Sound and Vision
For Tunde Adebimpe, frontman for the intriguingly contradictory act TV on the Radio, the last couple of years have been like an extended version of Opposites Day. He trained to be a visual artist, but now he works mainly with audio. He thought of music as a hobby, but it's become a career. He didn't try to get a record deal, but he landed one anyhow.
The unexpected nature of these developments smacked him full force last year as he wandered the halls of Touch and Go, the venerable Chicago indie that's issued TV on the Radio's first two discs, the 2003 EP Young Liars and a new long-player, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. "I still kind of don't believe it," he says. "I mean, our album was on the wall just down from Blonde Redhead's and one by the Mekons [who record for Touch and Go's sister imprint, Quarterstick]. I was like, 'How did this happen? What are we doing here?'"
Generating reams of good press, for one thing. Young Liars received largely positive notices despite many reviewers' inability to look past the similarity between Adebimpe's voice and that of veteran warbler Peter Gabriel. Fortunately, scribes seem to be digging deeper into Desperate Youth, which sports a more confident and original blend of post-rock stylings and social awareness. TV on the Radio is growing in other ways, too. The band began as a collaboration between Adebimpe and David Andrew Sitek, with David's brother Jason Sitek helping out on occasion. Now, however, it's a brawny five-piece, with guitarist/loop-meister Kyp Malone, bassist Gerard Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton supporting Tunde and David. The performance turned in by the quintet at last month's South By Southwest confab in Austin may have earned more superlatives than any other.
"Quite honestly, I'm shocked at the amount of attention that we've gotten," Malone concedes. "It's already surpassed any of my wildest dreams. I've spent years playing in groups to audiences ranging from three hundred people to six people. So it's all new for me to think I could find a record I put out in every state, let alone across the ocean. Anything that happens beyond what's happened so far is gravy."
Adebimpe agrees. When asked how other musicians have reacted to TV's quick transition from casual lark to buzz band, he laughs as he admits, "I have no idea. If I even started thinking about that, I would collapse."
Both Adebimpe and Malone grew up in Pittsburgh, with Adebimpe later moving to New York City to attend New York University's film school. He arrived at NYU shortly after Pulp Fiction had shaken up the movie world, not to mention many of his fellow students. "There were a lot of mini-Scorseses who'd say, 'This is my masterpiece,' and then show a film where he'd gotten all his friends to dress up like gangsters," he notes. "There was this one where a girl got stabbed in a bar, and this guy takes her onto a boat, does a platter of cocaine and has sex with her dead body. After the lights came up at the screening, there was dead silence, and then this girl stood up and said, ŒI don't want you to take this the wrong way, but what the fuck were you thinking?'"
As for Adebimpe, he focused on animation and hung out with "art kids" who were more interested in stretching themselves creatively than in coming up with the next SpongeBob SquarePants. He had to eat, though, and when MTV came knocking, he eagerly leapt at the opportunity to work on what would become Celebrity Deathmatch, an amusing curio that featured clay representations of famous people ripping each other's limbs off. "I was one of the first eighteen animators, so for the first season and a half, I pretty much worked on every show," he says. "Madonna vs. Michael Jackson. The Beastie Boys vs. the Backstreet Boys."
Celebrity Deathmatch's success was also its downfall. Thanks to the demand for new episodes, the show's handlers quickly ran through A-list personalities to satirize, leaving them to stage face-offs between historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. "It was pretty funny, but toward the end, there was a lot of barrel-scraping going on," Adebimpe says. "And three seasons into it, all but two people who started with me had taken off." He certainly understood their need for escape, pointing out that "fourteen-hour days in a room with no windows does strange things to folks."
To maintain his sanity, Adebimpe needed an artistic outlet that had nothing to do with disemboweled puppets. Unfortunately, his main extracurricular specialties were painting and cartooning (the book GagBag2000 is dominated by illustrations he produced in conjunction with artist David Heatley), and these pursuits struck him as too similar to what he was doing on the job. "I didn't want to touch anything that was drawn or sculpted, because I spent so much time doing that," he allows. "So I started working on a four-track, using it as a sort of audio sketchbook. And it turned into something definitely unexpected and completely different."
Before long, Adebimpe began collaborating with Sitek, who was on the fringes of New York's flourishing return-to-rock movement thanks to his friendship with members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Two months later, armed with a batch of amorphous soundscapes but no real tunes to speak of, the pair landed a residency at the Stinger Club in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, near Adebimpe's home. "We'd show up with a sampler and a microphone and take song suggestions from the audience," he recalls. "Then we'd come up with, like, a seven-minute song about plaid -- the pattern plaid. And you know what? It went really well. We'd fill up 45 minutes to an hour every month, and we realized that we could do it with little to no preparation, except just playing together during the week."
From these humble beginnings sprang some actual compositions, such as "Satellite," a moody shuffle that captures the period immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when communicating electronically was practically impossible. With an assist from Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase, Adebimpe and Sitek assembled a recording that matched "Satellite" with three more originals and a twisted cover of the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves." Still, they had only the vaguest idea of what to do with the finished product.
Fortunately, fate intervened. Sitek had signed on to roadie for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs during an earlier visit to South By Southwest. He was spinning his own disc when Touch and Go founder Corey Rusk ambled by and asked for a listen. Apparently he liked what he heard, because he requested a copy of his own. Months later, while Sitek was co-producing They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, the latest CD by Liars, one of his favorite bands, Rusk phoned about the EP. After Sitek admitted that he and Adebimpe had no plans for it, Rusk offered to release it on Touch and Go exactly as it was. Adebimpe would have been shocked by this proposal had he thought it was genuine.
"I was working this really terrible animation job. I was really frustrated," he recalls. "Then Dave called and said, 'Corey Rusk wants to put out the EP.' And I said, 'Why would you call and mess with me like that? That's not cool.' I didn't believe him at all until he called back and said, 'Really. It's the truth.' And I was really, really psyched."
This enthusiasm courses through Desperate Youth, which makes good on the promise of Young Liars. Highlights include the stirring, atmospheric "Dreams," the jagged, aggressive "Poppy," and "Bomb Yourself," which takes the media to task in an explosive way. Best of all is "The Wrong Way," an inventive musical pastiche with more sharp points than a cutlery shop. In an attack on the typically condescending Hollywood treatment of African-Americans, Adebimpe sings about waking up "in a magic nigger movie" that has reduced him to "a metaphor" expected to "show off my soft shoe" or "teach 'em a boogaloo." He also takes on the conspicuous consumption trumpeted in too many hip-hop videos with lines such as "Indivisible by shame/Hungry for those diamonds/Served on little, severed, bloody brown hands."
Critiques like these are more rare in the rap world than modesty, but Malone, who wrote the lyrics for "The Wrong Way," thinks the air needs to be cleared. He decries the music industry for putting its resources behind performers who "get people to spend their limited fucking resources on shit that isn't going back into the community at all, like Courvoisier and Bentleys," as well as artists who "are just about greed." He adds, "I don't think everyone needs to be a preacher. But you've got to come up with something that's actually real, and not just a Porsche commercial."
"The Wrong Way" certainly meets this standard, and Adebimpe couldn't be prouder of it. "That's one of my favorite songs in the world right now," he says. "Which is a really ridiculous thing to say about your own band."
Of course, the TV on the Radio story is equally absurd -- and that's a big reason why it's worth tuning in.
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