During the decade in between Reality and The Next Day, David Bowie didn’t release any new music of his own — but he did pop up on other recordings. One of the most notable cameos of his missing years was on “Province” on TV on the Radio‘s 2006 album, Return to Cookie Mountain. Here, guitarist-keyboardist Dave Sitek recalls the impact Bowie’s music — and their subsequent friendship — had on his life.
I remember the first time I heard “Heroes” on the radio. I was probably 11 or 12. My dad had a really bitchin’ Pioneer stereo, and I used to lay down in front of the studio and listen to the radio. I had a little tape recorder, and I’d record stuff. That day I played sick and stayed home from school. I was flipping through the radio and “Heroes” came on, right at the moment when he raises his voice, I said, “What the hell is that?” I recorded it and kept that cassette for a long time, with the second-half of the song.
When I was about 15, I was listening to that cassette and I thought I should hear the rest of the album. I went to the local public library in Columbia, Maryland. They had a record player there and some records, including Heroes. I brought my tape recorder and recorded the whole album. I probably listened to that exclusively for a month. It was one of the most believable records I’d heard. Until then, I knew what the instruments were — “Oh, that’s drums and that’s guitar.” But I had no idea how Heroes was made. I couldn’t picture people in a room making it and what instruments they were using, like the guitar that sounds like a synthesizer. You’re sitting there in the town library listening to Heroes with the headphones on, and you’re looking around and what you were hearing couldn’t be more stark contrast to the brown carpet and everything around you.
A couple of years later, a friend of mine had an apartment that was a painting studio with a mattress and a really dope boom box. He had Low on cassette. I had never listened to that album in its entirety. I rewound it to the beginning of side one and played that side and said, “This is really great.” I was getting used to it, and then side two happened and I said, “What the fuck?” That’s when everything changed for me. You go through the album and it’s going one way and then all of a sudden you’re in this vast space. You’re so used to people following a trajectory, and then you get to this one artist who not only doesn’t just do one thing, but he doesn’t even do the same thing on one record. I remember thinking, “Is this OK? Can you do this?” It made me think there’s so much more possible in your own definition of life and what’s normal.
In my particular teenage soul, I felt like I belonged after hearing Low. It was beyond reassuring. Suddenly, sounding weird wasn’t a burden but a badge of honor. If you’re growing up and feeling at odds with what’s going on around you, and you have a sincere feeling that what you’re doing is strange but the right thing, Bowie speaks to that person.
[Around 2004] David was doing a photo shoot with a stylist I knew, and she happened to be playing Young Liars during the shoot. David asked who it was, and she said, “It’s my friend’s band.” And he said, “I’d like to talk to him.” She gave him my number. We were on tour in Philadelphia. We were about to play a show and were unloading the van, and I got a call and it was him. At first I thought it was Julian [Gross] from the Liars fucking with me. David Bowie is pretty much the highest up in my world, so I was like, “Julian’s doing this.” I was just in denial and I was questioning it. Then he said, “No, this is actually David.”
I realized that even though Julian is an incredible prankster, he couldn’t pull off David Bowie’s voice. David was telling me about how much he loved the record and it was daring and refreshing and a bunch of other things. It was kind of a blur to me. I was like, “This is not happening.”
We kept in touch and I’d stop by his house downtown. Back then it wasn’t, “Send me an MP3.” I’d drop off a disc at his place. He was very kind to me even when I was too much, and there was a while there when I was too much. I thought, “This guy can’t possibly want to talk to me again.” But he did. After talking a couple of times, he invited me over. When I went into the room where he wrote a lot of his music, one thing that struck me was that he had the same four-track I had. That tickled me. I remember when I walked out of his building onto that street in New York, I thought, “Did I just step out of a dream?”
When we started making Return to Cookie Mountain, I dropped off a disc of demos for him. About a month later, he wrote to me and said, “I really love this ‘Province’ track, the lyrics and the strange choice of sounds. This is really incredible.” And without even thinking about it, I said, “Well, you should come to the studio and be on it.” Which was kind of a ballsy move, and he said, “OK, I’ll be there sometime next week.”
He showed up at my studio in Williamsburg. Tunde [Adebimpe] couldn’t get his head around it. I couldn’t either. We were both, “What the hell is going on?” David was an absolute gentleman. He was super generous with his time and down to earth. He was wearing New Balance sneakers and talking to us about music. He listened to everything. He was into Lightning Bolt, like I was, and I talked to him about Górecki’s third symphony.
Usually when you’re in a studio, you hear the vocals and have an idea of what to do next. But he’d sing the parts and you’d go, “Uh, that sounds like a finished record.” But true to form, he was like, “You know what you’re doing, so do you think it’s right?” He wasn’t trying to turn TV on the Radio into Bowie. He just wanted to participate and honor the song and be a part of it.
In this industry now, taking risks is not popular. When the records aren’t selling and everyone’s clamping down on budgets, all these things are discouraging for music to be different. Even if you’re an artist who thinks you can get away with it, you are surrounded by people who will want to stop you. It’s easy to start lacking confidence when there’s nothing to point at that sounds like what you’re doing and everyone around you is like, “That sounds weird.” I think most people would be mortified to have a successful career and then put it in jeopardy.
But for real art, being crucified doesn’t even enter the equation. So, later in life, to have the absolute master of that encourage you is icing on the cake — that meant the world to me. With David it was always, “Don’t bend. Stay strange.” I hope he wasn’t the last for us. To do it without his guidance is going to be hard. He was a steward of change.
As told to David Browne