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May 12, 2004
Downhill Battle: I wanted to start by asking about the signing process for you guys. Did you have any thoughts to sign to a more major label? Did you have a lot of offers or were you set on Touch and Go from the start?
Tunde: There were some people calling mysteriously, who had our cell phone numbers all of a sudden. We had sent our EP to Touch and Go, or Dave sent it to Cory, we hadn’t thought of them putting it out actually, it was just they struck up a friendship and he sent it to Cory just to be like, ‘well, here’s what we’re working on and we’re going to put it out ourselves,’ and he asked us if he could put it out, and we were kind of like, ‘uhh, yeah, Touch and Go, please,’ great, you know. And they’re easily some of the nicest, most genuinely enthusiastic people that I’ve met in our short time in the music industry. The plan is to stay with them for the long run, for as long as we do this. So people were calling and would sound baffled when we were like, ‘no no no, were on Touch and Go,’ and they were like, ‘yeah, but in the future…’ And we told them, ‘in the future, we’ll be on Touch and Go’. Because it’s so hassle-free and they believed in us when there was no reason to at all. The more people that we interact with the more we realize that it’s an ideal situation for us. There’s no reason to go anywhere else.
DB: Does it have to do with control over artistic integrity?
Tunde: Oh yeah, absolutely, yeah. No one in that organization would dream of…no one’s going to roll into the studio and say, ‘you’ve got to make something for the ladies, you’ve got to make something for the kids.’ None of that going on. None of that would happen.
DB: So it's true you made the first EP in a bedroom?
Tunde: Yeah, it’s true. It was a couple of different bedrooms because one of our roommates left and so suddenly we had a little booth to record strings and stuff in. It was this loft that I lived in in Brooklyn.
DB: And Dave made most of the music for the first EP?
DB: He worked before with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s?
Tunde: Yeah, he produced the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s album.
DB: How did you get involved with him?
Tunde: He moved into the loft that I was living in, and we’re both visual artists as well, so we actually started by making paintings and other visual things together. Music was just another thing that we were doing, you know, and it has turned in to all of this. But he’s just a very incredibly motivated person with a very good vision and a good heart as far as his vision in concerned. So we just started making this stuff and we booked a show, we had a residency at a local club with no songs. We walked in and said, ‘we have no songs but here’s a minidisc of stuff we’ve been working on and we guarantee you that we could come here and for an hour and forty five minutes we can do something.
DB: What club was that?
Tunde: This bar called Stinger, in Williamsburg. We’d take song suggestions from the audience and pass instruments out to them halfway through the song, and at the end of two hours we’d be sitting in the audience and sometimes there would be five people on the stage singing a song that we’d started. And we were like, ‘wow, that’s crazy’.
DB: Now it’s all over, now you guys are rock stars.
Tunde: Yeah, it’s turning into something different, definitely.
DB: Has that been a strain on getting your head clear, and having time to have a vision develop?
Tunde: Well, touring generally, we have to figure something out. I don’t know how other people do it but we have to figure something out so that we can have a mobile recording unit because it’s a lot of sitting around and being static and I’m not one of the drivers so it’s really a lot of sitting around and you just want to write, you just want to make something. So we have to figure that out, because I see how it can start to erode the very thing that got you the opportunity to be on the road, which is this introspective time to sit with yourself and make something and execute your vision that way. But none of the press or any of that stuff has really had an impact. I mean it’s cool, it’s a really nice side effect of having done what you want to do but if anything it makes us want to go back and record more, just knowing that people want to hear it too. And not in a pandering way either, but it’s nice, you know. I get a little more prolific if I know that it’s going somewhere.
DB: Well, yeah.
Tunde: It’s a little less discouraging. (laughs) You’re spending hours on end by yourself.
DB: And now it’s almost on the opposite end of the spectrum. Your inner turmoil or whatever it is that comes out in the songs is now heard by millions of people, instead of just you.
DB: So you guys are in the middle of a long tour right now?
Tunde: Yeah, we finished the first leg of our second tour last week and we’re going back out next week. We have a week at home and we’re going back out next week starting in Canada, doing a couple shows there, and then we’re doing the West coast.
DB: You should take pictures maybe.
Tunde: Yeah, definitely.
DB: There are lyrics in “The Wrong Way” on the new album about the diamond trade. Is that true?
Tunde: Yeah, there’s a reference to it, absolutely.
DB: And you wrote those words?
Tunde: No, Kip wrote those actually.
DB: And then there’s also some lyrics about the death penalty?
Tunde: About the death penalty?
