Golden Age: An Interview With TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe

Words by Michael Cranston
Photos of Tunde by Nate Dorr
, photo of band by Michael Lavine

Rolling Stone. Spin. The Guardian. MTV. Alongside Pitchfork’s reader’s polls and several other smaller sites, the aforementioned were just a few publications to award TV On the Radio’s fourth studio release Dear Science the title of Best Album of 2008. Hailed as the musical coming of the Obama Era (not a self-ascribed label), Dear Science was (and is) an aggressive coming-of-age album that poignantly captured cultural life last year. “The age of miracles!” Kyp Malone proclaimed on “Golden Age”, and we had our soundtrack to American life. On Inauguration Day, Obama may have been ushered in to office to the tune of Air & Simple Gifts, but “Golden Age” was playing in our heads. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that no band captured the cultural zeitgeist better than TV On the Radio.

Last week, we spoke to TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe. Incredibly humble and incredibly endearing, Tunde reiterated his incredulity at his band’s current stature, their impending tour, his impending movie role, fan videos and health food stores.

TV on the Radio embark on a large world tour tonight in Pomona.

Where are you guys right now?
Most of us are in Brooklyn, Dave is in Los Angeles, but we’re all going to meet up with him on Monday (April 12), and we’re doing two shows in California … with Coachella.

Do you get to relax before the tour starts?
Yeah kind of, we did Big Day Out in Australia in January. So from the second week of January until next week, that’s when we’ve had a break. Everyone’s been reassembling their lives after being away for so long, calling friends and seeing if they’re still friends …

Are they?
For the most part, yeah. Some things you can’t patch up. (Laughs.)

How has the process of touring changed for you guys? Is the tour bus bigger?
Well, the tour bus exists. (Laughs.) Since then, it hasn’t shifted in size much. We’d usually go in two vans and most of the band would ride in one van, and certain members would ride in the other because we had a smoking van and a non-smoking van.

Which van were you a part of?
I had been in the smoking van for a while, but decided I valued my voice a little more so switched to the non-smoking van.

Do you ever miss the more simplistic touring days?
The only thing that gets to me with touring is when it stops making sense. You wake up in the morning and think “what am I running away from” instead of “what am I going to do tonight”? I wouldn’t say I miss any of that stuff, we were different people then and a lot of what we did then I don’t think we would have the tolerance for now, both physically and psychologically.

What do you do in the filler hours while touring?
Super nerdy stuff. The first thing I try to do is find a health food store. It’s the easiest thing, while on tour, to eat anything. At first, you’re like “so what”? But then you realize, if you’re eating shitty food all day then sitting for six hours, and have to get up and do something -- it takes its toll after a while. Every fourth grade teacher you had talking to you about nutrition appears in your dreams.

Then, I’ll try to find a bookstore. In this order: a book store, a comic book store, a record store. In the process of doing it, just try to walk around and get a sense of the place we’re going to be playing in.

So there were no health food stores in the earlier days?
Absolutely not. In the earlier days, you might find a coffee shop or a bookstore, and then a liquor store and whatever neon-sign is telling you can get the most burgers into you for cheap.

How do you deal with inter-band tensions on tour?
First thing you learn is to take your own space, because no one knows what’s going on in your head. If you’re getting annoyed, it’s just your problem. You learn from that, especially being on tour with a band, it’s necessary (to learn). With a band, not only are you working with your friends, but you wake up next to your coworkers, get on the same mode of transportation to go to work, spending all your free time, and when you’re done with your “job”, you commute home with them, but home is actually the thing you’re commuting in. There’s no escape … we’re basically family, so any spikes that arise are smoothed over pretty quickly. It’s to the point now where someone will be the way they are, and well “that’s just the way they are and that has nothing to do with me.”

That comes with maturing and age, though.
Definitely. Slapping happened five years ago (laughs) … it was the kind of thing that if it happened now it would be the end of the band cause there’s no reason for it, but back then you’re age 26 and still huffing the fumes of your teenage years out of there.

When did you find out Dear Science was award Best Album of 2008 by Rolling Stone, Spin, etc.?
The last tour we had in Europe was one of the worst times we’ve ever had. Three years ago, someone started the “God Hates TV on the Radio” theory and it was in full effect in Europe. Everything with wheels broke down. We were getting sick. It was bound to happen on tour, but during one of the worst times, we got a call saying “are you sitting down”, and we were told “Rolling Stone picked you as the number one album of the year.” We all looked at each other, and the feeling was “I don’t know if that’s a joke or not.” If it’s a joke, it’s the worst possible joke. And if it’s not a joke, it still might be the worst possible joke.

