It's been six months since TV on the Radio released its stunning latest album, Return to Cookie Mountain, in North America. The praise was both instantaneous and rapturous, and before long, the Brooklyn quintet's pulsating, guitar-heavy sound propelled it to the top of Spin magazine's list of best albums of 2006, as well as scores of others. TVOTR, which formed in 2001, has always had a faithful cult following, but now the band is packing ever-larger venues and performing for millions on programs such as The Late Show With David Letterman.
For singer Tunde Adebimpe, the hoopla hasn't even begun to sink in. He doesn't read the press about the band—he tried once but found it too strange and immediately stopped—and sometimes, when he gets on-stage and looks at people looking back at him, it seems so surreal that he feels like laughing out loud. What he does realize is that you've hit a new echelon when David Bowie is in your studio recording backup vocals for you. The Thin White Duke has made no secret of his love for TV on the Radio, which includes guitarists Dave Sitek and Kyp Malone, bassist Gerard Smith, and drummer Jaleel Bunton.
"I came in late that day," recounts Adebimpe on his cellphone at a Madison, Wisconsin, tour stop, "and he [Malone] had just pressed a button on the console and was like, 'David, that was really good. But if you could enunciate that last part, it would be great.' Then I heard this voice saying, 'Okay, okay, I got it.' And the next thing I heard was David Bowie singing. Kyp looked over at me and was going, 'I can't believe I just told David Bowie what to do.' It was just this ultra-, ultra-surreal moment. Very, very, very weird."
As strange as all of the attention may seem to the band, it's certainly well-deserved. Layered with shifting rhythms and electronic textures, Return to Cookie Mountain is a dense amalgam of styles, offering everything from propulsive rock to powerhouse soul. Handclaps and gunfirelike percussion make "A Method" sound like an indie-rock military anthem, "I Was A Lover" blends shape-shifting electronics with warm piano and fuzz-drunk guitars, and seaside chimes and bells shimmer in the dark lullaby "Tonight". Elsewhere, there's no standing still when you hear the unforgettable single "Wolf Like Me", which mixes an infectious beat and throbbing guitar with hints of baritone sax. Every song hits on a gut level, which somehow makes sense.
"From start to finish, it's all intuition," Adebimpe reveals. "Whenever I write something for the band, it's usually just sketches of things, and at the beginning, I have absolutely no idea if it's going to turn into something. I always feel like I am using this emotional divining rod to keep going back to things, even though they don't make sense at first. I sculpt it more and more until it looks or sounds like something. Then I'm thinking, 'Oh, I guess that's what was lurking in there.'?"
From there, TV on the Radio adds layer upon layer of sound to the skeleton of a song using all kinds of instruments and gadgets they have collected over the past few years.
"Every time we stop anywhere," Adebimpe says with a laugh, "everyone disappears to the local guitar store and comes back with the weirdest stringed instrument or pedal, and they're like, 'I don't even know what it does.'?"
Rich with imagery, many of the lyrics on Return to Cookie Mountain—TV on the Radio's fifth release, including EPs—paint dark and uncomfortable pictures. Blood-lusting wolves wander as sharks await their prey and the devil (along with his pirate friends) brings "a hunger for blood, and flesh and bone and skin". Allusions to war, greed, and politics also make veiled appearances in lines such as "Suddenly, all your history's ablaze/Try to breathe, as the world disintegrates/Just like autumn leaves, we're in for a change". According to Adebimpe, who's also a visual artist and computer animator, many of the songs appear as images in his mind's eye.
"If you have a movie or even a scene idea that you don't have the budget for, you should write a song about it, because it's way easier to get it done," he says. "You just write it on a piece of paper, then get your friends together and sing about it. The first writing I ever did was for comics, and the comics I really loved were ones like Love and Rockets and The Biologic Show that had passages of silence and colour that got punctuated by very few words. When I am writing a song, I am definitely thinking in that way."
Known for its hypnotic live shows that critics and fans describe in near-religious terms, TV on the Radio is nearing the end of a marathon haul of touring. Ready for a break, Adebimpe says that the idea of wrapping things up is "both good and”¦ Well, not bad at all." Still, the self-effacing vocalist deeply appreciates the experience of playing live.
"I feel very fortunate, because these are songs that marked fairly transformative periods in all of our lives, and coming to rehearsal was the one oasis from everything," says Adebimpe, who, like his fans, often loses himself in the performance. "So whenever we start playing a show, I go back thinking about them in that way. I really feel like the best shows are the ones that go by really quickly and I don't really remember being up there. I just remember feeling great when I leave."
TV on the Radio plays a sold-out Commodore on Saturday (March 24).
In + Out
TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know:
On writing songs that touch on political issues: "For me, personally, I don't feel like it's a good idea to use the world like some kind of global ambulance-chaser who says, 'What's the next thing I'm going to write about?' because I don't know any more than anyone else about anything horrible or wonderful that's happening in the world. But I do know that if something is bugging me, it will usually find its way into something I'm making, whether it's paintings or films or music."
On the excitement of working side by side with the musicians who inspired him: "When we opened for the Pixies, I almost lost it. I couldn't really talk to any of them. I was just like, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for letting us open for you.' And when they said, 'We really like the record,' I was just thinking, 'I can't talk to you, because I will throw up all over your shoes.'?"
On being careful not to overuse effects and sampled sounds: "I call it the shiny-dinosaurs argument. In animation, people were suddenly able to make dinosaurs look like they were made out of metal, and I remember being a kid going, 'That's kind of cool, but dinosaurs weren't really shiny and those look really dumb.' It's like being able to use Photoshop for the first time, and suddenly everything is a bright, weird colour when it would have looked way better as a pencil sketch. I think you just have to just trust your gut and make sure those fancy things resonate on a deeper level."