A disclaimer – For the first year of my TV on the Radio fandom, I had listened to exactly zero TV on the Radio songs. Every Friday growing up, my father would meet a group of friends at a local diner inside of a grocery store for their men’s breakfast. In part to feel like one of the guys but mainly to get greasy diner breakfast away from our health-conscious mother, my brother and I would always go, and part of the deal was that each of us picked out a magazine to read while we ate breakfast as long as we put it back afterwards. At some point I graduated from Mad Magazine to Alt Press, not knowing much about the music but trying my hardest to identify with these “alternative” punks while also being a white kid from suburban Iowa with good grades.
By the time I was in middle school I didn’t go to the breakfast anymore, but out of habit I would continue to pick up that magazine whenever I was in that grocery store. I remember the day when TV on the Radio had a huge spread in the middle of the magazine – here was this mainly black (that’s important, Alt Press at that time was mainly Billie Joe Armstrong and people who looked a lot like Billie Joe Armstrong) band with a weirdo fashion style and awesome hair, who were from New York and, even in their name, seemed to embrace this weird internet age into which we had fallen. Visually, they were something familiar – alt-rock, indie rock, whatever you want to call it – but presented in a format entirely new to me.
I don’t know why it took me so long to listen to their music, but a year later I bought Return to Cookie Mountain at Half Price Books, remembering so vividly that magazine article. My stereo system at home was a collection of speakers from the Goodwill near my house; I knew enough about sound to understand that early “surround sound” meant a lot of speakers placed around a room, but I didn’t know enough about sound to realize a lot more went into that than twisting a bunch of speakers’ speaker wire together and trying to get it all to fit into the back of the receiver.
That being said, my cursory knowledge of how electronics worked didn’t diminish the effect that the first time I listened to “I Was a Lover” had on my understanding of what music was and, more importantly, what music could be. The song begins quite bare with a distorted, over-compressed drum machine (I can use all of those terms now that I make electronic music; back then I was convinced they were banging on cans or creating another sort of found object cacophony), but the pivotal moment (and the one that still catches me off guard whenever I hear the track) is right when the horns kick in. At the time, I didn’t have the words to describe what I was hearing for this, either: they were definitely recognizable instruments, but the way they started and stopped was so unnatural, so jagged and beyond the realm of any horn section I heard growing up listening to my dad’s collection of Motown CDs. Later in life (to be precise, one music composition from an expensive university later), I not only learned the word – “sampling,” a word that can elicit quite the varied response from other musicians, varying from acknowledgement from hip hop producers and “get off my lawn, this isn’t real music” scorn from those dudes who play Hendrix covers at Guitar Center – but came to embrace it wholeheartedly, as did many of my friends and peers living in a world where mp3s and music production software were equally as easy to steal.
But that moment, as well as the rest of the song, struck me the same way that magazine spread did the first time I encountered this band. It was both familiar and foreign, recognizable as parts but somehow unexpected when put together. Without reading too much into it, maybe that’s what I needed in that “not yet coming of age, starting to understand the depth of emotion but unsure what to do with that information” phase as a teenager, when my fear of the unknown and desire for something different equaled each other out. The lyrics of this song were of secondary importance to me, but there’s a line late in the song that says, “How many styles did you cycle through before you were mine?” This song and band weren’t a stop on my cycle of musical styles; instead, I still carry this song with me because it, more than any other, provided me an example of how a new style, a new means of expression, a new phase didn’t have to be comprised of unfamiliar parts but instead could be the result of taking what one already had, chopping it up in a sampler, throwing in a little hip hop and distortion, and creating something entirely new.