"The Brooklyn Scene" wouldn't have been "The Brooklyn Scene" without TV on the Radio, but after 22 years and faced with a drastically changed borough, singer Tunde Adebimpe is following the sun and leaving for the West Coast. "I was emptying out my storage space for this move to L.A., and apparently I'd saved posters and flyers from every show that I or any of my friends had played for an eight-year period," says Adebimpe over the phone, a day before he's scheduled to vacate his place. "A friend said I should make a book, and we joked that it could be called Yeah, We Warmed It Up for You. We laughed but it's kind of true."
Before settling into L.A., he hits the road for a short tour with the Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band, a collaboration that includes friends Alex Holden (Big Numbers), Ryan Sawyer (Lone Wolf and Cub) and Josh Werner (Lee “Scratch” Perry, CocoRosie). The band's first EP, released in October, feels like a looser, more hot-footed corollary to the strident guitars and clean lines of TVOTR, and the music video for "Mad Lifeline," which Rolling Stone is premiering here, is a campy rumination on mortality featuring dancing angels of death and a Tree of Life-meets-Melancholia universe sequence.
As for TVOTR, Adebimpe says a new record will be out “sooner rather than later, and it's shaping up to be my favorite thing we've done.”
You've done a bunch of film projects and musical one-offs, but Higgins is your first notable side project in the time we've known you through TVOTR. Why?
It actually started pretty randomly a year and a half ago. I got asked to play the opening night party of the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, and so I called my friend Alex who is a great cartoonist – we actually met as illustrators years ago – and guitar player. My friend Ryan is a drummer I've worked with for a long time and same with Josh. The first time we played together, it was an improvised hour and a half at that show, and it was fun so we decided to mess around when we had the chance. But then we started getting asked to play shows and that eventually turned into songs. We just kept going with it to the point of recording and making videos, so it's gotten bigger in a nice, organic way.
We all want to keep it special though. Like, I can't be in another band full-time without having a heart attack. It's great to do something that's in tandem with TV on the Radio but more stripped down. What we do onstage can go from something really beautiful to absolute noise and a cathartic mess. It's nice to not have to do faithful reproductions of your recordings and not have anybody speak up too negatively about it.
"Mad Lifeline" sounds a lot like what you're describing. How did it come about?
We did a version of "Mad Lifeline" when we first started playing together. Alex is a hug fan of West African music, especially music from Mali, so as we started to hone it we began to mess around with those ideas. For me, the narrative of the song is about meeting your fate or accepting death in this way that's almost romantic. It's this ecstatic dissolution of your life and your body and your self. I don't know where any of that comes from though. Most of the songs on the EP are based in improvisation.
With TV on the Radio, whatever narrative is being put into the songs is pretty obvious to me and the thoughts that connect in those songs are pretty simple. They sound like songs. With Higgins, we work really quickly. With "The Blast, the Boom" I was shocked that it sounds that much like a song, and it's the poppiest thing on the record. My lyric writing process was just to get it done on the first pass, even if it sounds horrendous. That's how a ton of people work but I've been trying to break my hand and brain a bit and do something I'm not used to doing – at least in public – and getting some of that anxiety and unwillingness out.
The new video for "Mad Lifeline" reminds me of a bunch of things, including campy Bollywood dance sequences. I'm pretty sure that's not it though.
That's awesome! I'll take that as an influence. I love those movies, actually. I grew up in Nigeria and my uncles and aunts were all huge Bollywood fans. I feel like a lot of things I do are fragments of memories, so this video is both a Nigerian folk tale and a Japanese ghost story – that's the mode I was in during the storyboards.
But yeah, I was in Austin working on a film and I knew we would be leaving on tour so I asked the crew if they'd be willing to chip in and basically they all said, if I can do anything I will. There was a lot of synchronicity happening. Like someone had an ambulance we could use, and there was an open room in a studio down the block from Robert Rodriguez's film complex. It came together so quickly that I might owe someone my soul in the future! The actress who plays the Angel of Death is Eleanore Pienta, who is in this really great film called See You Next Tuesday. She's super talented and a great person.
Are you sad to be leaving New York?
Yeah, I'm a little sad. It's pretty sudden, but New York will be here and it's already so different from when I moved here that it will be exciting to come back in 10 years and see what it is. But I think I might be done, at least for the time being, and that just might be the winter that's still going on – it'll put your mind in a weird place.
TVOTR have recorded in L.A., and fellow bandmember Dave Sitek already lives out there, so I can't imagine it'll impact the band too much?
Dave has a studio and so it's easier to work around the clock over there. Plus it's easy to get to both coasts for rehearsing and writing purposes. I still like being in both places, but I always thought it was such a cliché when people were like, "Oh, you gotta come out to the West Coast! The weather is so nice!" It's like, "So what?! What else is there?" But, yeah, at this point I'll totally take the weather.
It's weird that you're leaving, because in my mind TVOTR are so synonymous with the new Brooklyn.
Yeah, absolutely. New York is constantly in flux; it's never going to be fixed or finished, and I think that's why people love it. When we started the band there had already been a history of mostly artists living in neighborhoods with cheaper rent, when I moved here I felt that it was definitely more integrated. I definitely didn't have the sense that anyone was getting pushed out for us to live in a really shitty loft.
Now, I saw an ad for a condo and one of the taglines was something like, "Indie rock bands and stone countertops," which is so weird and the pictures of the people were a guy with red horn-rimmed glasses and a fixed gear bike. It's like the fumes of whatever interesting thing was happening were – like anything – co-opted and used to sell this thing that is the complete opposite in spirit. That said, I don't know if the city is done – it's just going to keep changing, but I'm ready to see something new.