BY JEFF LEVEN
The scene: The noisy bar at the Middle East. I’m huddled around a table with Anthony Roman, ringleader, bass-player and singer for Radio 4 as well as PJ O’Connor, the band’s irrepressible percussionist. After an exhausting sojourn up Route 95, they’re shaking off the road dust and settling into a round with The Record. Even the preliminary start-the-interview chit-chat is interesting – a few comments about the comparative music scenes in the U.S. and Europe. Later, topics range from the sociological patterns of the Detroit music scene to the drunken stage antics of Shane MacGowan. Excerpted here are the 2,000 words that best encapsulate what Radio 4, one of New York’s most promising underground bands, reveling in an exuberant combination of dance, punk, and all the subtle textures in between, has to say about itself:
The Record: Radio in the U.S. has changed a lot since the mid-70s – so many college radio stations and other stations that would play that stuff have evaporated. Do you feel like there’s still a good network across the country for underground groups – do you feel like there’s still a lot of connectivity?
Anthony Roman: Yeah, and that’s in spite of radio, too.
PJ O’Connor: Anthony and I grew up with a radio station that was very influential on the both of us, and it’s closing the first of the year to become something different that is more money-making than indie rock, I guess, for lack of a better phrase. And it’s a shame, this is a station that meant a lot to me and meant a lot to Anthony, too. It’s called WLIR. I started out by basically… from what I understand, they just purchased the playlist of the hippest radio station in London back in 1979 and brought it over here. It changed our lives. It really, really did. It’s sad to see that Clear Channel is basically eating up all the airspace and so, yeah, a movement is happening in spite of radio.
Record: I know there’s the PiL [Public Image Limited – Johnny Rotten’s post-Pistols noise-art-dance collective] song, but is your name a reference to that also?
Anthony: No, I was just looking through records and looking for a title that, in some ways, had something to do with what we sounded like. It sounded good with the sound that we were making.
We pause for a moment as a few rounds of Guinness come. Chuckles and grimaces over the completely foam-less, headless pours those nasty black cans produce.
Record: I used to think that the “Guinness didn’t travel” thing was a total myth…
PJ: (chuckles) Here we are!! Where’s that little shamrock that’s supposed to appear?!
Record: Anyway, I think that a lot of that late-70s English music has a sort of basis in New York. If you look at something like Westway to the World [Clash documentary], there’s Joe Strummer in Harlem watching kids do proto-rap. It’s funny how it sort of comes full circle. There seems to be a lot in the press now about dance-punk stuff. To what extent do these things go in cycles?
Anthony: (deadpan) I think they go in cycles. (PJ chuckles)
Record: What triggers it?
Anthony: I think that what triggers this whole thing is that the 90s musically in the underground with the guitar rock that was coming out – Nirvana, that whole thing, or Pavement. It was very ironic, very depressing. You kind of have these big movements where there weren’t a whole lot of people who weren’t laying their feelings out like “woe is me” or trying to be really clever like Pavement, all of which I thought was cool, but it just went on for so long that shows became boring and you had people rehashing that whole thing, so there didn’t seem to be as much of a connection between the crowd and the band, and I think music and punk rock need to have some kind of physical element back in it. And I think people started to think shows are boring and let’s get some movement and do something that encourages people to move. And when you start thinking that way, those bands in the late-70s were taking punk rock and disco and bringing it together, and so a lot of it looks back to that period for inspiration. Consequently, now, people are reissuing those records. I think it’s a product of the kind of apathetic state of American independent music in the late 90s.
Record: It seems that if you have a message to get across like someone like the Clash did, it’s an excellently subversive way to get it across to put it in a track that could be on Top 40 radio if they wanted it to…
Anthony: Yeah. You’re getting a message across but you’re still playing music that people can have a good time to. It’s not like “oh, we’re here to bum you out.” You can just groove on the music and you can listen to what’s happening in the lyrics, too. So it’s kind of nice that it functions on a couple different levels. That’s one of the things that people like about the music of that time. In New York, you always had this Studio 54 scene and this downtown Manhattan scene, and the place where they would meet you’d have really interesting things happening. New York has been a big influence on us in that way. People always talk about the English bands with us, but we’re just as influenced by the Talking Heads or something like that, people who had their eye on the disco scene and punk rock scene. It’s interesting, and that’s happening again in New York.
Record: Someone like Nirvana had a hard time because they hit a point where they felt alienated from the local scene. Particularly as you get more popular in Europe, to what extent does taking you out of New York change the way you approach the themes in your albums and the process of being Radio 4, a band that started in a specific context playing for friends and like-minded Brooklynites?
