Tunde Adebimpe is the co-lead singer and co-founder of the critically acclaimed TV On The Radio, a group who helped reshape rock music as well as the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York in 2001. In 2008, TV On The Radio's Dear Science, was named Album of the Year by many music magazines. He's collaborated with artists such as Massive Attack, David Bowie, Lee "Scratch" Perry [Tape Op #136], Run The Jewels, Amadou & Mariam, Mike Patton [#53], and Trent Reznor.

With TV On The Radio, you were in a band where the producer, Dave Sitek, was one of the members of the band. How did that effect your approach to recording?

TV On The Radio started pretty shortly after I met Dave. We met because I was living in Brooklyn in an old cheesecake factory that – after having been abandoned for 75 years – was turned into artist lofts. It was 2,600 square feet – bare, raw space, and I was among the first residents there. It didn't have a bathroom and barely had lights. There was plywood on the windows. I and a few other artist friends moved in there; ten of us moved in and made these rooms, and the rent was a $100 a month. It was like a shantytown; it had rotating roommates and one of the people who came in – about two years after I moved there – was Dave. He was a musician and had a recorded a few bands. Dave and I started hanging out because one day I walked past this room, and inside Dave's room was a bunch of acrylic paint tubes, packs and packs of cigarettes, a 4-track that had a bunch of cassette tapes stacked all around it, and a few keyboards, a guitar, and a sampler. The reason I stopped and stared for a bit was because, "Oh, that looks like my room." [laughter] I also had the 4-track Tascam, a bunch of instruments – noisemakers, samplers, and some toy instruments – and I was also surrounded by paints. We started hanging out, making art together, and trading 4-track tapes that we had. That's where our camaraderie started, as far as music making goes. The first thing that we ever put out was a compilation of songs from those 4-tracks called OK Calculator, a weird, silly homage to Radiohead's OK Computer. It was this compilation of the 4-track tapes that we traded before there was even an idea of becoming a "band" or whatever. David is more a musician – more of an instrumentalist – than I am. We went from trading tapes to developing songs, where Dave would take a song that I had written – with whatever rudimentary keyboard on it – and then he would flesh it out. That's how it would go; I would record on a 4-track and leave it to my instrumentalist friends to bring it around into being a song that other people would want to listen to, as opposed to just me. [laughter]

When you were recording on Tascam 4-tracks they were already "vintage." Most people had moved onto [Alesis] ADATs and other developing digital formats.

It's funny, because I started recording on Tascam 4-tracks as a result of being into the whole system of indie recording, where people were tracking in their bedrooms. I came to that in 1994 and 1995, in the punk tradition of, "Anyone can do this. You don't have to know an instrument. You can do whatever." So, I did a bunch of a cappella or beatboxing. I was not a technical person back then at all. I'm barely a technical person now! [laughs] But something that recorded individual tracks on a cassette tape, that was something that worked for my brain.

You were influenced by artists like Sebadoh and early Liz Phair?

Yeah, exactly. Eric's Trip and a lot of K Records artists.

You started as an illustrator and ended-up sonically building montages. I wonder how the visual played into that approach of recording?

I feel it's always been soundtrack-y sci-fi. That's the way that I've always seen it. When we started doing it, we recorded our EP Young Liars in 2002. This is after 9/11, after Y2K, and all of that shit. It was really fucking disturbing; especially that winter and into the next year. Listening to those songs on Young Liars now, it's a vast, dystopian, science fiction soundtrack to me. It's like the process of laying out a frame for an expansive outer space scene in a science fiction movie. You have the first sketch on a notepad, which is a demo. You take that sketch in and start layering washes of color on it, making the stars shine a little more; but I’m also adding layers onto this to turn it into an engaging panorama. It's all come from that single idea, but the more you layer on it – just like with painting – it becomes more and more expansive and more immersive.

I visited Chalice Recording in Hollywood with Kyp Malone [TV On The Radio co-singer, guitarist, and songwriter] when Dear Science was being mixed. Dave was showing how many of the songs had over a hundred tracks.

Yeah. A little excessive! [laughs] One thing you will notice about those records is the track count. There's been an arc. The first EP was actually not a bunch of tracks. On the first album [Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes] there are more tracks; ones that don't really need to be there. On the third record [Dear Science] there are plenty of tracks. They all fit where they should be. It sounds good, strong, and different. It sounds like us. On the next record all of that is refined, but we were starting to subtract instead, not putting as many tracks on. Writing stronger songs and not having to dress them up. That's what the arc has been. If you listen to our first EP and our last album [Seeds], they have more in common, sonically, than those in-between, in terms of a clarity of instrumentation serving a song. In between we got to a point where sometimes the ability to add more tracks could take away from other stuff. I don't know. Sometimes the simpler something can be, you can still occupy a nice vast territory, but not have to fill it up.

Negative space and restraint are highly undervalued.

You don't have to layer so much on top in order to make it present.

At what point does something stop getting better and possibly becomes worse?

It's kind of like you wrap it in plastic.

That is what a lot of pop music sounds like.

This thing in so much plastic. It is shiny, though!

What's a favorite vocal microphone?

I'm very meat and potatoes about it. It's Shure Beta 58A.

Do you like to hold it when you track?

I will usually have it on a stand, as I like to stand up when I'm singing.

For energetic reasons?

Yes, for energy. If I'm sketching something out, I'll be sitting. And I do sometimes have a mic sitting on a little desk. But if I'm doing something that's more final, I want to free up my arms and put my body into it.

You are expressive with your arms when you sing live.

In a more formal studio, the Neumann U 47 is something that seems to work pretty well for me. And I also like the [Shure] SM7. But what I use the most is the Beta 58A.

Do you have a piece of studio equipment that you like to use?

I'm sitting at my desk right now, so I can tell you exactly: a Line 6 delay pedal – the DL4. It's a simple guitar pedal. There I can do loops, and I can lay out long, long melodies and chord progressions, a cappella, to make sketches on. I will go through that into the [Universal Audio] Volt interface, and I'm using Ableton [Live] to record.

That's how you write a lot of the songs?

Yes, I'll do them a cappella first. I'll beatbox something, play non-verbal parts out with my voice, and then put melodies on top of it.

What instruments did you play as a kid?

I played drums for a while, and a little bit of piano, but both of those were quickly annihilated. By the time I was 11 there was nothing. It was a net negative experience. [laughs] The amount of experience I learned – in my drum lessons and my piano lessons – resulted in me having less experience than I did before I even started. [laughter] When confronted with it, I realized, "I don't get this at all. I'll leave this to my very musical family instead." My brother and dad played piano, and my sister played piano and sang opera.

There was a piano in the house?

There was a synthesizer that was audible; we weren't playing on headphones.

You could hear them playing around the house?

Oh, yeah. For better or for worse, everyone could hear you! My brother would compose his own songs. We were about 16 or 17, and he was writing for a band. He had a bunch of original songs, and he would play them on the piano. You don't want to hear someone rehearsing their original songs for hours and hours on end. [laughs] "Hey! I'm over here trying to draw."

You've also participated in a lot of tribute albums for artists like Daniel Johnston [The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered] and Sleater-Kinney [Dig Me In]. What is your approach to cover songs versus original material?

I'm always so glad to do a cover, because it means I don't have to write the lyrics! [laughs] For me, the lyrics are the backbone of the entire thing. I know a lot of people don't feel that way, which is always strange to me. If I'm going to cover a song, it's usually that I like the lyrics and it's one of my favorite songs. Still, that favorite song might not be a song that I've listened to in a while. But I have a recollection of it, in my head, so the first thing that I do is I think about the recollection. I won't go back and listen to the song. I'll try to try to call it up in my head and sometimes hum that into my phone. Then, when I go back and listen to the song, I'll realize I was entirely wrong about many things. After that, I'll map something out that has the same trajectory. I'll trace the song. I'll do something that sounds similar to it and cover it in that way, using guitar plug-ins and drum machines. I'll try to not make a duplicate, but rather a map. Then I'll try to map out the cadence of the recollection that I had recorded in my phone, put that on top of this reconstruction, and then move that around. Then I'll do another version. I'll refine that vocal line, usually in the cadence of what I was remembering. Then I'll do the duplicate, and then I'll completely get rid of the duplicate and refill those blanks in with something completely different. I'll listen to the vocal by itself, and then fill in the blanks with my own instrumentation. Through my own beats and patterns I’ll find an entirely different song underneath this roadmap of the original.

