We’ve Got A File On You: TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe
Over the course of their five albums, TV On The Radio have covered a lot of ground, adeptly blending genres to the point where the seams become entirely invisible, and a TV On The Radio song — whether “I Was A Lover” or “Halfway Home” or “Second Song” — sounds entirely individual to them. You know when they’re on. On the side, the respective band members have been up to a whole lot of other things beyond what they’d already explored together, from Kyp Malone’s Rain Machine record to Dave Sitek’s frequent production work. Frontman Tunde Adebimpe had something of a circuitous route to rock stardom — he was trained and working as a visual artist, and appeared in a movie in 2001, two years before TV On The Radio released the Young Liars EP. Even with the success of his band, Adebimpe hasn’t lost his appreciation for the visual arts, or his drive to express himself in realms other than music, whether it’s continuing to act or whether it’s him overseeing the art direction for TV On The Radio’s records. With the release of Seeds, the latest excellent installment in what has become one of the most unbeatable catalogs of this century, I talked to Adebimpe about some of his most notable YouTubable moments.
Jump Tomorrow (2001)
ADEBIMPE: Oh my God. [laughs] So it’s going to be like that, huh?
STEREOGUM: Well, it won’t all be this obscure.
ADEBIMPE: No, that’s fine. It just made me crack up. So that was a movie that came out in 2000, I want to say. 2001? I was at NYU working in animation — and also working on getting kicked out — and there was a friend of mine who wanted me to co-write a short film with him. So we started doing that and he was like “I think you should be the main actor in it.” I was pretty hesitant to do that, because I’d only done some really bad acting in high school. I didn’t really want to be anywhere near the front of a camera. He convinced me to do it and I was like, “Fine I should try this out.” This movie was called Jorge and it was about a really introverted, almost non-verbal office worker who falls in love with someone in the office and has to work up the courage to ask her out or be with her or whatever it’s going to be. So I did it and it ended up winning an award at the NYU First Run Film Festival and I won a best actor award and that was pretty much that. He got some money. He was an English filmmaker, so he pitched a feature-length version of that short to — what is it, Channel 4 BBC? They gave him the funding and he wanted me to be in it again. I was in it and that that was my first feature film role. Strange. It was really weird, because, you know, I had been working animation jobs and also working as a comic artist and making paintings, and then suddenly I was in this sort of world where the movie got into Sundance and all this stuff.
It was really a little bit overwhelming. I backed off from the other aspects of it. It was funny, because I got a lot of interviews from agents at the time who were like “Oh, I loved you in this movie! We really want to see you and figure out what you’re doing with your acting career.” I remember sitting down with this really big agent, or a person from Paramount, I don’t know if she was an agent, but some higher-up. She said, “Who are your favorite actors?” I said “Well, I like Crispin Glover a lot, and I like Antonio Fargas.” I was just naming all these really off-beat character actors. She says, “Okay, okay — what do you want to do with your acting? Tell me how you feel about acting.” And I was like, “Well first off, I can’t stand actors. I think they live in a really delusional world. Everyone I met in school was an actor, and a self-involved asshole.” I just saw the look on her face go to this place where she’s like “I’m not going to do anything with this kid. He just doesn’t give a fuck.” [laughs] It was kind of true, I just didn’t. And about four years later, I thought, “Oh, I probably should have lied about that. Wouldn’t have to be eating ramen right now, maybe, possibly.” But, it was good, it was an interesting experience. The best part about it for me was being on an independent movie set and just seeing how everything functioned. I like acting now and I’m really glad that I’ve been able to get some stuff in movies that I’m really proud of and work with people that I really respect, but a big part of it for me is being on a set and seeing how things are working for that particular production. I don’t know if that movie holds up. I do remember thinking the short was better when I saw the feature-length. I think it was one of those deals where suddenly you get more money and there are more cooks in the kitchen so, you know.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
