Echoes of a Bygone 'Burg: TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and Gerard Smith with Theodore Hamm
TV on the Radio’s new album, Dear Science, is a stellar follow-up to the band’s 2006 breakthrough Return to Cookie Mountain. All five members of the group—Tunde Adebimpe (vocals), Dave Sitek (guitars/keyboards), Kyp Malone (vocals/guitars), Jaleel Bunton (drums), and Gerard Smith (bass)—have been based in Williamsburg/Greenpoint for the last several years. In mid-August, I sat down with Tunde and Gerard, at the latter’s South Side apartment, and discussed the band’s history in relation to the changes in the neighborhood.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): Let me start with a basic question: Dear Science—where did the title come from?
Tunde: It came up when we were mixing the record in l.a., Dave Sitek, our guitar player and producer, read something online, I forget what, that prompted him to a write a letter in a kid’s handwriting on a piece of yellow notebook paper that said, “Dear Science, either fix all the things you keep talking about, or shut the fuck up.”
Gerard: It was a comet. They were trying to blow up a piece of a comet to study it.
Rail: So it all seemed too fanciful to comprehend.
Gerard: He was just overwhelmed by how audacious or bold it was to imagine that you could do something like that—I’m presuming that he thought it was so bold that you would interfere with as natural an occurrence as that. It’s like trying to take apart a firework on the Fourth of July, or something like that.
Rail: Can you relate that theme to the album in some way?
Tunde: I think we can definitely relate it to the album in the way that it is a complaint against that kind of feeling—whether it’s politically, emotionally, or sociologically—that we have everything but nothing works. That’s true in “first world countries” generally and in this country especially. You feel this immense gratitude for living in a society like this, but on the other hand, years and years of study and progress and advancement bring you to something that is designed to smash someone the way a caveman would smash someone.
Rail: Back to square one. And so we have it all, but nothing means anything?
Tunde: Yeah. Back to square one, but just like shinier and fancier, you know. But I don’t think that it doesn’t mean anything. The idea of expertise is a very weird idea, especially considering things like antidepressants or medication, where we are just basically testing things out and people are guinea pigs. Science has brought so many wonderful things, but there’s the whole feeling of “Just because you can do something, should you really do that? Do we need to push it so far?”
Rail: Do you think the album is a continuation of what you were doing on Return to Cookie Mountain—just maybe a bit more up-tempo?
Tunde: I don’t know. I think the feeling of the record is different, I think it is a more positive record. At least sonically, it is a more “up” record. And yeah, it’s more up-tempo, but also prettier in places, not as heavy emotionally. I’m probably a bad judge of that, but I think of this record as a more upbeat, positive record than the last one.
Rail: Do you agree, Gerard?
Gerard: No. I’ve found that a lot of times with the way that Tunde writes, you’ll be like “yeah,” but then you listen to it more and you’re like “oh.” It’s not light reading, lyrically, but texturally it sometimes may appear buoyant and you nod your head to it.
Rail: So it’s deceptively upbeat. Can you describe some of your influences for the lyrics? Is it just stuff that comes to you by way of inspiration?
Tunde: It’s usually griping, complaining. Some stuff that you’d feel stupid about complaining to a friend. But then I say, “If I had a beat behind this whining it would be alright.” I don’t know if any of this ever shows up in what I’m doing, but I like a lot of the Beats. You always have this weird thing in the back of your head when you start sculpting something; you want it to flow at least as well as this thing that you’ve read. You don’t want to mimic their style or anything, but when you read something there’s this confluence of ideas, and they’re so clear, and you end up walking away with your own version of whatever they were really going for. I was at FAMILY, a bookstore in West Hollywood, and I pretty much spent whatever money I had on me on these New Directions books. I got the Bob Kaufman one and I was really glad, because I heard about him from a lot of friends. I got one by Gregory Corso, too. I really like all of them.
Rail: If Kyp were here, what do you think he would say? Fuck the Beats? [Laughter]
Tunde: When he was writing his songs for the album, I think he was Googling a lot of things. For a while we weren’t all in the studio together; we were going in shifts. And Dave said, “Yeah, Kyp would go in and listen to the song over and over again. He would be in the recording room just listening over and over again, writing some stuff down. He would come out and go on the Internet for a while and Google some things and then go back in and keep listening and writing, and then an hour later there would be this song.” So Kyp totally pieces it together. He is really good at taking things that are happening in the world and making really good lyrical murals that go from what he was doing during the day to what’s happening in South America—and it all ties together really well. It’s super impressive. I’m jealous.
Rail: Let’s talk about your connections to Williamsburg. Is there a Brooklyn sound that you’re helping to create?
