Merrill Garbus is recounting history. “When MySpace first began, everyone had a band. There were 18,000 bands that you were trying to compete with. You had your little box for your image and you have your name on top, and it was a total attention-getting device to have something that looked different,” she explains.
tUnE-yArDs was something that, with its uppy-downy cases, looked different. “I like to put a philosophy behind it – it makes people slow down, it makes people think. Like, ‘URGH, I hate pressing the shift key’. People have very strong opinions about it. They love it or they hate it, or they refuse to do it, or they check with me to make sure they’ve done the correct letters. I really don’t care. People can do whatever they want. Theres a little part of me that’s like, I got you to do this thing that doesn’t matter to me, but I do like the philosophy behind it that makes you stop and think. It worked well in my case that it said, ‘Pay attention to me’. I felt like the music was different and the sound of the music was different, so it fitted that.”
While the name derived from a line in one of her songs, what actually are ‘tune yards’? “Tune yards were sort of where I could harvest songs, I could pluck songs, and I like the idea that I dont have control over songs all the time,” Garbus explains, “but that rather theyre there and I hone them a bit, and carve away a bit. I’m some sort of channel for them rather than being a complete owner of them. I’m channeling something bigger than myself, able to incorporate things that I dont understand.”
tUnE-yArDs’ music certainly is different. Debut album BiRd-BrAiNs, recorded on a nanobudget, set the cat among the pigeons. It opened with For You, less a song as a collection of samples, ranging from a child chatting about blueberries being cool to assorted sepia-tinged found sounds, before leading into Sunlight, the first track proper, which set the tone for this album and tUnE-yArDs aesthetic since. Despite her debuts DIY nature, it was already obvious that Garbus is not one for a minimalist approach; there’s distortion and overdrive everywhere, the drums scrunchy, with ukulele wistfully strumming along in the background and multitracked vocals.
The follow-up, w h o k i l l, pushes out beyond convention further. w h o k i l l. Type w h o k i l l eight consecutive times (go on) and your hand will suddenly accept your thumb as a fully-fledged finger, so sterling has its work been at depressing the spacebar on your keyboard. w h o k i l l. Your thumb wants to kill whoever thought up w h o k i l l and thusly morphed it.
w h o k i l l points in a thousand directions and gallops off toward them all at full tilt. It brings in African vocalisations, and moments of wild animal violence, and street riots, and intimate loved-up louchery. It co-opts sampling to create orchestral arrangements out of a single voice and polymorphic rhythms that seem off-kilter but then, with the addition of real drums and bass (the latter courtesy of new co-writing partner Nate Brenner), create complex, beguiling and intense rhythms. It is astonishing.
Rhythm section aside, so much of this is down to the one-woman volcano of ideas that is Garbus, the tUnE-yArDs conceptualist who once said her raison d’etre was to “get peoples attention or die”. She drew designs on her face, she made songs, she toured. Safe to say, she now has attention.
And for the right reasons. A first listen to w h o k i l l is enough to stop an elephant in its tracks. Listened to on a tube journey around the bowels of London it is transportive, in a way that the Jubilee Line will never be. It has a fluency, an exotic otherness, and reveals its true nature best with repeated listens. There are backing lines that range from statement-of-existence woo-ee-woos to echoes of lyrics. Garbuss extraordinary vocals range from intricately looped and morphed through tuneful choral arrangements to barking, rhythmic, compulsive incantations. Often all of this takes place in the space of one song. It looks outwards, unafraid of the world but rather fascinated to learn about it. This is music in which to be immersed, or with which to be overwhelmed. It is not an album ever to tire of.
“The first album was me doing everything stubbornly by myself,” says Garbus of her progression, over a mug of tea. “It’s become more of a collaboration this time around. I started touring with Nate between BiRd-BrAiNs and this album, and we created this live show where his bass playing became necessary, a living part of the music. Theres a lot of space for bass. The rhythms are often pretty simple and theyre looped and predictable, so Nate doesn’t have to play the role of the predictable bass player; he can play around a lot more. As a result we co-wrote songs. We spent a year and a half touring together and in that time new songs were written. He would take what I’ve got and add the bass part to it which would change the harmony or the form of the whole thing, so that’s been delightfully collaborative. Honestly, for me I pushed the boundaries of where a solo one woman performance could go and at a certain point I wanted more from it.”
“How do you keep a bleeding heart wide open?”– tUnE-yArDs, Wooly Wooly Gong
tUnE-yArDs’ live show is, quite reasonably, lauded. “I think that people are intrigued by the loops being played live on stage, the sense of me creating it live on the spot with all the terror that surrounds that. There’s the sense that the whole thing could fuck up in one second. There is a part of that do-it-yourself thing that I think I will still want to maintain.” She sips her tea. “Or I could just go a little bit easier on myself, accept collaboration, accept help, accept my limitations, of which there are many…”
Garbus grew up along the USAs east coast, progressing from New Jersey via New York to Connecticut and to school in Massachusetts. She worked in puppet theatre in Vermont and finally hopped over the border to Montreal, where she started a band called Sister Suvi with Pat Jordache. It was here that tUnE-yArDs also had its beginnings, in the interim moments between puppets and band practice. “tUnE-yArDs became more of my focus and where I needed to put all my energy, LEST I SPLIT IN TWO.”
It was while she was in Montreal that the first of w h o k i l l’s songs was penned. “Riotriot was written around the time of the Montreal riots. I was in Montreal around the time when a policeman killed a young person from the Montreal North community, it was this huge deal there, and it was shocking to me. It’s an insulated world in Montreal, and I couldnt connect the two. What’s the difference between a riot there and other riots, like the riots that happened in Oakland, that were also an influence on this album? I think there are a lot of connections between all of them.”
When she started out, Garbus was the definition of the DIY artist, with no financial backing or label support. “But if I’d been offered, on the spot, in the alternative universe where you get offered a record deal if you want a record deal, I think I would have made the same record just because I needed to be that hands-on with my music. I had tried going into a studio with an engineer to put down some songs I’d written and it was a terrible experience,” she laughs. “Sure it sounded great, it sounded clean, but it didn’t have enough me in it. I was trading childcare for this family for studio time; he was an engineer. I was babysitting as many hours as I possibly could afford to get the studio time but then when I felt that no, this isn’t what I want to sound like, it became a joy to have to do it all myself. I was really grateful for it actually. I wasnt learning how to use a proper mixing board or anything, but I was learning how to hear.”
“There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand, and I have never felt before.”– tUnE-yArDs, Riotriot
She heard well music that influenced her own African-inflected sounds and especially vocals, which are not of the Vampire Weekend variety, though there have been inevitable lazy comparisons. Garbus fills in the blanks. “I studied Swahili in university with the intention of going to Africa. I went to Kenya, to Mombassa, mostly to the east and the coast of Kenya, and after the school part of things I moved to Nairobi. I made friends with some hip-hop musicians there; that was a very formative experience for me. I studied music on the coast – mainly Muslim music. I’d expected the Paul Simon Graceland Africa and to dance in the savannah; instead I ended up in a Muslim part of Kenya learning Muslim music mostly performed by men but who were accepting of me, probably because I was a foreigner, and I was accepted into learning these tunes. It was more like a middle eastern education, and was really interesting, studying the traditional and folk music from a totally different culture. Then when I got back I had a radio show with a friend on music from Africa and the diaspora and that was just like a whole bunch of research for me. I tried to become more fluent in African music – which is a stupid term anyway.”
A bit like ‘European music’?
“Exactly; I mean what the hell is that? There’s ancient traditional African music, there’s African pop music, there’s all these traditions from each different part; it’s an homogenising term to call it all African music. But certainly these sounds were all in my ears.” She was fluent in Swahili; shes less so now.
Perhaps tUnE-yArDs’ east African influences seem newer to western ears because much of African music has emerged from places like Mali and Senegal? “A lot of the music that’s reached us is west African music for whatever reason,” she agrees. “They have made an impact on western music. I studied a bunch of African dance as well; that’s often west African and what people consider to be African dance is mostly that. But when I went to Kenya there was chakacha. It’s these women moving their asses in tiny circles in an incredible and superhuman way. Had I ever heard of that? No! Women do these things behind closed doors… It was stuff I’d never been exposed to.” But her experience of African sounds does not begin and end with Kenya; Malian star “Rokia Traoré is on a pedestal for me,” she says. “Just in her freedom with her instruments and her voice, she’s so free.”
Her life as a touring artist is inevitably to a large extent lived on the road, but she calls Oakland, California home now. “Although I very much enjoyed being in Canada during the Bush era,” she intimates. Garbus worked for the election in 2004, when Bush was elected for the second time, shortly after which she moved to Canada. “I felt like an outsider in a lot of ways. But now, for better or for worse, I definitely feel like an American. And it’s hard to say that sometimes because its an extremely fucked up place. But it’s complicated in a way that I understand. And the more I come back in, and in Oakland in particular, it feels very American to me there, with its racial tensions and poverty next to wealth… it feels like reality in a way that other places I’ve been have not felt like reality.”
“It can be a lot of different things, and that’s what I like.”– Merrill Garbus
It transpires that w h o k i l l was originally to be called women w h o k i l l. “women w h o k i l l, as one word, felt right. I did the women with no spaces in between and the w h o k i l l with spaces in between. And Alex who did the artwork said ‘I like w h o k i l l; you came up with the title of your album,’ and I said ‘No its women w h o k i l l,’ and she said ‘No, its w h o k i l l.’ The font brought that out.” She’s glad she didnt stick with the original title because people were only going to react to that. Can she imagine what the interviews would’ve been like? “Totally different, right?” She laughs. “I’m grateful now that Alex said that and I didn’t do that to myself! w h o k i l l becomes abstract in the way that tUnE-yArDs music is abstract and maybe the spacing can either be one whole word or a series of letters or tuneyards whokill… it can be a lot of different things, and that’s what I like.”
Despite being a lot of different things, she believes wh o k i l l hangs together well. “It’s my experience of the past two years. And there are things I constantly find myself thinking about. I think Riotriot and Gangsta… those two are very connected, though they were written two years apart from each other. Riotriot is a very old song, but is still dealing with power and violence and the police. All these things are in there regardless of whether I was living in Montreal or Oakland. Or whether I was eating popcorn for dinner and recording on a voice recorder or able to go out to eat reasonable meals that involved vegetables. There are these two very distinct parts of my life that are all encompassed in this album. I altered Riotriot a lot so it would belong to this album, and added a new section. Even lyrically, from the first song to Doorstep, theyre about different things but I wanted to ensure there was some commonality between them. I think a lot of the time instinct is better than trying to mould things a certain way. I really try to trust my instincts.”
Those instincts inform her singular vision, which is evidently a long term one. “I will be seen as this one woman project for a time but I think eventually the music will just be tUnE-yArDs music, whatever it is. I will be who I am on stage. I’d like for it to be a project where it can be different band formats, but still have the same power.” It’s her power as an artist that begats the attention she seeks, but what rewards tUnE-yArDs offer for those prepared seek her out in turn.
tUnE-yArDs play London’s Hoxton Square Bar + Kitchen on 15 September 2011 and support Beirut at the Brixton Academy on 16 September. tUnE-yArDs’ second album w h o k i l l is out now through 4AD.