ADEBIMPE: I was really lucky to be a part of it. Jonathan Demme had used a part of “Satellite” in The Manchurian Candidate. I remember getting asked about it, and we were like, “Yeah, definitely, whatever that guy wants from us.” He is one of my favorite directors. I think something about three years after that, I got a call that he wanted me to maybe try out for this part in Rachel Getting Married. It was a very strange try out. It wasn’t so much an audition — I was supposed to come in and read with Rosemarie DeWitt. Well, actually, no. I was supposed to do a reading by myself and I walked into the room and there’s this big table and the producers are at the table, a couple of other people at the table, and Jonathan sitting there, and I was like “Oh my god, I’m going to have to audition in front of everybody like this? This is really, super intimidating.” And Jonathan was like “Hey! It’s really great to meet you, I love your music.” I think he found out about our music through his son, Brooklyn, a really excellent person. He sat down and was like “I love the music, I just wanted to talk to you about this whole circus.” We sat and basically talked about the bands that he likes. I didn’t ask him, but I remember I was about to say, “Do you like the Talking Heads?” Can’t ask the guy who directed Stop Making Sense if he likes the Talking Heads. [laughs] [That would] be awkward. It was great and we just kind of had a conversation and chatted. And then he said, “Well, cool, it’d be really fun if you could come in and have a reading with Rosemarie Dewitt,” who was playing Rachel in the film, who I’d be getting wed to.
So, I was waiting for that call and I got a call as I was walking down the street. I said “Hello?” “Tunde!” I said “Yeah?” “It’s Jonathan!” “Jonathan?” “Jonathan Demme!” I was like, “Oh, heyyyy, how’s it going?” He said, “I just wanted to call and tell you you got it!” I was just walking down whatever it was, Bedford Avenue, and I just kind of stopped for a second and was just like … you know, the weird moment where you can’t talk. He said, “Yeah, you got it! Come in, we are going to do a reading next Thursday, and there will be fittings in two weeks.” And I was like “Oh man, thank you so much! That’s great! That’s really, really great.” Yeah and then I got into it, got into reading. It was really, really nice to hang out with and meet Rosemarie, who is an incredible actress. And of course, Anne Hathaway just being around. It’s one of those strange things when you’re looking at somebody that you have basically seen in one film or another for a good deal of your life. It takes me a second. Not so much anymore, but it is really odd. It was the same thing with 3D. You kind of have to take a minute to walk and realize you’re just a person standing in front of me and it’s not as weird as I think it is. It was cool hanging out with her, she is really an insanely cool person. And meeting Anna Deavere Smith, who I think is probably one of the best actors in the world, an amazing activist and writer. And Bill Irwin, too. Just all these people, I was sitting down in a room looking around and thinking “Oh, this is a big deal. It is going to be a really heavy thing.” It was just really cool to see how Jonathan operated, too. Everyone on the set set was kind of treated — like the cast and crew were really treated with so much respect, as far as I saw, from him and other people. It was a really warm and welcoming environment. To see the final product … .you know, it’s a really, really heavy movie. It was just amazing.
Oh, and the other funny thing about it was later, Jonathan was telling me: he said, “Yeah, you know, originally we tried some people out for the part, and before you P.T. Anderson was going to do it but he got caught up in a project he had to do.” I think the project ended up being something like There Will Be Blood, or something. [laughs] We just started talking about him and how much we both liked him and Jonathan was like “Yeah, that guy knows more about film than I do! I was [working] in the ’70s and I was making some of the movies that he was talking around. I had no idea what was going on around me. He’s like a living library of film.” It was like a double-edge thing where it’s like, “I’m glad I got this role, I don’t know how I feel about that, though.” I don’t know how I feel about [filling in for] P.T. Anderson. [laughs]
TV On The Radio’s “DLZ” On Breaking Bad (2009)
STEREOGUM: Did you watch Breaking Bad?
ADEBIMPE: I did watch Breaking Bad.
STEREOGUM: Okay, so do you remember the scene with “DLZ” in it?
ADEBIMPE: I do!
STEREOGUM: I think that was one of the best uses of music in TV history, and it was one of the main things I wanted to ask you about for this. I was wondering what you thought about how it was used.
