Dave Sitek has produced everyone from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Beady Eye, but his best work has come with Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone and Jaleel Bunton: the other members of TV on the Radio (bassist Gerard Smith died in 2011). The 42-year-old Sitek produces the band in his home studio, plays guitar and keyboards, makes killer loops and rocks a Run-D.M.C. T-shirt onstage. We caught up with him recently to discuss Seeds, the band's fifth studio album (scheduled for November 18th). But first, we talked about the culinary arts: the gourmand Sitek is the reason Kelis's 2014 album Food (which he produced) is full of song titles like "Jerk Ribs," "Cobbler" and "Friday Fish Fry."
You're a foodie guy – the last time I saw you, four years ago, you were talking about starting a pop-up chicken restaurant. Did that ever happen?
It did not, because I pretty much have not stopped working since I saw you last. We do throw barbecues here a lot, though, just different writers and studio musicians I work with, trying out recipes. You never had lamb here, did you? That's the fucking showstopper. And Cat, who goes under the stage name Kitty Harlow, makes this banging strawberry salad that's just stupid.
What else were you guys eating while you made Seeds?
We were all over the map, but a lot of vegetables, a lot of fish. A lot of snacking was going on: Olives are the best of both worlds. You get salty, and it fills you up. Castelvetrano olives, the light green ones, are like little food diamonds. I can't imagine they're bad for you. Or I guess, who cares if they are?
Did you have specific goals with this record?
Not necessarily. We try to avoid making the same record twice, so I think it was more anti-goals. We just didn't want to repeat ourselves. It's subtle – we didn't write a country record or anything like that. I think that this one is more uptempo than Nine Types of Light, but I can't pinpoint the aesthetic things.
How long did the album take?
It was an on-and-off process, but about six months. We had the first wave of songs, then we went back to the drawing board and had a second wave of songs, and a third wave. When we were working on the third wave, we were also opening up the first wave and updating them. The writing happened in different stages, but most of the recording was done later on.
TV on the Radio released "Mercy" and "Million Miles" last year. Were they originally meant to be on Seeds?
No, those were just songs that we wrote because we hadn't written songs together in a while. They came out really fast and inspired us to do it again – and then "again" turned into the record.
How did "Happy Idiot" come together?
I was in El Paso, at the Sonic Ranch, where I did the Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. I was there by myself doing a bunch of writing. I made the instrumental, and I sent it to [Swedish pop star] Erik Hassle and Daniel Ledinsky and then they wrote the top line in an hour. And then Tunde was over at my house and he was like, "This song is fucking nuts, what needs to be done?" Daniel said, "You should just sing on it." So they cut it – Tunde did his vocals and killed it in an hour. Then the band heard it, jumped in and played their parts. It snuck its way onto the record: It wasn't even intended to be a TV on the Radio song, but it was probably the fastest of the tracks to come together.
How do you guys put songs together? Are people bringing in songs or are you hammering them together in the studio?
It's every possible way. We all come in with ideas and starts of songs, but most of the time we get a feel for where each other is writing and then we write in that direction. I can't think of any instances where we're like, "This is definitely a song." It's more that we play each other a bunch of stuff, and then we start making a racket, and that stuff turns into songs. "Seeds" was me and Tunde fucking around. "Careful You," Jaleel started making this crazy beat. Then me and Tunde edited it, and it became the song that it is.
What song changed the most during the sessions?
It's hard to say: A lot of these songs go through radical transformations. We think it's one way, and we live with it for a couple of weeks, and then one of us has an inkling to fuck it up and see if it still holds true. With this band, we try to make songs that could work in any style, so one way of figuring that out is to build a song and then take everything out and see if the song still sounds like a song. And if it does, try something at half tempo or twice the tempo and see if it still sticks.
Given that style of working, how do you know when the record's done?
We argue. Everyone in this band is extremely talented and aesthetically concerned. It's really about the feel of things, and sometimes those feels don't match up, and so we argue about it. It's super-rare that we unanimously agree, so we've learned how this argument process works. There's a lot of trust between us. If someone feels really strongly about something, we let him take the lead. No one in the band is in charge.
What's your work schedule?
All over the map, but I'm usually there 18 hours a day. If Kip was working early in the day, Tunde will work late at night, and Jaleel just sticks around with me most of the time. I'm always in the studio, and I'm always working. Whenever people feel like it, they can show up and I'll probably be recording. In New York, I was sleeping maybe three hours a night. Now I'm up to four or five, living the good life.
Are you still in the same house in the Hollywood hills with the tiny home studio?
I held onto that place as long as I possibly could, but it was unrealistic for the amount of work that I do. It got to the point where setting up a drum set in a bathroom was ridiculous. Three years ago, I moved to another place that's bigger. We actually have a proper drum room and a proper vocal booth.
How is your studio decorated?
Kelis gave me a four-foot Stevie Wonder velvet painting that pretty much occupies most of the space. And then Stephonik from Living Days, realizing how cool it looked, got me a velvet painting of Snoopy taking off on a rocket. Then another friend saw those two and got me a Bruce Lee velvet painting. For my birthday, another velvet painting: a Pegasus. And you know that YouTube video "It's So Cold in the D"? I was obsessed with that video, how the timing slips and it's recorded on this early VHS-quality thing. If you look at art as accurately reflecting the times, I feel like that's one of the greater pieces of art out there. So last year, Lovefoxxx from CSS did an oil painting of a still from that video and that's up there too. And a fuck-ton of pyramids and crystals and oversized polished stone skulls.
When the band took time off, were you confident you would be getting back together or was it up in the air?
Earth is up in the air, so I guess in that sense it was up in the air.