TV On The Radio is a band of ideas. Its five multi-instrumentalist producers spread their vision across a handful of media (sound, paint, celluloid, clay), and flout the "too many chefs in the kitchen" rubric by releasing great records. Where Cookie Mountain was an abrupt, resounding "Eureka!", Dear Science is as well-considered as the epistle its title suggests. And just as TV On The Radio is mastering its own beautiful chaos, its lyricists continue their war-damaged, lovelorn, imagery-heavy battle against the encroaching disorder of the Information Age. TVOTR vocalist Tunde Adebimpe recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the delicate nature of collaboration, and space madness.
The A.V. Club: You've recorded an album's worth of material with Antibalas and company. Is Dear Science that album?
Tunde Adebimpe: The thing about Dave's studio [StayGold, owned by TVOTR member David Sitek]… it's a little noise factory. There are songs sitting around on hard drives everywhere. There probably is an album's worth of material recorded with Antibalas, but Dear Science isn't it. We started this one with about 32 new songs that we had to whittle down and then build back up. In the process, they end up sounding more Afrobeat, or more stripped-down… It's a song-by-song kind of intuition. But I definitely know that when we started recording this album, everyone wanted to make the closest thing we could to a dance record, something a bit more percussive.
AVC: Cookie Mountain felt like an artistic hurricane. By contrast, Dear Science feels, not reserved, but…
TA: More regular?
TA: [Laughs.] The recording of Cookie Mountain is something that none of us really wanted to experience over again, let alone accidentally repeat. Doing so probably would have resulted in the band breaking up, or one of us causing another grievous bodily harm.
AVC: Why is that?
TA: It was just a really dark place. I'm glad that record exists, but it was kind of like the Ren & Stimpy episode where they get space madness, and they're orbiting the planet, ready to kill each other for a bar of soap. Coming home after touring, we had to be like, "Guys, remember how we actually liked each other? Let's do that again, and make something that comes out of that." Which is what Dear Science is.
AVC: How did you change the process to make it more enjoyable, or tap into liking each other?
TA: It wasn't a therapy session or anything. We just realized we'd have the same problems with any joint artistic endeavor. At the beginning, there's a nervousness—a heightened sensitivity—because you don't know what you're going to make. With Cookie Mountain, one person would say something, and somebody else would disappear for four days. He'd have to go walk the earth or sit depressed on a pier because he couldn't just say, "I disagree with you." With Dear Science, we all tried to keep in mind a kind of loving fast-forward button, where you're like, "This isn't really important right now, so let's just skip to the part where you realize no one is trying to hurt you."
AVC: What does Dear Science mean as a title?
TA: It's about the questionable faith that we put in science. You know, we're allegedly able to live longer because of scientific advancement, but we're doing so in a world that might be getting hurt in the process. Or it's thinking about how quickly vessels for communication have progressed, but how genuine communication on a host of things that are still marring the human race hasn't advanced. Like the most effective way to resolve a conflict is still to kill someone, apparently. Or these scientists who are working on making a self-contained black hole—how short is that victory party going to be? And how quickly is someone going to turn that to the worst application? It's like, "We made a black hole!" "Oh cool, can we watch sex on it?" "No, not really." "Can we kill someone with it?" "Probably."
AVC: Do you and guitarist-vocalist Kyp Malone work together to create a sense of lyrical cohesion, or does that happen naturally?
TA: No, that's definitely on its own. We don't even ask each other what our lyrics mean. I don't know if it's just from spending so much time around each other, but even when we've been apart, we come back with this thing that we're collectively writing about. If you run down through all the lyrics of Dear Science, all these things keep cycling around: diamonds, dogs, dust, gold, light… Of course, that could just be our limited vocabulary. [Laughs.] Maybe it's because we're both Pisces, born a day apart.
AVC: "Family Tree" seems particularly poignant. What inspired that song?
TA: I've been in situations, and known people in situations, where someone's pure affection was unfortunately affected by outside sources. The terrain of a person's heart really isn't under the jurisdiction of anybody but that person, and in that song, it's an older generation condemning a relationship between two people for reasons that they probably had to deal with when they were younger. Like, "Well, when I was your age, I fell in love with so-and-so, and that was nothing but hell for me…" The "old idea" in the lyrics is bigotry, which could relate to race, to gender, to sexuality… People have their reasons for doing that, but it makes for such a waste of what could be a really short life.
AVC: Your lyrics regarding love seem more inspired by the pitfalls than the triumphs. In "Shout Me Out," you call yourself a masochist. Do you feel that way when it comes to love?
TA: I guess I've only really sat down to write about that stuff when it's not going so great—I actually don't want to do that anymore. [Laughs.] The line in that song is about having worn that face, and thinking it was valid, but then realizing that you don't want to beat it [into the ground]. It's not really accurate to mine one emotion. Then again, when I'm in the mode of feeling positive about love, I don't really feel the need to mark it down in song. In fact, I know what that song would sound like, and I would not subject anybody to that.
AVC: Adam Drucker [mastermind of Oakland band Subtle] recently mentioned that something may be brewing between the two of you and Mike Patton. What can you say about that?
TA: What I can say is that the three of us are indeed working on a project that I'm thinking will congeal toward the end of the year. It came from an idea that Adam had, to have the three of us basically mess around vocally and see what comes of it. That's as much as I can say, but I'm psyched about it. It's going to be so fun.
AVC: Kyp's song "Lovers Day" ends the album passionately. Was this a conscious decision—to close with an almost literal climax?
TA: [In mock defeat.] Oh. Yeah… that. I guess it was. I am not going to sing that song with him on the stage—it's just not something you do with a friend. [Laughs.] No, I think that's a great song, and the ending of it is an acoustic climax as well—a climax for the ear.