Critics and fans tend to describe “Nine Types of Light,” the fourth album from Brooklyn art-rockers TV on the Radio, as the group’s most upbeat effort to date. Talking to singer Tunde Adebimpe, it’s easy to see why: This is a man brimming over with gratitude for the creatively fulfilling life he leads.
“It’s a really special thing to be able to work with your friends,” says the singer/actor/filmmaker/artist, “and do that for a living. It’s not exactly the norm. You want to be able to keep it a special thing whenever you do it.”
To avoid exhaustion and preserve that “special thing” feeling, the band took a year-long hiatus after they’d finished touring behind 2008’s acclaimed “Dear Science.” Singer/guitarist Kyp Malone put out a solo album under the name Rain Machine; producer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek enlisted singers like David Byrne and Karen O for his Maximum Balloon project; Adebimpe sang on a Massive Attack track and released a single under the name Fake Male Voice.
But now the group is back together and on tour promoting “Nine Types of Light”—though sadly, without their longtime bassist Gerard Smith, who passed away from lung cancer in April. (Through their publicist, the band requested that Adebimpe not be asked any questions regarding Smith’s death.)
Metromix caught up with Adebimpe by phone to find out where he was during the Great East Coast Earthquake of 2011, learn more about “Nine Types of Light” and the accompanying one-hour film he co-directed, and discuss one of the singer’s more unique recent projects: providing some vocals for the new album from Tinariwen, a band of African Tuareg nomads who play a hypnotic blend of traditional African folk music and psychedelic rock.
Were you in New York when the earthquake hit?
Yeah. I was actually sitting doing some work and then my computer started moving closer to me. At first I thought there was something on the roof. Then I turned around and realized the whole apartment’s shaking. I had only felt an earthquake one time before, when we were in Japan. So I did everything wrong that you’re supposed to do during an earthquake. [Laughs] I ran downstairs, outside of the building, just to find a bunch of neighbors out there as well, also doing the wrong thing.
It seems like the critical consensus on “Nine Types of Light” is that this is TV on the Radio’s “fun” album. Would say that’s a fair description?
I think they’re all pretty fun, but I guess with a darker sense of humor at times. But I think compared to our other records, I can see why people think this is a little more uplifting or fun. I’m actually absolutely fine and happy with that judgment of this record, because I think it’s by and large a pleasant listen.
You’re about to embark on a pretty extensive U.S. tour. How much longer do you expect to be touring behind this album?
I’m guessing till next April. We’ve pretty much discovered that what everyone can stand is a year. It’s just the most human way to do it, so that shows aren’t affected and we aren’t affected. ‘Cause there’s nothing worse than showing up and seeing a bunch of tired dudes onstage doing something at half-speed. [Laughs] It’s much better for everybody if we do it for about a year with a couple of breaks.
It’s like the star athlete who retires at the top of their game instead of squeezing out three or four more seasons when they’re past their prime.
I guess so. I don’t know if we’re that intense about it. [Laughs] It can be a really psychedelic space when you’re reminding yourself that you wanted to be doing something that you’re just absolutely not up for anymore. “Oh yeah…I signed up for this. I can’t see straight, and I hate everyone around me. But I signed up for this.”
Was the idea right from the beginning for “Nine Types of Light” to be both an album and a film? Or did the film take shape after the music?
While we were finishing “Cookie Mountain” a few years ago, I started to get an idea that it would be really interesting to take that whole record and chop it up into 30-second segments and give a different filmmaker each [segment]. It was something like 130 30-second segments; it was a crazy number like that. I remember proposing this to people at the label and they were kind of like, “Yeah yeah yeah, sure sure sure, that sounds like a great idea.” What I didn’t realize at the time was I was being completely ignored ‘cause they were like, “That’s crazy.”
But this time, we were making the record and I thought, we’ve got so many people in our community who are really excellent filmmakers and animators and designers. I just thought if we could do it, it would be great to have a video for every song on the record and tie it together in a movie form. The record was almost done, and I just started calling people to gauge their interest. And the responses we got from people we knew and didn’t know were just really, really awesome. I feel really lucky to have that collection of artists contributing to [the] film.
You and Kyp got to work on the latest album from Tinariwen, "Tassili." I find them fascinating, so I’m really curious to hear what that experience was like working with them.
It was probably one of the best life experiences I’ve had so far, and definitely one of the best recording experiences I’ve ever had. We were in the desert in Algeria, near Djanet. It’s silent and beautiful and more stars than you thought exist in the sky and more wide stretches of beautiful desert than you could ever imagine. And then to top it off, you’re camping out and having breakfast of tea and goat with this band that you have an insane amount of respect for.
Halfway through the day, when the sun goes down over the mountains, you go to this tent that’s the recording studio, and they play you something they’ve recorded, and you’re sitting there in the desert, like, “Woah, this is an insanely, insanely beautiful song.” And then they ask you to do something on it and you feel like an idiot. [Laughs] And then you feel insanely honored when Ibrahim [Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen’s leader] would say, “I like that. I like what you’re doing. That’s great.” And you’re like, “That’s cool. I can call everything else a wrap!” Because I never imagined that I would have an opportunity to do [something like] that.