Province (TV on the Radio, with David Bowie).

In 2003, Dave Sitek, a painter and musician from Brooklyn, made a score—he sold a painting to David Bowie’s doorman, who also promised to pass on Sitek’s band’s CD to his employer. His boss was impressed (their dark doo-wop version of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” may have sold him).* Two years later, Bowie was singing on a TV on the Radio track. So some advice to the ambitious young: cultivate good relations with doormen.

Sitek formed TV on the Radio with friend and fellow illustrator Tunde Adebimpe (it began as a joke, the two of them doing karaoke one night, drunk on Red Bull and vodka, Adebimpe improvising lyrics over Sitek’s beatboxing); they were eventually joined by Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton and the late Gerard Smith. TVotR seemed programmed to be a band Bowie loved: most members were also visual artists and actors; they played multiple instruments and were devoted genre-minglers (Malone joined the band to “marry early ’90s noise with Usher”); they were part of a “local” NYC scene, the turn-of-the-century Williamsburg that also spawned the Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (whose 2003 breakthrough Fever to Tell Sitek produced).

TVotR also stood in contrast to Bowie’s other current favorite, Arcade Fire: cool and brooding (“calmer than cream,” as Adebimpe sang on “Young Liars”), where AF were boiling and frantic; offering millennial New York boho sophistication compared to the AF’s shambling Canadian glee club feel (the latter came off as “Salvation Army volunteers who had forgotten to go home after Christmas,” the critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote after seeing Arcade Fire in 2007).

Enjoying their EP Young Liars, Bowie took on a mentoring role for the band, asking questions about their songwriting, boosting them on his website, listening to early mixes of their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. Some of this was Bowie in his usual role as well-heeled fan. Some of it was him making up for lost time—he’d been so consumed with his own work in the past that he’d lost opportunities to develop younger acts (case in point, Devo, whose 1978 debut he’d eagerly wanted to produce but, as he was filming a movie and going off on a six-month tour, he had to turn the console over to Eno).

So when TVotR was recording Return to Cookie Mountain in summer 2005, the semi-retired Bowie offered to work on the album. “I told him, ‘If you want to come into the studio and be the boss of things, you totally can,’” Sitek told Tiny Mix Tapes in 2008. “I gave him the demos of the songs, and “Province” just really resonated with him in terms of being a relevant song to our times and what the world needed to hear. He just wanted to do it. He just showed up my studio and did it. He’s a spectacular person.” As per usual, Bowie impressed with his charm and humility. “It’s not like he landed on the roof of the building and it was ‘And now, David Bowie’,” Adebimpe recalled, while Malone added that “I never expected to be in a situation where I’m at a mixing board asking David Bowie to enunciate a consonant.”


Bowie centering on “Province” wasn’t a surprise, as the track’s lyrics (“try to breathe while the world disintegrates”), tempo and trudging, cycling chord progression suggested some Heathen tracks: Sitek’s guitar even had a few tonal similarities to Gerry Leonard’s work. Cookie Mountain was meant to be a loose collective response to mid-2000s America, a work conceived in rage but delivered in abstraction (barring a few blunt tracks, like their ode to George W. Bush, “Dry Drunk Emperor”).

The trick was how to fit Bowie into an already-dense vocal arrangement. TVotR’s first EP had the multi-tracked Adebimpe supplemented by singers Katrina Ford and Shannon Funchess, and when Malone joined for the first album, the band’s vocal tracks became meshes of two colliding lead singers (see the a capella “Ambulance”), with occasional spices from other vocalists like Ford. On “Province,” Bowie starts the first verse as the high end of the harmony (his typical guest-star role) but he’s soon overtaken by Malone in his highest register. So Bowie spends the rest of the track fighting to stay heard, sometimes echoing Adebimpe, capturing the occasional phrase, sliding in low for the refrains—it’s one of his more democratic moments.

TV on the Radio keeps on today, though the Williamsburg of their youth is gone. Sitek had to close his Stay Gold studio in 2009 after his landlord tripled the rent; today it’s the site of Brooklyn’s first J. Crew.

Recorded ca. June-August 2005, November 2005, Stay Gold Studio, Williamsburg, NYC. Released on 6 July 2006 on Return to Cookie Mountain. (In 2009, TVotR cut a version of “Heroes” for the charity CD War Child).

* Adebimpe told the NME: “We were at a gas station and Dave (Sitek) got the phone call and hung up the phone, ‘cause he thought it was our friend Julian pulling another joke: ‘Yeah, you’re David Bowie, right.’ [DB] called him back two more times and said ‘No, I’m really David Bowie.”

