FOREWORD: Arguably the most popular underground band of the new century, Brooklyn’s TV On The Radio are an enigmatic band clashing and colliding modern musical styles with surprisingly great aboveground success.
Following this ’04 interview with tape manipulating singer, Tunde Adebimpe, to support breakout LP, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, they went on critical acclaim with ‘06s superb Return To Cookie Mountain and ‘08s instant classic, Dear Science. Without giving up one iota of experimental brevity, TV On The Radio clearly achieved mainstream and MTV success on their own terms. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Spending part of his childhood in native Nigeria, cartoonist-painter Tunde Adebimpe found a permanent home in America when his father completed medical residency in St. Louis. After his family settled in Pittsburgh, teenaged Adebimpe attended a New York City film school. Soon, he began working on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch, starred in admirable ’01 underground movie Jump Tomorrow, then pieced together home recorded vocal tracks for the experimental 4-track, 24-song OK Calculator, which he made with percussionist-sampler-guitarist roommate David Andrew Sitek as TV On The Radio.
Though part of Brooklyn’s fertile Williamsburg scene, TV On The Radio bend rock, hip-hop, and funk influences in profoundly obtuse directions unexplored by their local brethren. Taken from ‘03s notable “Young Liars” EP (featuring an unlisted a cappella take on the Pixies “Mr. Grieves”), their anxiety-fueled schizoid drone “Satellite” gets your freak on like Wall Of Voodoo’s kaleidoscopic titillation “Mexican Radio” did way back in ‘82. Recruiting guitarist-vocalist Kyp Malone, the extended trio (including Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, flutist Martin Perna, and drummer Jaleel Bunton) thereupon assembled ‘04s startling full-length debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes.
Singing auspiciously like prog-rocker Peter Gabriel, Adebimpe’s frothy moans, excitable shrieks, and yearning whimpers mollify each Desperate Youth track, cascading above the haunted forlorn mantra, “Dreams,” and the portentous apocalyptic apparition “Staring At The Sun.” Scantily resembling respected vocal troupe the Persuasions’ neo-psychedelic soul, or perhaps, warped ‘50s doo-wop, the scurrying a cappella rendezvous “Ambulance” juxtaposes Adebimpe’s overdubbed descant falsetto wails with his spherically rhythmic deep bass grunts. For the bewitching “The Wrong Way,” a blurted sax signature underscores tape-looped rhythmic dementia, securing its hex-like transience.
Since TV On The Radio’s unlimited stylistic maneuverability and variegated abstractions plunder restrictive borders, predicting the evolutionary growth of this still-maturing combo seems preposterous. Undeniably, they’ve already covered vast terrain with stimulating results.
How did TV On The Radio’s nascent OK Calculator come together?
TUNDE: I was living in an art space loft when Dave moved in. The 4-track stuff on OK Calculator Dave and I made separately, except three songs. It’s not a band. It’s almost like a sketchbook. I did a cappella, humming guitar parts, beat boxing drums. We put this together with Dave’s stuff. It’s as free and lo-fi as possible. We released it ourselves, but Suicide Squeeze may re-release it with a printed book I did. The album sounds funny to me now, but it works. Anyone can make music if they have a strong belief in their ideas.
Were ‘70s political hip-hop progenitors the Last Poets or legendary pre-punk eccentrics Pere Ubu influential?
TUNDE: My parents always had music playing. They liked Gospel, Classical. My dad played piano and taught my brother and sister. I really can’t read music. In high school, listening to college radio gave me the impetus to get involved in music. Stuff on K Records or records that didn’t have a lot of distance between who made it and who listens to it I listened to – the Pixies, Sonic Youth, NWA, Ice-T. There was a Pittsburgh college station, WPTS, I’d listen to religiously. Reception was shitty but they played vital music.
Did your parents’ African heritage and upbringing instinctively give you a tremendous rhythmic sensibility?
