Despite the static of this year's demanding touring schedule, TV on the Radio have confronted the kind of change that would turn off many of their musical peers for good. The Brooklyn-bred five-piece became four when TVOTR lost Gerard Smith to cancer in April, just days after the band released its fourth studio album, Nine Types of Light.
With most of TVOTR's members pursuing additional projects — including group co-founder Dave Sitek's role in Jane's Addiction — the group appears to thrive on the ambition that got it discovered in the first place. Ten years ago, guitarist Sitek and singer Tunde Adebimpe stashed their homemade demo CD in couch cushions across New York City. Today their band packs places like Radio City Music Hall.
Adebimpe talked to tbt* during a recent break from a soundcheck in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
How relieved are you that this tour is almost behind you?
I definitely prefer being at home and making stuff. Touring is kind of a necessity. … But always anxiously awaiting an opportunity to be back at home (in Brooklyn).
What do your other personal passions, like acting, painting and filmmaking, allow you to do that touring prevents you from doing?
I don't know if it's something where some quality gets excluded from something else. I think it's more for me different modes of expression kind of require a different medium sometimes. You can make a book of, like, 385 paintings and have that work as a narrative in a way that you wouldn't be allowed to on a record.
How does making a record limit you?
Everyone usually comes in with about an album's worth of demos that they've been working on. I think this last batch, we had something like 50 songs in demo form. And then we started working in earnest on about 20 of them. … We picked 10 for the record, and the label said, "No, we don't like those 10." (Laughs) So you throw in the one that you thought the label would like, and they go, "Oh, we don't like that, either," until you put back the one that you put in before and they love it suddenly, because they didn't really listen to the record the first time. Whole lotta shakin' going on.
As black musicians who didn't play "black music" in the '80s, Fishbone struggled with their own label when it came to what music was seen as conventional. Have you been met with similar resistance?
I think you can just break it down sonically. If you sign a band that's just not making what most teenagers recognize as pop music, you're signing them because, at a certain point, you think that you can probably mold them or shape them into making something that'll be a little more easy to digest by the mind of a marketer at a major label. Like something you can shove down somebody's throat with no catch. I think that a label is usually waiting for a band like us to do that for them, so they don't have to do a bunch of work to make people like the music. So there hasn't been much resistance to what we're doing, but I think that there have been some times (when) maybe they wish we would dumb things down.
In the beginning, when it was just you and your roommate Dave Sitek, what sound were you after?
I think mostly we were trying to just not get bored, and make use of whatever time we had left on the planet productively.
Was it you or Dave who coined the band's name?
It was neither of us. It was somebody whose perhaps only good contribution to this planet might have been naming the band. They suggested it, and kept asking us what the name was when we were making music together. We didn't really have a name or care about names or anything like that. And he one day said, "You guys should be TV on the Radio." And we said, "Yeah, we should." Just to kind of shut him up. And it worked.
When it came to that first unofficial album, OK Calculator, how many CD copies did you create and hide throughout the city?
I'd say about 150. Not a whole lot of them.
Did it ever cross your mind that this CD would become a collector's item?
Oh, no, no idea. It's really weird, I'll get an email every once in a while from someone, like a friend who's on eBay looking for stuff. He'll say, "That silkscreened thing you gave to me, I saw it on eBay for, like, 300 bucks!" And I'll tell him that's a horrible mistake. It should not be $300. It's interesting to see where that kind of stuff pops up.
What's 2012 looking like?
We'll be done with the tour early in the year, and everyone's gonna go back to their lives and work on their other projects, and hopefully we'll come together again at some point next year and start working on something else. I think we've gotta change it up. I don't know how we're gonna change it up, there've been a lot of changes within the band. I think we need to mutate into something else. So I think we're gonna work on a mutation.
I think mutating could be anything from deciding not to use any electric instruments to absolutely shutting down the entire operation. (Laughs) And figuring out where to go from there.