Tunde Adebimpe on the Keys to TVOTR's 'Seeds': Silence and Sitek

Singer marvels at his bandmate's productivity, opens up about how Gerard Smith's memory inspires the group

Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio onstage in Las Vegas. He describes TV on the Radio's return as "painless." Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty

Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of TV on the Radio, has finally followed the band's producer and guitarist Dave Sitek west and relocated to Los Angeles. But during the making of Seeds, TV on the Radio's fifth studio album (scheduled for release on November 18th), he was continually flying back and forth between his new and old homes: Adebimpe had a gig in Brooklyn that was a weekly residency, even though he wasn't really a resident while it was going. As it turned out, the jetlag helped him focus: "When you're making things, it's good to get into a floating, groundless headspace."

Now that he lives near Sitek, Adebimpe enjoys wandering over to the producer's home studio to marvel at his friend's constant productivity. "He's always telling me, 'I had this dream, and I woke up and went into the studio,'" Adebimpe says with a laugh. "You made 15 songs in three days? That's nuts. I guess this is normal for you, but it's crazy."

What was the starting point for Seeds?
After the last tour, everyone needed a break. There were no set dates to get back together, and I didn't know if that was going to happen. That was fine: We've been doing this thing for 10 years, I'm proud of what we accomplished, and it's a good time to stop. And then we started hanging out again as friends, and we decided to work on two songs. The "Million Miles"/"Mercy" single was the result of three weekends of working on stuff. I don't want to call it muscle memory, but if you practice doing a backflip for 12 years and then you do a backflip, you don't think about it too much. It was so painless, the idea of getting together once in a while and making two or three songs was really appealing. We kept doing that, and it was fun, and then it became obvious that we were making a record.

What do you need to do to get into the right headspace to make a song?
I need yards and yards of silence to be in that space. I try to warn people a little ahead of time that I'm not going to answer an e-mail unless there's a real emergency. And I use Voice Notes on my phone: as you're walking home from the grocery store, something comes into your head and you hum it out. The important thing is to get all of those Voice Notes out of your phone, because if I get hit by a car, it's not going to be pretty when they start going through them. It's going to be all sorts of off-key, random-gibberish singing and really shitty beatboxing.
Tell me about "Quartz" on the new album.
I was in my art studio in New York and Dave was out in L.A., and he was sending me texts. This was after we'd done "Million Miles"/"Mercy," and we were getting ready to work on more. He sent me a text that said, "What kind of songs should we make? Fast, slow, what should we do? What are you into?" I'd been listening to this record by Eno and Harmonia 76 called Tracks and Traces, and there's a song on there called "Vamos Companeros" – I'd had it on a loop while I was working on this animation for a video for this other band. I don't know if you've ever animated something by hand, but I wouldn't recommend doing it alone. It's a vortex of madness, repetition and insanity, so having a song playing can help out. I had the song on my phone and mailed it to Dave. Ten minutes later, he sent me back something, and he was like, "Oh, like this energy?" He's just a machine now.

When I came out to L.A., the lyrics fell into place. That's a lyric I'm actually proud of: "Hey, there it goes, into sun, steam and marigolds. I am yours, you are mine, through a lifetime of disagreements. Take me high, take me low, take me nowhere my poor heart can't follow. Reckless hearts soon collide, break through a lifetime of stress and evil." At the end of that, I was like, "Can I sing 'stress and evil'? Does that work as a lyric? We'll see, it feels right."

The band's bassist, Gerard Smith, died of lung cancer in 2011. With his passing, did other people in the band step up and do the things he used to do?
I don't know if it was so much stepping up. For me, he's so in my consciousness whenever I'm doing almost anything creative. Anybody who's really close to you is not as accessible, at least on this plane, as they used to be – for me, it's like they've taken a seat on my board of directors. That person is always in the back of my head, saying, "Are you serious? Are you really going to do that?" It's impossible for us to make a record without having him there. With me, he's a constant presence.

How do you feel about the record now that it's done?
Some projects are like digging your hands into earth, or something very organic, and communing with that. It can be a really heavy thing to do that, dipping your hands into this eternal mulch. Imagine if all the emotion that everyone has ever felt is in this bark-covered mulch. You can dwell on that energy, but you can also work on something that's colorful and not toy-like. It's like a biodegradable material that sinks into it and leaves a colorful mandala, or it paints that landscape in a beautiful way. That's a very long-winded and maybe hippie-ish way of describing it, but that's where my brain goes.

When you started the band, could you have imagined that it would go this far?
No, absolutely not. I was doing an interview the other day with a Turkish magazine, and they asked if I had any regrets about the band name. I said that if I thought it would go for this long, we might have chosen something less in haste. When Dave and I started, we came to the joint conclusion that everything else was stupid. That's not to say what we were doing was more important, but if everything else was going to be stupid, then why couldn't we be stupid in a way that was better than that?