TUNDE: I don’t know. As a kid, I’d hear Nigerian radio. Fela Kuti was at the root base of a lot of it. But Dave’s from Polish descent and he’s making a ton of those beats. (dual laughter) I feel fortunate to be in a band with people who aren’t satisfied with making stuff that sounds like everything else.
To me, the TV On The Radio moniker projects the boundary expansion of telecommunication through imagery, mystery, and intrigue.
TUNDE: That’s a kind description. Actually, this kid, Martin, who Dave knew, was listening to our stuff and proclaimed we should be TV On The Radio.
Initially, the “Young Liars” EP blew me away. Its first song, “Satellite,” builds ceaseless friction and tension until seemingly going off the rail.
TUNDE: The plan was to make the EP longer, but we finished the five songs and had to do other outside work to get by and survive.
Its ominous post-911 mood invokes spiritually fearful lyrics.
TUNDE: We made it right afterwards, so it has that depression, hopelessness, and hopefulness about it. We were across the river when that happened. It was a confusing time. Personally, I needed to busy myself with something I thought was true.
Word on the street is you and Dave handed out percussion instruments to audience members during an early show.
TUNDE: We had a club residency at Brooklyn’s The Stinger. We’d go up and improvise a set, take requests, or write songs about something the crowd would shout out. At the end, we’d get the audience onstage with tambourines. Then, we’d sneak offstage totally drunk and go, ‘That’s our band!’
Why does “Staring At The Sun” appear on both the EP and Desperate Youth?
TUNDE: We wanted people to find a thematic balance on the album. It follows the trail back to the EP.
Is that personal or peripheral depression that “Dreams” deals with?
TUNDE: It’s a combination. You start with the person and how he relates to others and apply that to how humans treat each other in general.
You seem to take more chances on the final few Desperate Youth tracks.
TUNDE: “Don’t Love You” and “Bomb Yourself,” as far as what we put down sequentially, fit better at the end emotionally. “Wear You Out” is so different from the album’s beginning. It’s like taking someone on a trip and giving them only a hint as to where things will go.
Dave’s crisp, clean production for not only TV On The Radio, but also the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Liars, truly captures the frenetic studio performances at hand.
TUNDE: He taught himself everything in a Baltimore studio as a teen. He’d listen to an album, read who produced it, and call them to find out what types of microphones they used. He had an intense passion and curiosity to learn how to use equipment and bend it to his will. When I first met him, I saw a ton of recording gear and thought, ‘I have to be friends with this kid.’
You’ve explored so many musical directions. Will your next album lean more towards the harmonious aspect, funkier leanings, or discreet Jazz snazz?
TUNDE: We have no idea and we like it that way. We’re focusing on getting the live show together. Our first show of the last tour was in Iceland for a festival. Dave’s samplers were crushed in transit so we figured out a way to strip down with a rock set up. Now we’re trying to integrate that with the samplers that we’ve fixed.
You made your acting debut in Jump Tomorrow, described as a ‘fashion screwball road trip romance.’ Do you have anything in common with the geeky character, Jorge, whom you played?
TUNDE: That character was probably the person I’d be in 7th grade. He’s reserved and scarily shy, but any standoffishness I have now is definitely not frightened. It’s probably more pissed. I’d like to act more, but I’m not pursuing it. I’m locked into working with the band and doing animation for my company, Studio Iodine. We directed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Pin” video. We get small jobs.
How’d you hook up with MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch claymation series?
TUNDE: I was one of the first animators to work on the show as I was about to leave school. I’d made a short Cheerful Cricket animation which won a school award. I was bumming around Brooklyn when a friend said, ‘someone’s doing a stunt animation show and you should bring your movie.’ I hung out with the guy who created the show. I had no idea how to be professional and get a job. A week later I started a year and a half of work moving clay figures around. We set up scenes and moved characters around one frame at a time.
One of my favorite episodes was when Howard Stern farted and killed some famous actress-model.
TUNDE: (laughs) I did the Michael Jackson-Madonna fight and the Beastie Boys in a huge robot battling the Backstreet Boys – one of my favorites.