Q&A: How Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio are navigating ‘grumpy old manhood’
“Let’s be a DJ duo!” Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear said as he strolled through a backstage corridor at the Hollywood Bowl. Walking beside him was Tunde Adebimpe, who with his group TV on the Radio emerged from the once-busy Brooklyn rock scene around the same time as Grizzly Bear.
In the mid-2000s, both acts drew wide acclaim with dreamy, densely textured albums that seemed to pick up where art-rock pioneers like David Bowie and Brian Eno left off. Grizzly Bear went on to tour with Radiohead; TV on the Radio topped countless year-end lists with 2008’s “Dear Science.” Now the two bands are set to share a bill Sunday night at the Bowl.
Yet things aren’t quite as easy as they used to be. The realities of middle age have made touring harder, as have the demands of other interests; Adebimpe, who like Droste moved several years ago to Los Angeles, also works as an actor, including roles in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and on the Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience.”
And, of course, rock has only slipped further from music’s center over the last decade. Last year, Grizzly Bear earned warm reviews but middling sales with its latest album, “Painted Ruins.” TV on the Radio’s most recent record, “Seeds,” came out in 2014 (though Adebimpe says the band has been writing for a new one).
Thus, Droste’s idea to cash in on the EDM craze, which dawned on him during a frank conversation with Adebimpe ahead of Sunday’s show.
“You’re basically just playing other people’s songs, and everybody loves it,” Droste said with a laugh. “No overhead. No buses. You fly everywhere.”
“‘Any bags to check in?’” Adebimpe added. “‘Just this USB on my keychain, bro.’”
“Then you’re like, ‘Gimme all the money. Bye!’” Droste went on. “I’m not gonna lie: That seems chill.” These are excerpts from the rest of our talk.
Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio are both well into their second decades. Everyone romanticizes the early part of a rock band’s career. What do you like more about this phase?
Tunde Adebimpe: Nothing.
Ed Droste: I was just about to say.
Adebimpe: It’s been a steady downhill slope into grumpy old manhood. No, I mean, still getting to do it is great. I feel incredibly lucky that we’ve both been able to keep it going.
Droste: I just don’t know how long I can physically and mentally last doing it.
What’s most taxing?
Droste: For me, it’s the whole thing. Even the recording part is stressful — there’s just a lot of dynamics when you’ve been working with the same people for over a decade. And a tour is really stressful. I’m the only queer person on the bus; there’s no female energy, and it can be very isolating. Not that anyone’s being a bully or anything. But you just wish there was a woman or another gay person around.
Adebimpe: The dude-ish part of touring — it’s something I’ve been averse to since the beginning of our band. I was never on a football team; I didn’t play sports. We’d call touring “fake football” because suddenly you’re in a van and everyone’s just being themselves. This sounds terrible, but I don’t even like to be around people.
Droste: You like your alone time.
Adebimpe: So much. And I came up drawing — very solitary work. I’m so glad this happened, but it requires a huge mental shift.
Droste: And you guys seem like a very democratic band, where everyone has a say.
Adebimpe: Which you want to be civil about. But that makes everything take longer.
Neither of your bands has a clear mastermind, which is unusual in rock.
Droste: We’ve never even called anyone the lead singer.
Adebimpe: But what is a rock band now? I’ll hear what’s considered rock radio in an Uber or a Lyft.
Droste: It’s still mostly ’90s bands with an occasional Imagine Dragons moment.
Adebimpe: The new stuff is so streamlined, with the most manicured distortion.
Droste: There’s just no outlet in the mainstream for rock. If we had to start our band now, we’d be playing to like 20 people, I swear to God. Websites don’t cover that kind of music anymore. And the music takes time to absorb. Not being snobby about it — it’s just not immediate pop. But with streaming, when you have a trillion things New Music Friday-ing at you every week — it’s overwhelming even for me.
Adebimpe: When I go to get something at iTunes, and I look at what’s on the banners, it’s like more hairs turn white at the bottom of my beard. I don’t know who any of these people are.
Do you know who Post Malone is?
Adebimpe: I know his name.
Droste: I’m aware of a lot of huge acts right now, and even smaller ones like Snail Mail. I just haven’t immersed myself in the music. I’m still like, “I love Beach House!”
Adebimpe: Listening to new music, or kind of importing anything into your life, in the face of what’s going on politically right now — it feels like a distraction. I get this feeling even when we’re making stuff. This is what I’m doing, this is my art, this is how I process things. But am I really going to process what’s happening in a song? It’s way too much.
Droste: I have to sequester myself somewhere to write — minimal Wi-Fi and no TV.
Adebimpe: It just belt-sands any idea you might have.
This climate has led some artists to make really straightforward work. But there’s always been an essential ambiguity to both of your bands’ music.
Droste: The anxiety seeps its way in. But I’ve personally never been a super-explicit songwriter. Some people are very narrative: “I went on a boat, and it took a long time / Three hours later we docked.”
Adebimpe: You could pull that off.
Droste: It’s a good start to a song. It’s just never been my style. I like people to find their own meaning in it.
Adebimpe: Most of my favorite music or art leaves some mystery for you to place yourself in the middle of. This is also why I don’t really like doing music videos. I mean, I love videos. But I don’t like the idea of someone cementing what you’re seeing about a song.