DB: Yeah, on “King Eternal”.
Tunde: Oh, wow, yeah, I guess they could be taken that way, but the song is not about that.
DB: Okay, so I guess what I’m getting at is how do you feel politics become present in your music? Is that just what’s in your head?
Tunde: Art in general is the best venue—in a bubble at least, at the beginning—for expressing your woe or your joy or even just your whatever, your nonsense, about the way the world is. If it’s the way you process the world, if certain things bother you, they’re absolutely going to bubble up in your art, and your feelings towards them are going to bubble up as well. And as far as “The Wrong Way,” I love the words that Kyp wrote. I love the music that Dave made. I love everything about that song, especially the fact of pointing out a billion things that have bothered me, as an African-American whose not…
DB: You’re no Jay-Z, is that what you’re trying to say?
Tunde: (laughs) Yeah, I’m no Jay-Z, but I mean Jay-Z’s not even Jay-Z. That’s the whole problem. He’s a businessman. He’s an incredibly good businessman. He’s a good musician too, but you have to take responsibility for some things when it comes back to you. So the whole reference to the diamond trade: it baffles me. You’ll watch a video or see an album cover, and everything has been bedazzled with diamonds.
DB: Yeah, I remember growing up seeing ads for DeBeers on TV, and then when I actually read what DeBeers is, it’s crazy to see. I mean they actually restrict the amount of diamonds on the world market. Because I guess they’re not actually that rare, or not as rare as other things. And then there’s Liberia…
Tunde: Just the whole idea of a precious stone, and that a stone can be precious enough to give you value if you put it on you, to make other people see you as valuable. And precious enough to somebody else to cut off a child’s hands—a child’s hands—if they are even thought to be stealing them. Once you see a picture of some kid who is working in one of these places with no hand, and you realize that the hand got cut off for the same diamonds that this person in Long Island is wearing, like eighteen of them on a chain? You can’t juxtapose those two images. And also, for me, put into account the fact that both of these people are black. That messes with me on an even deeper level. You think about how people are essentially taught to hate themselves and the measures they go through to eliminate that feeling from them, from themselves. It stretches back. That stuff is way older than we are. It’s way older but I can’t shrug it off. You point out insanity where you see it and you kind of have to just pick at it. You can’t take it on all at once. Me, I would like nothing better in the world than to sit in a field and sniff flowers and draw pictures of clouds, but stupid things like this invade my brain and I can’t get to that field. It’s not that writing a song is going to save the world or anything, but if you can just nudge someone and be like, ‘isn’t that just a little dumb?’
DB: Right, you couldn’t make a whole album without mentioning it.
Tunde: Sure. No of course not.
DB: So speaking of Jay-Z, have you heard the Grey Album?
Tunde: I haven’t heard it, but I’d like to hear it.
DB: But you know what it is, right?
Tunde: Yeah, I do know what it is. I think it’s a great idea.
DB: There’s been a lot of to-do about this. Where do you feel the tension rests between the ownership of music and the need to eat?
Tunde: I don’t download music, and that might have more to do with the fact that I don’t know how to do it and I’m not really too interested in learning how to do it. But like you said people do need to eat. It’s odd to me. We made this disc OK Calculator and left it in cafes and just different places. Just 24 tracks of four-track stuff. And that’s on-line now. We sold a few of them on our first tour, a couple, but then the CD burner broke, etc. That’s on-line and someone wrote about it as ‘the extremely rare but superb OK Calculator’ and I’m sitting there going, ‘are you kidding me?’ Rare, yeah, rare because we’re making them ourselves, and superb, that’s not up to us, but it’s not superb. (laughs) I’d be the first person to tell you. There’s more hiss on some of those songs than there are songs. And it’s fun, and I love it, but I wouldn’t call it superb. But if we’d made that and been like, ‘alright dude, we’re going to pay rent with this,’ and that was suddenly on-line, we’d be dead right now.
DB: But presumably you’d be selling it too.
Tunde: We’d be selling it too, but I feel that smaller bands, who aren’t going to see that much money even on the albums they’re selling, it turns into this thing where—I don’t know, I’m really on the fence about it. On the one hand it’s great to be able to get all of this music but I wish that there was a way—there are ways—to give the artist a little something.
DB: One angle is that, for major label music at least, buying an album in a store is not a way to support an artist. There’s not that much getting back to the artist. So if you download a song, send the artist a dollar.
Tunde: Exactly. I would have no problem with it then. But if it doesn’t get back to the person who made it that’s when I see a problem. Before CD-Rs and file sharing, think of how many mix tapes you made that no one is ever going to see a dollar on. But it’s a little different now.
