TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio Talk Brooklyn, Band Dynamics and the Broken Political System

Michael Tedder

By Michael Tedder

on 12.05.14 in Features
‘That’s part of a musician’s job, to reflect the moment as best they can. Even though there are eternal themes there’s always a new way to talk about it in the moment.’

It’s been a rough couple of years for TV on the Radio, one of the most restless and forward-thinking bands this young century has produced. Shortly after the release of 2011′s Nine Types of Light, the group’s bassist Gerard Smith died of lung cancer. After the remaining members (Dave Sitek, Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe and Jaleel Bunton) finished touring the album, they took an extended break and quietly left their longtime label Interscope.

For a time, the band openly wondered if they would ever make a new album. Thankfully they did, and on Seeds, the band is in fine, fighting shape, transitioning between gothic R&B balladry, mutant dancefloor fillers and titanic guitar onslaughts. Trends change and scenes die, but TV on the Radio have proven themselves survivors. Wondering Sound recently spoke with Kyp Malone about pushing forward and the death of Brooklyn.

I know Dave and Tunde moved to Los Angeles. Do you still live in Brooklyn?

I do. I still live in Williamsburg.

How do you feel like spending that much time apart affects the songwriting?

It doesn’t really feel any different. Most of the time we spend together is when we’re working. It’s the same amount of time, really. It’s a lot of time. It’s not like we’re playing pool together on our day off or something.

When you fly out to L.A. to start working, is it more focused like, “We’re here to work, no dilly-dallying around.”

No, that’s not the case at all. Plenty of dilly-dallying. It’s just more expensive, ultimately.

Do you feel that being in a different environment affects the way you make music? Because when you started, people always talked about how your music felt very tense — it sort of felt like Brooklyn. And now your music has a lot more light — some may say it feels a lot more Californian. Is that something you noticed?

I could say that I noticed something change in some of Dave’s production and writing style. But I feel like that’s six of one, half dozen on the other. Everything continues to change, and we continue to find different approaches as time passes. I could probably play you records that I made with other people in very laid-back atmospheres, with no pressure, that had, I don’t know, tense, neurotic qualities that people associated with the early TV on the Radio records. It’s an approach; it’s a mood that’s been explored by lots of different people from different places. All the languages associated with these conversations…it’s hard to keep it from feeling super limiting, because the actual space that’s created sonically by a song is so subjective and based on the listener. Sometimes I can hear like, a Darkthrone song and have it feel like the sky is opening up and my heart is opening up and it’s a revelatory moment, and other times it sounds like someone is making a mistake in a studio in a bad mood. It’s so subjective. It’s so beyond language that it’s hard to talk about without feeling like it’s limiting its potential.

I wouldn’t use the term “retro,” but “Could You” has this vintage, fuzzy bright pop feel to it — like, I could easily hear it in a Quentin Tarantino movie. How did that one come about?

Well, it’s funny. I feel like the germ of that song didn’t exactly translate sonically. You can’t really hear where it’s coming from, but there’s an aspect to that song where it’s almost a direct reference to the Velvet Underground. But you know, I can say that, and you can listen for it and never fucking hear it. It’s a combination of two or three people’s very particular interpretation of what the Velvet Underground means to them, through all the different filters that they have, you know? I remember we were listening to a lot of Velvet Underground in the spring time, and I was talking about the simple drum and guitar, trance-inducing moment that they were able to do. I think Jaleel and Dave had played some very straight-ahead guitar and drums and Tunde was writing on it, and I heard it and I heard the riff and I heard a melodic idea, so I took those tracks, just the bare parts, and started writing on top of those. And it got cut up and cut up and it turned into “Could You.” There’s some electric, 12-string guitar on there, which immediately references ’60s-era rock ‘n’ roll, Byrds-type shit, and the call-and-response — which is definitely not the most popular thing right now in rock ‘n’ roll. So there’s a reason you’re getting that feeling. But I also feel that it works. It doesn’t feel like a conscientious throwback. I feel like it sounds like a modern song.

Your band has always been able to bridge the gap between modern music and classic pop songwriting, often pulling from traditions that are not currently in vogue. People often point at your doo-wop influence. And it’s combined with this very, very forward-thinking production style. You’ve always been able to bring those two worlds together.

At least sometimes, I think. I like the mixing of ideas, but I don’t know — I don’t want it to sound like coked-up Bach or something. You want it to sound not like two things being juxtaposed and being excited about how incongruent they are, but finding a way that they can marry one another and have a synergistic effect. There’s a great potential there, I think. It’s what I was kind of looking for in music when I first started playing with them.

‘There’s been plenty of times over the course of the past few years where it seemed like the band could have stopped, and it would have made sense for it to stop.’

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes came out 10 years ago, and you’ve always been considered a band that pushes the envelope forward. Do you feel pressure, 10 years in, to still try to find new avenues?

I mean, in order to not feel bored or like, your race is run, on a basic level for all creative people, that’s probably a part of the conversation. And certainly it’s something we all engage with to varying degrees at different times. Sometimes, it just feels good to be playing old-timey music. That’s totally fine and gratifying. But one of the things that’s exciting about music as a medium is even if every song has been written and every riff has been written, and even if the ability to have access to all the world’s music and all the archives of recorded music is more than we can absorb in a lifetime — even with that, even if we could know all of the music that’s happening right now and all the music that’s happening in our lifetime, it’s still not exhausted. There’s still something that reflects the time that we’re in, that reflects where we’re at as a species. I believe that’s part of a musician’s job, to reflect the moment as best they can. And unless you’re in a weird state that I don’t know actually exists, time keeps moving and there’s always something new to reflect on, even if it’s laid on top of themes that are ancient, like family or love or anger. Even though there are eternal themes — or seemingly eternal themes — there’s always a new way to talk about it in the moment.

Leading up to this album’s release, Tunde said there’s been a lot stuff in the past few years that could have stopped the band cold. And a lot of that stuff is public knowledge, but how close do you think the band came to stopping?

There’s been plenty of times over the course of the past few years where it seemed like the band could have stopped, and it would have made sense for it to stop. It’s just fortunate that it hasn’t. You don’t know what relationships are going to work. But ultimately, I feel like through whatever hardships we experience together or apart, there is some awareness, enough at the time, that we have an enriched relationship with one another. There’s a lot of potential for different creative relationships out there, and we move around…but we all respect what we have together. Everything ends at some point, but for now, it just made sense to keep going.

You worked with some outside co-writers, guys like Erik Hassle and Daniel Ledinsky, on “Happy Idiot” and “Trouble.” How did that come about?

I think David’s been doing some co-writing with them, and we talked about trying different things on this record, just to see what it would be like. I don’t know how I feel about it, really. No, I know exactly how I feel about it — I like the songs, I’ve been playing them and I like playing them. It doesn’t sit the easiest with me as a writer, but also it’s a band, and I’m open to the fact that there are different people with different opinions and different associations and relationships. I didn’t have the easiest time with it, and then I started thinking about all of the songs that I grew up with that were co-writes, or songs written by writers and interpreted by bands. I think I had a little bit of a block with it, because I like writing songs and we wrote a bunch together and then there were the co-writers and it was new to me, so it took me a minute to get into it. But I like the songs. I think it enhances the record, but it’s ultimately up to other people to decide.

‘It’s hard to change a fight with a fight. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be fighting, but I definitely feel it has to start with a change of consciousness.’

I think at one point, people would have raised eyebrows at this, but I don’t think anyone cares about this sort of stuff anymore.

Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s not a new thing. It’s not necessarily popular in independently produced music, but it definitely was a common practice in Motown, it definitely was a common practice for blues musicians to play other people’s music. It’s been happening for a long time.

When TV on the Radio first debuted, you were always called a Brooklyn band, a Williamsburg band. The neighborhood has changed so, so much since you started. Do you still feel connected to that scene at all, or do you feel like an outsider?

Well, I don’t know. It’s funny…and I use the word “scene” even though it does give me a bad taste in my mouth. In my experiences, in my youth and where I am in my life now, I had friends who make music, and people touring together and it was a community thing and it only felt like a scene when it was competitive and weird, and that’s where the word “scenester” comes from. It’s never a compliment. But it’s different now. There’s less in my immediate area in Brooklyn — there’s not space for creative people or artists. It’s mostly finance people in the financial fields. What I participated in, before I became a touring musician, has moved to other places — it’s farther out in New York, and people are moving upstate or to Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Everyone here has pretty much dissipated. But I know there are always people here doing shit that’s interesting, it’s just a matter of — you know, I don’t know. It’s hard. I feel like I’m talking in circles because there’s a constant conversation that happens with quote-unquote old-timers in Williamsburg about housing and what’s changed, and it’s a really boring conversation that doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a nostalgia trip. But it’s also a necessity, because things happen so quickly and violently that there’s a constant need to process it through conversation.