Do you spend more time now acting than doing music?
Adebimpe: Not just acting but directing and animation and all of that. Ed and I are talking like we’re stepping off the boat, but the other stuff is kind of where I see myself being as I get more into my 40s.
Droste: I’m turning 40 this year. Coming in October.
Adebimpe: I don’t want to begrudge anyone their life, but I remember being at festivals and seeing bands that I knew when I was 18. Sometimes you see somebody up there and you’re like, “You’re 52 and you’re acting like you’re 16.” There’s definitely a way to mature gracefully as a band. But l don’t want to be on the road for three years when I’m that age. Three years even now, I feel like I’m moonwalking into an open grave.
Say more about maturing gracefully. How do you make something that balances the audience’s desire for familiarity with your need to evolve?
Droste: Something authentic and fresh.
Right. Paul McCartney and Paul Simon are both 76, and they just released albums that do a pretty good job of it.
Droste: But I can’t even relate to that because the level they’re at is so different. If you came from an era when you were top 10 constantly and everyone in the world knows you, then sweet — you can keep doing you. But we never hit any mainstream level at all. Maybe if we had, I’d be like, “Oh, I can do solo stuff.” But if I were to go solo, it would be like starting all over again.
Which seems almost insurmountable.
Droste: It does. I would be interested in writing for other people.
Plenty of folks from your old scene are doing that: Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend, Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors.
Droste: I’m not sure I have the ability to come up with a big hit pop song. But it’s worth a shot.
Adebimpe: All you’re doing is taking a shot. And you never know what can happen. [Dave] Sitek [of TV on the Radio], he’s writing and producing now. He had a song on Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s record.
Droste: Oh wow, he did?
Adebimpe: The last song. He did the beat for it. And it was definitely out of nowhere. It had been submitted, then the record came out and he woke up and had tons of messages on his phone.
Droste: He didn’t even know they were gonna use it?
That’s not uncommon these days.
Adebimpe: Especially with them. “We’re gonna use your stuff, and you’re probably not gonna say no. Most likely you’ll be psyched.”
Droste: I submitted something once to someone big. I don’t want to talk about it — it didn’t make it. But I was like, “This is random.”
Adebimpe: I got asked to do a top line and lyric for this thing. The song never came out, and I don’t think it’ll come out — I sort of hope it doesn’t — but I got to hear Sting singing lines that I had written. It was just the most bizarre thing ever. Zero came of it; I didn’t get paid. They were just like, “We’re going to try this thing and see.” It was one of the first times I realized that nobody knows what they’re doing. They’re just carpet-bombing, drawing in as many things as they can.
Or as many people. The writing credits for a hit song can go on for a while.
Adebimpe: I used to think that was cheating. Then I was like, “But there’s nothing to win.”
Droste: Why don’t we get writers to write for us? That seems fun.
Adebimpe: I would love if someone handed me a stack of lyrics and demos. The voice I have inside me now is way different than the voice I had inside me when we started. In my late 20s I was far more romantic a person — not just in terms of romantic love or platonic love, but my view of the world. I’m not there anymore. And I don’t even know if it’s music that will allow me to use my voice. Rock speaks to such a specific audience, and I feel like I don’t have a ton to say to that audience anymore. But do you stop what you’re doing and just break off and be like, “I’m going to write novels that no one’s going to care about”?
Droste: I’m going in tomorrow to audition to sing backup on a fairly big artist’s thing, and I’m just like, “Could be some income.”
Has success become more difficult to define? When you were starting out, there were clear milestones — selling out the Bowery Ballroom in New York, for example. What represents a win now?
Droste: Every time we make an album, whether or not it does well, that feels like a win to me. It’s just so daunting going in. So the fact that we came out with “Painted Ruins” last year, I’m like, “Oh, my God — we did it.” And it happens to be my favorite thing we’ve made. But in terms of success? I don’t know. A song on the radio that goes somewhere? That would be a step up that’s never happened.
Was finishing “Painted Ruins” harder than finishing the earlier albums?
Droste: It’s always been hard. We’ve always said after each album that we don’t know if we’ll make another one. And again I have no idea.
Droste: Literally no clue. Because anything could happen. All it takes is one person going, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and it’s done. This band can’t exist without any one member of the band; we couldn’t replace anyone — or at least I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it. Then the other factor is that everyone has to suddenly be in a great place and feel creative and want to hang and do this again.
Adebimpe: I feel exactly the same way.
Droste: I’m thinking of this Hollywood Bowl show as a last hurrah: “See you later, everyone.”
Doesn’t Grizzly Bear have shows booked after this one?
Droste: I know, but this is like a big hometown thing. This is a milestone to be able to play here; it’s unlikely that we’ll sell it out, but it’s still really cool that we’re playing it. And there’s only like five shows after it that we’re playing, and four of those are supporting Florence and the Machine.
Adebimpe: That mind-set, I think, is really healthy. Whether it’s true or not, right before we go onstage, I do have the feeling of, “What if this were our last show?” You want to do the best you can; you want to try to have as much fun onstage as possible with your bandmates, who ultimately are your family on some level. You want in that moment to blow it up and give it your all.
Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.
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