Tunde: Not really sonically. I’ll go and hear three different bands in a night either in one place or a few different places. So I don’t know if there’s a Brooklyn sound. I feel like we’ve all just been here for so long. And all our friends are here. I was here when the waterfront was inhibited by dinosaurs. There were dinosaur bones. Now there are lots of other bands, but I’m not sure what ties us together. It would be like me asking you what your connection to Vice Magazine is.
Rail: We live in the same neighborhood.
Tunde: You live in the same neighborhood and people in the neighborhood have read your stuff and they’ve read their stuff. It’s kind of a nice part of being around here, too—it’s such a big circle. And hopefully it will stay that way, but I have my doubts. I guess this is the year that a lot of the buildings have gotten completed and a lot of people are moving into them, so if you were thinking that the fix wasn’t in before, not only is the fix in now but it’s occupying an entire floor of that beautiful glass and steel condominium.
Gerard: I think if anything it’s more of a Brooklyn community than necessarily an aesthetic. And I think that’s more of the thing that’s interesting about here. How we all encounter each other—the people we know from other bands and from other circles, like the comic artists.
Rail: So the band was originally Tunde and Dave. How did you meet Kyp?
Tunde: Strangely, the year after I graduated from high school, I went to New York for a year, and then I went back home to Pittsburgh. I ran into my friend Sonia Yoon, the artist, who said we should go to the Beehive, which was a movie theater and a café in Oakland, in downtown Pittsburgh. And her friend Kyp was there, so the three of us had coffee. I was kind of like, this is this guy who works at the Beehive and is way cooler than I am, and Sonia likes him, so I’m going to blot him from my memory. Eight years later, some time shortly after September 11th, I actually talked to Kyp again—before that, I had just sort of seen him around the neighborhood. I wasn’t that social for a while but then after September 11th, I was like, “Oh wait a minute, if planes are flying into buildings I need to meet as many people as I can before people get taken out by the tail end of someone’s plane.” It shouldn’t take enormous tragedy for me to notice the person next door to me. But I remember going into the Verb Café on Bedford, where Kyp was working. And I was kind of like, “Hey man.” And he was like, “Hey.” And I was staring at him and it was weird because I had never really raised my head to look away from my shoes until I was like twenty or something. But then I finally said, “Wait, did I get coffee with you like eight years ago in Pittsburgh?” And Kyp said, “I don’t know.” And I was like, “Do you know Sonia Yoon?” And he said, “Yes.” And I was like, “We did have coffee.” Then I found out later that this was a week or so after Kyp and Dave had met. Kyp joined another band while Dave and I were figuring out what we were doing with live performances and stuff like that. We went through a couple of line-ups and then decided we should only be a two-person band. And then Dave came up with the idea that we should only be a two-person band and Kyp should be the third person. I was like, “I think you’re right.” [Laughter]
Rail: When did Jaleel come on?
Tunde: I’ve known him since I moved to New York. I forget how I met Jaleel—I think through mutual friends. But, you know, he was always playing. He was in this band Hundred Unit for a little while. That’s the first time I saw him. Then I saw him playing solo in a bar in Chinatown called Good World. I went there and I heard this guy playing guitar and doing this solo thing and I told Kyp, “That guy is really good at guitar.” Then we saw him playing something else. He plays everything and he is everywhere. And he is just someone I know from around and we had mutual friends but we had never really met because I was just like, that guy is way cooler than I am—I can’t really talk to him. It’s sad, dude.
Gerard: With Tunde, every time I see him walk up to an instrument, I get totally terrified—although he’s gotten so much better at piano playing, it scares me. But Jaleel is just like a music jock. He’s like the quarterback. He sees an instrument and he’s like, “I can play that.”
Rail: And Gerard, you said you were the fifth wheel, yes? [Laughter]
Gerard: I saw Tunde in the movie Jump Tomorrow on ifc. And I was super addicted to film at that time. A year later, I was playing on the subway platform here, at the Bedford stop, and he kept giving me money. And then I was like, I recognize this guy. Then it finally clicked, and I said, “Dude you were in that movie! I loved that movie!” That film had meant a lot to me, especially because there was a black actor that wasn’t in the ghetto, and there weren’t a lot of politics. He was being a human being and not only a black actor. And that meant a lot to me.
Tunde: I first ran into him at the Bedford station, before it was a cat-walk and it was alright to look like a total scumbag. Every time I heard Gerard it was so awesome, because he’d just be playing by himself. And it was another case of me being like, I don’t really think I can talk to that dude.
Gerard: I know it took a while.
Tunde: He’s very, very serious.
Gerard: Yeah, I was really serious.