Top: Han Soete, “General Strike in Belgium,” 7 October 2005; Bowie backstage at Madison Sq. Garden with TVotR and Karen O., 18 October 2005. (Brooklyn Vegan).

Book news: Rebel Rebel is now available as an e-book for a variety of readers, including Kindle & Nook. Please see the book page for links.

25 Responses to Province

  1. Vinnie says:

    Growing up in small-town America, TVotR (and, Interpol), represented all of the cool things New York was supposed to be and that I dreamed about. TVotR collaborating with David Bowie? Too much to bear. I loved it.

  2. billter says:

    I always feel like I ought to like TV on the Radio. Bowie likes them. Some smart people that I know like them. But they don’t do anything for me. I could hardly wait for this song to be over.

  3. audiophd says:

    I’m kind of with billter on TVOTR. A band that I admire more than I actually enjoy listening to.

  4. Magnus says:

    Here’s a band that’s done the reverse of what “cool” bands are supposed to do: They’ve gotten better as they’ve courted more mainstream sounds. “Return To Cookie Mountain” was a terrific beast of an album. But “Dear Science” has bigger hooks and stronger songs.

    If you’re not sure where to start, the latter is a good choice.

  5. I remember asking about when we’d get to “Province” almost a year ago when we were still reading about “hours…” (or maybe it was Earthling)! It’s rather incredible (and scary) how fast time flies.

    I love TVOTR, I actually discovered them through a mutual online friend’s recommendation on a video game forum around the time Return to Cookie Mountain came out. It’s a great album, but I did not know that Bowie sang on “Province” for years! I love their “Young Liars” EP as well, and think it’s pretty much one of the few perfect EPs of the 2000’s. I’m glad Bowie was able to work with some worthy “young” collaborators this time around, and wish he had a spot on the song “Tonight” in particular, since I feel it would have put him farther from his comfort zone.

    Side note: Liars are a fantastic band as well, and I highly recommend their albums “They Were Wrong, So We Drowned”, “Sisterworld”, and “WIXIW”. I wonder what Bowie’s presence would have done to their sound!

    • s.t. says:

      Yes, Liars are great. One of the few newish bands to bring back the No Wave attitude, although they’ve evolved into something closer to Radiohead’s surly brother (also a good thing).

      • BenJ says:

        I love a lot of the songs I’ve heard from Liars’ self-titled album. Wonder if they can still afford Brooklyn? (God the last sentence of this post is depressing.)

  6. s.t. says:

    I didn’t warm immediately to TV on the Radio, but I chalk that up to the pessimism I had built up ever since the Strokes ushered in a wave of Next New Things who all turned out to be just so-so.

    TV on the Radio, though, is so, so good. For once, the hype was on the money. Cookie Mountain is this wonderfully strange, murky brand of arena rock, like a mix of Gabriel III, In the Flat Field, A.R. Kane’s “i,” Loveless, Dub Housing, and Purple Rain. If the music industry hadn’t already started its decline, and labels felt free to take more risks, I think the band could have taken the world by storm. As it is, they have two great albums and two outright classics (plus one that I’ll let slide due to recent tragic circumstances).

    “Province” gets me every time I hear it. It’s more straightforward in its structure and sentiment than most of Cookie Mountain, but it’s the album’s beating heart. It manages that magical balance of dramatic emotion and poignant restraint. And the warmth and gravity of Bowie’s vocals just take the song to the realm of the sublime. A much better fit than “Without You I’m Nothing.”

    Also, as good as the studio version of Wolf Like Me is, it’s a poor pony to the beast that is summoned in concert.

    • BenJ says:

      TV on the Radio have always sounded to me like they were in mourning. That’s a compliment, honest! And also something aside from the Bowie connection that ties them to Arcade Fire, who of course called their first album “Funeral”. TVOTR wouldn’t signify like that, but on one of the best songs on Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes they purr “All your dreams are over, now,” with the word “over” carrying a world’s worth of weight.

      A commenter on SongMeanings theorized that this song’s chorus is inspired by Gandhi’s statement that, “A coward cannot show love, it is the prerogative of the brave.” I wouldn’t be too surprised, and I can see how it’s the one Bowie gravitated to.

      “A Method” seems to gain something from being played live as well.

  7. Anonymous says:

    What happened to you, NY? You were cool… TVontheRadio, their music is worst than their name. Bowie, fire that doorman!

