From Arthur No. 25:
Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio talks about his band’s anti-Bush song “Dry Drunk Emperor” and their recent tangles with U.S. militarism.
“Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher”—a crucial line from an Allen Ginsberg poem, directed to Walt Whitman, that poet-scholar Lewis MacAdams recently pointed out—couldn’t help but remind me of finally meeting TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone recently at a Massive Attack/TVOTR/Gang Gang Dance show at the Hollywood Bowl—as the Massive Attack set unfolded across the vast fogspace, I spotted Kyp walking across the Bowl’s midpoint transom, taking in the scene—and I ran after him, to ask him what had really gone down in Boston in August, when his band made the news because of their repeated anti-military recruiting statements from the stage—and to find out why the band’s “Dry Drunk Emperor” wasn’t included on the band’s new album—It’s a song was recorded and released instantly onto the internet via Touch N Go in October 2005, in the immediate wake of the Bush government’s disastrous handling of Katrina—Its beautiful fury, soul-deep sadness and sensible proposals (“what if all the bleeding hearts took it on themselves to make a brand new start/…/paint murals on the White House/feed the leaders LSD”) put TVOTR squarely in that foundational American tradition of courage-teaching graybeards—I caught up with Kyp, the song’s co-author, and owner of a graying beard, and we conferred—and the next night, after a TVOTR show at the all-ages Glass House in Pomona, we got the following convo on tape—
Arthur: Why isn’t ‘Dry Drunk Emperor’ on Return to Cookie Mountain?
Kyp Malone: We were right at the end of doing sessions for the album. Me and Dave [Sitek] had been passing back and forth this piece of music about the war in Iraq and living in a situation where the government had taken us into a war over a lie. An obvious lie, that we have to live with for the rest of our lives. [smiles] Unless some magic superhero from some other dimension comes down and changes it.
Then Hurricane Katrina happened. We were in the studio and our friends in New York who have family in the Gulf Coast were coming by. We stopped working to watch the news and console our friends. When we started working again, I finished the lyrics and then we had it.
Dave and I felt really strongly about that song. It’s super-naïve now, but at the time it seemed very realistic that if we waited to put it on the album, it would be an irrelevant song because the person that it was directed to—George W. Bush—would be out of power. Because how could the whole nation watch what was happening with the war started over lies? There was no way that he could NOT get impeached. IF there was a reason to go to war—if there ever was in my lifetime—then maybe Afghanistan made sense. But they fucked that up and they went to Iraq for obviously selfish reasons. And then the biggest port in America gets crushed by a hurricane? Obviously they knew it was going to happen eventually. And then they fumble that. It’s important to take care of the biggest port in America. That’s important if you care about the country—if you’re a ‘patriot.’ But they fucked it up, and they fucked a bunch of people who historically had been fucked…
If we get to the next phase and people remember this country, I really wonder what they’re gonna think about this time. And about race in particular. Pretending nothing is fucking wrong, when it’s so blatantly obvious that it’s fucked. I’m not saying nothing has ever been cleaned up since the inception of the country, [but] the fucking institution of slavery hasn’t been cleaned up. Hasn’t been cleaned up! And if you talk about it, people get bummed out because it’s boring and uncomfortable and it makes people feel weird and ‘you’re just being sensitive’ and not with the times.
A: What happened after Katrina, in the spring?
Kyp: We were invited to open up for the Nine Inch Nails/Bauhaus tour—both bands I listened to a lot as a kid. It was pretty thrilling for me, and I learned a lot playing amphitheatres and House of Blues and Live Nation, which is the new Clear Channel. There was a really good communal feeling amongst all the bands.
But at some point in Texas a week and a half into a three-week stint, me and Jaleel (TVOTR drummer/multi-instrumentalist) were walking past one of the big screens and they had a commercial running for Army or the Marines. Jaleel pointed it out to me and we were both aghast—what the fuck is that about? We walked out into the crowd and found the Marines were recruiting kids at the show. On the grounds. Right next to beer and taco stands and ice cream—the Marines! They had a contest: ‘Come on! Let’s see how many pull-ups you can do!’ I couldn’t believe it. I felt sick to my stomach.
Why did you feel sick?
