Nine types of craziness
It's a blustery morning in Philadelphia but TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe isn't complaining. The last thing he needs right now is more sunshine.
Last year pop's brainiest left-fielders decamped to downtown Hollywood to record what would become their latest album, Nine Types Of Light. Six months on, the lanky frontman seems shaken, maybe scarred, by the experience. If he never sees another palm tree or bikini-clad roller-blader again, it will be too soon.
"The way I can sum it up best is that one morning I went to get a coffee at the place that is closest to where we were working. In the foyer, they were shooting a reality television show. And inside, they were shooting another reality show. Except for me and maybe five other people, everyone in the building was either starring in a show or was in the crew. That part of Hollywood, where the industry is based, it's a strange place inhabited by crazy people."
TV On The Radio were in Beverly Hills at the behest of their guitarist David Sitek. Also an in-demand producer whose CV runs from outre pop acts such as Telepathe to slumming starlet Scarlett Johansson, Sitek had built a new studio in California and wanted the band to go and hang out. What the rest of the group hadn't realised was that Sitek's pad was in the heart of the Hollywood celebrity-industrial complex. In their native Brooklyn, the biggest menace were the pigeons at Prospect Park. In LA, the morning ramble to work involved being jostled by paparazzi chasing Paris Hilton into Starbucks.
"You are getting pushed out of the way by some guy with a camera trying to get a shot of someone coming out of Crate and Barrel," says Adebimpe. "You can't even tell who it is. While it's only a few blocks, it's a very weird few blocks. It was an eye-opening experience."
Sitek copped a lot of hipster hate for producing Johansson, no matter that the breathy collection of Tom Waits covers they recorded together stands up as an artistic endeavour. Have his extra-curricular flirtations caused strain within TV On The Radio?
"I don't think it's affected us any more than the sort of things we've always done," says Adebimpe. "Every time one of us does something outside the band it informs us when we get together again. I feel it's always a good thing. Dave is certainly having a good time out there."
It's a cliche but the phrase "critics' darlings" could have been minted with TV On The Radio in mind. An innovative fusion of alt.pop, jazz and funk, their 2008 album Dear Science was one of the most lauded releases in recent pop history. Some of the hyperbole verged on gushing. Time magazine actually compared Adebimpe's lyrics to Barack Obama's oration, hailing the song Red Dress "the smartest thing about race this year not written by Obama". Unless you're Charlie Sheen spewing into a webcam, that level of hyperbole has to freak you out a little.
"I don't understand that kind of writing at all," laughs the singer. "I don't know what that would mean. As for the [critical] response... it's not very productive to think about it. Every time you go to make a new record, you reset the counter. I appreciate that people are even taking the time to listen to what we are doing. You can't let it affect you. The trick is to not think about anything else -- to simply go and do it."
Four of TV On The Radio's five members are black (Adebimpe was born in Nigeria and raised in Pittsburgh). That they are a predominantly African-American outfit playing rock'n'roll -- albeit of a twitchy, genre-mashing sort -- has led excitable journalists to make all sorts of claims on their behalf. The most common being that the group represents a new chapter in American cultural life, one where colour has ceased to matter and widely disparate musical genres can get along like models beaming down from a Benetton billboard.
A phrase that keeps cropping up is 'post-racial'. Say this to Tunde -- far more playful and self-deprecating than the band's professorial image might lead you to expect -- and he cracks up.
"I prefer to think of us as pre-racial," he giggles. "I don't know, it's funny. I'm going to have to look more into that one. Yeah, let's say we are pre-racial."
It also confuses him that TV On The Radio are pegged as a 'political' outfit. Yes, they have written political songs. Most famously a post-Katrina protest single that excoriated the US government's ineptitude in the aftermath of the calamity. And yet, the band aren't cartoon agit-proppers. He points out that on Nine Types of Light -- a collection of solid rock songs that shies away from overt experimentation -- he is singing about his feelings rather than the condition of mankind.
"I think people often scramble for labels that work best when they write about us. If something is going on in the world that bothers you -- whether that is a government being mindless or bloodthirsty or oppressive, or someone who has broken you heart -- that's going to make its way into what you do. It's what you are thinking at the time. I don't think we are a particularly political band. We just notice things."
He confesses the success of Dear Science put a lot of strain on TV On The Radio. With critical acclaim and rising sales came a fraught touring schedule. Eighteen months on the road pushed the group to the brink. Some of his band-mates got through it by literally partying until they fell over in a heap.
Adebimpe, in contrast, retreated into himself. His favourite coping mechanism was to slink back to the tour bus immediately after a show and, sealed in his coffin-sized bunk, snuggle up with a book. Cheered on by thousands of fans each night, all he wanted was to be utterly alone (ironically, he says this the day after TV On The Radio had just opened their new US tour in Philadelphia).
"Anything that goes on too long is going to cause you to lose your mind," he says. "It's going to make you a little bit crazy. It's a weird paradox. You spend all this time crafting something you are excited to bring to people. However, the architecture of touring means you are bringing it to them when you are functioning at 50pc of your best. You've been sleeping in a moving vehicle for two months, eating when you can. It's difficult."
Adebimpe moved to New York in 1993 and, since the start of their career, TV On The Radio have been closely associated with the Brooklyn music scene. Indeed, they were one of the first groups to set up in the then-dilapidated Williamsburg neighbourhood. Nowadays, of course, the area around Bedford Avenue verges towards self-parody, being awash with specialist cheese shops and bearded young men in skinny jeans and plaid shirts. Does Adebimpe lament the passing of the old, scuzzy Williamsburg?
"It's a pretty time-worn pattern. An area with inexpensive housing attracts artists and creative people, who maybe don't have a lot of dough. It becomes quote, unquote 'cool' and people start to sweep in, buying up places. The artists move out and the character of certain neighbourhoods gets wiped away. Who is to say if it's for better or worse? You see people who lived in an area for 20 years selling their Brownstone [townhouse] for $3m and moving back to the Dominican Republic to live like a king. That's New York -- it's always changing."
Contemplating those formative years in Brooklyn, the subject of David Bowie inevitably arises. An early cheerleader, Bowie was so sincere in his fandom he contributed backing vocals on the 2006 album Return to Cookie Mountain. To have a certifiable legend cameoing on the record was an enormous privilege, says Adebimpe, even if the endless questions about his involvement began to grate after a while.
"It was helpful on a bunch of different levels," says Adebimpe. "To interact with someone you viewed as a mythic being who is actually not only human but very real -- that was cool. He was an extremely 'present' person when he was around you. It was interesting, too, to meet a more seasoned artist, to talk to them about their experiences. The funny thing is that, for the two albums after that, his name kept coming up. That happened for a very long time. It was like, 'oh, another David Bowie question, okay...' But yes, of course it was awesome. It's good to know you are going in the right direction -- even if you didn't have a plan to begin with."
Nine Types of Light is out now. See review, page 11
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