â€œDo your life justice." Those are the words at the end of the song "Nation," the cornerstone of Radio 4's third album, Stealing Of A Nation. Whether you consider the lyric a demand of our leaders or a reminder to ourselves, the point is this: Radio 4 feel a sense of purpose, and they want to it share with you. With Stealing Of A Nation, the follow-up to 2002's highly-acclaimed Gotham!, that's precisely what they do.
Produced by Max Heyes (Doves, Primal Scream) and recorded in Radio 4's hometown, New York City, Stealing Of A Nation is an aural attack of widely varied ingredients that comes together with pinpoint precision. Futuristic dance beats mate with traditional punk values; dub bass lines bed down with techno keyboards and funk guitar riffs; polyrhythmic percussion breaks get busy with acoustic guitars. And it all sounds like the most natural thing in the world. From the dark propellant groove of lead single "Party Crashers" to the drum-less humid atmospherics of the finale, "Coming Up Empty," Stealing Of A Nation is the album Radio 4 have been building towards since first coming together five years ago. Their influences are now implied rather than worn on their sleeves like badges. Radio 4 sound like...Radio 4.
Radio 4Back then, Anthony Roman (bass, lead vocals), Tommy Williams (guitar, vocals) and Greg Collins (drums) were all refugees from the Long Island hardcore scene, eager to expand their musical horizons yet uninspired by the indie rock of the time. They instead explored the period of unprecedented experimentation that had immediately followed the late 70s punk explosion, and named themselves after a Public Image song as a signal of their broad-minded approach.
Roman recalls their thinking: "'Let's do something that's got a rhythm, and got a pulse to it'. We were all really into Gang of Four and Wire and scratchy guitar. We wanted to be as minimal as possible, and we wanted to do something that couldn't be perceived as indie rock."
This, Radio 4 achieved with their debut album The New Song And Dance, produced by Tim O'Heir and released on Gern Blandsten Records in 2000. The world did not sit up and take notice, but the trio began hanging out in New York City dance clubs, where they met other musicians, DJs, promoters and music fans all similarly frustrated by indie rock's sense of self-importance and its aversion to groove. And Roman opened a small record store in his Brooklyn neighborhood (Somethin' Else), where he sold dub reggae, post-punk, the latest British bands, and newest New York acts. Next door was a cafÃ© run by a former ska musician with a love for house and techno. As the music from the two stores seeped through the thin walls, it blended into one. And it was a revelation.
Radio 4's next release, an EP entitled Dance To The Underground, incorporated these musical and social influences to devastating effect. And its key point - that dancing can be a form of rebellion â€“ made perfect sense to people suffering under Mayor Giuliani's fin de siecle crackdown on nightclubbing. Making a name for themselves as the production duo DFA, Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy signed on to produce Radio 4's second album.
That record was Gotham!, aptly described by allmusic.com as "half political rally, half dance party." But it was much more than that. It was the sound of a chaotic city at the start of a new Century. And, though of course none of them knew it while recording through the summer of 2001, a city on the verge of a calamity.
In the wake of 9/11, everything about Gotham! â€“ from album title down to songs like â€œSave Your Cityâ€? and â€œOur Townâ€? - took on a secondary meaning. None of which altered its core appeal as an angry rock record that wasn't scared to groove. In this sense, it was ideally timed. As the city's economy collapsed, the bars and clubs were vacated of Cosmo-swilling dot.commers and rejuvenated by a new generation: The Rapture, Interpol, !!!, The Strokes, Outhud, Ted Leo, Le Tigre, The Rogers Sistersâ€¦ Radio 4 have no problems giving props to their peers. "Most of my favorite bands right now are from New York," says Roman. "We come from a community of bands, and that's something to be proud of."
Gotham! was picked up by City Slang in Europe; the group, which finally realized its live potential with the crucial addition of P.J. O'Connor on percussion and Gerard Garone on keyboards, toured the Continent relentlessly, playing major festivals and tiny clubs alike, winning acclaim wherever they went. "It was very exciting for us because it was like: These people are dancing to what we're playing and listening to what we're saying." 'Dance To The Underground' was re-released with new mixes in the UK and became a club anthem; in the States Radio 4 signed to Astralwerks, and had similar success with the remix EP Electrify. â€œDance To The Undergroundâ€? has even been used in a Mitsubishi TV ad.