ADEBIMPE: The funny thing about that, for me, is I only watched Breaking Bad at the end of last year. It was like when I watched The Wire on DVD and suddenly I was going around to friends like, “Have you seen this? This is one of the most amazing shows ever!” and they were like, “Yeahhhh, it’s now about four years old and everyone in the world knows that.” I don’t know if it’s conscious, but if everyone is telling me to watch something, I’m like, “I’m not going to watch that.” Part of it is I don’t want to be disappointed, and the other part of it is leftover 15-year-old bullshit where like, “If everybody likes it, it has got to be the worst thing in the world.” So, I started watching it at the end of last year and I had completely forgotten that the song was in it. Then it got to that point, and I’m completely into the show by then, and it happened and I’m watching it and suddenly — I’m watching Walter do his thing — and I have this stomachache where it’s like, “What is going on? Why do I feel so weird about this?” It was that drum beat. I was like, “Why do I know that?” And then I heard my voice. I had completely forgotten about it. I was totally immersed in the scene and then it happened and I was like … it was a momentary discomfort and then I was like “Whoa, that was incredible.” We had been touring while that episode had been playing and after shows I would go out and talk to people, like when we go to the merch table and hang out. So many people were coming up and saying, “Man, the Breaking Bad thing was so incredible!” I would just be like, “Thanks, I really appreciate it,” and I had no idea what anybody was talking about for the longest time. And then I saw this thing and it was really, really impressive to me. I was really glad to be a part of such a great show. I got really, really psyched about it.
STEREOGUM: Did you wind up playing “DLZ” more as a result of that becoming more of a mainstream TV On The Radio reference point?
ADEBIMPE: We play it pretty regularly, just because it’s really fun to play. It’s usually on the set list, but after a point I started noticing that more people knew the song and were singing along. I didn’t really chalk it up to anything, but it does make a little bit more sense now.
Massive Attack – “Pray For Rain” (2010)
STEREOGUM: How did you wind up on “Pray For Rain?” Did you just meet them at a show or something or did they reach out to you at some point?
ADEBIMPE: They actually asked me to do it. We were working on Return To Cookie Mountain, and we opened for them on our first tour. I think it was the second round of our first tour. They just were really super, super friendly to us and really, you know, when you’re hanging out with Massive Attack and you’re not fully conscious of the moment you’re in? At least for me. I was like, “This is weird, I’m having trouble like dealing with the fact that somebody who is a pretty big musical influence is asking us to open,” and like all this stuff. They were just really cool. Then they came to the studio in Brooklyn when we were working on Cookie Mountain, and had a bunch of tracks that they wanted Dave [Sitek, TV On The Radio producer/guitarist] to do some stuff on and said “We could do some stuff on each other’s records.” All of us were like “Yeah, that would be great.” A bunch of stuff got worked on, and the track that ended up being “Pray For Rain,” they said, “If you want to do anything on this, that’d be great.” So I did some sketches and didn’t hear anything back and they went back to the studio and started working on stuff and I pretty much thought “Okay, you go around and some stuff works out and sometimes it doesn’t work out and that’s cool.”
Then, I think it was actually, let’s see … like five years later. I get an email from 3D [Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja], going “Oh man, we think it’s time to finish the track.” [laughs] And I’m like, “What track?” He sent it over again and I was like “Ohhhh” and it all like, blocked together in my head. I was like, “You guys reaaaaally take your time on a record.” I guess they can afford to but I had completely forgotten about it. Yeah, so he sent it and we went to a studio in Manhattan, just for a day and, you know, put some stuff down. I told them they could shift things around or take things out, whatever they wanted to do, because it was really quick. They basically just used everything and it was really cool, it was really nice to hear it come out after such a long time. It was one of those nice surprises. I’m actually singing it with them for the first time. They’re playing at the Greek in L.A. and they called like a week ago and asked if I would do it. So that’s the first time I’ll perform it. [This interview was conducted a few weeks ago and you can now watch this performance here -Ed.]
