INTERVIEW: Merrill Garbus aka tUnE-yArDs

On Sunday, June 3rd, tUnE-yArDs played DC’s 9:30 Club.  ChunkyGlasses was lucky enough to spend some time with Merrill Garbus, the creative force behind tUnEy-ArDs’ energetic and experimental music.  In 2009, tUnEy-ArDs released its debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, which was self-produced and recorded by Garbus on a handheld voice recorder.  The band includes Garbus on vocals, percussion, ukulele, and drums, Nate Brenner on electric bass, and occasional guests on the saxophone.  The band is currently on tour in support of their 2011 album, w h o k i l l. 

CG: Your music is very different, and as you’ve said, you really “push “instruments such as your voice or the ukulele to the extreme in ways that others haven’t tried or been willing to try.  It takes a lot of self-confidence and courage to push boundaries of music.  Where do you get that self-confidence from, and do you ever have trouble finding it?

MG: It’s interesting, I’ve been thinking about that because people have been reminding me about the times in my life that I’ve done this independent-minded kind of thing.  Even though from my perspective, I come from a place of being a quiet, shy person who isn’t like, “I just do whatever I want to do!” and has that face in the world.  And yet, I remember for instance, when studying theater at Smith College having an attitude of “this is all very old and I want to change things.”  I think I’ve always had that point of view.  I think it’s not so much courage, but the sense that things need to change and that I want to be part of that movement.  And I think that applies to everything—for example, society and politics, and culture and music included in that.  I feel like it’s less courage and more that this is so obvious that this needs to happen and that I need to be a part of something progressive, whether that’s in my politics or in my social activism and charity work or if that’s embedded in the creative part of what I do—it applies across the board. 

CG: Do you think your public persona—the girl with paint on her face, running around dancing and being really loud—is different from who you are normally?  You mentioned that you’re shy—do you have to put on much of a stage presence?  Or is that who you are naturally? 

MG: [deep breath, pause] I’m pausing because I get asked this question a lot and it’s a tricky one.  I don’t think I’m shy anymore, I think middle school and elementary school was my really shy period.  As soon as I started to perform a bit, which started in high school, I learned to open my mouth and articulate things that I had in my brain.  I think it’s mostly me—there’s always going to be the outside image that people see, and my audiences aren’t usually having this kind of discussion with me face-to-face so they don’t get the nuances of the person that you do when you’re sitting with them, having a conversation.  But at the same time, I try to make the performance and everything that tUnE-yArDs represents really connected to who I am.  For example, lately, because we’ve been on tour for so long, I’m an exhausted person these days.  When I go on stage, I have to be like, “Hey everybody, I’m exhausted, but in the best way,” not to make them feel bad for coming to a show, but just to be honest and to say that this is where I am right now.  Even if I’m not oversharing on exactly what’s going on with me today, I try to keep it honest to what’s going on in my life.

Merrill in the spotlight at The Black Cat in October of 2011 

CG: So it’s you, but just you in a spotlight?

MG: Exactly, yes. 

CG: Along those lines, what do you hope that people are getting from your music?  Do you hope that people have fun and enjoy listening to you?  Or do you want it to move them to some sort of change or action in their lives?

MG: The latter.  If people solely enjoy it, that’s fine too.  We saw De La Soul last night in Philadelphia last night playing with The Roots, and I was reminded that the way a performer behaves around their music can really affect an audience.  They can either be like, “We saw that really great show and I danced,” or they can think, “These people reminded me that I have the ability to make change in the world and in my life.”  That was really moving to me last night, and that was the kind of music that affected me the most growing up.  In college, for me, that band was Radiohead. 

CG: Do you know that you’re playing at the exact same time as Radiohead in DC tonight?

MG: We’re opposing each other like every night on this tour!  It’s horrible!

CG: Our site is having a lot of inner-conflict over what to do tonight.

MG: Well, I’m honored to even be part of that conversation!  “Which show do I go to, tUnE-yArDs or Radiohead?”  I feel really lucky that we saw them at Coachella, so at least I know that I’m not missing out on anything. 

Radiohead, Kid A, was the album that I was listening to my senior year of college.  They’re not knocking you over the head with some message about how they feel about the world; they’re giving you these phrases and colors and soundscapes and textures and feelings—actually, they’re not giving you feelings, they’re allowing you to have feelings—and to me, that was a huge deal, to be able to create something that would inspire a deeper thinking about the world and a deeper awareness.  So yes, that’s what I’m trying to do.  I love for people to celebrate and to dance, but I also like to have something to gnaw on in there, so it’s not just music about partying and celebrating, it’s also music that discusses the realities of the world and the realities of life in that context.

CG: Tell me about this track that you just released with ?uestlove.  It’s a Fela Kuti cover that you are using to raise money.  Tell me about what it’s raising money for and about the cause you’re active in. 