Kyp: Because I don’t want to be a commercial for the death machine. I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t think that there’s any place at all in our creative community for that bullshit. It’s anathema to what I believe in and to what I’m trying to do. So I got really uncomfortable. I called management to say if this is anyone’s idea of a good idea then we can’t be on this tour. Trent [Reznor] freaked out. He didn’t know [the Marine recruitment stations were there]. No one knew. It was actually in the contract that the Marines COULDN’T be there. But the Marines offer so much money to promoters that the promoters think maybe they can just slide it by and no one will call them on it. So Trent had them kicked off. And the venues were charged $20,000 apiece to give to a non-profit working-for-peace organization, which is a pretty awesome way to handle it.
And that brings us to what happened in Boston in August when you played the WFNX-sponsored show headlined by your friends the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in City Hall Plaza to 12,000 people.
Kyp: No offense to anyone who’s born there, because we don’t get to decide where we’re born. But there’s a James Baldwin quote about Boston which I find to be apt. He said, ‘In Boston, when they shit on you, they hand you a towel—so that you can wipe their ass.’ We got there and we were playing outside of Boston City Hall. And I’m looking around at all the corporate logos. I’m getting uncomfortable, but I’m used to it. I’m used to playing festivals. I’ve seen it a number of times. I’ve had the Verizon logo shine on my face at the House of Blues. [laughs] There’s a lot that I’ve come to stomach, in this game, on this level. And then I see a Marine recruiting tent. I point it out to Dave. We’re on the side of the stage. I don’t know what to do about this. I still want to play for these kids that came out and I want to play with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. We’re about to go on. The DJs for this radio station that put on this show come onstage and they say, ‘We want to introduce you.’ We’re like, ‘We don’t need you to introduce us.’ I don’t want them to talk about us. They don’t know us. But they were really insistent. Like, ‘It’s our job.’ Okay, do your thing.
So they start talking, [in dumb voice] ‘We wanna thank this corporation, and we wanna thank this corporation, and let’s have a big round of applause for the Marine Corps.’ At which point simultaneously me and Tunde grab the microphones and Tunde’s like, ‘We will walk. We will walk away from this right now. Don’t applaud that shit. They don’t belong here. They don’t have any right to be here. We’re not here for them. That is SEPARATE from us. That is separate from what we’re doing. We want NOTHING to do with that.’
But I still felt like it was attached to us. Just the mere mention. Then I think, the US military is probably doing this in any place they can find right now—they’re trying to get inside. The militarization of everyday life in this country. Which is pushing us closer and closer to totalitarianism.
What was happening in the crowd?
Kyp: Welll… It got confusing for people. A crowd can have its own opinion, which is why people get tomatoed off of stages. But people are also conditioned to ACCEPT certain things. They accept [that] someone standing above them with a microphone is a voice of authority. And people who spend their lives speaking on the radio have that NAILED. Then I was just ANGRY. And before every song I was like, ‘This song is about not joining the Marines. And this song is about not joining the Marines. And this song is about not joining the Marines.’ [laughs] It could have been a lot more fun for everybody, but what are you gonna do? The energy was different. The whole time I was trying to ERASE the idea that they’d turned us into a commercial for an institution that is engaged in something immoral and horrific.
What happened when you walked offstage?
Kyp:The security and the cops who were working the event started vibing us really hard. I was talking to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, trying to tell them about what happened, because I didn’t think they were even cognizant of any of it. The head of security was all up in Jaleel’s face and Timmy [our guitar tech] and Gerard’s face and the cops were standing behind him. Like [in deep voice] ‘You’re not welcome here anymore. You’re not welcome in Boston. You need to leave.’ There’s a lot of great people in Boston, I want to be able to play in Boston. But it’s always going to be BOSTON.
I talked to the DJ afterward. He was like, ‘What, are you guys pacifists or something?’ I went, ‘Uh, no, not really. But that’s not the point at all. I don’t want to be a commercial for the Marines—or anything else, but particularly not the Marines.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, well, you know they pay a lot of money and we gotta pay you.’ And I go, Well, let us know where the money’s coming from. Because if it’s coming from the Marines, we’re not gonna play the show.