TV on the Radio uncut Q&A
The band talks love, death and witchcraft in celebration of its new album
Wed Apr 6 2011
Photograph: Michael Lavine
This week, we're having something of a TV on the Radio blowout to coincide with the band's dates at Music Hall of Williamsburg (Tue 12) and Radio City (Wed 13) and the release of its splendid new album, Nine Types of Light.
There's our feature in the magazine, plus Wilbert Cooper's exploration of how TVOTR is connected to pretty much every other artist in the musicsphere; and here, we share our full Q&A with TVOTR frontmen Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, with whom Time Out recently spent a delightful afternoon in a Williamsburg coffeeshop.
Read on for Malone and Adebimpe's thoughts on love, death, sleeping on floors (too old), GPS (failure to operate), L.A. (disgustingness therein), Dave Sitek's lovely house in L.A., witchcraft, fame and perfumed books.
"If it were possible to write a love song about loving absolutely everything equally, with the same fervor that you did a person, or whatever, that would be great to do. I think that would be a terribly long-winded love song. Maybe not so great. I don't think it would have any words."—Tunde Adebimpe
TONY: I recently saw Rachel Getting Married [in which Adebimpe stars with Anne Hathaway and sings a cover of "Unknown Legend," above]. Tunde, how do you feel about the movie world—are you into the razzmatazz?
Tunde Adebimpe: I've been fortunate enough to work with really good people, and any time I can get a job doing that kind of work, I'm psyched about it, but outside of that... I like the spectacle of that world. I mean, Hollywood itself is completely and totally ridiculous. But I like what Hollywood can generate at its best. It's super beautiful and kind of off-putting to me at the same time. That side of it is interesting. But like we were saying earlier, it's nice that that part of the world can employ so many artists and creative people.
I'd done different acting things before [check out 2001 indie flick Jump Tomorrow], and that came up just after we got off the tour. I read the script and our manager mentioned that Jonathan Demme was directing it and I said, "Oh yeah? I would like to at least meet Jonathan Demme!" [Laughs] So I went and did a reading and tried out and then I got it—it was really cool. But I would say that that was as far from a traditional Hollywood experience as anyone could have, you know?
Did you go to the Oscars?
TA: [Emphatically] No, no, no, no. No. I missed out. [Laughs]
[Kyp starts filming me using an old-fashioned-looking but tiny hand-held device.]
So I was watching your virtual-reality video [at the start of this post]...
TA: Oh yeah, the "Will Do" video
And I thought—you're roughly the same generation as I am, and I remember watching those old TV shows where they'd show the first virtual-reality goggles, or they'd be spreading jam on CDs—
TA: It would've been cool to have that in the video [Laughs]
I wanted to ask you how you feel about technology. Is there a point where we stop trying to keep up?
Kyp Malone:[Looking at my old cassette-tape recorder]The last person we worked with has the same tape recorder. I like these.
TA:Me too. It doesn't take any more time to go through tape than digital. [Laughs]
So do you ever wonder? Or do you love technology?
KM:Um. I feel seduced by a lot of it. I did a lot more recording of myself when I was just using a cassette TASCAM four-track. And I have all these things that are supposedly higher quality but they're just not as accessible to me as that machine was. But I still get seduced by it. I've got a phone that's a Droid or something, and for the first two weeks I had it, I felt romantically toward it. To the point that, I was embarrassed by it, but I kept finding myself like, stroking it.... But I feel like it's insidious in a way, too.
In what way?
KM: Well. There's things that I'm perfectly fine without, and I don't think that they are indispensable, but if it becomes, like, part of the societal infrastructure, then it does become indispensable. And it's... I don't know. I don't need an iPad. Everyone talks about the iPad and no one needs one, it's a toy basically. I know someone who has two.
TA:But you're plugging into this bridge between you and the rest of the world... and that can be knocked out.
KM: You're not in control of it.
It's enfeebling, I think. I drove down to SXSW using my iPhone as map, which was great—but I'm fucked if I don't have it....
KM:I mean, I've been on tours before where there's GPS, and we were fucked! [Laughs]
What's the lostest you've gotten?
KM: I just did a short run with my friend Jolie Holland, and we woke up one morning in Kentucky, and we didn't want to eat at a Waffle House, we wanted to go somewhere independent. So I looked up on-the-line about some restaurant and put it in the GPS. Forty-five minutes down this rural single-lane road to, like, an abandoned barn, [with a] Children of the Corn--style vibe. There was nothing there. Except for wild dogs. [Laughs]
I think of you as artists who are understandably a bit shambolic, with the GPS and so on—but at the same time, you are in the mainstream. Are you ever surprised to find yourself here? Or are you secretly ruthlessly brilliant with arrangements? Efficient as well as artistic?
