TV on the Radio plays tonight at Newport Music Hall with openers Subtle. Behind my feature on the headliners was a fascinating interview with guitarist Kyp Malone. (He's the one with the huge afro-beard combo).

We talked about the cultural and musical factors that played into the band's great 2006 release Return to Cookie Mountain, as well as Malone's previous musical history, how to sound good on Letterman and what it's like to be a black musician with a mostly white audience. Click below for the full interview.

TV on the Radio plays tonight at Newport Music Hall with openers Subtle. Behind my feature on the headliners was a fascinating interview with guitarist Kyp Malone. (He's the one with the huge afro-beard combo).

We talked about the cultural and musical factors that played into the band's great 2006 release Return to Cookie Mountain, as well as Malone's previous musical history, how to sound good on Letterman and what it's like to be a black musician with a mostly white audience. Click below for the full interview.

Alive: What kinds of musical projects were you involved with before TV on the Radio?

Kyp Malone: When I met Dave (Sitek) and Tunde (Adebimpe) I was playing in a band with my friend Marc Orleans, who’s been in a number of bands. He’s a really great guitarist. And my friend Kevin Shea was the drummer who I knew from Pittsburgh. It was called Fall In Love. We never released anything. We started off as this improvisatory group, got a little more structured, but then fell apart. I had a project in San Francisco with my friend Aaron Aites. We released two records under the name Iran on a label called Tumult, and we have a new album coming out that we recorded in the interim. I’ve played with a number of different musical projects, and, I don’t know, hung out, painted pictures, took photographs, whatever.

Several of you seem to have a visual arts background. Does that play into how you shape the music?

I don’t have any background in science, so I don’t really know where those connections lie, specifically in a chemical way, but I know that they must be related, the ear and the eye and the hand, whatever. There’s similar aspects to the creative process of most things, painting a picture or taking a photograph or writing a song, so I’m sure that there’s some influence and some carryover in both directions. I don’t really know how to talk about it, though. I’ve heard that question posed a number of times to different people in the band, and I haven’t heard anybody be able to talk about it in any particularly illuminating way. But I’m sure that you could find someone who’s put more energy into thinking about it if you did some research.

The band’s style is pretty unique. Obviously Dave and Tunde were doing it for a while before you joined, but as far as developing what the sound of TV on the Radio was going to be, was it a conscious decision to combine certain things, or was it more like “Let’s see what happens?”

It’s always been more “Let’s see what happens.” I mean, we definitely have conversations. We talk about music. We listen to music together regularly and talk about things that we like and things that are off-putting to us. And all of that comes together to shape what we do next. But it’s still a pretty kind of free experiment so far. Hopefully it remains so.

The old promo photos just had the three of you in them. When did Gerard (Smith) and Jaleel (Bunton) come into the band?

We kind of talked Jaleel into the band during the process of recording Desperate Youth. Both Jaleel and Gerard joined basically right when we started touring right after we finished recording Desperate Youth. And both of them actually are on Desperate Youth, at least a little bit. I don’t know if they even really considered themselves to be in the band, but we did as soon as they started playing with us. And now they’re definitely contributing members and integral to it.

Has having a traditional rhythm section around changed the creative process at all?

Not really. Well, it changed it because it changes what happens live in a significant way. In a super positive way. But not much of the writing has come out of jamming, so in that way, I don’t know that it’s changed so much the creative process, except for the fact that they’re both super accomplished musicians. Neither of them is playing the instruments that they’re actually good at. They’re both really incredible guitarists. Jaleel plays guitar better than me or Dave, and Gerard plays guitar better than me or Dave. Both of them play keys very well. And they’re both actually really good writers, and I hope that the future of TV on the Radio has some of their songs. Actually one of Gerard’s songs is coming out on a European release. You’ll probably get more of that soon.

You mentioned how it changes what the live show is like, but something like “Wolf Like Me” is one of your more straightforward tracks. It seems like having a drummer and bassist in the fold would lend itself to songs like that.

Yeah, definitely. But also Tunde sat there and said, “This is how the song goes. It goes like this.” And everyone said “OK.”

So is that how it works? Tunde brings in the main ideas and everybody fleshes them out?

No. That’s how it worked on that song. Some songs Dave will have a soundscape and give it to one of us and we’ll write over top of it. Or I’ll bring in a song and say “This is how it goes,” and then… But everything always gets laid down and then changes a number of times before it’s done.

With Return to Cookie Mountain, when that leaked with the flubbed sequencing, did that bother you?

Yeah, it bothered me. Ultimately, nothing can be done about it, so it’s kind of a moot point. But yeah, it wasn’t mastered. I don’t know. I kind of know that I should figure out a way not to care because as long as there’s any interest whatsoever, people are going to find a way to do that. But I remember getting a leaked copy of Wowee Zowee on cassette before it came out and being really excited and feeling super privileged. And it was more of a cult thing and feeling like, you know… I don’t know, we were just elitists. But it wasn’t something where we were like “We’ve got to bootleg this and give it to everybody.” It was like “We have this incredible artifact,” or whatever. “We’re going to listen to it over and over again.” And then when the record came out and it was a different tracklisting, you know, that was exciting. Some songs weren’t on it. Actually it was Crooked Rain I think. It was Crooked Rain, but it had “Grounded” on it. But I feel like it’s going to keep happening, so there isn’t really any point in worrying about it. It will at least add to confusion, with the wrong tracklisting, cause it wasn’t mastered… I don’t know, you get precious after being in the studio for a long time and working really hard and wanting it to be… not being ready to let go of it yet, and having it taken out of your hands. It didn’t make me psyched, but I realize that there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about it.

Speaking of the album sequencing, I read an interview with Dave where he stressed how much importance he put on the first and last songs, sort of making an opening and closing statement for the album. And one thing I noticed about this album is a song like “Tonight” would have worked as a closer, but then you came back with something more upbeat with “Wash the Day Away.” Why’d you choose to sequence it that way?

It doesn’t feel like a… I feel like we listen to it as many times as possible in a variety of different ways, and that was what made the most sense. It’s just, I kind of feel like maybe we didn’t want the record to act as a lullaby, even eventually. And I also feel like sometimes people don’t make it to the end of records no matter how much work is put into them. Especially in a culture that people just listen to mp3s. And not to sacrifice any of the songs, but I really think Tunde’s song “Tonight” is some of his best writing he’s done so far. You make it through a 50-minute record and then get to a quiet song, some people will maybe not do the critical listening, but if you get to the end of a record, and there’s a rocker of some sort or another, I don’t know… Although when I first played it for my daughter and her mother, by the time we got to “Wash the Day Away,” Isabel, my daughter, asked if we could please turn this record off. I think she was embarrassed when she found out it was my record. But that was her honest critique.

(His daughter says something in the background.)

Cause you were just tired of it. You’d had enough. When we were eating dinner. And “Wash the Day Away” is kind of loud.

I looked at it as kind of an optimistic way to end the record.

Yeah?

Yeah, in terms of the lyrics and having upbeat music, the idea of washing off the day and starting over new. Maybe I’m not reading the song properly.

That’s a good way to hear it, to read it. I feel like it’s the most overtly apocalyptically themed song of all of them. But it’s mostly about water bottles. The amount of water bottles we were using in the studio, I just think about, I have nighmares of all this plastic garbage cluttering everything. It’s really dumb irony to be having to buy your water in bottles to have it be clean and then have that process be part of what’s polluting the earth in the first place, you know? But yeah, I don’t know. I feel like there’s definitely hope that we’ll knock ourselves out faster than we knock out the planet. Something new will start. Or we’ll figure it out. We’ve figured stuff out before.

You mentioned you guys have discussions about what’s happening in music, what you like and dislike and how that affects how you shape your music. What kind of factors were shaping this last release?

A lot of 70s West African music was getting passed around. I know we listened to a lot of Konono No. 1 and Congotronix, that was in heavy rotation. And I was listening to lots of country music. I don’t know if it shows. But trying to write country a little bit. We put so many filters in that I don’t think that really stuck. But I don’t know, any number of things. There’s actually so many things that it’s hard to specify. I remember Dave listening to lots of calypso music on this AM station, and just, I don’t know… There was more of a focus on rhythm and drums in general.

I usually hate this question, but I feel like I have to ask it for this album: What does Return to Cookie Mountain mean?

I don’t feel like I can give you a satisfying answer.

On the album, “I Was a Lover” and “Province” in particular seem like these bold, kind of confrontational statements. What are those about?

It’s hard to feel like you’re really doing anything sometimes. We're citizens of this country, and the things that are being done in our name around the world are deplorable. And if you're conscious of what's happening, and thinking about it, you keep turning up the cognitive dissonance and going about your life, trying to live day to day as the world falls apart around you. There’s lots of countries where people take things into their own hands. But not America. And also, all the songs are multifaceted because they’re specific to our experiences and our relationships to one other. And “Province” is more about trying to not succumb to feeling like everything is pointless even though the world seems to be in a pretty dire state. I feel like it’s trying to put forth the idea that love is still a powerful force and still very important.

I really liked your performance on Letterman, and I feel like it’s so rare that bands are able to sound good on TV shows. How did you pull that off?

It’s a really strange environment. It’s not like playing a show. It’s like playing a festival except you have even less time to prepare. You have to just get on and off. And it’s really cold on those sets. I mean, it’s cold in a spiritual way, but it’s actually physically, the temperature is very low, uncomfortably low, so that people aren’t sweating. For their suits and fancy dresses, you know. Like a cryogenic chamber or something. Also, we’ve done television before, but that was the first time we’ve done television that meant something to me in some way from childhood. So I think we were nervous, and I feel like that nervousness helped us do a better performance. And also, I feel like our friend Matt Littlejohn who does sound for us, he always comes with us to those performances, and even though there’s people who are in control of sound production, he’s learned the language to talk to the people and get them to turn the guitars up even if it’s distorting. I feel like he does a pretty good job of figuring out how to talk to old-timers in the industry and the union people and figure out their language to convince them to let us do our thing a little bit more.

People seem to have this impression of TV on the Radio is sort of this mysterious, ultra-serious band. Is that accurate?

No, it’s a bunch of clowns in private. It’s just a matter of… and adult children. Something happens with representation once your persona gets out of your hands. Living in America where minstrelsy was the biggest form of entertainment for such a long time—it’s still really prevalent in different forms today—I feel like it’s already a big risk to sing and dance in front of people. And I feel like trying to maintain some sort of stoicism in spite of that, so not to be clowned. I feel like it’s impossible for America not to try to clown black people. That’s America. That’s what makes America comfortable still. It’s hard to joke and smile in front of the cameras, but there’s lots of joking and smiling going on outside of that realm. And also we take what we’re doing seriously, you know? Everyone in the band feels pretty strongly about music and is passionate about music, and also feel pretty privileged to be doing this for a living right now. Most of our community is artists and musicians, and success in the industry and culture at large is not a meritocracy at all. I know plenty of people that have worked just as hard as us and are doing really great things and will never get the same exposure.