Tunde Adebimpe's new project offers refuge from the 'trash fire' of modern life

Tunde Adebimpe.

Tunde Adebimpe. Photo by Jonathan Weiner.

Tunde Adebimpe is always looking to challenge himself creatively.

While primarily known as the vocalist/songwriter for TV on the Radio, he’s also an actor with notable roles in indie films (Rachel Getting Married, Nasty Baby), as well as an accomplished music video director and visual artist, with animation credits on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch.

Over the course of three nights (May 18-20) at the Walker Art Center, Adebimpe will present one of his most ambitious creative undertakings yet. For the world premiere of his animated film, A Warm Weather Ghost, he'll be joined by six other musicians, including “Money” Mark Ramos-Nishita and Mia Doi Todd, who will provide a live soundtrack.

Adebimpe spoke with us from Los Angeles as he was putting the final touches on his new project. He opened up about the film’s origins, the experimental music that accompanies it, and how it will provide a reprieve from the troubled state of the world.

City Pages: What are the origins of A Warm Weather Ghost? Was it solely a visual project initially, or did you always conceive of it as visuals fused with music and a narrative?

Tunde Adebimpe: It was always somewhere in between all three. Anytime you are making something, you are just trying to condense a feeling into a form, and work that out into a piece of music or art. A lot of the imagery and some of the music for this started popping up around 2012, 2013, in sketch form. It was a period of time where there was a lot of death around me, a lot of people passing away -- it was the first time in my life that it was so frequent, and it can be a very heavy thing. In retrospect, a lot of this imagery and this music started to kind of brew in me as a way to not have so many negative feelings towards the idea of death.

It was almost like a self-generating medicine. You get to a point where you know all the dumb human tricks that you can do to stave off feeling sad. A lot of this project stems from sitting with those feelings and trying to intuit what could possibly be the positive sides or the more interesting sides of passing from this life to whatever awaits us next.

CP: Was it cathartic for you to explore those heavy emotions with this project?

TA: Yeah, very much so. For me, it was the finality -- at least on this side of things -- of losing someone. Even that mutates. The person is gone, but these reverberations keep coming back every time you think about that person. So this was cathartic in the sense of thinking about a situation that seems like a full-stop situation, and realizing that I have no idea if it’s a full-stop situation. I can’t really give too much credence to these feelings of sadness because that person might be better off. Their energy might be in the place it’s supposed to be in right now, and – logical or not – it’s the next step in a process that is theirs, and my feelings of sadness or loss is purely mine.

CP: How did the musical compositions help bring the narrative of the piece into focus for you?

TA: The piece itself is pretty collaged; it’s more a series of impressions rather than a straight storyline. I guess it could work more like an album, where you get a hint as to what’s happening and then the waves of imagery and music washes through and we sail along with that until we hit the next island in the storyline and then these other waves wash over us. Musically, I had a lot of song sketches from that time on my phone, and I picked some of them at random. I obsessively hum into my phone all the time, and then forget about a bunch of it. And when you listen back to it, it’s like opening an old notebook. So, I picked a bunch of things from that time, and then built on them.

It’s a really strange process, because sometimes you’ll have a song form that doesn’t really have a theme, but then later on, when you’re in this mode of thinking about something like transformation, and this song or these musical sketches seem to fit in that realm. So I just try and keep them in that box and see if I can pin these themes onto these forms. It showed up really quickly, too, which was nice, and I think it was because I didn’t think about it particularly as an album. Although all of these songs now exist and have been recorded, and hopefully at some point later in the year I’d like to put the songs out with a book of artwork from the film. So, it’s definitely a record now, but it’s not going to be played on the radio anytime soon.

CP: The talented musicians you’ve assembled all have their own distinctive musical voices. How did they help your work coalesce?

TA: With almost every work, I feel like the best thing is if you have a blueprint and you find the person who you think can take any part of that and paint it in their own color. The great part of collaborating is that it’s not just you, and you get to see what someone does within these guidelines that you laid down.

Mark was the first person who I brought aboard. He’s a brilliant musician. He’s got such a specific skill for hearing something one time, and then playing it back to you like twelve different ways. With him, we would just talk about themes for a second, and then I would play him a demo and within a half hour he would just have rounded things out immensely. With Mia, I just kept hearing her voice on one song specifically, and as soon as she sang it, it was this really odd feeling of it sounding like it has always been there. There was a lot of really good synchronicity with finding the right people who helped everything turn out in the end.

CP: How challenging -- and ultimately how rewarding -- has crafting the visual elements of the show been for you?

TA: It’s been challenging in the sense that time is always a crazy factor. And I have a habit of starting things and not really wanting to get that much help until it’s about 80 percent done, which as I get further along in my life, I realize that this might not be the best way to do things. But it’s my favorite thing to do. I like staying in one place until something is finished, especially doing visual art. But the only challenging thing is realizing that you don’t have all the time in the world, and that you have to get things to a point where it can read and feel substantial and interesting and engaging – something that compliments a piece of music, and the music is a compliment to the visuals. Making and animating and filming something with a live musical element have been a different way of thinking for me. It’s the first time that I’ve done something that’s entirely mine. But I love drawing, for better or worse.

CP: Are there creative ideas, thoughts, and themes that are easier for you to express visually rather than musically or lyrically?

TA: Oh, absolutely. I really will beat myself about lyrics, because when I hear music I’m drawn to lyrics. I feel like if someone is going to be singing on a song, the lyrics should be good. In the time that I’ve been making songs and music, I realize that not everyone thinks that, which is always a shock to me. As a listener, I like to feel that the person I’m listening to is engaged and not just yammering away, that they have a poetic sensibility and are telling a compelling story, or giving you insight into a character. But the tough thing about that is I feel that some things don’t really need words, and that is where the visual element comes in for me.

I feel like sitting in a room and hearing wordless music while being bathed in light and motion is an ideal. Anyone can walk into that room. You don’t have to speak the language, or you don’t have to be from a certain era, you don’t have to know a certain style. There’s so much room. If you dip someone in color and sound and light and motion, what they bring to that experience completes it.

There’s no real translation necessary. I like things where -- musically or visually -- you get to figure it out, and there’s no right answer.

An image from A Warm Weather Ghost. (Photo by Tunde Adebimpe.)

CP: As the project evolved for you, did the change in our current social and political climate affect what you wanted to say with your work?

TA: It affected my feeling towards the work. It’s very hard for me to put into words the visceral change that our country has undergone in the past few months. Part of me thinks that the world is always changing; it’s a constantly chaotic space. Sometimes it’s on your block, and sometimes it’s on the other side of the world. But this very much feels like it’s on our block, and every day, and all the time. It’s exhausting. I would say, by and large, anyone who wants a break for a second should come to the show. If you want to just hit your reset button – and be bathed in light and sound and images – please join us. It’s going to be a fun show visually and sonically. And I think everyone needs a breather. I feel like you need to back off from things, and think about yourself, and your own heart, and your mind, and the person that you want to be. And that will help you face the trash fire and figure out how to put it out.

Tunde Adebimpe: A Warm Weather Ghost
Featuring: Money Mark, Mia Doi Todd, Aaron Steele, Sean Okaguchi, Morgan Sorne and Tracy Wannomae
Where: McGuire Theatre, Walker Art Center
When: 8 p.m. Thurs. May 18, Fri. May 19, Sat. May 20
Tickets: $30 ($25 for Liquid Music subscribers and Walker members); more info here