You talked about making music that reflects the current times. I want to talk about the song “Right Now.” Because maybe it’s just my interpretation, but it seems to fit into the current disillusionment about politics, the way society is grinding down and we’re always going backwards. We want a change, but it’s not really happening. What was on your mind here?

Oh, just a bastardized version of some different spiritual practices and advice that people have been passing down for a long time. There’s a lot of people with real, just cause for complaint in this world and in our society, and in our country. And class and financial disparity is at such an extreme because of the disparity in pay between men and women. The whole thing is such a brain fuck. It’s burning in my mind, and a lot of these problems call for action and call for change. But I also feel like a lot of solutions that are put forward or the way the problems are framed — how do I fucking say this simply — if the problem is that there’s this small amount of people who have more money than everyone else, and men have a dominant role in society over women, or white people have privilege over black people and brown people — if we can’t get out of the dualism and the way things are framed — and I’m not putting the fucking blame on poor people or brown people or women people when I say that — but if we can’t get out of that and think about flipping it and instead looking at the whole thing and seeing how it’s out of balance, and not looking for seats at the table, but walking out of the room completely and building a new situation, I feel like it is just going to keep going. And not even in circles. It’s going to keep spiraling downwards. I don’t want my man or my woman in the White House. I want a nonhierarchical society. I want a partnership society, a cooperative society. I don’t want the economy to boom in my sector. I want there to be a balanced existence with the natural world where an idea of economic growth doesn’t usurp the right of other species to continue living on this planet, or even our own species to continue living on this planet. There’s always these attempts at righting a system, but the system to me — and I know I’m not alone, and I know I’m not original in thinking this — it’s a ship of fucking fools. I’m not talking about the people, I’m talking about the system. Systemically. So what do you do about that? Do you start a terrorist cell? Do you write a fucking rock song about it? The thing that keeps coming back to me — and it’s not as simple as this, it’s not a full answer — but I can march against Obama’s drone war, I can try to get enough voice through money and media for people to hear exactly what was happening in regards to our foreign policy and the drone war and the murder of innocents. But it’s hard to fight city hall that way. It’s hard to change a fight with a fight, is what I’m starting to believe. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be fighting, and I’m not giving myself an easy out that way, but I definitely feel — and I’ve been hearing hippies and fucking new agers say this for a long time — it definitely has to start with a change of consciousness. And I’m rambling and going all over the place, but that’s basically what I was trying to say in that song.

‘It’s a system that says money trumps everything else. Even talking about it, I get angry about engaging in conversation about a two-party system, like it’s some legitimate form of democracy.’

I get what you’re saying. There’s always been a great deal of social consciousness and protest in your music, but you’ve always found a way to do it while not being labeled a political band, per se. You’ve been able to take a more subtle approach to it.

I really hope so. But I only hope so because I tend to find stuff that’s super preachy to be off-putting. But I also understand why people would be preachy right now. I get it.

It’s interesting. There’s not a lot of music now that I’d consider political. You mentioned Obama’s drone wars — there’s not a lot of musicians who want to say anything about that. Maybe they don’t want to look preachy or not cool or whatever.

I think it’s more that there’s not a whole lot of attention that’s been brought to it, and then also he’s got a Teflon suit on when it comes to the left. You’re not really allowed to criticize — even though it’s been made clear years ago that [sighs] God bless him, he got into office with corporate money, and when that happens you cannot expect that much. I don’t even want to spend my time attacking him. It’s systemic. It’s a system that says money trumps everything else. Like, even talking about it, I get angry about engaging in conversation about a two-party system, like it’s some legitimate form of democracy. It’s so crazy. From the left and right. I care how elections turn out, and I know it has real effects on different people’s lives, but it just feels like some bad game where “you get to play with the ball now, now you get to play with the ball now, now you get to play with the ball,” although we’re both on the same team and the team is money and everything else like is a distraction between people not looking at how power is being abused to the detriment of the world.