TA: No! No. [Laughs] Not in any sort of maneuvering way.
KM:I'm a mess. Anything that you've heard about that's worked out in my life has been with help from a lot of other people that are a lot more organized. I'm good at some things, but not that.
TA: Just, as far as the place that the band is in? It's a lot of accidents. [Laughs]
KM: There's some people in the band, like Jaleel, [who are more organized].
Is he the wife-type person, steering the band?
KM: I think Jaleel is definitely tired of being the wife of TV on the Radio. [Laughs] It's hard to be the wife and also still be in the band.
TA: He definitely lobbied for divorce many times.
Is it great to be as popular as TVOTR now is?
TA: I feel like it's relative, I totally do. It can be a strange thing to believe. Because it's constantly something you're figuring out and finding out about. When we're somewhere else, in a different country or something, and people are like, Oh yes, TV on the Radio, then it's a little surprising to me, because I don't think about it. it's a weird thing to give a place to in your mind. I've definitely gotten into situations when I think someone recognizes me or is looking at me for a certain reason and it's just that I have some, like, crap on my face. [Malone laughs.] It's really, like, in different ways, very much like that... "Don't you know who I am?" "No, I don't know who you are." [Laughs]
KM:if you're spending time in Silver Lake [L.A.] or North Brooklyn, or you're on tour and interacting with people who came to see you, or you're in a college town, it can skew your perspective. I don't think that my parents would know who TVOTR was if I wasn't in the band.
Did you aspire to any of this when you started out?
TA: I don't think we really thought or cared about that.
KM: Because our kind of music, it's not the model we grew up with. I wanted to be a drifter...
TA: ...which you kind of are! You got your wish. But I feel like the bands we grew up with—when I first started getting into music, like, punk rock or a scene in Pittsburgh—it was kind of an embarrassing thing, people who wanted to be pop stars. It was so not punk rock at all [Laughs]. It was more like, you make the work, be part of a community making work and sharing work. It's not about being above anyone else or being idolized in any way. It's weird because it's about being part of the community but also being super individualistic within that community. It's weird now because I do think about that. Someone was telling us—
KM: Sharon Van Etten taught a little girl guitar, and the girl was like, "I wanna make a record someday," and [Van Etten] was like, "That's great! You should make a record." "I don't know if I'll be able to, though." She was like, "Why wouldn't you be able to make a record? Anyone can." And the little girl was like, "What if I don't win on American Idol?"
TA: And we didn't have that. I feel lucky enough to have grown up at a time where I got sent a tape from Seattle that was recorded on a four-track that sounded a bit like I could've made it, and that was great. That's the model. There wasn't the idea of, like, you have to have a TV studio or a contest to be voted to be popular or make it. Which I think is really strange. It's a strange way to get into any creative field.
Even on another level, I talked to someone recently who is just a little younger than us, 25, and we were talking about how they were just starting out—they asked me for my advice on the music industry. And I basically told them to do everything themselves and initially don't put too much in a label or wanting to be on a label or seeking acceptance in that way. And he had real concerns, he said, "I wanna put these songs online, but I'm really worried about—it's so easy to put something online and have a billion comments that would discourage you. Like an hour after you put something up you've got strangers from every walk of life going like, [In lunk voice] 'This is terrible!' " And it sounds really fey to be like, "Well, people shouldn't be so mean!" But if every time I made a four-track song and replayed it back there were 12 people going [Snarky] "Oh, that's not very good!" then I would've shot myself in the face. I wouldn't have kept going.
I saw Perez Hilton give a talk with the head of Vevo at SXSW that I found pretty alarming, insofar as it seems there's a handful of people who get to decide which artists get this megapush—and part of the grounds for that decision is, has that person done a lot of work already, put themselves out there? What worries me is that artists are traditionally shy....
KM: I mean, I don't know how that whole thing works, but what I see promoted via those type of forums [like Vevo], it always seems like slick, commercial, part of the same old, same old. I know that there's new artists, new names, but it doesn't seem like something new to me. Just a different haircut and a different hair color.
TA: I'm old. I graciously admit that I'm old, as far as that goes. [Laughs]
I have a question about old age. [Adebimpe laughs.] I ask this because there's lots of love songs on the record. And there's always been something very romantic about TVOTR. I remember reading an interview a while back with Kyp saying you're both Pisceans—
KM: We already had our birthdays.