A lot of people claim to experience synesthesia – to hear in colors. As someone who has worked visually, do you ever think that way in terms of sound?

I definitely do. The descriptions I've read of synesthesia may be more intense than what I've experienced. There are definitely colors and moods that correspond to music. But it's more of a feeling.

You recently got back from your first visit to Nigeria in 17 years. How had things changed from what you remembered? I remember you telling me a story about this pre-teen drummer in your Dad's village who was stunning.

Yeah, this time it was a bunch of dudes in Santa outfits on Christmas Day, and they were playing almost New Orleans-style versions of Christmas carols – a march with bass drum and lots of horns.

When you were driving around, did you get a strong sense of what was on commercial radio?

Afrobeats. That's it. I don't know any of the singer's names. I don't know if they're micro genres within the genre of Afrobeats, but I do know that's all I heard. In Western mainstream pop a few Afrobeats artists crossover now and show up on pop stations every once in a while. But in Lagos, we were hearing them steadily.

What was your experience moving from an indie to a major label?

A major label afforded us a chance to reach a larger audience through advertising and distribution. Everything else about it, in terms of art and marketing, we could have done ourselves, and almost did for ourselves. We're a band of visual people who have a lot of ideas. We came up in DIY communities. We had all of that covered, as far as videos, etc. One of the stipulations of us signing with the major label was that no one was allowed to come to the studio. We would give them the record when we were done, and there was no input allowed from anyone who was not in the band. They pretty much left us alone for first couple of records. There was one instance where somebody did write and say that they weren't hearing a single on the record, and they were wondering if we could go back into the studio and try to knock something out. At the time, I was also in the process of directing an album-length feature film for that record [Nine Types of Light], because I had no faith that the record label would be able to properly represent us. I wanted to make something that no one else was making in 2011. I was in the middle of that huge project right after having finished the album; I was essentially making ten videos for the price of two.

A film which was nominated for a Grammy.

Right. The label wrote in, saying, "We're not hearing a single." I wrote back to them, saying, "We just spent a year working on this record. If there was something that we thought we could do better, we would have done it already." I asked the guy who wrote that, "Can you tell me exactly what it is you are looking for? Can tell me how long you want the song to be? The BPMs? What key do you want it to be in? If you can get this information to me by 5:30 p.m. tomorrow night, I promise I will go back into the studio in the next week, execute your plan, and that will be the single." I don't know if anyone had ever put it to them like that. This guy, of course, doesn't write back by 5:30 the next day because he doesn't know what he wants. That's the thing. He never, ever wrote back again. Big corporate labels, they know what is working. They also know that what "works" is not that great. But they know that it works, so they do it regardless. It's like they manufacture products that build off of the last thing they manufactured. There's no room for anything truly innovative to break through.

Only minor deviations.

Yeah, never deviating too far. People [listeners] are probably dying for radically new shit, but they don't even know it. That's the horrible thing is that we have to funnel art through this thick block of cheese that is pop culture for someone to actually receive it.

TV On The Radio's sound was so strong and ahead of its time. I hear it now used as almost an anonymous template that's filtered up to the mainstream. Do you hear those kinds of records?

I would say more often than not, I don't. People have played music for me that they thought sounded like us, and I can't hear it. [laughter] The fact that I can't hear it makes me wonder what the sonic similarities are. For me, it's harder to hear. Sometimes if I hear something that "sounds" like us, I think, "No, that sounds more interesting to me than us." [laughter] And then I think, "I guess I'm just going to steal it." Steal it back!

That's a good analogy of how pop culture generally works.

Dave once told me a story. He went to meet Brian Eno [Tape Op #85] in England, and there were a couple of other producers there. Dave is a gigantic Brian Eno fan, and at the end of the meeting, as Dave's leaving, he says, "It's so great to meet you. I just wanted you to know I've ripped you off so much, and I have to say, 'Thank you and I'm sorry.'" Eno pointed towards the door, and said, "Just put a little bit in the tip jar on the way out. That'll be fine." [laughter]


People take the bits they like, and it turns out it's not really about you!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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