The cover painting on Human Television's debut album, Look at Who You're Talking To, is a jumble of deliberate shapes, squiggles and swashes counter-pointed with several areas of spills and drips. Frontman Billy Downing found the painting in the trash, took it home and ultimately decided it would be perfect for his Florida-founded/Philadelphia-and-New-York-based quartet's cover art.
"I was living near Pratt (Institute, a design school), stumbling home drunk one night, and I was digging through someone's trash and found it," says Downing on an afternoon off from the band's West Coast tour leg. "I don't know if anybody's ever gonna come forward but I talked to a lawyer about it, and he said anything placed on the sidewalk is considered public domain so I don't think I could ever get sued for it. As far as that guy or girl is concerned, that thing should be laying in a landfill right now. It would be kinda funny if you were walking into Tower Records and you saw this painting that you threw into the trash."
The discarded artwork is a fair representative for the music contained just below its surface. Human Television's sound bears a striking resemblance to the jangly Pop of R.E.M., the quiet swell of The Sea and Cake and the chaotic shoegaze formlessness of My Bloody Valentine, with dollops of Smashing Pumpkins' darkness and Brian Wilson's sunshine, a combination of linear melodic deliberation and let's-see-where-it-takes-us experimentation that would clearly appeal to fans of the lo-fi basement science of the Shins, My Morning Jacket and Guided by Voices. Downing understands the need to attach his band's sonic qualities to bands that have charted similar waters but he also notes that those observations don't always ring completely true.
"I think the R.E.M. one is just the easy way out and everyone takes it, because I guess anything that's jangly is automatically R.E.M.," says Downing.
"Some people have said old Yo La Tengo, and I can see that, especially this new record. That's one I can see."
Human Television plugged in nearly five years ago when Downing, his West Palm Beach area kindergarten friend Boyd Shropshire, Ft. Lauderdale denizen Richard Davis and Miami native Mario Lopez all met in Gainesville during their college studies (Downing is in the final stages of his economics degree). In 2001, Downing had been doing bedroom demos on his own when he began playing with Lopez on drums. By 2002, the quartet was fleshed out with Shropshire on guitar and Davis on bass and together they recorded a handful of Downing's songs and, through a friend, sent them to New York label Gigantic Music.
"We sent out one demo and got signed off of it," says Downing. "I didn't really expect anything from it, it just kinda happened. Kinda nuts."
With the band's whirlwind signing, the foursome felt a move north would be in order. After finishing their debut EP, All Songs Written By: Human Television, Downing relocated to New York (presently in Brooklyn), Lopez and Davis set up camp in Philadelphia (Lopez now splits his drum duties between Human Television and Kurt Heasley's Lilys) and Shropshire, still undecided, divides his time between Philly and Brooklyn.
"When we did the full-length, I wanted to spend a lot of time on it so I ended up moving (to New York) and squatting in this basement in Bed-Stuy for awhile so I could work on it," says Downing. "We worked on it for three months straight, almost every single day. It was a lot of work but it was fun. When are you gonna get a chance to do something like that? Maybe never."
By the time Downing and the band got to work on Look at Who You're Talking To, they already had a press kit stuffed with really positive reviews from the 2004 EP. Although that's the kind of attention that can cloud a young band's thinking, it didn't have too much of an impact on how Downing decided to approach Human Television's first full album.
"The whole press game is kinda fun," says Downing. "You open it up and there's a picture of you where they say some nice words. A lot of the reviews are cop-outs where they just copy what other people say but there are a couple of really good ones and I've met a few really good writers."
In the end, the only thing that determined where Human Television would go next was where Human Television had already been.
"You always learn from your mistakes, so I had a year to listen to the EP and try to figure out what I wanted to do with the next one," says Downing. "It was kind of a practice record. It sounded a little too sterile. I don't care, I like reverb — it sounds good to me. I like a lot of those old Phil Spector records. I was listening to Ayler Set and Black Tambourine; that's like my favorite band. I played (producer) Chris (Zane) this one Peel Session Ayler Set song and this one Black Tambourine song and I told him, 'If these two songs had a kid, I would want it to be our record.' We pulled it off pretty well."
In the live arena, Human Television benefits from the same adrenaline/volume/audience rush as any other band, but this current circuit is the first major tour for the band, so Downing says the band is being careful to avoid too much actual planning of stage technique.
"The comment one lady made was what we look like and what we sound like is kinda off," Downing deadpans. "We don't really do a bunch of showy, jumpy crap; we just go up there and play the songs as best we can. We like to make it sound as good as possible. I don't know how visually entertaining we are but we try to be as musically entertaining as possible. I figure if the songs are good, they'll speak for themselves and you don't have to dress up and do a bunch of showy shit."
HUMAN TELEVISION performs Friday. Due to the recent closing of alchemize (see Spill It, page 46), the concert has been moved, but the site was unavailable at press time. For the new location, go to alchemizebar.com.