DB: Within that, is one of your motivations to spread your art as far as possible?
Tunde: Yeah of course, nothing would make me happier. Think of how much stuff got to you that was—not in a bad way—not really intended for you, and got to your ears and really affected the way you thought about the world, let alone music. So of course you never know. It’s a huge chance game. It’s far more interesting than saying, ‘this is the kind of music I make, it’s for these people, and when these people hear it they’re going to listen to it and move around and give me money for doing this.’ It’s so much more exciting to me to make something that you are still trying to figure out and then to just throw it into the world as an x-factor and see who writes back. So far it’s been really interesting.
DB: In that context, how do you feel about the Brooklyn art scene? Do you feel like music has become too much of a commodity?
Tunde: I’m not against anything that brings somebody to a piece of music or a piece of art but from there it’s up to the person listening to it or looking at it to be like, ‘that’s great that all these people think this is great but I think it’s bullshit and I don’t really like it and I don’t care that everyone else likes it.’ And as far as the Williamsburg “scene,” you can go out and see eight different bands who are nothing like each other but all live within four blocks of each other.
DB: Yeah, when I saw you guys you were playing with Panthers. And they just blew me away. I thought they were incredible. And their style is somewhat like you guys, but not really. I’d never heard of them before at all. And so these two great things came into my life on one night.
Tunde: I’ll be the first person to admit that there are tons of creative people in that neighborhood who are making stuff that I really think is worth everyone’s attention. The problem I have is when someone starts to say that there’s a definite “Williamsburg sound” or definitely a Williamsburg art. I mean there’s definitely a Williamsburg baseball cap, I’ve seen that thing and it should be put to rest (laughs). But as far as art and music go, I feel like it’s an easy thing to tag on something. And if it brings people to it, great. But then from there what you like you like and what you don’t like you don’t like.
DB: I was just reading some reviews of you, and there are some pretty funny things that were said about you. I hope you don’t read these, but how about this: “It could take anywhere from 15 seconds to ten full listens to decide whether or not TV on the Radio are actually serious.”
Tunde: (laughing) That’s great.
DB: “Are they a strange genre-bending joke? A thematic tribute to Genesis-era synth-prog, a Touch and Go-sponsored social experiment?” I can’t understand how they wouldn’t think you were serious. Another review actually called you guys “soulless”.
Tunde: (giggling) That’s awesome. Completely soulless is the goal.
DB: To me it couldn’t be further from the truth. You’ve taken the indie rock model, whatever that may be, and you’ve injected themes like gospel back into it, added the soul back in. Where’s that coming from? What influences made that possible?
Tunde: I love vocally based music like old Bessie Smith albums or Blind Willie McTell or Lighnin’ Hopkins. It’s someone sitting in a room and talking to you in song. Like Mississippi John Hurt. You kind of quiet down when you hear that guy’s voice.
DB: Or Sonny Boy Williamson.
Tunde: Yeah, you can’t be talking to your friend and listening to it. This person is telling you something.
DB: So you took that and you put loud guitars behind it?
Tunde: (laughs) Yeah exactly. I just love how simple it can be. I love a lot of old blues. Like I love Nina Simone. She’s sick. I remember the day I realized she was playing all those piano parts I felt like a really small human being. I was like, ‘wow, I will never be able to do that. That’s crazy.’ That’s really an odd feeling. And as far as the whole not understanding if we’re serious or not, all the stuff on OK Calculator was serious and some of that is the dumbest stuff you’ll ever hear, but it was serious. We go into it and finish it and see what happens afterwards. The band collectively has so many influences. Kyp will, off the top of his head, tell you about eight billion experimental jazz groups and then talk to you in depth about the latest Xiu Xiu album in the same sentence. So it’s coming from everywhere. It comes from not having enough caffeine that day. Or just forgetting to eat.
DB: What about the Pixies cover? How did you pick that?
Tunde: Well, I can’t really play an instrument, and I wanted to take a song I really like and break it down vocally on a four-track. So I made a rough version of it. And then when we were recording the song "Young Liars" we had a string section in the room across from Dave’s room and the bass player was just waiting around to do something and we went in there and just recorded twenty-three tracks of me going over his bass line.
DB: So did you talk to them to get permission?
Tunde: No. Well, the label cleared it.
DB: Well, unfortunately we’re short on time, so in parting I’ll just say keep sounding like Peter Gabriel and the rest will be history.
Tunde: Yeah, that one’s really fun.
DB: Thanks a lot for being with us.
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