Tunde: And what you were playing was just so far and above what was normally down there that I can’t even describe it. I was just like, that dude’s awesome. I bet he’s super serious and looks down on people.
Gerard: I was super angry. I would be working a day job and then I’d go play to make a couple extra bucks. I thought I broke down a barrier when I said to Tunde, “Hey man, I saw you in that movie.” He was taken aback, then said, “Oh thanks, man, I got this roommate that just moved in with me he’s got all this recording equipment. You should come record with us.” And that’s Dave. So, a week later, I go to play in SoHo on West Broadway and Graham, where people sell paintings and stuff, and there’s this dude out there at night, trying to sell paintings where there’s no light. And he’s just sitting out there, and I was like, alright, whatever. So I’m sitting out there, and I say, “Hey dude, can you just do me a favor, can you just watch my guitar?” I knew he wasn’t going to run off with it. I said, “I’ll buy you a coffee or whatever.” He was like, “No, I’m cool.” So I went to use the bathroom, I come back. He tells me, “Yeah, I moved in with this dude Tunde.” And this is a totally different part of the city. So I said, “Yeah, man, I met that dude last week.” And it was really creepy and weird.
Rail: So you started recording out of Tunde’s apartment? Where was it?
Tunde: On S. 1st street across from C Town. A lot of people lived on that floor. I was looking for a place, and this guy Napoleon told me he had a floor in a place that used to be a cheesecake factory and there was a sweatshop next door. You walk into this place and it’s totally open, the dry wall keeps going up, and we’re looking at this huge floor and there’s varying electricity and a toilet way at the other end of it. And I look at Napoleon, and he says, “You know, I could fix it up and you could move in here.” And I said, “Can I move in now?” He was like, “Yeah… if you wanna live here…” And I said, “This is perfect. This is exactly what I need.” It looked so bombed out and I thought no one will ever, ever find me here. [Laughs] There was a lot of space and a lot of good lighting. A ton of people were over there. Gerard squatted there. And it just sort of grew. I painted the door, which is still there and covered with graffiti, but they sold the building and our floor got cleared just this past January.
Rail: Would you say that you came of age as an artist in Williamsburg?
Tunde: I don’t know, I mean, I really appreciate this neighborhood. Because I don’t think we could have done anything with what we’re doing without it—meaning I don’t think it would have happened anywhere else. I benefited from a lot of proximity. It was great when you could meet somebody in a café, and say, “Oh, what do you do?” It was really inspiring to move to a place and meet all of these people, and be just totally in it. People were very generous with their advice and time and they would just hang out with you. Sometimes there was this weird thing where I wasn’t as far along on my path as this person, and so I’d feel a little insecure about it or something. But I met a lot of really great people who are just open to experiment and teach stuff. I remember meeting Gary Panter and just being amazed that I was sitting in his studio. Such a kind and prolific artist. I was really inspired by him, and by Steve Keene, too. When I first got here, I saw this painting of his on the outside of a warehouse, so I kind of stalked him for a second. But I ended up talking to him and going into his studio one day and trading a painting with him. It was just really special when you’re twenty and you’re trading a painting with Steve Keene. You’re like, “I can’t believe I’m here!”
Rail: Well hopefully, if not this neighborhood, then there will be another neighborhood that fosters creativity. Around here, there aren’t many artists moving into the multi-million dollar condos.
Tunde: Oh, it’s always happening somewhere. I’m just glad to have been around here at that time. Lots of places to play, lots of chances to share your stuff, lots of lofts that were having really great art shows. But I guess people move further out in Brooklyn and are kind of still trying to do the same thing. As for me, I haven’t done a proper comic in a long time but it’s kind of the art form that I still have the most respect for. And meeting people like Gary sort of solidified that. It sounds like a weird thing to say but when you go to art school there’s this weird unspoken thing where they try to guide you to get a job in something else. There’s a lot of guidance to do you own personal work, but there’s also this pressure and they’re like, “Well you gotta eat, so keep working on your stuff but make sure to make it commercial enough so it sells.” And I met a lot of people who said, “only do that other stuff where you feel like it might be crushing your soul if the price tag is going to afford you the time to do your own stuff because then it’s really worth it.”
Rail: Well, you guys haven’t done anything that would be considered selling out.
Tunde: Oh man, we almost did. But luckily we couldn’t get it together. We almost scored the mtv Movie Awards once, but then it crashed and burned. Thankfully, it was while we were recording an album. So the awards gig just jack-knifed. It was probably one of the best lessons we learned.
Rail: If you had done that, you’d probably be living across the street in the Gretsch Building right now.
Tunde: Or we would have made enough money to get the sex change and skin graft necessary to live down the humiliation.