It’s great that we can make stuff that sounds like it does and gets noticed. When I first heard we got on a Billboard Chart (at no. 12), and I went to see who we were between, and Lil Wayne was no. 11 and Darius Rucker was no. 13. I just kind of stared at that for the longest time and said I really don’t know what’s going on anymore … It’s always weird to me seeing a list of anything. It’s flattering. But it’s nothing I ever paid attention to when I went out looking for music. Whenever I did pay attention to it, I was usually pretty disappointed by what someone told me the number one record is. For me, anything on the top 10, I just didn’t want to go near it.

Most “indie” fans wouldn’t even know what’s on Billboard these days.
I feel like I’ve looked at Billboard twice in my life. Once in 1989 when the Batman soundtrack was on it, and the other time cause someone told me we were on it. (Laughs.)

How did a song like “Golden Age” come about?
You’d have to ask Kyp for the best answer, because he wrote (the song) … and we don’t talk to each other about lyrics. He said he wanted to write a utopian pop song, which I thought “that’s a good idea, that’s better than ‘I’m so bummed out’”.

TV on the Radio - "Golden Age"

How did the election of Obama affect that song?
While we were writing the record, it was impossible to pull yourself away from the election. It was everywhere. Knowing us and knowing Kyp, the feeling of that song encompasses things like people dropping preconceived notions to give the best person for the job the job that needs to be done … but it’s also wider than that. In all corners of humanity, it’s a wish to get better and to crack open a couple roads … brushing away a lot of feelings that have built up over the past decade and being able to see a horizon or light.

How about the inspiration for “Family Tree”?
Sonically, it was totally different (than the rest of the album) in that it was voice and spare instruments. I wrote the melody a while ago and hadn’t done anything with it. I was going through my old stuff, and thought, “I could do something with it now.” The sentiment is vaguely about something that happened to me. It’s a culmination of friends telling me things that happened to them regarding falling in love with somebody but that going wrong because their parents didn’t approve of the race, or gender of this person.

Is that sentiment analogized through history?
Yeah, that’s what it got me thinking of. There’s a line, “They don’t know that we could be/Down where your cradle escaped the sea/and your raven haired Mama caught told you so's.” It’ the (story) of this person’s mother who rescued them from drowning. There’s an old Nigerian story about a woman… and when her twins were born, they would be drowned because in this part of the country, twins were seen as a horrible thing, an aberration of nature … and she decided to go against this tradition and start saving these twins.

For whatever reason, you get thrown around by other people’s opinions of what you should or can be doing. By the time someone was in their youth, someone is … whatever someone older than me is telling me is wrong, by the time you get to be their age, you might have been knocked around so much that it’s easier for you to be like them.

Have you seen the fan-made video of "Family Tree" on YouTube?
Someone told me about it. Honestly, I did see part of it, but I was on tour and it’s hard for us to have internet. I’ve heard lots of good things about it. Kyp’s daughter said she really liked the “Family Tree” video and Kyp was like, “there’s no “Family Tree” video?”

I really like a lot of (fan-made videos). Someone made a video for “I Was A Lover”, they took old wedding footage and cut it to that, and it really worked in a way that none of us thought.

TV on the Radio - "Family Tree" (Fan Video)

Did you enjoy filming Rachel Getting Married?
It was the great. The entire process was awesome. The part that I had to play was one of the lighter parts of the film. Definitely, I’d take any hat I have off to everyone involved in that production, especially Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt … they had to be in that for a couple months, in a tense family environment and that I can see being exhausting. Filming is a lot of waiting around …

Jonathan Demme is one of the most generous and inspiring people I’ve ever met in my life.

What’s your favorite album of 2009 thus far?
Merriweather Post Pavillion.

Okay, well my next question, anyway, was how good is Merriweather?
So good! Still so good! I’m consistently going on for years now getting so psyched when I hear the words “Animal Collective”.

If you could meet anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
Thelonious Monk would be pretty cool.

Which TV on the Radio song would you play him?
Hmmm. I don’t know.

Want me to pick?

That works.

Golden Age: An Interview With TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe