Vintage TV on the Radio Q&A

And now, turn back the clock almost four years and dig into a conversation with Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio. The chat, which served as the basis for an April 14, 2004 profile, took place around the time of the outfit’s debut long-player, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, which earned so much critical acclaim that Interscope signed the group and released its 2006 benchmark, Return to Cookie Mountain.

Adebimpe handles the lion’s share of the questions below, discussing his days as a film student and an animator for MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch, as well as his transition to music and the unlikely manner in which the band wound up on the Touch and Go imprint. Then, when the conversation turns to “The Wrong Way,” a Blood Thirsty track that takes gangsta rap to task, he hands the phone to Malone, the tune’s lyricist, for some especially vivid and visceral social commentary.

Don’t touch that dial:

Westword (Michael Roberts): I understand that you attended NYU Film School. About a thousand years ago, I did the same at UCLA, and the emphasis there was definitely on Hollywood, and shaping material for a mainstream audience. Was that the case at NYU, too?

Tunde Adebimpe: I think it was probably. There were people making things kind of as a calling card, you know, for Hollywood. But I think by and large, most of what I took away from it was they try to supply you with enough information to go and follow your own vision. It’s pretty much on that level.

WW: Was there a division between the students who were aiming at something resembling mainstream success and those who were interested in breaking artistic boundaries?

TA: Oh yeah, absolutely. One of the first classes I took sophomore year – I think it was the third project, a class called Sight and Sound – the camps were pretty much evenly divided between the art kids and the kids who just wanted to make Hollywood-style movies. The year I got there was the year Pulp Fiction had just come out. The year after that, when we finally got a chance to get our hands on cameras, you’d see a lot of people making these eloquent tone poems, and then you’d have these mini-Scorseses who’d say, “This is my masterpiece,” and then he’d show this film where he’d gotten all his friends to snort cocaine and act like gangsters. It was like the entire script was epithet city, with somebody shooting somebody. I wish I had all of those films on tape, because there are some masterworks that will never ever see the light of day. Some of them would get really elaborate. I remember this one took place in a bar, and there was a knife fight in the bar. This girl got stabbed in a bar, and this guy takes her out onto a boat, and he proceeds to do a platter of cocaine and then have sex with her dead body (laughs). That was my sophomore year. Everyone in the class was watching this, and then the lights come up and it was dead silence. And finally this girl who was one of the art kids stood up and said, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but what the fuck were you thinking?” He’s like, “What do you mean? I think the film speaks for itself.” (Laughs.) Oh God, ridiculous, man.

WW: Was there a similar division among your fellow animators – folks who were trying to do something unique, and those who were coming up with résumé items so they could get a gig with Nickelodeon?

TA: Yeah, I think there were a lot of people like that. Disney would come by, and different animation people would come by to recruit. But there were a lot of kids, even from the live-action directing area, and in animation – there were just a lot of kids who had more of a punk-rock spirit about things. Even if they weren’t confident about anything else in their lives, they were confident in their visions, and that showed. They were coming up with really, really original stuff. There was a class for experimental film that was really good. It kind of saved me in my last year in school. He’d show films by Kenneth Anger…

WW: You’ve been described as both a painter and a cartoonist. How would you describe your approach to both of those styles?

TA: I don’t know. My painting, it goes through a lot of changes. The last stuff, the stuff that I did probably about a year ago, was inspired by trying to wring some sort of sentimentality out of comic art forms. I’ve always drawn comics and stuff like that. This was trying to wring some genuine emotion out of really cartoony situations. I need to get back to it, I feel a little silly talking about it. I stopped doing it. I’ve drawn a little, but I don’t really feel part of that world. There are painters that I really admire, and they’re in these worlds that they’re really grounded in, but I don’t feel as grounded. I feel like I’m kind of digging around in stuff.

WW: Well, you’ve got a day job…

TA: The band has taken up all of the time. Actually I’ve done sketches, but it’s been very, very slow.

WW: While looking around on the Internet, I found a reference to something called GagBag2000, which was described as “a high-concept exploration of the New Yorker-style ‘gag cartoon,’ with ten cartoons and ten captions printed in the mix-n-match format of children’s books.’ Does that sound like a fairly accurate description to you?

TA: Yeah, that’s my friend Jeremy [Broomfield]. It was him, myself, this other really excellent comic artist, David Heatley – he’s great, one of my favorites, absolutely. Jeremy and David and me and our friend Jesse, we had a little collective in college, where we’d sit around and draw and draw and draw and draw different comics. They’re just making films, everyone’s off doing their thing, but I’d really like all of us to convene at one point.

WW: Would the captions be totally random?

TA: Exactly, and Jeremy was brilliant at it. He would draw a comic and then he would have captions laying around. So he had these very stereotypical, comic-booky looks, like two guys in a foxhole wearing army helmets, but the caption would be like, “You were in my dream last night.” It’s a weird effect, because some of them were hilarious, some of them made absolutely no sense, and some of them were the saddest thing you could ever see.

WW: Do you see a corollary between that approach and what you wound up doing musically?

TA: It’s definitely turned out that way. That was when Dave [Andrew Sitek] and I started making music together. It was definitely the same sort of feeling, throwing out there whatever you could and sort of making a game of chance out of everything to see how it would come out. It was really like we really early on decided that the only way it would stay interesting was if we let chance be a big factor. So it was sort of playing and throwing everything in to see what it gave back to us, instead of trying to see what we could absolutely control.

WW: How did you make the transition from the visual arts to music.

TA: It was pretty naturally. I actually started making songs on a four-track. It’s weird that you brought up that thing with Jeremy, because we were making music together, and he and Dave Heatley, they both have their own CDs out. A lot of us did a lot of different things at the same time. I did four-track stuff as a break from animation. I was working a job at MTV, which kind of started off as fun and then started me really, really crazy.

WW: What shows did you work on for them?

TA: It was Celebrity Deathmatch. I was one of the first eighteen animators, so the first season and a half, I pretty much worked on every show. Like the Madonna vs. Michael Jackson, the Beastie Boys vs. the Backstreet Boys, all of that really terrible stuff.

WW: I actually thought it was pretty funny…

TA: It was pretty funny, but three seasons into it, one effect was that pretty much everyone I knew, all but about two people, had taken off. There’s a lot of barrel-scraping going on toward the end of the show.”

WW: Did everyone just get burned out?

TA: Yeah, exactly. As far as animation, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. But fourteen-hour days in a room with no windows does strange things to folks. So I started doing four-track stuff, I started it as an audio sketchbook. I didn’t want to touch anything that was drawn or that was sculpted, because I spent so much time with it. Because in stop-motion animation, you often have to draw a bunch of motions before you let the puppets do their thing, so you didn’t want to touch anything like that. So the four track was a really good outlet. I didn’t want to write, so the four track, it balanced out the tedium of animation. And now it’s turned into something definitely unexpected and different.

WW: Obviously, the mediums are very different – but do they have more things in common that most people think?

TA: Oh sure, yeah. I definitely think so. Even now, doing things like working on ProTools, which I’m sort of getting a handle on, it’s so, so similar to animation in terms of the way you divide up time to make something that looks seamless. Putting a couple of things together to have them play as this thing that’s seemingly doing it by itself. It’s very, very, very similar. I don’t really feel that the transition has been such a heavy one, especially in terms of creating. It’s all work. It’s all a little bit of time to make something that seems like it’s running by itself.

WW: I understand that when you first started out, the music wasn’t originally designed to be played live. How difficult was it to make it work for an audience?

TA: Well, it was weird. Dave and I, when we started with the band, it was like two months after we started recording together, and we didn’t really have any songs that we would define as songs. A couple that were close. But we got a residency at a club. We had no songs or anything. We just showed up with a sampler and a microphone and we would take song suggestions from the audience, from anyone in the bar, and we’d come up with, like, a seven-minute song about plaid – the pattern, plaid. And you know, it went really well. So we’d fill up 45 minutes to an hour every month, and we realized that we could do that with little to no preparation, except just by playing together during the week. So when we sat down to record, I think it was definitely the experience of recording first and figuring out how to perform it later. It’s still very much the case. Our live shows now, the band has expanded, we have Kyp and Jaleel [Bunton] playing drums and Gerard [Smith] playing bass, so it’s five persons. We’ve just sort of sanded everything down, but the live show is kind of a riff on the recorded material. It’s a version that works better in a life setting, instead of a flat version of the recording. I don’t like it much when I go see a band and they’re exactly the same live as they are on the recording.

WW: You’d rather see a band expand on the recording, instead of just trying to duplicate it?

TA: Absolutely. You go and see people because they’re live people and you hope to catch a glimpse of their personality, or whatever they’ve brought in addition to the music. I think about how many live shows I go out to on average, and the number has decreased dramatically for however many years I’ve been in New York, for whatever reason. But in New York, it’s really easy to just stay inside and get all of your media from little streams and little boxes. I wake up sweating in the middle of the night thinking about the natural extension of that. In ten or twenty or thirty years, that idea is really horrifying to me. You go to a live show and feel moved by a human presence.

WW: I’ve heard that you guys got signed on the basis of a demo. Is that right?

TA: Yeah – actually it was the EP. The EP got mastered after we sent it to Touch and Go. We were kind of going to put it out ourselves – I know that’s why we worked on it that hard. Dave had met Corey Rusk, who’s the head of Touch and Go. He’d been roadie-ing for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and met Corey. I think it might have been at South By Southwest. But Dave was listening to some of the stuff we’d made on mini-disc, and Corey asked him who he was listening to. He said it was something he was working on with his band. And Corey liked what he heard and said, “Send stuff.” So we sent him the EP just as a sort of – well, I guess Dave was sending it to him as a friendly, here’s-what-I’m-working-on kind of thing. Then Dave started working on the Liars record [2004’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned], and there was all kinds of stuff going wrong with that – equipment breaking, and Corey called Dave to say what was up, and Dave was like, ‘Everything’s breaking, nothing’s working.” And Corey said, “Dave, what are you doing with this TV on the Radio stuff,” and Dave said, “Nothing. Why?” And Corey said, “Can I put it out?” And Dave was like, “Yeeeeaaah.” So Dave called me up, I was working this really terrible, terrible animation job, I was really frustrated, and 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.” (Laughs.) I really just didn’t believe him at all. Then he called back and said, “Yeah, it’s the truth.” And I was really, really psyched to be on that label. It was definitely the soundtrack to many, many teen years. I still kind of don’t believe that. Going to Touch and Go and seeing our album on the wall, and there’s the Mekons [on the affiliated label Quarterstick] and Blonde Redhead. What are we doing here? Like, I’m still kind of feeling a little bit in awe.

WW: When people hear about your artistic background, they may think of your work as difficult or inaccessible. Is that anything you worry about?

TA: I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t sound like that. I don’t think it’s inaccessible at all. When some people hear about it, you’re wondering if they think it’s going to be too pretentious? I don’t know. I hope if it’s any comfort, I guess when I say I’m an artist, I’m a low artist. I’m not a high artist. I draw comic books, cartoons.

WW: A lot of attention as been paid to “The Wrong Way,” in which you guys not only deal with race in America, but also imply that a lot of the values promoted by hip-hop are negative and counterproductive…

TA: Well, I think that’s the way it was. And we felt like it was kind of the only way to start the album, for a lot of different reason. Kyp wrote the lyrics to that song, and it’s really one of my favorite songs in the world right now, which is really a ridiculous thing to say about your own band, but it’s so good – the fanfare of it, and the lyrical content. We didn’t see any other way to start it and any other place to put on the album except right up front.

WW: A lot of hip-hop artists argue that what they do isn’t much different from a movie – that what they’re creating is a fantasy. But you seem to see the whole celebration of excess as a particularly destructive fantasy…

TA: It’s so misleading. I kind of think of it in terms of if I were twelve years old and looking for people on TV who looked like me and I listened to what they were saying, and I saw some video and some guy’s dousing women in champagne and rolling in a car that could be a house. I don’t know what that would do to my mind, depending on what my situation was. It would seem like a little inaccessible to me, if it was something I wanted to attain. It’s a weird option. It’s weird to have that touted in front of you as an option when the reality is that it’s probably not an option for a lot of the people it’s being marketed to. Do you want to ask Kyp about it? He’s right here…

[Seconds later, Kyp Malone comes on the line, and greetings are exchanged.]

WW: What kind of reaction have you gotten to “The Wrong Way”?

Kyp Malone: The little feedback I’ve gotten from it has been positive. But honestly, the record just came out, and I don’t think that when we play it live, people are really listening in such a way as to be hearing it as anything more than a rock song. But I hope that people buy it and listen to it…

WW: What is it that most offends you about the direction hip-hop is going – or at least a lot of commercial hip-hop?

KM: It’s that macho thing, you know. All the gangsterism. It’s just in the wrong fucking direction, you know…

WW: And yet that’s what’s selling.

KM: I know, I know – and I’m not saying this is an insidious plot put forward by corporate interests in the record industry. But if you’re preaching community solidarity and addressing real issues about how people are getting fucked over and how to rectify that, and, like, people are talking about invest your money here, invest your money here, as opposed to any fucking brand name and like, hyping Courvosier or Bentleys, that is going to serve the status quo so much better if you’re getting people to spend their limited fucking resources on shit that isn’t going back into the community at all. So why not sign more of that and why not encourage that and why not give that more play than something that’s going to be beneficial for the whole as opposed to the top brass. But I think regardless of that, the responsibility lies on artists, because whether people are willing to throw down the ducats for you to fucking get your shit distributed and on the radio or not, if people were really giving a fuck, if they really thought about it and weren’t just going for greed, and everyone was like, I don’t think everyone needs to be a preacher or anything like that. But to come with something that’s actually real and not just a Porsche commercial, I think the more people who are doing that, it would force the people who are in charge of distribution and in control of programming to switch.

WW: Given that atmosphere, do you feel at all like you’re crying into the wilderness?

KM: Quite honestly, I’m shocked at the amount of attention that we’ve gotten thus far, and it’s already surpassed any of my wildest dreams that I’m not really worrying about it. I’ve spent years playing in bands to audiences of twelve to three hundred people to six people. This is all new to me – that I could even expect to find a record that I put out in every state, let alone across the ocean. Anything that happens beyond what’s happened so far is gravy.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts