There is a man. He is handsome, but right now a little silly. He's wearing flip-flops, for one, and the kind of slack, open-lip grin that goes with flip-flops, two. His neon flower-print Bermuda shorts are striking, perhaps all the more so because of how they contrast against his kempt salt-and-peppered beard. Above that, sunglasses and visor. Below: a T-shirt that reads, in thick comic sans against swirling tie-dye, "Life is good." This man is just a symbol, but he's shaped like Tunde Adebimpe.
It's not our fault we're picturing him this way. The TV on the Radio co-founder just asked us to imagine exactly that scene, albeit facetiously. There's a song on his band's new Seeds album called "Ride," in which chiming synths, bounding drums, and blissful melodies whip up a hippie-on-holiday froth. "Fathers, sisters, brothers," he implores, "Others born of mothers, every friend and lover... Now is the time! Get on the ride!" It's like a punked-up, art-rocker's wet "Magical Mystery Tour" dream.
So, we tease, like, what is 'The Ride,' maaaaan? And after he verbally depicts his ex-pat, beach-wise alt-self, Adebimpe explains, "It's a positive song about teaming up against despair. It's literally the ride of your life." He means the ride that is your life, which, ultimately, is also the idiomatic ride of your life. It's a very TVOTR concept.
But something's different. It's been 13 years, and in that time this crew has written precious little songs that sound happy. They've done transcendent and triumphant, yes, and made plenty to rally behind. But not without sounding dense and damaged. Or without words that stare death in the eye socket, wrestle existential dread to the ground, dance with demographic disharmony, fuck with the idea of love, or make love to the idea of fucking. They're Romantics like that — the capital "R" type.
Still, there's that rich and familiar voice on Seeds' seventh song, singing, "Lack of resolution? Crying and confusion? There's one sure solution: Leave it behind!" This seems so antithetical to our perception of the indefinable, inimitable band forged in old wild Williamsburg amidst ash from the Twin Towers disaster, that we have to ask ourselves: What's changed? And on cue, there he is, Parrothead Tunde, waving at us from the shore, mouthing: "This is (TV on the Radio at) 40!"
But that's only part of the figurative picture, and the literal one is less drastic. We are in Los Angeles' Los Feliz neighborhood, in a Spanish-style cottage from the '20s whose mostly turquoise décor is a successful mashup of mid-century modern and Urban Outfitters. In reality, Adebimpe has impeccable personal style, and his T-shirt sports an R. Crumb portrait of Robert Johnson. Kyp Malone looks like a mystic, kind eyes giving way to an alluvial beard spreading over an open chambray. Jaleel Bunton wears a web of necklaces whose every bauble looks like it'd contain a story.
You have a lot of songs about things absolutely not going well, but they are all sort of uplifting. — Tunde Adebimpe
Absent 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.
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Malone can't help himself. The first joke fell flat, so he lobs another into the middle of the very put-together living room: "That song's working title was 'Skeet Skeets.'" The goofy plurality of the euphemism inspires an explosion of giggles. Adebimpe riffs about "a picture of Skeet Ulrich doing something unmentionable." And even Bunton, who always seems a bit stoic for his towering stature, chuckles guiltily.
"You get to be basically 40 and you realize you haven't changed as much as you thought you would, or maybe should, have," says Adebimpe from beneath a grown man's wide-brimmed, banded fedora. "You're like, 'I thought I would be different, or more responsible, at this age.' That feeling made me want to make an album less... 'Obscure' isn't the right word, but something that feels like a gift I can hand off, and there's room for your imagination to complete whatever we're putting out there."
Is it fair to say, then, that this is the least oblique set of TVOTR songs yet? we ask.
"I think that's fair to say," he answers slowly, twisting his lips up during the pause. "I know I definitely made an effort for two reasons. One, I wanted the lyrics to be clear in the sense of, maybe not today's pop songs, but older ones. Where I'm using a few words as dots to connect instead of spelling everything out, which I feel I tend to do. And secondly, as far as performing things live, my memory gets worse and worse."
Our music may not be the biggest thing, but someone can always pick it up and know we're talking soul to soul. — Jaleel Bunton
If 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.
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Adebimpe directed an hour-long film to go with that release, and it ends a year in the future. The band's broken up, and the fellas reunite at a diner to catch up. Each is living out a parody version of his self. Sitek's sunk his money into funding The Bush Administration on Ice. Malone is "Joe Cool" in a Peanuts-themed larping community. Smith works at the diner, "waiting tables and working on my arpeggios at home."
Did they know at that point? Was there special meaning in that scene? Were those absurd scenarios each man's personal heaven? And have they written a song to his memory? Or would that be weird? Do they have a relationship with his family? His little boy? Did they feel his absence in the studio when they came together for Seeds?
But before we could ask, this came in advance from the publicist:
"Please no questions about Gerard's death. I'm sure you can imagine they do not want to talk about it and have only done so privately — they will not answer any questions. There is nothing to say. It's obvious how they felt about it."
TVOTR functions as a monolith. They're a band without leader, who make a sound without a genre. Each member brings songs to the table. Each produces, and plays many instruments. They all sing, and they speak with a collective voice. The quiet but enormously gifted Smith was part of that. Now he isn't. Or more likely he's been absorbed somehow, into the heavy sludge from which this band draws its perpetual newness. A sobering note in the swirl. Schrödinger's Fifth Beatle, maybe.
Every single time we made an album, I was like, 'Maybe that's all we're meant to do.' — Tunde Adebimpe
At 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.