TV on the Radio: Love Stained Troubles

Lior Phillips scoops into the mulch and connects with thriving souls.


    About five minutes into TV on the Radio’s 2003 debut EP, Young Liars, comes a song that will make you want to fuck, fight, and set fire to things. A musical jolt summoned by the creative dyad of Tunde Adebimpe and Dave Sitek pushes all the right buttons. It arrived at a time when the US had just occupied Iraq, SARS pierced through humanity’s shell, and hip-hop ruled the Billboard charts. But instead of crumbling under the weight of the world, TV on the Radio charged ahead, celebrating the magic of planting their seed in the soil of New York’s early ‘00s rock renaissance.

    Like champagne for the tongue, art-rocker Adebimpe’s vocals demanded us to “beat the skins and let the loose lips kiss you clean.” The song’s title, “Staring at the Sun”, prepared them to cast eyes upward — not to look but to stare directly at the blinding light of life, even if days sometimes hit a darker shade of blue. “Note the trees, because the dirt is temporary,” Adebimpe sings, and as it plays out, the band begins to resemble a cult procession unto themselves. Every career has highlights that warrant careful preservation, and by the time the album Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was released in 2004, TV on the Radio were essentially fully shaped and budding. As moving and brilliant as this album is – and it is brilliant, and it is moving – it more importantly demonstrated how one artistic idea could burrow, intertwine, and wrap its roots around sounds that would encircle four studio albums to come.


    “I was going through some old journals the other day,” says Adebimpe during our phone call in October. The journals are from his mid-twenties, when he had no idea they’d still be making music in 2014. “I just found a page that was talking about not finishing a few paintings for a show because I had been working with Dave on music.” He pauses for a moment as if he too finds it edifying. “I wrote in the journal that thankfully this music will be over by the end of the month, and then I can get back to what I’m doing.” We know now that that next month turned into 13 years. We have been staring at the same seed in different guises for over a decade.


    The redemptive note that rings through their second album, 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, is also permeated with that otherworldly, take-it-or-leave-it quality that seems to have seeped into the band members themselves. Here, they orient the listener to see something in the world that the band have noticed, but the fans might not have. This is a perfect symmetry between artist and listener, because it’s okay to lose your shit and still dance away the catch-22s of life. “To be only interested in yourself or the things you’re achieving is wrong. It is only when you start to completely lose yourself to the ebb and flow of everything in life that you find transformation,” Adebimpe says, further explaining how the band, who have been so in tune with themselves and each other, are able to expose the constant friction between the human ego and an external, universal perspective. “I think if you try to go into the world not ruled by fear, realizing you’re a small part of something larger, you can shed a lot of things in the process.”

    mosaic-tvotrThis is exactly what spurred their approach to the last decade’s trio of studio albums. Joined by multi-instrumentalists Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton, and Gerard Smith, they became this collective fist of five, these trees screaming toward the sky who made music that cross-pollinated genres. The perfect storm of precision drumming, otherworldly yelps, and remarkable vocal range came from what seemed like an abyss, harnessed by angular fretwork and tightened with a virtuoso musicality that gave the existing layers they created an added depth. Lyrics roared with conviction. “I’m gonna take you, I’m gonna shake you, I’m gonna make you cum.” And the aphorisms on Cookie Mountain, while decidedly cerebral and brutally revealing, were tagged “apocalyptic,” but are not merely so. They reflected, “I was a lover before this war” on Cookie Mountain and then stated on their next album, 2008’s Dear Science, “Fuck your war ’cause I’m fat and in love and no bombs are falling on me for sure.” From behind the veneer, they rhapsodized the reality of being human while questioning their own self-worth: “But I’m scared to death that I’m living a life not worth dying for.”

    TV on the Radio peak when Malone and Adebimpe sound profoundly untamed, unstable, and completely frantic. Is it slightly sadistic to enjoy them sounding dizzyingly euphoric, like they’ve lost it and are clawing their way back but need your help to do so? Perhaps. Science’s “Golden Age” is a prime, meaty slice of hysteria wrought around a rock-tight composition. That was an age when the band had staked out a curious musical gray area, and when the song’s chaos engulfs them (“All light beings, come on now make haste/ Clap your hands if you think you’re in the right place”), they possess a joyous energy cleaving right down to the bone, pushing through those entangled percussions that hit hard like a punch straight to the gut. The triumphant posture of “Dancing Choose” sounds like a ranting madman running down the streets with a loudspeaker: “He’s a WHAT? He’s a WHAT? He’s a newspaper man, and he gets his best ideas from a newspaper stand!” they solicit, but the madman soon resembles a pied piper reeling in followers, because the fight found within that song feels marginally worshipful.


    And that forms part of the band’s appeal — planting their sound so deeply into the listener’s psyche that their music ends up cramming its gigantic self under the consciousness with a rhythmic vibrancy that just bubbles there. It can last for days, months, and years after the first listen. It’s easy to look back at musical preferences that shifted your life when you were younger when there’s a little bit of perspective and time placed in between. Gestalt psychologists suggested that every experience we go through in life has the ability to leave a trace of residue etched inside the brain. We store specific experiences that we can then react to the moment we unearth them from our memory. Part of the reason we remember songs and the feelings attached to them is that we’re usually exposed when we’re teenagers or early adults, and those years are the epochs of our self discovery — the emotionally charged, formative years. We tend to remember experiences that are emotionally charged because our minds act in concert, tagging the memories as something incredibly important. Heck, I even jumped out of a plane for my 27th birthday (yes, fitting) and soundtracked the skydiving video with Cookie Mountain’s “Wolf Like Me”. If I was going to die, I wanted to go down “howlin’ forever, oh oh.”


    Despite the celebratory vibe of the band’s new record, Seeds, it emerged from an incredibly dark place. Following 2011’s Nine Types of Light, the band’s fifth member, the talented bassist Gerard Smith, passed away from lung cancer. “Even when things were the worst, no one was going anywhere,” says Adebimpe. “That old chestnut that Ernest and Friends used to say: ‘that’s life’ … I’d always be like, ‘Well, that’s a cop-out. It’s two words that really minimize my experience.’” The death of a band member, who by virtue of working so closely became a family member, is unequivocally, heart-wrenchingly tragic. “Some experiences feel like you’re dipping your hands into the earth, into this mulch, and once you touch the mulch, everything you’ve ever felt and all the horrible emotions come seeping into your skin directly, and it’s sometimes so overwhelming that you have to lie on the floor for three months and wait for it to pass through you.”

    Burned out from mammoth tours and recording routines, the band took a break and only started thinking about making Seeds last year. “We had time to not be in that situation that we had to be together, and I feel like that was really necessary, because when you come together because you want to be together, the energy produced by that is incredibly expansive,” explains Adebimpe. It’s an energy that fueled a fire that had never been snuffed out, just momentarily buried. In 2013, they recorded two singles, “Million Miles” and “Mercy”, and, as he says through a huff of giggles, “There was enough time off that a lot of bullshit disappeared.” Nobody poked and prodded for a new record, but the invisible tether connecting the four remaining members was too strong to die.


    One of Adebimpe’s favorite quotes comes from Joseph Campbell: “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We can’t cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” These words signify how the band chose to react to Smith’s death. Being able to write a song, put it on a page, and sing it was the only answer for them – that’s the language that they speak – and, when doing that, Adebimpe explains, “Pain suddenly isn’t a hurricane in the head; it becomes a good miniature map.” In the modern era, art has resumed a healing role.


    So what are we howlin’ for now? Are we still staring at the sun? At the troubles that blind us? The air our lungs need for breathing and feeling like we want to fuck, fight, and set fire to things is calling for more authenticity. The inner animus needs to be instinctual and raw, enabling us to address pain and then escape from it with perspective.

    During the band’s extended break between 2011 and 2013, each member turned to a craft that best filled the hole torn through their family. They honored each other in a way that granted them the grace of their own autonomy and allowed mutual discovery. Acclaimed producer Sitek renewed Maximum Balloon, Adebimpe lacquered over Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band, and Malone toyed with Rain Machine. As with most new beginnings, they needed a new environment and migrated from New York’s bustle to LA’s hustle. Seeds was written quickly without a sense of glory poised over the process. Their new philosophy cultivated a foundation built on an enormous amount of respect for each other, as artists, as friends, and as a collective artistic movement. “At this point, it’s a third of our lives. What else are we going to do with it?” laughs Adebimpe. “If somebody throws us a ball, we gotta dribble it a little bit.”


    Adebimpe brought this attitude to Seeds, and he felt like they were back in the place they were when they started making records, which was Sitek and him in a loft with no heat, drinking too much coffee, smoking too much weed, and making music all the night. “The loft has heat now,” Adebimpe chuckles, “But we’re basically doing the same thing, and it was very easy this time with Kyp and Jaleel. There were periods of time for us where it had not been easy, and you’re doing this thing that you love the most and getting burdened by this thing that you’re choosing to do that you don’t have to do.”

    Musically, Seeds captures the band at an interesting juncture. They’re harnessing the momentum behind their breakthrough albums, but the mood among the band members varies, which I immediately recognize during back-to-back conversations with Adebimpe, then Malone and Bunton. For Adebimpe, it’s the most creatively free he’s ever felt, partly because they worked quickly, allowing them to bypass any overthinking: “We labored over things in the past, but that’s the nice thing about making a couple of records and having this manual that’s regenerated. We know what works and where I can hear myself overthinking.” For him, the more immediate the song, the more open it is.

    Later, I enter into the same conversation about creative freedom with Malone, who retreats into a cloud of laughter but, after a few moments, pauses and resurfaces, growing chattier when he lands on the right topic. Like his propensity for intimate songwriting, Malone doesn’t hold back during our conversation. “Not even the least!” he howls at my question about whether or not this is the most creatively free he’s felt. “Not in the least. That’s hilarious to me. But I will say that if you keep doing something long enough, that shapes the work towards a better thing, a more listenable thing.” He acknowledges that any personal and any perceived constraints on behalf of the listener can shape the work toward a better and more listenable entity.


    He’s intimidatingly intelligent, as are the rest of the band members I speak to, but other than Smith’s energy, what’s missing on Seeds are the political undertones, the apocalyptic change-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace rhetoric. “I feel funny about it, but I’m pretty sure that’s my own trip,” Malone says. He excuses himself from the coffee shop he is sitting in and walks outside, where he expertly describes a honeybird diving under the water of the reservoir in front of him. “I was afraid I was bothering everyone on their laptops,” he explains.


    For the past couple of months, Malone has been grappling with the purpose of art. “You ever listen to Spacemen 3?” he asks while still entangled in another unrelated thought: “There was a band with a record titled Revolution or Heroin, and it keeps flashing in my mind over and over again.” For him, the question of whether something is art or entertainment is a weird one to straddle, and he finds himself in a predicament. “I feel like especially around Return to Cookie Mountain, when we were doing press, I would see the word ‘doom’ referenced. It’s not something I really want to bring into a world that’s pretty chock-full of it, but at the same time, reflecting on the reality I see is part of artists’ and creative peoples’ jobs, you know?” He isn’t interested in making people feel bummed out or totally disorientated when he plays anymore, but when he is, he has other avenues for that in his life. “I also feel like there’s a recipe for healing, and it’s not all needing to feel hopeful.”

    But here’s the thing. The overall theme of Seeds is the idea of rebirth, regeneration healing, and growth emerging from a seed that’s been dormant for a while, so how do you move on from tragedy while still keeping your artistic integrity? “We just decided, ‘Okay, I’m ready to do this and grow up and out,” says Adebimpe. They still write big hooks that hover above like massive neon signs over brighter, more joyful songs, and some frame a glowing homily. On “Trouble”, he sings, “Everything’s gonna be okay” in a triumphant, up-swelling melody that takes the phrase through its melodic pace until he grasps every possible meaning out of it – regret, gratitude, wonder, disbelief. “Take the good with the bad/ Still believe we can make it somehow,” Adebimpe affirms on “Careful You”, and “Could you love somebody, anyone at all?” Malone pleads on “Could You”For Malone, everything is going to be okay in the biggest picture possible: “Like the stars are going to stay in the heavens, but there is no one thing that says that everything is going to be okay for us. Everything is saying otherwise. It’s actually not okay, things are totally not okay, and I feel like I need to address it in different creative forms as well as the one that I’m actively engaged in right now.”


    Are any of these lyrics specifically about death, or about 2014, a time when walking down the street and seeing someone wearing glasses connected directly to the Internet is considered normal? War, dictatorship, disease? Show yourselves! It wasn’t the time for that approach, and as Adebimpe explains, there was a dire need to abandon the doom and fill the room with hope instead. “With bad experiences, you can carve a really shiny, bright object, put it on top of the mulch, and watch it sink down, watch the biodegradable semi-plastic sink down into this earth leaving a nice, brightly colored mandala on it and let it be a symbol of all this terrible stuff and take the form.” He laughs, rehashing how he once explained this to a friend, who, of course, thought he was just high, which he refutes instantly: “I mean, I get it! It ultimately turns into a beautiful thing, and whatever comes up under it will naturally become beautiful.”

