tUnE-yArDs: Merrill Garbus on pop, violence and trying not to ‘get it right’
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tUnE-yArDs is not your average pop proposition.

The styling of the name, the theatricality of the shows, the pulsing tribal rhythm of their music all stem from one brain that’s bursting with ideas – and hungry for more.

From the lo-fi folk of 2009 debut Bird-Brains to the unhinged, percussive party that was last year’s acclaimed Nikki Nack, Merrill Garbus emerges as one of the most interesting songwriters and producers of our times.

Ahead of tUnE-yArDs’ March UK tour, she spoke to Nick Mitchell about her constantly evolving approach to music, how moving to Oakland in California has changed her outlook on life, and why she took a trip to Haiti to teach herself that it’s not always about “getting it right”.

Hi Merrill. What are you up to at the moment? Preparing for the upcoming tour?

“Yeah… No, not at all! I constantly forget that we have a show on Saturday in Texas… so we have had these glorious days here, where I’ve been producing another album actually, my mind has been far away from what we’ve been prepping ourselves for. It’s good to have these interviews so that I remember that we’ll be on the road soon.”

I’m glad to be of some assistance then.

“Absolutely, thanks very much!”

I find your career trajectory really interesting, from the lo-fi approach you took on Bird-Brains (2009) until now. How do you look back on that early period of tUnE-yArDs?

“I feel very proud of that young woman! Because I think I was dipping my toes into a lot that I absolutely didn’t understand. In so many ways I was in way over my head. But I did it anyway, and I feel so grateful that I started there, because now I can step into the studio as a producer, and I really hope that will be work I can do in the future. I can say that as a producer now I really know my shit.

“I know that I was incredibly stubborn when I was younger and just starting tUnE-yArDs. I knew that I wanted to do everything myself because I didn’t know what I wanted my music to sound like yet, and I didn’t want anyone else to interfere with that. So it feels really great to feel more comfortable in my own skin, and to feel more secure with what my aesthetic is and what my skillset is. I can also collaborate with others now.”

After the first album you relocated from Montreal to Oakland in California. How did that affect what followed with w h o k i l l (2011)?

“I think because the geographic or emotional place I’m in when I make an album affects the sound so much that just moving to a very different sound really did impact me. Even before I moved out here I was already visiting mates here, so I was already writing songs about Oakland, and understanding a new urban world that I had been quite sheltered from. Montreal’s a very safe city in a lot of ways. You could go out walking at 5am coming back from a party and not think twice about it – I can’t do that here, without being at least aware of my safety. Anyway, it was really shocking but also very wonderful. I’d lived in very white communities, and very privileged communities all of my life, and coming to Oakland was really where I wanted to be, to centre myself in something that was more reflective of the world.

“I guess a lot of w h o k i l l was about violence, and being a woman around violence, and being a youngish person. I’m now 35 so I don’t feel so young any more, but I still feel youngish! At that point, hitting my 30s, just dealing with being an adult in the world… so yeah, Oakland in all its complexities, and also just California, where there’s a sense of just, try it… if it’s new and unexplored, just go for it. We still have kind of a Wild West vibe out here. All of that energy changed what tUnE-yArDs became.”

Even from a distance here in the UK, it seems that racial tension is really coming to a peak in the US right now, if it’s not peaked already. Is that something that artists have a duty to engage with and take on board?

“I dunno. I, as an artist, feel a duty to reflect what I see around me. If you’d asked me a few months ago I probably would say ‘yes’. The thing is that it’s all through the filter through me anyway, so what do I know? I do feel obligations as an artist, and one of those is talking about what people are experiencing. As a music listener, I want to hear people talk about what’s happening in the world, instead of a fantasy world that doesn’t exist – that creeps me out.

“But why should I say what other artists should do? There’s so many different kinds of music. I can only imagine interviewing artists and being like ‘what the hell?’ There are so many perspectives on what music should be – for some it’s being in a club and being in that fantasy land as much as possible. For me that’s never the kind of music that in the end really feeds my soul. In that way I feel an obligation, but there are so many avenues that one can take in the music business. And thank goodness, because there are too many musicians to all make a living doing this, or to appeal to everybody. And it helps me.. a lot of people don’t like tUnE-yArDs, and I can be like, ‘great, it’s clearly not for you, and why don’t you try this other kind of music that you clearly like more than mine’? And not take it so personally.”

You try to engage with issues that are central to you, but you also embrace quite a pop sound. Are you comfortable with the idea of being a pop artist?

