to me, I’m more than a producer, I’m a terrible band namer (laughs). So I was just trying to figure out the one that was the most bizarre. Magnetic Landslide was in there for a second. Inward Scissorhands (laughs). All of these terrible band names and I thought, “this isn’t going to work.” But Maximum Balloon - there was absolutely no imagery associated with it, you couldn’t even picture what the hell that was and I think that was kind of what I was going for because I don’t know what in the hell I’m doing.
Rita: I love how on your website your fans are part of a “high flyers” club.
Dave: Yeah, yeah. There’s some innuendo in there wrapped in mystery, rolled in papers (laughs).
Rita: You must have some phonebook - you’ve got everybody’s digits.
Dave: I’ve got a pretty funny Rolodex. I’m still missing some key names.
Rita: The vocalists who turn up on the record run the gamut from David Byrne to Karen O. Tell me about the track that opens up the record, “Groove Me.”
Dave: That was recorded with Theophilus London who is extremely talented, spontaneous and highly energetic. We always joke around because he’s a young person and I’m not really around young people a lot (laughs). He just showed me how to use Twitter. Everyone’s regretting that. We were working on songs for his record and then I’d been working on [the music for “Groove Me”] and he said, “I want to get on that!” And I said, “This is for my record.” And he said, “I don’t care!” So he just threw it down and the song came to life from there.
Rita: But it sounds a little like you pushed him outside his normal thing? Because he’s normally a rapper and there’s some soulful singing there.
Dave: Yeah, he’s killing it. Wait until you hear his record; he’s singing all over it. I don’t think he was really approaching it like, “Oh, I’m gonna sing on a record.” But when I was playing him some other song he was working on and I was showing him the lyrics and he was singing along with it, I was like, “Why don’t you just sing?” And he said he’d never really sung before and his label thought he was a rapper, I thought he was a rapper and he thought he was a rapper. And I know that he knows he can sing. As far as I could tell, he’d never really put out anything where he was singing. So I was like, well, anything I do is either wrong or inappropriate or something, so why mess around when you can f*** around? So we just messed around with this other track and that came out so well that I was really confident that he could sing on this one. That song gets your speakers pregnant. Now they’re going to have two babies. Octomoms.
Rita: There’s a track on this Maximum Balloon record, about halfway through, “Tiger,” that I think your sense of humor comes out.
Dave: I just want you to know that I sing “meow, meow, meow” with the most serious voice you’ve ever heard. It’s a real serious track to me.
Rita: I just picture dancing in a club and then suddently vibing into what the song’s about. Who wrote that song?
Dave: Aku and I. I was in the studio waiting for another band to send me some stuff over the internet and it was just taking forever for them to upload it. And I don’t do well with spare time. I’m either drinking goat’s blood or making music and there was no goat’s blood around and I was like, I just gotta make something. My longtime friend and engineer Chris Coady, I was in New York for a couple of days and we were in his studio and I was just used to making stuff so he was like, “might as well plug the drum machines in.” So then I made a drumbeat, then I made a bassline, then I put a guitar part on it because I’m severely impatient I just started writing lyrics and I wrote the first verse. Right as I was writing that, Aku [Orraca-Teteh] from Dragons of Zynth called me and said, “hey, I heard you were in town.” And I said, “yeah, I’m screwing up some vocals, come in here and fix them.” So he came in there, sang them and I knew there was no reason for me to it. We started writing and he wrote the chorus and I’ve always wanted to put animal noises in a song and since I’m a jackass, I thought a donkey sound would be most appropriate. But “meow, meow, meow” fit better with “Tiger.”
Rita: How does dance music work in your life? Are you out there clubbing in Williamsburg or Greenpoint?
Dave: Never. I’ve never, ever been a nightlife person. Anytime anyone has ever seen me out they just assume that my mixer broke and someone’s fixing it and I’m out drinking until they stop. But I’ve never been a nightlife person, though I’ve always been influenced by dance music. I absolutely love it and I listen to it all of the time. For the most part I work 18 hours a day and I love what I do so when I start, I just keep rolling and then by the end of it, it really has nothing to do with anything than making the speakers come to life for six or seven minutes and then just letting it go. Dance music’s origins are so much older than rock ‘n’ roll and I think rock ‘n’ roll is derived from dance music which is derived from Afrobeat and it just goes on and on. I think the lineage of dance music is hypnotic, it’s working with your heartbeat, it’s working with your body and I think it’s the ability to really lose yourself and not get caught up in the intellectual side of things. I mean, you can - there’s music made for counting. But in its origin, music is vibration. Our bodies are vibrating, the speakers are vibrating; it’s this symbiotic relationship.
Rita: You can still possess and connect to it without even getting out into the clubs. I feel the same way because I wouldn’t even necessarily know where to go.
Dave: Just eat a pound of mushrooms and find yourself there, in some dance tent with fluorescent paint on your face, saying, “How did I get here? I don’t know, but I need to get to an ATM!”
Rita: But you’ve got to be soaking up the scene somehow?
Dave: Oh, I definitely do. I’m friends with a lot of DJs and I feel that DJs are the equivalent to jazz musicians in a way because they have a deep, intrinsic knowledge of their material, they’re willing to hear something once and throw it into the mix somehow and it’s this ongoing relationship between the beats per minute and the crowd and you’re reacting to the crowd, reacting to this knowledge of the material that you have. So when you hang around with DJs you look at music in a much freer way. I think a band is much more habit-oriented. To me, DJs are musicians in their own right. I spin with this guy DJ Earl, The Granwizerd, who was on Morgan State University doing their hip hop show and I just learned as much from him as I would a great drummer because his perception of how music works, how it works with the crowd and how people react to it. When held up against its alternative which is to play “Jumping Jack Flash” in your 70s again and again and again, regardless of the experiences you’ve accumulated, there’s a feeling that you have to be faithful to that material in its original form. I think in DJing, you can play something that was made 20 minutes earlier, and that’s kind of fascinating. Then you add Ableton and Serato into it. Music is about to make another giant leap based on technology and I think that more than just being able to download, the ability to take millions of pieces of music and process them live and change that process as you go will inevitably change how we can hear music.
Rita: It’s going to be like folk music again; the music will just get into people’s hands and they’re going to do it.
Dave: Yeah! You used to have to save up all of this money for turntables and mixers but if you own a laptop which you use in your everyday life anyway, you can download software and the next thing you know you’re taking all of these pieces of audio and accumulating them. When I DJ - I’m kind of a terrible DJ in a weird way because I don’t really care if it’s something that anyone knows or if it even works. Sometimes I’ll take New Age records and slow them down and run them through tremelos. But I’m perfectly aware that the most qualified people to do this are 16 years old (laughs). It’s like I’m the old guy just figuring out stuff way later. Like I just figured out the VCR, “Look! There it goes!”
Rita: And what is going on with TV on the Radio?
Dave: We’re just being lazy. Everyone’s got their own stuff going on, everyone’s doing varying degrees of things and just trying to live our lives. Especially from start [in 2000] to our break, Tunde and I have being going on for years. Tunde is wildly talented and does so many things that a lot of things had to be put on hold for him for ten years. Kyp [Malone], everyone in the band is just so talented at other things. We had to put everything off because we were going from album to tour to album to tour. Two of us have kids so it’s time to step up and actually be there and not miss the good stuff.
Rita: So maybe a year’s break?
Dave: Whenever we’re inspired to write the next Volkswagon commercial, we’ll do that. The funny part is that the best musician in our band is our drummer, [Jaleel Bunton]. He plays guitar a thousand times better than me and a thousand times better than Kyp. Kyp actually said to me one time that he considered tuning your guitar cheating (laughs). Gerard [Smith], our bass player, is actually the other most talented person in our band. So they have to suppress all of their genius to deal with me, Kyp and Tunde. It’s a very strange dynamic and a lot of different things. But because our relationship to each other is the only important thing, it works out and what happens on a record is because of that dynamic between us.
Rita: You brought your laptop today - what songs do you like?
Dave: One track I’d love to play is “Vitamin C” by the band Can. I know it wasn’t written with nutrition in mind, but I think it’s hilarious that it’s so dopey that he’s singing about “Vitamin C.” This is an older track of Can’s and it’s on Life Style.
Dave: There’s a song that Randy Newman wrote called “Baltimore.” It’s a phenomenal song and more than being phenomenally performed, it’s super accurate. And when he wrote the song - I’m from Baltimore - everyone in Baltimore was up in arms about it because it was too honest. Before they turned the harbor into the ESPN zone, Baltimore was a hard-ass place to live. He wrote this song and all of these DJs got p***ed off and protested. So they boycotted it. Then Nina Simone covered it and her version is just bananas. I think her version of it is so well done that it takes you a minute to realize what the song’s about and once you do, it’s heavy.
Dave: There’s probably 150 versions of this song out there, but this one in particular, if you’re driving, you’d better put on some diapers because you’re going to [wet] your pants when the chorus comes in! It’s just totally nuts. It’s on a compilation called Superlungs, Volume 2. It’s “Stay With Me Baby” and it’s from a singer named Terry Reid.
Dave: I love "Deus" from The Sugarcubes for a multitude of reasons. I was about 14 or 15 when that record came out and I was landscaping. I got the cassette and I put it on; you’re out there with a mower, making grass look like a ballroom floor in the suburbs. I kind of always felt like the guy from The Sugarcubes - the guy who interrupts and yells [Einer Örn]- he’s like the hard-assed version of Fred Schneider from the B-52s (laughs). But it’s his most mellow performance, I think. Maybe he was like, “I won’t do it to these guys this time.” The drum sound is just so corny, but it’s a really well-done song. I remember listening to that song over and over again. And back in those days, because I’m old as s**t, you had to rewind. So I’m rewinding and rewinding, just because I wanted to hear that song over and over again. I’ve been to Iceland many times. TV on the Radio played the Airwaves Festival which happens in downtown Rekjavic and I remember the drive from the airport to there and the drive back and remember thinking that there was a lot more that we weren’t seeing. Before we went, I’d asked Angus from The Liars about Iceland and I this was his description and it’s spot on: (assumes Australian accent) “Plane lands. Door opens. You look around. Moon!” I remember as soon as the plane landed, I got out, looked around and it looks like the moon. It’s crazy. After we left I decided I’d come back and explore a little bit so I rented a car and drove inappropriately far. I drove up to the north fjords and all the way around the entire island, because I do photography, and I got to places where people just don’t exist. There’s no trees, there’s nothing. There’s black sand beaches; it’s really far out. I found out later that where I was driving was illegal or you’re supposed to tell the State Department that you’re going there because there’s no rescue anything. And I’m driving up glaciers like a nitwit. But I took some remarkable photography up there. This is what I do to relax: I go to the coldest place, in the dead of winter, and take photographs. I’d made myself some mixtapes to listen to while I was driving around and suddenly Sigur Rós made complete sense.