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Revenge of the Rock Nerds: TV on the Radio’s Long Road to ‘Seeds’

The acclaimed prog rockers are back with their fifth album, Seeds. They open up about the state of the music industry, Taylor Swift and Miley, and overcoming tragedy.

JUCO

“I’m not gonna sermonize like Kanye,” declares Tunde Adebimpe.

TV on the Radio’s reticent, bespectacled frontman has pumped the brakes on their dynamic performance at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg and, in a rare moment of public self-disclosure, launched into a spiel about depression. He wipes beads of sweat from his brow, and extends his hand out towards the crowd.

“Look directly into someone’s eyes and say ‘LIGHT,’” he says. “I guarantee you will feel better.”

Perhaps it’s the familiar environs (they’re from Brooklyn) or the occasion (an intimate record release show in honor of their long-awaited fifth studio album, Seeds) that’s coaxed this personal moment out of Adebimpe, but it’s not lost on the crowd, which has been stunned to silence.A few days earlier, I'm loitering in the backstage area of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, where TV on the Radio is set to perform later that night. The spread is pretty damn healthy for one of the world’s best rock bands, including a plethora of falafel and turkey wraps and a truly eye-catching array of oversized vegan cupcakes. I’m led up a narrow flight of stars into a tiny dressing room, and am greeted by the soft-spoken Adebimpe and the group’s hirsute guitarist, Kyp Malone.

On its surface, Seeds sounds like the band’s most polished album, reflecting the advanced engineering skills of guitarist Dave Sitek, who’s produced works by everyone from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Scarlett Johansson. The wall of sound has been blown to pieces, replaced by elaborate songs weaving melodies inside of melodies inside of melodies, like an aural quadruple helix. Crisp though they may sound, these four and six-minute bursts of soulful rock are sonically stacked with loops, guitar lines, and synths that reward repeat listens.

“It’s the direction we’ve been headed—towards clarity,” says Malone. “It’s fun to listen to music that’s a wall of sound, but for me, it’s not fun to maintain a melodic narrative through a wall of sound. It’s hell. But there’s a time and a place for it, and it’s still part of us.”

TV on the Radio released their critically acclaimed fourth album, Nine Types of Light, on April 12, 2011. Eight days later their bassist, Gerard Smith, passed away from lung cancer. Following his passing, the band canceled several tour dates and, after finishing their tour commitments, took what Adebimpe says was “the longest break we’ve taken in seven years.”

“They’re on you and they’re in you, however that comes out,” Adebimpe says of Smith. “It’s weird moving forward without somebody you’ve been with for so long.”

“Have you ever had a friend, or someone that you love die?” Malone asks. “Go and take that terrible fucking experience and relate it to any other sentient human being. That’s how it feels.” He pauses. “There’s no part of anyone’s experience that isn’t going to involve death, and I’m not at a place where I’m enlightened enough to be excited by that special day for myself or others that I love, but I think that’s a healthy place to be—because death is the only inevitability.”

Smith’s death is, to a degree, reflected in Seeds, which builds from somber, slower ballads to barnstormers like “Ride” and “Lazerray,” and ending with “Seeds,” symbolizing a rebirth. Much of the press surrounding the album has homed in on the tragedy narrative, which Adebimpe and Malone find a bit frustrating.

“I see why that happens, but if before we made this record I dedicated my life to walking up and down Manhattan with my dick hanging out until I got arrested, that would be a pretty strong part of the narrative, but would have nothing to do with the record,” says Adebimpe.

Following the release of Nine Types of Light, TV on the Radio thought long and hard about calling it quits. They speak vaguely of “friction” and “conflicts” within the group, but are quick to clarify that it’s only normal for a band that’s been together for 13 years.

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“By and large, we love each other more than we annoy one another so we’ve been able to maintain it, but we certainly annoy each other a lot,” says Malone.

“It was a weird time,” adds Adebimpe. “It wasn’t a feeling of, ‘Oh, let’s end this shit… this sucks,’ but with a lot of records, you get to a point where you think, ‘I’ve exhausted everything I can say in this language.’ It doesn’t mean completely ending something, but that it needs to flip or mutate to maintain interest.”

Since their old Brooklyn studio is now a J. Crew (oh, gentrification!), the band decamped to Los Angeles and recorded Seeds over a six-month stretch at Sitek’s home studio, dubbed Federal Prism. Though they’re unsure if the change of scenery affected the songwriting, both Adebimpe and Malone speak fondly of the communal atmosphere inside the house, including family-style meals of “braised lamb” and “a good deal of bacon.”

Though their frenetic garage rock tunes such as “Wolf Like Me” and “Lazerray” get the biggest reception live, the group says that as they get older, they’ve both had to “push ourselves to do faster songs,” and have also learned to love songs that have more room to breathe.

“The pleasure of performing something, where you have time and space inside a song, it’s like walking through a field as opposed to crushing a fist full of Adderall and running through a playground screaming your face off,” Adebimpe says.

Adebimpe is adamant that Seeds is TV on the Radio’s best album yet, citing the song’s layers that peel back after each new listen. He’s also, it seems, grateful that they’re still touching hearts and minds with their music.

“You realize after 13 years that you get to make art with your friends still, and not only that, but a bunch of people give a fuck about it,” he says. “It’s an inspiring feeling that shouldn’t be taken for granted, because it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Our talk eventually shifts to the ever-changing state of the music industry, and the band’s place within it. I bring up the New York Magazine cover story on Grizzly Bear a couple of years back, wherein the band members complained about everything from people’s “inflated idea of what we make” to their lack of health insurance, citing the overall decline in record sales and increased overhead. Both Adebimpe and Malone crack up.

“Grizzly Bear is scraping by OK,” says Adebimpe, laughing. “I saw Ed [Droste] at the government center getting food stamps,” adds Malone.

Both Adebimpe and Malone do seem a bit worried about the state of the music industry, as well as streaming music sites like Spotify and YouTube that pay artists fractions of a cent per play, and what they refer to as the “inevitability” that the music they work so hard to produce will eventually be free, and acts will be forced to earn all their money on the road.

“I don’t think that just because clothes are made by slaves, and it’s easier to go to a store with clothes made by slaves, that it’s inevitable that you’re going to engage in a slave economy,” says Malone. “People can make other choices, and people should definitely be able to make a living off the work that they do.”

As far as Taylor Swift’s recent decision to pull all her music off Spotify, the band says they respect her decision—and her, in general.

“She was born for that shit,” Malone says of Swift’s musical chops. “I saw her live. I think she’s just being Taylor Swift. My daughter was a fan when she was little, but now she’s too old for it—she’s 14. But when she was 11 and digging Taylor Swift, even if her music doesn’t give me anything, it wasn’t giving my kid the idea that they needed to be a sex object. And I’m not even mad at Miley Cyrus. She was born into a patriarchy and an industry that hyper-sexualizes women all the time. It’s not her job to start a revolution.”

When pressed about the future of TV on the Radio in the wake of Seeds, Adebimpe and Malone admit that recording the latest album revitalized them, in a way. But with these fellas, the future is never certain.

“Seven records in seven years,” they both joke. “That’s the plan.” “I’m sure we’ll make a-nother record,” says Adebimpe, before correcting himself. “Oh, I forgot. Seven records in 7 years.”

“Three of those records will be on Vine,” adds Malone.