You have a lot of songs about things absolutely not going well, but they are all sort of uplifting. — Tunde AdebimpeAbsent is David Andrew Sitek, the other architect of the revelatory opening salvo that was 2003’s Young Liars EP, original home to “Staring at the Sun” and objective evidence that music can blow minds. No, Dave’s not here, which we hope is a tribute to that famous bit by Cheech & Chong, who should totally do a “best of” called Seeds. “It just seemed to work,” says Adebimpe about the new album’s title. “The idea of regeneration or something growing back into place. The record feels like that to me because you have a lot of songs about things absolutely not going well, but they are all sort of uplifting. It’s not the brighter side of conflict, but that you can get through it and you’ll have grown in the process, which goes along with the word ‘seeds.'” “It was that or ‘Midnight Gravy,'” Malone pipes in with a dirty grin. A semen joke, though not out of character from the man whose falsetto brought two TVOTR track lists to climax with red-cheeked paeans to sweaty sex — 2004’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (“Wear You Out”) and 2008’s Dear Science (“Lover’s Day”). “Seeds” is also the name of this album’s final song. But it’s Adebimpe’s, which means the lyrics are more to do with relationships than relations, per se. “Rain falls down like it always does,” he coos to his sweetheart, “This time I’ve got seeds on ground.” Like the LP’s early shares “Happy Idiot” and “Careful You,” the song speaks to a love that seems bigger and more powerful than the singer and his female subject.
Credit: Photo by JUCO / All photos by JUCO
Our music may not be the biggest thing, but someone can always pick it up and know we’re talking soul to soul. — Jaleel BuntonIf that seems sorta mundane, consider that these 12 tracks and their hooks are some of the most instantly memorable in the band’s history. A bicoastal schism split them into two parties — Sitek and Adebimpe live in L.A., Malone and Bunton in New York still — so when the four came together to record at Sitek’s Federal Prism Studios in Glendale last July, and across two more sessions, they worked with a certain facility. From 60-odd demos they plucked 20-ish good starts, and if one of those didn’t turn into a song within a couple of days, it was left behind. They worked in shifts, and spent their downtime on darts, reading, swimming, smoking weed, and visiting old friends. Compared to the claustrophobic, manic masterstroke of an album that was 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, the end result is unwild, but not uninteresting or untrue. “Happy Idiot” is a helluva single. Seeds is a pretty easy album to enjoy. “We’ve made a bunch of different records and they’ve had different personalities,” says Malone. “This is the record that makes the most sense for this group right now. Like, if you look at my behavior and decisions, I mostly want to feel good.” The smile appears again. The others shake their heads knowingly, and just a little shamingly. “I want more than that, but music has such breadth. It can encompass so many things. A song doesn’t have to be about the New Jim Crow, or how disappointed I am with the Obama Administration and his drone war, for it to be important to me.” And besides, “feeling good” can be difficult business. Wanting and achieving it are different things, and that struggle plays out here. Malone says he’s trying to take the long view now, and parts of Seeds confirm as much; he and Adebimpe both dispatch cradles and graves in these lyrics. But there’s also “The Ride” and its amped, desert-rock cousin “Lazerray,” plus a Malone line decrying “the silly little dream past the right now” — songs about sitting in the front car of Robert Pirsig’s consciousness train. Plastered to the arrow-headed cowcatcher of the leading engine, even. So settling into thorny, undeniable adulthood seems to be a theme. Still, a song like “Love Stained” plays like a celebration of cushy coupledom: “We’re fed, we’re wed, and unembarrassed to share this affair.” It’s actually the opposite, says Malone. “I don’t like the forms of coupling that are popularly available. I’m too old and tired to be the slut that I want to be. But I have a hang-up on the idea of ownership. I don’t like to hold hands in public. It drives me out of my mind, and I know it’s not healthy. So the idea of getting to a place where you believe enough in a love commitment to announce it to the world? That’s an exciting fantasy to me. But it’s just a fantasy.” “That some people live effortlessly every day, somehow,” says Bunton curtly. “I can’t tell whether it’s propaganda I’ve been taking in since childhood that makes me still dream of that,” Malone continues, “or if it’s actually something I could have if I was emotionally mature enough to make it work. I kind of think it’s a trick.” “The idea of it is a trick?” asks Adebimpe, the only one here with a wedding band. His wife is French, as are some of his lyrics — oui, je t’aime over the El-P digi-scrum of “Careful You.” His denouement is unexpected: “I think it is a trick. I totally do.” Aren’t you perpetuating the trick with that song, though? we ask Malone. “I’m at least two people,” he murmurs. “One of those people hook-line-and-sinker believes and wants that, and the other thinks it’s fucking gross and that it’s a lie.” Parrothead Tunde is no longer alone. Kyp-Who-Believes is there now, too, on the figurative beach whose bigger picture we’ve yet to see. He’s wearing a bucket hat. In literal L.A., actual Adebimpe is describing art-making. “If I can jump to a possibly stupid metaphor,” he begins, then proceeds to paint us another, far darker, picture. “Imagine all of your feelings and experiences as this field of emulsion, and if you dip your fingers into that liquid, you feel everything. All of your messy feelings come swirling around you — your conflicts about life, about death, about love, about the seemingly pointlessness of a lot of good and bad things. It all goes coursing through you and knocks you out. You take a hit of the stuff, and after you get up you can sit down and write with all of that — very particular, very small lines to describe the immense depths of these crazy feelings. It’s an exhausting way to do things.” They used to dive into that surging sea of nightmare juice, get rolled by the surf, and steep their bodies in the tarry, tear-salted gunk. But as a matter of self-preservation TVOTR learned it’s better to, as Adebimpe put it, team up against despair. Still, they aren’t ignoring the void; they’re smiling at it, willfully happy idiots, sandaled feet a few inches from the hungry muck. There’s an ocean of the stuff out there, after all. The catchiness of “Happy Idiot” isn’t solely owing to those post-punk guitars and New Wavy effects evoking a revved, glassy-eyed vision of ’80s MTV. Or the fact that it’s a co-write with pro Swedish songwriter Daniel Ledinski (Tove Lo, Gorgon City, Shakira). The song resonates because we all, at times, want to anesthetize ourselves to the bad stuff — dumb down to a childlike state. They hired Pee-wee Herman for the video, fer crissakes. And that’s also why they won’t talk about Gerard Smith. He died on April, 20, 2011, from lung cancer. The public learned of his diagnosis a month before. Smith is most often referred to as TVOTR’s bassist and keyboardist, but like the others, he wrote songs and played a bunch of other things too. And his passing came only nine days after the arrival of the group’s previous album, Nine Types of Light.
Every single time we made an album, I was like, ‘Maybe that’s all we’re meant to do.’ — Tunde AdebimpeAt some point in our talk, Bunton describes their collective temperament as “jovial and morose.” This makes sense. On September 10, 2001, TV on the Radio was a very different thing. Adebimpe and Sitek were neighbors in a semi-converted warehouse in a still industrial corner of Brooklyn. The former was an animator by day dabbling in a cappella song sketches by night; the latter, a music producer in the making who sold his paintings on the side. They met and began making half-baked barbershop-hop ‘n’ soul together (Google OK Calculator). They gigged when they could, but those were noisy, improv affairs at crusty bars. Then, on September 11, the planes came. That’s when they became a real band. The pair decided they were done putting in work for others’ causes. They hunkered down and turned TVOTR into something still very much worth our time today. Smith was the last to join. He’d famously been busking on the subway when he recognized Adebimpe from the indie rom-com Jump Tomorrow (you’ll soon see him in Nasty Baby with Kristen Wiig). From the start, the group represented an odd resilience — beauty and art in the face of ugly and evil.
Fitting, then, that their album process has traditionally been almost war-like. Bring up Cookie Mountain — Smith’s first — and the trauma is tangible in this peaceful rental space. “I don’t have enough life points left to make a record like that again,” laughs Adebimpe. Bunton echoes the sentiment with a glint of terror in his eyes. “Every single time we made an album, I was like, ‘Maybe that’s all we’re meant to do,'” says Adebimpe. “I distinctly remember walking out of the studio with Kyp when we finished Desperate Youth. It was 4 or 5 in the morning, and we looked at each other like, ‘Welp, guess that’s it. We’re gonna have to go back to whatever we were doing before this.’ You learn to appreciate the hell out of the grace periods.” It’s hard to find an interview where someone in the group doesn’t sing the praises of their six-month hiatuses, self-prescribed at the end of each album cycle. The gaps between releases keep getting bigger. Have they ever considered actually ending it? “Week five of almost any tour,” says Malone. “Yeah, completely. A bunch of times,” says Adebimpe. But with the breaks comes perspective. “We’re really lucky to be doing what we’re doing. No one’s shooting at us or trying to drown us out for what we believe in. This isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s got the importance we give it. We sifted through a lot of bullshit as a group of friends and as a band. For me in approaching Seeds, it felt like a fresh, open road to go down. Like, ‘Are my legs broken? No? Cool. Let’s run!'” The extracurriculars help. Adebimpe has his Afro-Kraut outfit, Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band, plus a budding acting career and his drawing. Sitek is always producing someone (Scarlett Johansson, Jane’s Addiction, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kelis), had that Maximum Balloon solo album in 2010, and runs his fledgling Federal Prism label. Malone did the Rain Machine LP in 2009, joined Adebimpe in Mali to record with Tinariwen in 2011, and is in a garage-punk noise act or two. Bunton does time in a gospel band, and backed the late Bobby Womack with Damon Albarn on tour. “It’s hard to maintain polyamory in a love relationship,” says Malone. We’re inclined to believe he’s speaking from experience. “It’s a fuck-load of work. It’s more pain, and more pleasure, than you likely have time for. But in music, the more everyone works with everyone else, the more it expands your horizons. Then you bring those expanded horizons back to your primary relationship.” Pause. “And not just bugs.” These four make each other laugh. They make beautiful music together. Their union is admired by many. So what if they take time off and have commitment issues? How many bands do you know who put David Bowie on an album, or had their beards stroked by Stephen Colbert, or landed a song in Breaking Bad, or were covered by Phish? We’ve moved to the dining room of the Los Feliz Lodge to stuff our faces with kale salads and pork belly sandwiches from nearby eatery Forage. We’re well into hour two, and the interview’s devolved into an all-hands geek-out over the fortuitous appearance of Metallica’s James Hetfield at their recent San Francisco show. “How the fuck did we end up on his radar at all?” asks Bunton. He gulps down some fresh lemonade to clear his throat. “Sometimes I don’t know what we are.” He does though. It’s time to go, but we’re seized with the urge to ask a question we never do: In TV on the Radio’s opinion, what is TV on the Radio good at? Adebimpe talks about the live show. Malone makes jokes. But Bunton has the long view. “Sometimes I listen to our older stuff and feel like we underestimate what it means to have lasting resonance. Like, since 1971 till the end of time, in every high school there’s gonna be a group of kids that are like, ‘The Dead! Jimi! Doors!’ For the arc of human existence, that window will always shine on someone’s life. Our music may not be the biggest thing, but someone can always pick it up and know we’re talking soul to soul. A lot of music is good, but it doesn’t do that. It’s just my perspective, but 12-year-old me or 90-year-old me will represent that proudly.” Proud Jaleel joins Kyp-Who-Believes and Parrothead Tunde at the shore of the void. Dave’s there too, in a Speedo. They’re holding hands and kicking seeds into the goo.
lead photo by Photo by JUCO / All photos by JUCO