Do you think that as you've gotten older you've got more cynical or more romantic?
KM:I feel more cynical right now. And I'm not happy about it.
TA:I feel more realistic about it. I remember seeing this Burroughs thing on French TV in the '70s, where they were talking to William Burroughs about falling in love, and they said, "Well, you were so enamored with that person, is that still the case for you?" And he said, "I know too much about myself and the world to ever fall in love with anything ever again." He just said, "I'm too realistic."
KM: Said the man who shot his wife!
TA: He said he couldn't delude himself. It requires a lot of delusion to fall in love. Which is, I think—the initial falling in love part, yeah, it's probably, chemically, enormous spurts of dopamine that psych you out. But I feel like after that it's really, I don't know—I think about people that I would've thrown myself off a cliff for and when I think back on it, 80 percent of what was cool about them, I made up! [Laughs] It was a complete projection.
It's so weird, the difference between falling in love as a grown-up and as a teen, where you're thinking, I can't believe this person is talking to me! When you're older you're more like, I'm all right! I can believe it.
TA: Yeah, you're not out of your mind nervous every time you speak to this person. But it's an awesome thing to feel overwhelmed by another person. It's great.
KM: I don't trust that, though.
TA: I don't trust it at all.
But you wrote "Lover's Day!"
KM: I know. Somebody wrote The Wizard of Oz, and it was a made-up fuckin' story. [Guffaws, nearly chokes laughing]
I wish I hadn't asked! That song got me through some tough times!
KM: I'm glad! That's what it's for. That's what the tooth fairy is for, that's what Jesus and Santa Claus... to get you through tough times. No, that was an honest expression. But an idealization of desires. Yeah, I mean, there was a time when I felt that way. I was doing lots of acid and I had my first lover and it's amazing! It's an amazing experience and a privilege that we have, to get to feel that way. Not sustainable. [Chuckles.]
So you wrote a super-romantic album.
TA: That's what people keep saying. I guess so. I don't know, I would much rather put the word love into the air as many times as possible than anything else. Just to have it out in the world doing something.
Did you read that The Oxford English Dictionary now includes the heart symbol?
TA: Oh really, it got put in? [Malone giggles.]
I flinched at first, but then thought, At least it's love....
TA:Yeah, exactly. As far as emoticons go, pretty good. Yeah, I would much rather that, in all its permutations. In a love song it's usually—if it were possible to write a love song about loving absolutely everything equally, with the same fervor that you did a person, or whatever, that would be great to do. I think that would be a terribly long-winded love song. Maybe not so great. I don't think it would have any words.[Laughs]
But then there's the soft, wafty song on the album, "Killer Crane." That's like when you feel a gentle in-love-with-the-world feeling, no?
TA: I guess, maybe
KM: But is that a love song? I think it's about death.
TA: Yeah, it is. But it's also about the grand appreciation. I guess that it can be about love, realizing that you're going to leave everything, and so the things you love about life are more numerous than the things you won't really miss about it.
Let's talk about the record. You made it in L.A....
KM:And New York. A week or two at Headgear in Williamsburg, then we went to Dave's house in Beverly Hills for two months, then did a week at the end at Brooklyn Recordings this past fall.
Does Dave have a very different life to you all, out in L.A. in his Beverly Hills house?
KM: I can only assume so. I mean, it's one of those things that's kind of like the tyranny of small details. It's not that different compared to if he was a bedouin, you know?
TA:Yeah. He's driving around, he's driving a lot more than he would have here [Laughs]. Yeah, he likes it out there.
KM: It's suiting him.
When I heard you recorded Nine Types of Light in L.A., I assumed that was at the root of the title: The light there is so beautiful...
TA:Oh yeah, no, it's gorgeous. I don't know if that—yes. Yes! Make that so! [Laughs] Make that part of the folklore!
You recorded it quickly—I wondered if that was because you've said you didn't like where you recorded it...
KM: Did I say that? No, where we were staying.
TA:Where we recorded was great.
KM:The actual process of recording, as long as there's a good engineer and a minimum of interruptions, it doesn't matter where it's happening. Dave has a really beautiful spot and it's at the top of a canyon and there's lots of sunlight and greenery. It's very nice. Where we were actually staying was the opposite.
Couldn't you just sleep on Dave's floor?
KM:[Flatly] I don't wanna do that. I'm a grown man. [Laughs]
TA: After doing that for the better part of seven years, when you get a chance to not do it, you never wanna do it again. [Laughs]
So you chose to stay next to a plastic-surgery institute rather than sleep on the floor...
