Andrew Sitek would be content enough if he were just one of the five guys in TV On The Radio. His role as guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer and sometimes beat-boxer for one of the world's most original bands, splitting time between the studio and an arduous tour schedule, has its obvious rewards. In a parallel life, Sitek would be equally content if he were just employed as a celebrated producer. Behind the boards, he's helped amplify the talents of critically-acclaimed and popular bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, The Oh Sees and others; he produced Scarlett Johansson's album of Tom Waits covers and gave birth to the alluring sound of new singer, Holly Miranda.
That Sitek has somehow managed to squeeze enough hours out of the day to merge both TV On The Radio and a stellar, sought-after producer has not only made him the hardest working person in the indie rock world, but also the most interesting. His curriculum vitae only grows now with his latest work, Maximum Balloon (DGC/Interscope Records). Not quite a solo album and not quite a side-project, Maximum Balloon features Sitek's beat-making, songwriting and collaborative production skills all at once, authored with different singers he calls, "his favorite voices in the world."
"It might be cheating to say it's a pure solo album," Sitek explains. "These songs are tunes I had created in the process of producing other people's albums, and they were just too far out for the specific records I had been cast to do. So I kept them around and figured I should put them out under one blanket thing." Sitek recruited some of his favorite singers to co-write and lend vocals to his songs: artists he's helped produce over the last 8 years as well as those he has met as one of the progenitors of the formative, New York-based indie-rock scene. Those artists include Karen O, the spectacular front-woman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; stylish rap wordsmith Theophilus London; old friend Katrina Ford from the Baltimore-based band, Celebration; the torchlight talent of New York's Holly Miranda; legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne; and, of course, TV On The Radio bandmates Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone.
It's an album of several one-off songs, pitched through a prism of electronic and dance beats, that are each, Sitek says, "their own little balloons that float out into the world. I liked the idea of not having to make a record that had anything to do other than to exist and drift and just see where it lands. So much of everything else I do follows a rigid schedule – recording, then a tour and there's a cycle. This was the opposite – let's just make a song out of nothing and let it float around." Like a balloon. And, of course, if you're a workaholic like David Andrew Sitek, if you're gonna do a balloon, you do a Maximum Balloon.
Sitek grew up in Baltimore and moved to New York in 2000. Not long afterwards, he fell in with another artist-musician type in Tunde Adebimpe, and with a mutual likeminded affection making for arty, experimental rock, they formed TV On The Radio (later adding Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith). The group's first album was a handmade CD called OK Calculator (hidden in the sofa cushions of local New York coffee shops for people to find). While it obviously flew under the radar, it highlighted the first traces of bold, experimental directions that would ultimately flourish through an EP and two subsequent albums. Their most recent album, 2008's Dear Science, was a triumphant breakthrough for the group, named Album of the Year by Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, MTV and many other publications.
While TV On The Radio grew in both stature and accomplishment, Sitek was also earning a reputation as a multi-instrumentalist studio-whiz. Aside from the complex, original sound he created with his own band, he had produced the debut EP from the then-unknown – and fellow Brooklynites – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He's produced every one of their albums ever since, along with other indie-rock efforts from The Liars, The Oh Sees, Celebration, Dragons of Zynth, Telepathe and more. He's known as a true musician's producer, and has only seen the demand for his ears and talents grow in recent years.
"I am perpetually perplexed by how my name comes up sometimes," Sitek humbly admits. "The fact that I even have a job blows me away. I feel like I'm going to be doing landscaping again pretty soon. I far exceeded any goals I ever set for myself. Even when I'm in the same room with someone who I've known for a while, I ask myself, 'How am I in the same room with this person?' It's crazy."
While most of Dave's talents have taken root in the indie-rock world, the songs of Maximum Balloon are more dance music oriented, the result of a near-life-long obsession with electronic and dance music. "Basically, I've been trying to make 'Let's Hear It For the Boy,' over and over again for my whole life and this was the album that I was able to get closest." Not that any of the songs on Maximum Balloon actually mimic that '80s pop hit or even an '80s pop sound, but that genre of music is clearly an influence. "I always liked that era," Sitek says. "Highly emotive stuff juxtaposed against this cold, almost clinical groove. Depeche Mode was a huge influence on me, making dance-y, new wave pop. Even weirder stuff like Candy Flip or Throbbing Gristle – that was dance music to me. I love Nile Rodgers, Chic, all that. I used to play in hardcore punk bands and had to hide the fact that I loved that stuff."
That era certainly rears its head on Maximum Balloon, though it's still run through a prism of sounds and instruments that keeps things sublime and intriguing. "It's a lot of dance music that I couldn't force into the architecture of my band or on the other projects I work on," he says. That doesn't mean that Maximum Balloon comes across as a rave dance party soundtrack; its rhythms and song-structures are more sophisticated than a simple four-on-the-floor groove. The presence of different voices, too, allows for a diverse listening experience.
Recording the album, Sitek did have certain singers in mind for certain tracks. On the song "Communion," he collaborated with Karen O, and while he let his longtime friend pick any song of his to work on, she chose the same one he hoped she would. "When she laid down the first vocal track for 'Maps' [from 2003's Fever To Tell album and the Yeah Yeah Yeah's biggest single], I was blown away. I had heard the screaming and yelling and that rock 'n roll side of her, but on that song, she's the inner-you singing to you about how you're going to be ok. It's beautiful and I wanted to get that side of her again for this song."
Dragons of Zynth is a Brooklyn-based pysch-rock band, and for the song, "Tiger," Sitek recruited its singer, Aku. "The original version of the song was me singing it and it's hilarious," Sitek says. "In the middle of me recording it, Aku called me and I asked him to come over and fix this mistake I was about to make. It's amazing what he did with it." Rapper Theophilus London was recruited to lend his voice to the song, "Groove Me," but Sitek insisted that he do something he hadn't done before: sing. "He worked his way around that pretty quickly, he's a really talented guy."
There is one artist that Sitek always wanted to work with but hadn't yet – David Byrne, who shows up on the song, "Apartment Wrestling." Sitek had thought of Byrne for the track originally but only after a mutual friend passed the word along was it able to happen. "He loved the track and started to write to it. It was done pretty quickly and I was just like, 'Jesus, how did that happen?' which is probably the most repeated question asked in my life."
Sitek holds no lofty ambitions about what will come of Maximum Balloon, insisting the project scratched an itch he's had for many years. If anything, he says, "I would hope this would make me not insist to the other guys [in TV On The Radio] that we do 130-bpm floor-banging dance songs on the next album. It'll keep me off everyone's back because I finally got this out of my system."
Out of his system and floating around in the ether.