There is an aging generation of music obsessives whose choice method of music discovery was going to a friend’s house and using their computer to access file-sharing sites to discover new music, and I enthusiastically include myself in this lineage. It’s truly difficult to say what my life would look like today if I had not kept my nose in rock magazines and Kazaa in the early 2000s.
On an average weekday afternoon, if I wasn’t putting in long days at the car wash I managed, I’d casually arrive and be let into my friend Chuck’s house by his parents, free to explore the still-burgeoning expanse of the internet on their upstairs computer while waiting for my friend to come home. There would sometimes be a big plate of Longanisa, those delicious Filipino sausages, drenched in sweet red sauce, waiting for me, along with a healthy serving of freshly made rice in the cooker. One particular day, I decided to employ my natural curiosity to further explore the music of TV on the Radio, a band who gained a brief mention in a SPIN article where their producer and sound architect Dave Sitek was being praised for his work with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Much to my intrigue, delight, and healthy sense of surprise, the two men Sitek was photographed with were Black.
TV on the Radio was formed in Brooklyn by Sitek and singer Tunde Adebimpe in 2001—you know, before the word “gentrification” became so ubiquitous in our lexicon. The former was a painter, musician, and burgeoning producer, the latter an artist who failed out of film school and worked on the popular MTV claymation fight series Celebrity Deathmatch (1998-2007). They were both the product of a squalid, Old New York art scene so distant from the present day it feels like somebody dreamt it up. They shared a foul-smelling loft space above a fish market with eight other roommates. Adebimpe and Sitek bonded over Sitek’s surplus of painting supplies, blank cassettes, and recording equipment, which balanced out his lack of furniture and clothes; together, they recorded a mostly bizarre release called OK Calculator.
TV on the Radio’s excellent debut EP Young Liars was mostly an excuse for Sitek to learn Pro Tools. Recorded along with his brother Jason, Sitek claimed in New York rock music tome Meet Me in the Bathroom that the EP was never intended for commercial release. Kyp Malone, wearing a luxurious natural blowout hairstyle in the press photos for the EP, joined the band shortly after its completion. His beard would eventually become a massive aesthetic signifier for the band, and damn near a cultural touchstone for this era of music. Computer software for home recording was still pretty new back in 2003, so as the cursor on RealPlayer—the media player du jour—moved from left to right, Young Liars sounded as studio-quality as anything else I was listening to at the time. Its songs floored me with their originality, and activated a previously uncharted part of my brain, making me feel like I was short-circuiting along with the background guitar of its opening track.
“Satellite” and its galloping drum programming, skittering slightly underneath the electric buzzing of its bassline, made way for Adebimpe’s stirring voice and Sitek’s droning guitar, both unmistakable and foreboding, closing out with a big chorus and the chirping of flutes. Adebimpe revealed himself as my favorite kind of singer: the kind of blues/soul crooner par excellence often lost to the $3 vinyl bins of music history. The throbbing “Staring at the Sun” wound up being the band’s first hit in slightly re-recorded form; a field recording of a conversation in Spanish underneath eerie, harmonized cooing, which made way for Adebimpe’s vocals soaring to hell’s ceiling.
In the corner of that upstairs den, I found a side of myself dying to come out in these sensational songs. Young Liars was a thoughtful, noisy, immaculately crafted mission statement, simultaneously pulling from numerous signposts and sounding completely fresh; 25 minutes of music that screamed ART IS IMPORTANT AND YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT! I don’t believe in random coincidences. Everything comes into your life when it does for a very specific reason, whether it’s to affirm you’re on the right path, or to signify radical change. Young Liars immediately provoked one part of my psyche to say to the other, “Your life needs more of whatever the fuck this is.”
Around the turn of the century, I was convinced I would become a rapper. I dressed like a suburban mall Fabolous: custom football jerseys adorned with gaudy counterfeit jewelry procured from the back of rap magazine The Source, topped with a color-coordinated do-rag and matching fitted cap from Lids. It was a way for me to present myself as “more Black,” a confused sense of racial identity sprung from being considered “too white” because of my deep love for loud guitars. I didn’t have sufficient historical context, wherewithal, or courage to educate these people on the Black roots of the art form. I was just a skinny Black kid whose life was changed by Nirvana; I had no clue at seven years old just how deeply white people pilfered rock ‘n’ roll and repainted it in its own image. I got tired of being laughed at and decided to lean into the part of me shaped by hip-hop music, the type of music I’d been listening to since the womb.
I grew up a depressed kid in the shadow of Section 8 housing, showing up to school on occasion with black eyes or welts on my face. I was always an introvert and an outsider to some degree, so I did what most young people with a desire to be accepted above all else would do: I compromised myself. When you emerge from the background I did, you become very adept at being what other people want you to be. My desire to fit in extended to my personal version of a clown suit, trying to be seen as something I wasn’t in order to be accepted for what I was: a Black person living in America. Of course, I still mostly had white friends—partly due to coming of age in the very white state of Washington, though I could have chosen to not participate in the white spaces I dwelled—but for some reason I wanted to be more “Black-presenting,” as ridiculous as it sounds in hindsight. I concealed my embarrassment of myself to project a sense of false bravado, adopted from the genre of music I listened to more or less exclusively throughout my later years of high school.
For a number of months leading to that fateful day at Chuck’s parents’s house, I had been educating myself in a fun-but-rigorous course of the rock music of the time: buying the music magazines instead of just reading them on the aisle at the supermarket, like I did when I was a kid while my grandmother shopped, and watching MTV at odd hours of the night. There were bands both coming up and already long gone, which made me realize what I knew about music amounted to a raindrop in the Pacific Ocean. Bands that wrote songs which made me move my body. Bands that were cool, that made being in one feel aspirational. One such band was the Strokes. I didn’t know the reference points to other groups being made in the publications I consumed, I just listened to their music with obsessive, near-religious fervor.
I saw pictures of the Strokes in magazines and their style struck me harder than anything I had ever seen in music before: more profoundly than ostentatious gold chains and vintage sports jerseys, deeper than baggy flannel shirts. In those tight leather jackets, narrow-legged pants, filthy sneakers, and slightly-too-small thrift store suits, I saw a type of worn-in expression I knew from that moment I wanted to cultivate. I was bored and stifled by the stereotypical image I was projecting, because I knew it was untrue to who I was. The Strokes became my fashion template; they dressed exactly like the person I wanted to become.
I no longer cared about projecting a type of Blackness anybody on the street could understand. Because when it came down to it, did any of these people know me at all? Did any of these people have any interest at all in the type of person I was? Wasn’t it more important to attain the life I wanted for myself rather than the one other people wanted for me? I spent so many years going along to get along, which wasn’t getting me anywhere. It certainly wasn’t making me any less depressed.
A lesson was to be learned in my early days of acquainting myself with indie/alternative music and the accompanying uncertainty with what my artistic path actually would become: that brilliance in the art nerd world didn’t mean you had to compromise or sacrifice your racial identity. Bands like the Strokes taught me you can get away with wearing the same clothes for four days straight if you’re stylish enough. But TV on the Radio taught me something much more valuable.
For all my life there was a weirdo locked inside a chamber in my brain, hiding under a costume. I don’t think I could ever be accused of hiding in plain sight regardless of what I tried to do—but I was hiding my true self from the world in fear of catching how people would look at me if they knew the kind of person I wanted to be. The very fact that TV on the Radio existed wasn’t enough to necessitate fully inhabiting the personality I saw for myself, as I could have gotten that from Bad Brains, Living Colour, Fishbone—any number of bands with mostly Black members. It was important that the music spoke to me too.
I recall once reading an interview where Sitek said he wanted Young Liars to sound like a studio record produced in a bedroom. As blaring as the droning sonics can be at times, the EP often sounds hushed and subdued. There’s an emotional heft to the record that hits with blunt force while still sounding like the people who made it didn’t want to bother the neighbors. Funnily enough, a passage from the record’s liner notes reads, “Dave got kicked out of our apartment building by an upstairs neighbor the night before we finished everything. The reason: We were being too loud for Brooklyn.” Young Liars would in a roundabout way inspire me to forge my own bedroom musical project, an experimental folk, singer/songwriter outlet inspired in part by the blankets of drone on this EP—which in and of itself was the long way around to my life as a music writer, as my first forays into criticism sprung from the website where I also hosted mp3s of my songs.
Before that afternoon I had never heard any piece of music that sounded anything like Young Liars. Anything bordering on the experimental—from the shoegaze blur of the band’s guitars to TV on the Radio’s contemporaries in Liars—was absolutely foreign to me. I realized that I had wasted too much time feigning ignorance and wanted to learn about every single thing that piqued my interests, and in its own way, Young Liars inspired that urge.
“Blind” crept into my consciousness like a fog, its trip-hop-by-way-of-DJ Screw sound foregrounding a broken-hearted love letter to someone barely remembered; an image that triggered a painful memory. When Adebimpe belted out, “My life is a sucker bet,” years of childhood trauma and the depression it caused—all the lives I’ve lived that came up snake eyes—welled up inside of me. “Young Liars” was the anthem of my early 20s, a signpost for a decade and a half of the anxiety, short flings, and sometimes empty sex I started to experience in the twilight of my teens and would eventually gain a very intimate knowledge of.
This was the song they played every time I saw them live—at least seven times in the next five years—where I would see other Black people, where I would see white people embrace an art rock band with mostly Black members, and catch glimpses of people from my past lives. A Black woman was invited to dance onstage with them at their first headlining show at a big venue. She stood me up for a date once in high school.
Young Liars ends with a haunting cover of “Mr. Grieves,” which turns Black Francis’s cracked cackle on the Pixies’s original into a funeral march through desolate, pre-gentrified Williamsburg streets, the broken bottles and discarded needles practically visible in the margins. The 120 Minutes generation is flipped on its head by this startling version of a barbershop quartet—yet another music innovation of Black people whitewashed into candy-striped blazers.
There are few situations more damning than having a bountiful social circle and still feeling alienated. While I was floating into the realm of below-mainstream guitar music as an obsession, some friends gravitated toward Christianity, some toward college sports. My best friend at the time quit training for pro wrestling and his stockroom job at Nordstrom to join the Coast Guard. Meanwhile I heard TV on the Radio, and when I saw what they looked like—basically like me, only a decade older—I knew I could and should be chasing my creative impulses to the ends of the earth. The desire to keep Pandora’s Box closed and remain in a boring, suburban, artless existence was making me tired. Young Liars was the vessel helping me set sail toward a life much less repressed and concerned with outside opinion.
TV on the Radio didn’t offer me a template on how to approach my art, my style, my worldview; they were just the affirmation I needed to support the idea that being Black is not a monolithic experience. Young Liars and the group who made it were a roadmap for me to discover, embrace, and deepen my own personal version of Blackness. I didn’t use the band to draft a new identity for myself, but they helped me see the range of possibilities.
Martin Douglas is a critic, essayist, journalist, and burgeoning fiction writer based in Seattle. He can be found rhapsodizing over music at KEXP.org, ranting about pro wrestling at Fanbyte, and doing tarot readings for his friends in real life. Twitter: @douglasmartini