TV On The Radio Perform “Young Liars” On Letterman (2011)
STEREOGUM: One of my favorite things you guys do live is the reinterpretation of “Young Liars.” Can you tell me about how it developed over the years, the process of the song turning into what it is now?
ADEBIMPE: Let me think … especially, because that was on Young Liars, I mean the actual EP. We were going out after that on our first tour, after Desperate Youth. Everything had to be stripped down. I don’t think we had the aptitude to bring every electronic element into those songs. So, it got stripped down to vocals, two guitars, bass, and drums. It sounded good that way. That’s basically the way we have been playing it since we started playing it. It has gotten bigger and we have added a couple more people onstage. But it’s funny to me now, because that’s the way I think about the song in my head now and hearing it recorded sounds … I still like it a lot, because the feelings that went into that song and the time, you know, it all comes back to me. I have a lot of respect for that time, so it feels good in that way. But [the original] also started to sound so alien to me though.
STEREOGUM: I definitely think of it as more of the live version now, too.
ADEBIMPE: Yeah, it just kind of blows up in a crazier way. It’s a fun song to open with. If you jump off the mountain that way, you are either going to land in a really awesome way, or you’re just going to crash, and either one of those is completely exciting.
TV On The Radio – The Nine Types Of Light Movie & “Forgotten” Video (2011)
STEREOGUM: What was it like directing your bandmates, and organizing everything in general, for the Nine Types Of Light film’s interstitials and the music video for “Forgotten?”
ADEBIMPE: Right, so the whole thing was — I just think the idea of putting remixes on a record to make it a special thing is okay. It’s not my favorite way to experience an extra dimension of a record. I had the idea of making a video for every track on the record, so I contacted a bunch of friends who I thought are are excellent filmmakers and basically just sent the song to whoever’s style would be best suited to it. Everyone did a really amazing job. I directed the interstitials to kind of guide the movie a little bit, because I felt like there were several themes in the songs that I wasn’t super aware of while we were making them, but putting them in a certain order made it obvious that there is a beginning, middle, and end to all of those. When it came out, not that many people were aware of [the movie] and that’s because if anyone knows how to drop a ball, it’s Innerscope Records. [laughs] They didn’t give it a lot of attention until we got nominated for a Grammy and they scrambled to say it was their idea or whatever, but anyhow. It came out, which is the most you can ask for.
I feel it’s got a really good life on YouTube and places like that. As far as directing bandmates, you know, there are some people in the band that just don’t want to be in pictures or videos or anything. It’s completely understandable, but I also love everyone in my band and I think they’re handsome and funny and everybody should be seen and known. It’s always fun to direct them. I think it always comes out pretty good, as far as getting everyone together and having us do something. I think my favorite version of that was the video for “You.” I didn’t direct that one, Barney Clay directed that and it is one of my favorite videos that we have ever done. I think a good example of us is in that video. I think it’s a good representation of how we all hang out and just how we are around each other. I’m glad people got a glimpse of that in the video.
Rookie’s Ask A Grown Man: Tunde Adebimpe (2013)
STEREOGUM: This is a particularly random piece of ephemera, but I wanted to ask you about the video you did for Rookie about dating advice.
ADEBIMPE: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I’m trying to think of how it happened. Oh! I got asked to judge a talent show that Rookie was putting on by somebody that used to work at Bust magazine and they moved over to Rookie. There was a talent show with 13 and up teenagers and it involved music and performances, there was someone who was one of the most incredible hula hoop artist I’ve ever seen in my life. I got asked to be on a panel with Dev Hynes, Annie Clark, and Eugene Mirman. We were the judges for this talent show. It was a room full of pre-teen and teenage girls who were way cooler than anybody on the panel, and who would have intimidated the shit out of me as a teenager and also as an adult. I was just like “I don’t know, you guys are super-computers of cool and smart.” It’s really amazing to me. Just like how that whole magazine came together. Someone who I had a relationship with for a long time like did illustrations for them. It’s just a really cool deal.