But as their reputation in Europe grew, Radio 4 found themselves constantly challenged for being Americans at a particular contentious point in history. On one occasion, they showed up to headline a sold-out gig in Hamburg only to find a sign at the front door: "No Americans allowed." (They played anyway.) When it came time to write the new album, the group that had previously focused on their home city felt it necessary to address their home country.
The title, Stealing Of A Nation, is a powerful statement, one which Roman admits could be applied to the theft of the 2000 Election, the invasion of Iraq, and the current Administration's denial of core, positive American values. But it's also a word play on a revered 1979 reggae song, Jacob Miller's â€œHealing Of The Nation.â€? Since being turned on by The Clash, "Reggae is something I've always kept exploring and it's stayed constant in my life," says Roman. "It's the music I probably end up listening to the most." And its influence on Radio 4 helps distinguish the band from their peers: the song â€œNationâ€? has a fierce dub bass line, grinding atmospheric textures and a powerful vocal that will surprise anyone who thought they had the Radio 4 sound pegged.
But back to its lyrics. "Everything has become more complex," says Roman, who is careful not to name names in the individual songs. "There's no right or wrong to many many issues. You go through periods where you almost apologize for being American, even though these are things you have nothing to do with. â€˜Nation' is about that feeling."
Similarly, â€œState Of Alertâ€? concerns "the panic people feel every time the lights go out" in post 9/11 America, while â€œNo Reactionâ€? challenges the notion of American apathy. "I think people care more than ever - but they're just not being listened to. And that can give the same impression as people not caring."
Radio 4 could never be accused of not caring. â€œParty Crashers,â€? a natural follow-on from where Gotham! left off, "is very much about the New York scene and what happens when people try and take some of the joy out of it," says Roman, though the song itself is so strident it's both the first single and the lead track. It's immediately followed by â€œTransmission,â€? a pulsating celebration of "digital recording heroes," as the chorus calls them: "People like The Streets, Audio Bullys and Dizzee Rascal, these kids in their bedrooms, recording these unbelievably brilliant snapshots of somebody's life. "
But, as Roman readily admits, "Not everything has to be this big political message and not everything has to be for the dancefloor. I don't just sit around listening to reggae and house records, I listen to a lot of songwriters. The Replacements are one of my favorite bands." And so â€œAbsolute Affirmationâ€? is a straight-ahead song of Brooklyn specifics for universal consumption: the thrill of an impending Saturday night, the over-indulgence that frequently accompanies it and the regret that typically follows.
It all makes for what seems like a natural development from Gotham! until you play the albums back to back. Then it sounds like a quantum leap. Part of the credit goes to producer Max Heyes, a passionate fan of the band who strived to bring out the melodies, clarify the vocals and further attenuate the grooves. The inclusion of O'Connor and Garone in the studio for the first time was also vital: listen to the percussion breaks and stereo synth parts on â€œNo Reactionâ€? and wonder how Radio 4 ever did without them. And the approach to composing changed: after years of writing in band rehearsals, Roman and Williams brought in demos from home, which facilitated input from other members and gave the songs necessary breathing space.
But some things stayed the same. Radio 4 albums are always recorded in New York, with family and friends invited to drop by and pass comment. For Stealing Of A Nation, the group secured a 24-7 deal in a new Brooklyn studio, several feet underground in a converted urban warehouse, so they could record when the muse took them without having to watch the clock. "That's how we like it," says Roman, "A bunch of people sitting round drinking beer and throwing ideas around. That's how we work." Because for all their sense of purpose, Radio 4 are primarily about enjoying themselves. "We're not a high pressure band. We don't ever force ourselves to write or record. If we were gonna operate like that we would have just got regular jobs." It all comes back to the central premise: Do your life justice.