  8. Man, Bowie has a bad history of people not believing it’s him on the phone, eh?

  9. MC says:

    I have a distinct memory of when I first heard this, in the summer of 2006. I was at my sister’s place, and, being a music journalist, she was playing a review copy of Return To Cookie Mountain. The first chords of Province wafted by, and suddenly, mid-conversation, I realized I was listening to Bowie. This was before the idea had set in that he had retired, but enough time had elapsed since Reality and the tour and everything that DB’s presence on an album was beginning to seem like a novelty. Naturally, the Bowie cameo made me went to check out TVOTR further, and I was glad I did. Good as Cookie Mountain is, though, their peak for me is definitely 2008’s Dear Science.

    It’s funny, lots of people can’t stand Arcade Fire, but they’re still part of the conversation, where the NYC bands who made a splash in the noughties -even those that have soldiered on – are at the stage where their new releases are greeted with general apathy. TVOTR”s last 2 albums are comparatively underwhelming, but they certainly don’t deserve to be ignored. It’s not as if there are hordes of great bands out there right now who are replacing them. I know I’m showing my age, but I really think this decade we’re in now (Is it ok to say the Teens?) may be the worst yet in terms of exciting new developments in pop or rock music or whatever you want to call it. Not that there isn’t good new music out there, but there’s no cohesion, no interesting “scenes”, very little to get excited about. Against that backdrop, it’s sad that so many of the interesting or potentially interesting artists of the last decade have basically petered out.

    • StevenE says:

      there are loads of scenes, some so exciting. ie around PC Music in London, which is picking up traction in the States too. Very deliberately constructed as a scene, with some of the strangest/best gigs of my life – I’ll post some links in a sec.

      • StevenE says:

        a beauty imo :

        see also GFOTY, hannah diamond, serious thugs, sophie, kero kero bonito (who momus seems to have taken under his wing a bit). whole thing’s really taking off, in terms of the press they’re getting, madonna using soph on a track, bjork’s been at some of the gigs in London etc.

        I think the assumption that there are no scenes is a sign of people getting older more than anything.

      • s.t. says:

        I agree that there’s a lot of great new music out there, but there does seem to be a lot less of it in the broad “rock” genre. And the ability not only to record music in your bedroom but also to collaborate across the web does diminish some of the constraints that are conducive to a proper music scene.

        But, culture often progresses in cycles. I’m sure that a crop of neo-old school rockers will react against the glitch/bedroom pop paradigm soon enough. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying quite a lot of adventurous hip hop and R&B-ish material.

      • rob thomas says:

        thanks for the link StevenE- you seem like a man of taste. But the track you posted belongs on a 13 year-old’s phone, or on the iPad of a professional ironist. Just my opinion, natch…

      • s.t. says:

        There’s always a place for fluffy adolescent novelty tunes! “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies is arguably more crass than even this, but who care? It’s just damn great pop.

        I’ve been loving the pop coming from South Korea. I think of this group as today’s Shangri-Las:

      • rob thomas says:

        hi s.t.
        I absolutely agree that “there’s always a place for fluffy adolescent tunes” and “damn great pop” but what kind of ‘scene’ could songs like StevenE’s post be a part of? A scene dedicated to recycled sounds and kitsch lyrics?

        This sounds like irony and hipsterism at its worst: delving randomly into the aesthetic/visual/audio past to create concoctions whose only purpose is to be somehow to the side of the mainstream. (Same goes for the ‘scene”s outfits).

        Sorry if I sound abrasive- nothing personal- now off to listen to StevenE’s other bands to see if I’m utterly wrong.

      • s.t. says:

        I actually don’t know too much about PC music, but it seems to share an affinity with happyhardcore music and drag culture. So the scene could potentially resemble something like a smaller version of the rave/club scene, or maybe the NY drag/ballroom scene. I guess StevenE can speak more to that.

  10. Patrick says:

    Chris, your top Youtube link “The uploader has not made this video available in your country.” ie the UK
    But this one is

  11. Maj says:

    A band I don’t listen to. Song’s good but I’d like it much better if the band’s singer didn’t sing on it.

  12. billter says:

    Chris, I’m begging you, let’s get on to whatever’s next so I won’t have to look at or think about TV on the Radio anymore.

    • col1234 says:

      this made me crack up. the next entry should be early next week before I go down to NYC (PLUG: for my spot on WFMU next Wed. evening—listen in or be square).

      the issue is that the entry after the next requires an interview with someone very key to the session, which won’t happen until early May. So there’ll be a bit of time between the next entry and its successor.

      (edit: & no, it’s not Johansson—good lord, I wish)

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