In Conversation: TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek Talks The Neverly Boys and Writing Without Pressure
The producer and songwriter-for-hire’s new project is mostly just a front for hanging out with Daniel Ledinsky.
Dave Sitek has a diabolical laugh. It doesn’t matter what the topic—whether I’m asking about the band we know him from (TV on the Radio), his new band with Daniel Ledinsky (a songwriter with whom Sitek shares credits on tracks penned for Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, Blondie, and Pussy Riot) The Neverly Boy, his production for artists like Rose McGowan, Beyoncé & JAY-Z, Weezer, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to name but a few of his many projects over the years.
If it’s funny, Dave laughs a mad cackle the likes of which could accompany a slaughter in American Psycho. That’s only fair as his debut album as The Neverly Boys, Dark Side of Everything, and (more than likely) its yet-unnamed, quarantine-recorded follow-up, has a sense of humor so thick and black it could masquerade as tar. Only stickier.
We caught up with Sitek during a break in studio-time quarantine to discuss the past, present, and future of his musical endeavors.
You just worked on the new Rose McGowan album, Planet 9. What can you tell me about the experience?
Awesome. She had heard that I worked on records in a variety of styles and genres, all of which she liked. She just wanted to be authentic, and to do her own thing. I was at Sonic Ranch where I do a lot of recording—she came down here, we spent a couple of days together, and we experimented. The usual.
Planet 9 does sound both relaxed and scientific. You also co-wrote and produced for Beyoncé & JAY-Z in 2018.
I make beats all the time, and I write and record songs all the time, and I send them to most of the same people. JAY-Z and I have a mutual friend, and Jay was talking to him before they even started a record. He wanted to get a couple of tracks, but he didn’t want them to come from the usual suspects.
Enter the unusual suspect: Dave Sitek
That mutual friend played my track for Jay on the phone—he said he wanted it, and that night, he got the track and did his verse the next day. Then Beyoncé did hers shortly after. I didn’t even know my song was going to make the record until it made the record, and I heard it when it came out.
Solo, as a producer, or with your bands like TV on the Radio, how have your signatures evolved since your start?
“I wouldn’t say that I have a style. It’s just about being a good listener. You know how everybody says they listen to all sorts of music? I really listen to all sorts of music.”
I wouldn’t say that I have a style. I mean, I work with The Carters, I work with Pussy Riot, I work with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It’s just about being a good listener. You know how everybody says they listen to all sorts of music? I really listen to all sorts of music. For me, the exploratory spirit is always there, always in me.
Do you feel as if the longer you’re behind the boards you’re more hands-on? Or more hands-off?
It’s situation by situation. Some people have a complete vision, and they just want me because I’m a weirdo. I’m an extra set of ears. Sometimes they have a song that is impossible or about the impossible, and don’t know where to start—and there I am, putting a microphone on a couch, kicking the couch for a drum beat, and seeing what that becomes. It’s how-can-I-be-of service type stuff. Sometimes I’m not needed at all, and I’m very quick to point that out. “Get somebody younger,” I tell them.
How do you serve your own records, then, be it your Maximum Balloon project or The Neverly Boys? When do you tell yourself to back off, you’re not needed?
That’s such an elusive moment that you don’t really know. The energy is always going, the songs are always flowing. Honor the song, I guess. The individual parts don’t really matter. Will the message be received without distraction? That’s my overriding principle. Sometimes you want the voice to be the focus, or the sound of the human heartbeat. Then you just navigate it all with your appetite for experimenting versus does it add or take away from the song? With Neverly Boys, there’s no trickery in that. We don’t use any samplers or synthesizers. It was very meat-and-potatoes—that was my conscious decision, as so much of what I do is sonic elevation or experimentation.
You wanted to do something blunter.
Yeah. Let’s do nothing and just let the song reveal itself. No distracting elements.
Did you have that approach before you hooked up with Daniel? Or did you hook up with Daniel, and the two of you were like, “Let’s do nothing”?
Daniel and I write songs for other people. We had written a few that wound up as quite a leap from our norm, and we put them in our filing cabinet. Like “Burn, Hollywood, Burn.” And a song that will be on the second Neverly album, “California Dreaming.” They were songs we wrote for somebody else, but didn’t feel like going through the Death Star for approval. The subject matter was too dark for artists who don’t go that way. So we kept them for ourselves.
We built up a few of those. Seems we weren’t really a band, we just wound up with a bunch of those songs, and the pile got pretty big, A friend of ours owns a bar in Los Angeles, Zebulon, and they had a night free. We booked a show as a band, opened up the folder, and played the songs with friends of ours. Because we were just using guitar bass and drums, we liked the simple sound of it, and just decided to keep all of our songs as just that.
What do you like about Daniel as a studio partner?
We’re both about celebrating the darkness. Despair is its own texture. So is uncertainty. Longing, too. We don’t overthink things, we over-feel them. We’re not concerned with the equipment, or being smarty pants. Is the message received? Yes. Onto the next things. We don’t get into the weeds about anything. We both grew up in the ’80s under the threat of nuclear war, and our end goal was not to respond with fear, but rather, “Let’s make a big, loud soundtrack for it.”
“We both grew up in the ’80s under the threat of nuclear war, and our end goal was not to respond with fear, but rather, ‘Let’s make a big, loud soundtrack for it.’”
We sent each other tracks for the longest time. His lyrics were always so hilarious, smart, and sincere. We were just fans of each other before we had ever met—paranoid that perhaps we should never meet until he moved to Los Angeles—and even now it’s never a formal process. We never get together for the purpose of writing a song. We just get together to hang out, drive around, and smoke cigarettes. The songs come out of that experience. The songs write themselves.
So you’re not necessarily writing for yourselves.
Intent is the biggest difference. If they happen to be our brand of disaster ballad, then it’s a Neverly Boys song. We just chase the songs down so we can get back to making jokes. A lot of what Daniel and I do is about having fun, and enjoying being around each other. Because we write so many songs in sessions with people who have the pressure of the world on them, when Daniel and I are together, that’s the last thing we want to do.
We don’t want to worry about what’s going to happen to a song after it’s done. We’re able to preserve that feeling—just make it because you love it. When you start trying to manufacture excitement, that’s exhausting. As two guys who have written in bug songwriting sessions, we’ve both witnessed people who were worried about too many things outside the songs.
“We never get together for the purpose of writing a song. We just get together to hang out, drive around, and smoke cigarettes. The songs come out of that experience. The songs write themselves.”
So is having to quarantine screwing up your hang?
No, we’re here at the Ranch, working on the next album. We’re going to die at the Ranch.
Since you’re working on so many Neverly Boys projects, what can you say about TV on the Radio? Where do things stand?
Everyone is off doing their own thing. For me, this is what I’m doing now. Even when we were together on a regular basis, and in the middle of doing stuff, things were never easy to predict. Our work is done, but if there’s more work to be done, we’ll do it.
There’s a song on the Neverly Boys album, “Never Come Down,” where the protagonist says, “I heard you fucked my friend on my birthday, babe.” True story?
That’s happened to all of us, you know.
No, it hasn’t Dave.
There’s always something you thought was so disappointing. On a side note—we’re stuck in the eternal present. Trying to guesstimate or predict something, and the only thing that’s revealed is that we are shitty psychics. FL