Back in July, when TV On The Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe announced that his band’s fifth album ‘Seeds’, he said: “We’ve been through a lot of stuff in the past few years that could have stopped the band cold…”
Despite the critical acclaim heaped on 2006’s ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’ and 2008’s ‘Dear Science’ (second in NME’s album of the year list, behind MGMT’s ‘Oracular Spectacular’), by the time of the release of 2011’s ‘Nine Types Of Light’ the band seemed to be fracturing apart. The band spoke openly about their unhappiness on the 18-month long ‘Dear Science’ tour, with bearded multi-instumentalist and songwriter Kyp Malone comparing it to “going to war. Or being in prison”. They parted ways with their label, Interscope, and guitarist/producer Dave Sitek left the band’s Brooklyn homeland to move into a studio in LA where he became better known as producer for records like Bat for Lashes’ ‘The Haunted Man’, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Mosquito’ and Beady Eye’s ‘BE’. But then, to throw all their other troubles into sharp relief, on April 20, 2011, bassist Gerard Smith died from lung cancer at the age of 36, just nine days after the release of ‘Nine Types Of Light’.
It’s no surprise then that the Adebimpe, Sitek, Malone and fourth member Jaleel Bunton felt that they needed to slowly feel their way back into being a band. Their most high-profile engagement in the last few years was as curators of ATP Camber Sands in May 2013, where they were asked whether they would be recording together again. “We’re trying to approach it as casually as possible so as not to scare it away,” said Malone. “It’s like trying to catch a rabbit without a net or a weapon. We’re just trying to sneak up on whatever happens next.”
Now that they’ve caught the rabbit and the album is being pressed into vinyl, Sitek points out that TV On The Radio are the sort of band whose status is always hard to confirm unless you’re directly observing them, like Schrodinger’s cat. When I meet the band in West London and ask whether the band ever came close to breaking up, he says: “I personally feel like there’s a perpetual question of ‘Should we do it? or ‘Should we not do it? Our band is constantly in a state where we’re not sure what will happen. We all accept that we’re on this giant rock flying through space and that none of us are in control, and that permeates everything that I do. We’ll do it until we just don’t do it anymore. We’ve never anticipated stopping, but if we stopped we wouldn’t be shocked. We’d just go, ‘Oh, this is the part where we stop.’ We’re healthily in the present.”
He stops and thinks for a second. “Until one of us gets a crippling gambling addiction and we have to come back…”
They laugh, and Adebimpe chips in: “We each have a red button in a case that we can press and it says: ‘I need this money.’”
Over their decade long career TV On The Radio have built a reputation for being among rock music’s most lucid and eloquent commentators on politics, and they’ve been particularly outspoken when it comes to discussing our culture’s disastrous impact on the planet’s ecology. ‘Seeds’, perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances of its creation, turns the band’s forensic gaze inward.
When I suggest that this is the band’s most introspective work to date, Sitek immediately agrees. “I think that’s accurate,” he says. “I think with ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’ there was a lot of reconciling of how to be human within this giant mix-up, and although nowadays there’s certainly as many or more mix-ups to try to reconcile, I think the broad stroke [on ‘Seeds’] was to deal with the personal with the same fervour. Let me unpeel the onion of my mind, even though it’s going to make me cry.”
That idea of knowing yourself and how your own brain ticks is central to the record, particularly when it comes to how we deal with trauma, bereavement and loss. Lead single ‘Happy Idiot’ discusses shutting out pain to enjoy the bliss of ignorance, while the refrain of standout track ‘Trouble’ runs: “Everything’s going to be okay / I keep telling myself / Don’t worry be happy / you keep telling yourself.”
Sitek says the song is about the self-delusions that are sometimes necessary for surviving modern life. “The ‘I keep telling myself…’ line means that it might not be true,” he says. “Everyone goes through that, on multiple levels. There’s a lot of doubt floating around. What has modern living and its greatest aspirations lead to? ‘Trouble’, at least for me, is about putting your helmet on. Light bulbs were invented to be perfect and last forever, and it was only when they realised that they couldn’t keep selling them that they made them only last for so long. For a species that makes the conscious decision to support that, and to forget that it used to be different, set us up for a new paradigm. There’s psychic consequences that we feel. We’re realising where all this convenience has led. Being in touch all the time has led to an underlying anxiety, because we’re not supposed to be in touch all the time.” He grins. “We’re not supposed to be connected to all of the filth at one time.”
Adebimpe adds that the idea of how we mentally adapt to modernity is one that’s fascinated him since he was a child: “I grew up around people who were experiencing a lot of mental health issues and anxiety because my father was a psychologist and a social worker. I’d go with him to work and I’d see people who’d had a psychic break and they just weren’t present in the way that we are. Their reality is not the same. I saw all of that stuff pre-internet, and I wonder how much the internet has affected that. I feel like if I’d have had this much connection to strangers as a teenager, I don’t think I would have made anything. I know people are still making things, but I think about how much alone time I had and how formative that was. There’s that quote about how all of man’s misfortune in life stems from not being able to sit in a room quietly by themselves. I can see that, but the other part of that is there’s so much room to destroy your mind. People are very sensitive, and if you already have that sensitivity then technology [like a smart phone] is like falling into a portal. You just need to flick your thumb. It’s the easiest thing in the world.”
“Who knew your thumb could drive you mad?” chips in Sitek. “Wi-fi can stop a plane, your thumb can stop your brain.”
Back in that first ‘Seeds’ announcement about how they almost ‘stopped cold’, Adebimpe added that the record is “1,000 percent, without a doubt, the best thing we’ve ever done.” The rest of the band are more circumspect, but Malone does say that the singer’s passion is catching: “I don’t have favourites, but the fact of Tunde’s excitement about it is very exciting to me. If any of us are standing on a chair and shouting that this is the best, then that kind of enthusiasm is very valuable, and very contagious.”
As for Adebimpe himself, he seems particularly proud that the band are continuing to forge their own path. Although musically they’ve softened their harder edges since last time out, creating a polished, synth-laden record that’s more upbeat and accessible than ‘Nine Types of Light’ ever was, it’s clear the changes they’ve made have been on their own terms. “Figuring out how to make work without compromising, and have that float me, and do it with my friends, and to do it for this long with my friends – it’s an intensely special and rare thing. Especially in our arena you’re always making concessions to go forward or ‘keep up with the times’ or whatever, and we haven’t really had to do that too much.”
He shrugs: “I mean, we were going to make an EDM record… but then it just fell through… we couldn’t find the drop…”
Beside him, Sitek mimes knocking over a glass. “Spillex… oh shit!”
Adebimpe can’t help but crack up: “Oh, there’s the drop.”
“We don’t drop beats,” grins Sitek, “we just drop drinks.”
For a band that a few years ago were showing stress fractures, TV On The Radio find themselves in a position to crack jokes as they launch an album that sets to music Antonio Gramsci’s definition of the challenge of modernity: “To live without illusions without becoming disillusioned.” Somehow they’ve ended up about as mentally well-adjusted as anyone could hope to be in this year of our Lord 2014. For Sitek, that’s all down to their fervent belief in throwing away their old templates and starting anew. “Commercial success has eluded this band from the start, but it was never really part of our goal,” he says. “There’s still varying degrees of shock when we’re playing in front of 30,000 people. Why do 30,000 people know this band? It’s beyond me, but the only reason we got here is because we’ve been reckless. So let’s stay reckless.”
Originally published in NME, 22 November 2014.