“Yeah… as poppy as I’ll ever be. I think honestly that pop music provides this framework that I can push up against in different ways, either parting from intentionally or poking fun at, or using to my advantage. I think that ‘Water Fountain’ is a catchy song, and people that know that song can come back to that chorus. But there’s a lot of weird stuff going on in that song, both sonically and lyrically. It’s about some tough stuff, so I feel that in that way I get to employ this device that pulls people in, and then I get to tease it apart a little bit, and figure out how far we can push the pop genre.”

Songs like ‘Hey Life’ were getting a lot of radio play over here last summer. Do you see Nikki-Nack (2014) as being your breakthrough moment, or was it w h o k i l l that reached this wider audience?

“That’s a good question. I think it was w h o k i l l that was big, that had songs like ‘Bizness’ and ‘Gangsta’. I dunno, it’s interesting because our record label (4AD) is based in the UK so we get a specific attention there that we don’t in other places. I don’t think that US radio works in the same way at all – there aren’t many radio stations here playing ‘Hey Life’, for instance. I think in a lot of ways, in the US, this album was viewed as – I could be wrong – this strange album that was maybe a little harder to digest than the last album. I really think it’s kinda regional. So far we find that on a global scale we’re reaching people with this album that we never reached before. It’s really cool that people listen to ‘Hey Life’ on the radio – that’s awesome, I never would have expected that.”

It seems that you’re more comfortable now to open up tUnE-yArDs to outside contributors. Obviously early on you brought in Nate (Brenner, bass) and for Nikki-Nack you used producers Malay (Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys, Big Boi) and John Hill (Rihanna, Shakira, M.I.A.). Was that a case of you ceding some creative ground and bringing in other influences?

“Yeah. And also just purely making connections, with people outside of my own sphere of friends. But also to make connections in my brain. How does somebody else produce a record, or record a song? Literally, what tools are they using? When we went to John Hill and Malay, we wanted to know, how are you making songs that get played on the radio? What are those synthesizers or drum machines, how do you edit songs? It was the same questions I was asking when I was reading books about pop songs, and what makes a song a hit. And it wasn’t so that I could do that, necessarily. It was so that we knew some more tricks of the trade, to use at our discretion. And it worked, I’m using tools now that I didn’t know about. I love that this work keeps being about learning and observing more. Lately I’ve been thinking more about serving culture, if I’m producing someone else’s record, being of service, and making it better.”

It’s interesting that you’re constantly trying to learn. I’m sure that applies to lots of artists, but I was interested to read your piece on The Talkhouse about your experience in Haiti. I liked the quote you used, “don’t try to get it right, just be in the middle of it”. Is that now a guiding principle when you make music?

“Yeah, at least one that I strive for. It’s the hardest thing for me, and it’s something I have to practice, because I’m such a perfectionist and want to get it right. But what does that mean? It starts to not be applicable when you’re creating new things, or when you’re studying something new, or when you’re collaborating with other human beings. It’s not like a right answer in a maths equation. Trying to get out of that mindset where there is a right answer, and trying to centre myself in that process, is still quite scary. There are a thousand answers to the problem that a song brings up, there are a thousand ways to do it, different choices. It’s still pretty mysterious to me why we choose that particular bass tone, or put the chorus there. I’m glad I said that, to remind myself!

“In this business, the other danger, as well as trying to get it right, is trying to do what other people want me to do. For so many reasons – for financial, for security. That idea that, if I don’t make a song that people don’t want to consume, then I won’t be making a living any more. If the critics don’t like it, then we won’t have a tour to do. There are all these fears that are really not useful to being creative and innovative in this field. The more I can get into the centre of the creative process and away from those other things, the better.”

You have the tour coming up, but what are your plans for the rest of 2015? I’m guessing there’s going to be lots of festivals, but one thing that intrigued me was David Byrne’s Contemporary Color project. Is that something you’re especially looking forward to?

“Yeah, totally. That’s another one of those things where I’m like, ‘oh yeah that’s another thing that I have to write crazy music for’! This year has been so exciting already and it’s still January. Just thinking about these other opportunities that are outside of what eventually becomes the grind of writing an album, recording an album, promoting an album, touring an album. To have these other projects and to be around these other artists that I’m so inspired by, not to mention the Colorguard teams, I can’t wait to see them… just to have a freshness about what I’m able to do is super exciting. It looks so bold and flashy in the way that  tUnE-yArDs has allowed me to be.”

Nikki Nack is out now via 4AD Records.

tUnE-yArDs play the following UK and Ireland dates:

3 Mar: Vicar Street, Dublin
5 Mar: WOW – Women of the World Festival @ Southbank Centre, London
6 Mar: Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool
8 Mar: Sage Gateshead, Gateshead
9 Mar: The Art School, Glasgow

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