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.”
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