    When seeds of endurance are buried inside of you, it sometimes takes a crisis to break them open, nourish them, and make them bloom. Seeds is TV on the Radio’s attempt to thrive amidst the mulch. And if that bitter delusion and desperation are not a picture-perfect distillation of what it means to live in this modern age, no matter how old you are, I don’t know what is.

    In the grand scheme of things, this crisis is but a spec in their long musical journey. “If there’s one thing I’ve really learned, it’s that this band goes through a lot of different phases and moods,” explains the delightful Bunton.



    If you’re going to take up four minutes and 23 seconds of someone’s time talking about the weight of love, you might as well do it with a song. “Right Now”, the eighth track on Seeds, bares a relentless surge of power bolstered by Malone, and it’s his arsenal of moody, sonorous sincerity that taunts the synth-led back end. Harmonies begin to interlink: one claps, one snaps, and then everything wrenches free. Even if they choose to savor old subject matter (love, disdain, and envy), they manage to deliver a sermon on a new world for TV on the Radio. They’re suddenly illuminated and simultaneously repelled by life, as Malone declares, “The moment’s right now, so hold on tight.” I think back to that revolution he discussed earlier: “I feel if it was up to me, it would not be time for a heroin record. It would be time for a revolution record.” His revolution arrives in the shape of six words: “Falling into the all at once,” and it’s these moments that are nothing short of thrilling. Adebimpe describes his “all at once” as the moment you delve into life together, learn to navigate its pain, and then go into the next phase with that knowledge.

    TV on the Radio want to focus on rebuilding the “right now,” and while the lyrics are important, Seeds is a sound-first record, where each word is built upon fundamental ideas they have for their music. The one thing TV on the Radio revel in is their use of analogue and electronic modes. “We’re very much into both and feel like we’re neglecting a child by leaving either one out of the music,” explains Bunton. He cites “Seeds” as an example. The song is layered as much as it is staggered during the transitions, which weave out of static automation into fluid, organic ideas. “It was really satisfying to see both of our children work together in a way that they hadn’t before,” says Bunton. That being said, the ultimate goal of the record, according to Adebimpe, “would be for somebody to be able to be sitting somewhere and hear the song and not think how somebody made it.” Like handing someone a book or a painting, you dive in and enjoy it and then only perhaps later, over the course of enough time, start to wonder what went into making it. “It takes time for me to understand what we are collectively doing,” adds Malone. “If you want to talk about it in six years, we can.


    The patterns and pulses here, unlike in the past, are never very complicated, but when it counts, they all bash away with enough desperation to project an unfailing sense of urgency; this lends the rare vulnerability a tragic sort of transience. It’s why Seeds will feel accessible to a wider audience — that nearly faultless musical support at the core of the band. “We get a song that we start to believe in,” says Bunton, “and everything umbrellas. From there you continue trying to serve the song.”


    Little is concrete in life. At the very least, its pivotal moments feel like trying to hold a salmon: the harder you grab, the more it slips away. But the older you get, the scope of what you see widens, and you realize just how much you don’t know. It’s a beautiful bottomless well, and Adebimpe agrees. “You just keep going with a beginner’s mind, because a lot of what you were doing before just doesn’t work anymore. It was helpful getting you to the point you’re at now, but you need to recalibrate every time.” This is a new attitude for TV on the Radio: neither heartbroken nor fist-pumping, they are musing, repairing, rebuilding, and sharing. He adds: “Distancing yourself from pain and being able to put it in the palm of your hand and feel the size of it means you’re not inside it anymore. It means you can now see the shape of it and realize it’s not for you. It’s for anyone who it’s helpful to.”

    Yes, they made music that sounds like the end of the world, but now they want you to live long enough to see what that world will eventually look like. In reality, the band is re-rooting from the loss of Smith, which is evident on the album, but if Seeds proves anything, it is that with passion and unwavering purpose, everything will be okay.

    Feature photography by Junco. Live photography by Philip Cosores.