Anthony: That’s interesting because a lot of people were thinking we’d have a harder time writing about New York now because we’re not there, but I don’t know, we’re not really at that point with the record where we’re getting really into the lyrics and figuring out exactly what it’s going to be about. But it does change the person you are…we’ve been in Europe, what, seven times in the last year, and it changes you as a person without a date because you see more. But New York’s still home. And we only need to be back for a few days and we know what’s going on.
PJ: The USA must be the most culturally paranoid about what everyone else is thinking. Everywhere else we’ve been be it Spain or Japan inhibitions are gone. When we come out with the kick drum and the bass, which is what the root of what we do…but it’s also New York, the kick drum and the bass – that’s the difference between New York and a lot of other areas…once that gets going, they forget about everything else. I think people who get a little too spastic here think “ooh, I’ve got to tone this down.”
Record: So when you write, are the songs based on a groove that you work out by jamming or are you bringing in riffs?
PJ: I’ve often asked Anthony that very question!
Anthony: Yeah, we tend to write a bass riff or something. We write most of the stuff in my parents’ basement for some reason, I don’t know why. I tend to write a bass riff and then maybe a melody or something and then come in with it. The majority of the record is written that way. Usually the songs that Tommy wrote – Tommy’s our guitar-player – he wrote a bass riff. So, yeah, the majority of our songs, even the new ones, are written around bass riffs. The main thing when we started the band was to have a band where the bass was prominent like in reggae and funk, and we tried to go from there.
Record: So if you could have any band cover a Radio 4 song, who would be the band and what would be the song?
PJ: I’d like to hear Aaron Neville and the Neville Brothers do “Save Your City.”
The conversation veers off into a lengthy discussion of music history, with stops to assess the respective reputations and musical m.o.s of such groups as Blondie, Mitch Ryder and the Sex Pistols. Anthony says of Johnny Rotten in particular:
ony: Now here’s a guy who’s into Can, who’s into reggae, who’s into long songs, what can almost be considered hippie music in a way, and knows that it had to be stripped down to its raw form to start again. And I think now you’re having a similar thing with a lot of bands, and we’re a part of that crew that is taking it down. Getting songs in at three or four minutes and really just having a beat there. If you can reel it in you can take it where’s it gotta go. And I think those bands in the late 70s did the same thing.
PJ: Even lyrically, too. It’s a similar situation that we’re in now. People got sick of this Dionysian stuff. People wanted to talk about what’s real in their lives.
Record: In a way, nothing can be further from that kind of hedonism than something like [the Radio 4 song] “Save Your City.” I take it as a sign of health in music when people can be non-ironic and still have it be something that people are attracted to.
Anthony: Yeah, that’s the definite idea. We cannot be ironic. We cannot try to be clever. We’re not trying to get one past you. Be accountable for what you’re saying. You’ve gotta be.
PJ: We got a chance to meet Joe Strummer once. Talk about a guy with no airs and no rock star hang-ups. We’re taking down our gear and there’s Strummer just dancing by himself, warming up, waiting to go on. And this is a guy who’s a hero to us. You hear all these horror stories about people meeting their heroes and it not working out, and this is the most down to earth guy about to put a show on.
Talk returns to how in so much of 90s music it, to quote PJ, “wasn’t cool to look like you’re enjoying yourself.” He comments on how perhaps the centrality of the guitar, a more egocentric instrument, as compared to the more “communal” bass may be a cause or symptom…
Record: I notice there aren’t any guitar solos on your albums…
Anthony: We’re incapable of them (chuckle), but we wouldn’t want to do them anyway.
PJ: The first thing you do when you hear a good bass line is that you want to tap your toes or move. You’re bringing people in.
PJ tells one of his many amazing stories, this one about a rocking nun who played a drum beat on her shoulder at the Church across the street from him. Talk moves from there to DC’s go-go genre, James Brown, Fela Kuti and house music. Eventually we focus back on the band’s work. Any final thoughts on Radio 4 for the uninitiated?
PJ: I wish that “Dance to the Underground” was on Gotham.
Anthony: It’s on the European version but we couldn’t make it happen here. That’s our current single and that’s what we’re pushing.
PJ: It turned a 3-piece into a 5-piece in one bass riff. I got a phone call saying “I need some congas” and here we are.
Anthony: That was really the bridge, from the punk rock world to what we are now. It’s a time that I know when I’m older I’ll look back to that period of making Gotham and “Dance to the Underground” and I’ll remember being really excited about what was happening in all different facets of music. It was a really good period.
PJ: When you conjure up a rhythmic beast like that it doesn’t come overnight either. I’ve learned so much over the last year-and-a-half about where we want to take this band and that’s exciting to us.
It’s exciting to us, too. The talk and drink goes until precariously close to showtime, an exhilarating blast of rhythm and energy, vindication of all the many things that place Radio 4 in the thick of all that is best in the rock tradition. Dance to the underground, indeed.