After this talent show, this was a few months afterwards: I got an email form the Rookie person and asked if I wanted to do this column, because they had been doing it as Ask A Grown Woman and they started to branch out into doing more than that. I got asked to do it and I loved doing it. It was really kind of, again, intimidating giving advice to teens about their lives, but I’m really glad I got asked to do it and it was super fun. And also it was a strange thing, suddenly thinking about if I had a teenage daughter, what I would tell her about any of that stuff. It was really, really frightening but a good experience. And afterwards I had a lot of friends come up and say, “Wow, you’re really good at that! You should be a life coach or something!” [laughs] I was like, “I don’t know. That’s probably a horrible idea.” My friend Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, she had just did one. She was telling me that she was really freaked out about doing it, she didn’t know what to tell them. It’s the kind of thing, too, where you think about what piece of advice would you have listened to as a teenager. I thought about it and I was just like, “Probably nothing! Probably absolutely nothing!” [laughs] I’m glad that it went okay.
TV On The Radio – “Happy Idiot” (2014)
ADEBIMPE: Basically I went to Funny Or Die and asked them to help me out, to see if they’d be interested, and they said yeah. They asked me if I had any ideas and I proposed two ideas and the first one was Paul [Reubens] as a race car driver losing his mind. They were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s do that one.” The second idea got half-mentioned, and they were like, “No, no, let’s try for the first one.” I was just really excited first off, to meet [Paul]. He is a real idol of mine. And second to get Karen Gillan in it. It seemed to come together in such a weird way … I don’t know what I did in a past life, to have this happen. [laughs] I love the final product. It’s the kind of thing where I feel like, any time I can get convince them to do something again, I will do it, and I will be rejected, but I’m glad they did it this time.
TV On The Radio – “Careful You” (2014)
ADEBIMPE: It’s a song that was written … a lot of times you can use a song as a venue for some … not even unresolved feelings, but feelings that are pretty resolved but still floating around in your head. A very longterm relationship that was pretty big to me sort of jack-knifed itself while we were recording the record, for just a bunch of reasons. I didn’t even realize that I was doing it so specifically, but that song was definitely putting all of the weirdness and mild trauma … trauma is a horrible word to use, but, you know, that relationship falling apart into that song. Kind of turning it into something you could kind of put into a place and not be overwhelmed by it all in your head and turn it into something else. [Something] that’s sort of for you, but it’s not exactly for you, it’s sort of for anyone else it’s useful to, as far as empathizing with something like that. Just like a lot of failed relationship songs. If you’re sitting there and you’re going through one, you feel like someone’s commiserating in a way, which can be helpful. For me, I think it was more, at least temporarily, cathartic to write a piece about how something could go wrong but you are still trying to see the positive side of what went wrong.
TV On The Radio – “Ride” (2014)
STEREOGUM: I saw you guys play this one at BottleRock back in May, and I think it’s my favorite song on the record, as well as probably one of my favorite songs of the year.
ADEBIMPE: I really, really like this song a lot. It’s weird, because it is one of those ones where I sang — we tried to work really quickly on this record, putting down what sounded like a song almost immediately and just sticking with it. That one came up pretty quickly. I don’t know, for me it was kind of … I kept asking friends while we were writing it, “Is this a Guided By Voices song?” And they were all, “No, I don’t think so?” I was like “Are you sure?” I was really asking people and they would just be like, “No, I think that’s you, I really think that’s you.” You get pieces of bands and songs you love floating around in your head and they jam together in weird ways, so I always have to kind of make sure I’m not exactly ripping someone off. Yeah, I guess it’s a fun song. And I had written that chorus a long time ago. It was one of those things that I wrote like four years ago and was sort of like “Eh, it’s a little cheesy.” Then you find somewhere to plug it into where it suddenly puts wheels under the thing you are putting on top of it. I like that song a lot. I’m glad you like it, because of all the songs on the record it’s the one where I’m always like, “Well, I like it, but I don’t know if anyone else is going to like it.”
STEREOGUM: Well, I do, so you and I are in it together at least.
Seeds is out now via Harvest.