KM: I didn't choose that. [Laughs]
TA: That was bungled by someone else, who didn't mean to bungle it that hard, but they did. People have different ideas of what nice is.
KM: I think if you live in L.A., you're used to driving. And I'm not into driving, at all. I don't like car culture. I choose to live places where I can get around by walking or public transportation. Or taxis. But for someone else... no, I hated where we were staying, I can't make any excuses for it, it fuckin' sucked. It was like the most soul-sucking, sad, douchebaggy corner in hell.
TA: It's true. But in a way I'm really glad. I used to have this attitude, living here—especially when I'd just moved to New York—I was just like, I'll never go there. But I realize I had this very, like, cartoon version of New York versus L.A.: New York is black leather jackets and the Ramones and L.A. is... horrible. I didn't know anything about it, I was just like, L.A. is Pamela Anderson and horrible. So I had this very clich idea of L.A., and the only place that I saw that clich matched and overtaken by a more grizzly reality was where we were staying. Where you go to a caf and there are two reality shows being shot in the same caf with different crews.
Ew. Though they do shoot them here, too; I've seen a crew at the Knitting Factory....
TA: Right, but at least when they shoot them here, there are at least four or five people going, That sucks. Whereas over there it's like, Oh, I wonder if I can get in, move a little closer to that flame. [Laughs]
KM:But there's a lot of incredible culture there, incredible people. I don't wanna bag on it, cause I actually really love California, I consider California to be one of my homes. I just was not at home where I was.
And when you are in the crazy tour machine or in a funny place like that, is there something you can do to make yourself feel normal? Is it hard keeping grounded?
KM: People are adaptable, or can be. I also feel like the time that you get to actually play music, which is the point of being on the road, becomes the time of sanity. That's the most grounding part of the day for me. And the bunk, on the bus: It's a place to hide. Make it dark and quiet. Put earplugs in. if you're in a hotel or motel there's always, watch Law and Order.
TA: And bookstores. Whenever we're done with a tour, there are boxes of books that are sent home. Every town you get to it's like, bookstore, coffeeshop, comic store, art store. I'm working on my collection of 9,052 magic markers [Laughs]. I'm almost there! It's stuff like that. I think we've had two tours where I was like, Yeah, I'm on tour! I'm gonna go for it! And then it was just, like, unsustainable. It's an unsustainable way of being. To hate yourself every day, more than you already do. [Malone laughs.]It's too much for one person to take on.
I mean, given that you went to art school, you knew that you weren't signing on to a particularly normal life, to an extent...
TA: Yeah, and my experience is, the older that I get—I have a lot of friends who are still, who are definitely making art and having creative lives, but I feel like in my twenties, all my friends had some sort of aspiration, like, I'm gonna paint, or I'm gonna write...and sometimes your life takes you in a different direction. And I think as you get older you realize that you're [working] kind of by default sometimes; you're still doing it, but it's not a normal job. It can be strange. It can also be strange explaining it to someone who thinks you're having fun 24 hours a day.
Above: Kyp Malone's solo project, Rain Machine, "Give Blood"
Do you miss each other when you're not playing together? Or is it a necessary breath of fresh air?
KM:I mean, we live—
TA: —like a block away from each other. [Laughs]
KM: I'm sure if I was given enough time in another scenario, I might. No, I don't miss, but as soon as we started again I was really, really excited and happy to be doing it again. I don't think it's a negative to not—you have to kind of be where you're at. I keep making the analogy, or trying not to, actually, between romantic relationships. Like, I've been around the block, I've had my share of loves, not-quite-so loves. And I don't think about my whole history when I'm in the now.
TA: It's like, if someone were to hold me down and go, "Well, how do you feel about everyone you've ever loved?" then I would say I still love them, even if I'm not with them right now. Because they made me who I am. And it's completely irreversible. And I'm gonna see them again. Like, we're contractually obligated to each other [Laughs]. It's like, that's your family and your friends. We go to each other's shows, we hang out.
How was SXSW for you?
KM: I like playing. I like being with friends. I talk a lot about the compulsion, the desire, to bite the hand that feeds [Laughs]. Well, when the hand that feeds is pushing you to do really annoying press things between shows, there's resistance to being told what to do, regardless of the relationship. I don't wanna listen to anybody,and I'm not alone in that. Most people don't wanna be told what to do.
TA: It depends on what the situation is. But when you're supposed to do an interview for a major Internet network and your tour manager comes back to you and says, "Well, the interviewer just told me to ask you what questions to ask you," and I say, "He should not have let that out of his mouth [Laughs] because now that's going to be super weird and antagonistic when we get there...." But that's just, South By is when you can get the most in that period of time, every band is there, every reporter's there—but it does turn into this very weird...
Does it feel a bit whorish?
KM: The whole thing feels whorish. There needs to be, if this structure was the one that was going to keep going, for events like this [bands] wouldn't just have a drummer and a rapper and a singer, they'd also have the press guy. Who's totally good at saying what needs to be said and skirting the truth and being enthusiastic. [Laughs]
Like with the Vevo selection process!
KM: I know! I don't think we're going there, cause I don't think we're allowed in that door, but I think that's where things are going. [Pauses] But there will always be punk rock. It won't be called punk rock, but there'll always be resistance to that.
Yeah. And then that resistance will become fashionable and then that will become mainstream and then it'll go round again....
TA:Yeah, flip it over again.
How did you feel when you got back to Williamsburg? Do you still love it?
KM:I hear people, talking about Los Angeles, I hear some people bag on Williamsburg and Brooklyn for so long, and it's like, guess that's why people keep movin' here, cause it sucks so bad. [Laughs] I mean, you could characterize a place and say it's full of trust-fund kids making bad art or shitty music. And there's definitely that here. But we're looking out of the window now, and that group of women is not coming from the bank getting money from their parents. There's families, there's been neighborhoods full of families for years and years, and a lot of them are still here. And there was a time when it was a really great place for creative people and artists to be, and a lot of those people are still here. Cause I see them. I don't think this is the only place I could live, but it's been really good to me. There's things that annoy me about it, but there's things that annoy me about everywhere.
Do you miss it, the way Williamsburg was when you first started?
KM:By degrees. The amount of times that I think about the fact that I go by a place and think, Oh, I can't go into that new place, that's new shit, and I realize after I've been saying that about a place that it's been there for five years or something...that people have met there, had babies there—
TA: And then it closed! [Laughs]
So there's a movie coming out with the album?
TA:It's ten videos and ten different directors. Every song on the record has a video coming with it. And I shot a short film that's gonna—it's not tying everything together, but it's the frame for everything.
A narrative arc?
TA: Kind of. It's an abstract narrative arc. Our friend Petro [Papahadjopoulos, dir. "Golden Age"] directed a video. And Barnaby Clay did a video. And there are three really incredible animated pieces and I directed one of 'em. I think it'll be available with the deluxe version of the record; the day the record comes out there's going to be a screening on YouTube and a broadcast channel screening.
It'd be nice to get it as a DVD....
TA: Initially I thought, yes, this is a DVD, and what I was told was, nobody's buying DVDs any more. Which is weird cause I bought nine DVDs last week. [Laughs] I dunno, it's a DVD, you can take it to places and play it. but I guess I'm old.
That's like Kindle verses book...
TA: Yeah. Have you seen the audiobook commercial, though? [Starts laughing] There's an audiobook commercial that says [In announcer voice] "I love to read, but who has the time?" I said, it takes just as long to listen to someone reading a book! As it does to read a book!
It's like, don't take two books to the beach! Take one, that you have to shield from sand and sun!
KM: I haven't looked at what titles are available, I guess I really like looking for arcane obscure shit; that's interesting to me. I need to make an experiment and see how much of my personal book collection is available online. I don't think I could find a lot of it—obscure stuff, shit on witchcraft and the occult.
TA: Or someone who writes a dissertation on Ionesco or something, can you find it?
KM: Or histories outside the dominant narrative? I know there's a lot, I'm not trying be dismissive of what's obviously a really incredible pool of information, and I'm sure that it will grow. I just also like collecting books.
And they smell nice.
TA: They smell nice, exactly.
Imagine if they started perfuming books! It would give off a fusty smell, or new-paper smell...
KM:Eventually you could probably program what smell you want.
And sound as well, like crackling fire. Ambient Kindles! Who has the time?
TA: That's pretty awesome.
It's exciting you're playing Radio City.
KM: It should be fun.
TA: I know, I kinda want to go there before we play....
KM: I feel like it's a high stage. Maybe it's just psychologically a high stage.
TA: The last show I saw there was probably 12 years ago, the Smashing Pumpkins. It was circa not-the-whole-band. [Laughs] It was circa Billy Corgan coming out and playing the pipe organ for fifteen minutes to start the set.
In a cape.
TA: Basically. A real Nosferatu thing going on.
KM: Yeah, we need to figure out a way to make it special in there. We could just have the Rockettes.
TA: That would be good if we could afford the Rockettes.