MG: We’re raising money for and through the Red Hot organization.  Red Hot has put out these compilations for twenty years, and they’ve always gone towards AIDS research and more active ways of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.  In this particular campaign, they’re pairing with the (red) organization—Bono and that branding—and this is the first time they’re coming together to work specifically on ending mother to child HIV transmission by 2015.  It’s really amazing, that’s freaking soon!  That’s less than three years away.  I’ve been reading on what they’ve actually done, and what they’re doing is working.  If HIV-infected mothers come and get treatment during their pregnancy, a crazy percentage, like 80%, don’t pass on HIV to their children.  It’s such a huge and very concrete goal.  That’s specifically what the album is raising money for, and it will come out later in the fall.  It’s all covers of Fela Kuti tunes, but this track in particular is something they wanted to lead forward with to give a glimpse of what the project does.  I’m so excited to be a part of the whole thing. 

CG: Your music is almost notoriously solo in that you’re playing all these instruments by yourself, recording your voice and playing it back on the stage.  What was it like working with ?uestlove—I know the song is a cover so it was already written for you so there wasn’t that  much of a creative process in that way, but what was it like for you to collaborate?  Did you enjoy it, and is it something you’ll do again?

MG: Yeah, I hope so.  I love working in that kind of musical director capacity, and that’s really what I did.  When we’re talking about confidence and how you have confidence to do your own thing in the world, a lot of that came from leading groups.  That all happened during college, when finally I wasn’t under someone else’s leadership all the time.  For me, it was leading a cappella groups.  I was in [Smith College’s] Notables, and it was funny because for this Fela Kuti track, I had two of my Notables friends sing with me.  They did a “making of” video and I was looking at it and when I’m singing with them, I have the biggest smile on my face and I’m so at home.  It was really useful to bring in that part of my life where I was a leader in a group—I felt very confident and natural in that role.  I’ve now co-produced a couple albums aside from my albums, and it’s always great to come in and use everyone’s strengths and challenge them.  ?uestlove came in and he had learned the original Fela beat, which is different from what I wanted to do.  So I was like, “No, play this beat,” and I created this jumbo drum loop track, and he was like, “Oohh shit.”  Then he sat down, listened to it once through, took some notes, and that was it; he just nailed it.  It was a super satisfying experience all around. 

CG: Are there any musicians that would be your dream to collaborate with on something?

MG: People ask me this, and I’m like, “I already collaborated with Yoko Ono and ?uestlove…”

CG: Whew, where do you go from there?  You and Thom Yorke could have a loop fest together. 

MG: That would be amazing, Thom Yorke would be amazing.  I love this woman Rockia Traoré, she’s from Mali, and I’ve loved her music for a long time, I’d love to work with her.  And mostly I’m pretty interested in producing beats for hip-hop artists, so I’d love to get into that more.  Hip-hop’s really interesting—we were at The Root’s picnic festival this weekend in Philly—and there’s a lot of hip-hop that I just don’t know about.  There’s just a lot of nasty, misogynist kind of stuff.  But I think there are also a lot of people doing really interesting, progressive hip-hop, like the Satisfaction, and Shabazz Palaces, and—I just made a new friend—Spankrock.  People are doing stuff that’s alternative to mainstream hip-hop and I’m really interested in that.  I think hip-hop has always had that ability to have messages of social change really embedded in the music and it’s intriguing. 

CG: Do you think that your future work will have a lot of hip-hop influence?

MG: I don’t know, I think so.  Hip-hop and dance culture.  I think there’s a lot of really bad dance music out there.  Everybody’s trying to play this stuff—like Madonna’s album MDNA—it’s all about making this club music that people are consuming like mad these days.  I’m always interested to take a very popular style of music and offer an alternative that is a bit more musically-interesting or sophisticated or fun or again, has something more to gnaw on in it.  I’m not sure.  People have been asking me for a while when the next album is going to be, and I need to stop touring for a hot second before I know what the next album will be like.  We’re going to take time off starting in September and then I’ll know. 

CG: With all the touring you’ve been doing and creating music yourself, do you still find time to see shows?  What’s out there right now that you’re enjoying?

MG: One of the reasons that I enjoy doing festivals is that we actually get to see other shows, because usually we don’t.  When I come off tour, the last thing I want to do is to go see a show.  It has to be so, so extremely exciting and highly-recommended that I will actually get up off of my bed and go.  I think The Roots are some of the most exciting live musicians—I’m extremely biased at this point—but that’s why I want to work with them.  They actually have musicianship that not many people do these days.  I would say Shabazz Palaces, too, that was an amazing live show.  They’re doing hip-hop with samples, but they’re really using live drums and live percussion and choreography in a super interesting way.  The Radiohead show was really amazing.  And, Azealia Banks, oh my god, she’s amazing.  I saw her at Coachella, and it’s hard to tell at festivals, honestly, but she had these two amazing androgynous dancers, and the whole show was really freaky in the best way. 

CG: As you gain popularity and do things like collaborate with other musicians and people want to put your music in commercials, how do you stay true to yourself and your principles?  How do you make sure that what you initially set out to convey through your music is still what’s coming across? 

I think I used to think about it as if it were the teenagehood of my music career, in very black and white terms—either I’m selling out, or I’m staying true to myself.  Or, “money is evil.”  Things that as a teenager, I felt so passionate about and uncompromising about.  I love playing music that gets to younger people because of that, because sometimes I really miss those days of that absolutism.  But lately, what I’ve been thinking about more is getting your hands dirty.  I just went to this really interesting conference on social activism and music in New Orleans and what I learned from that is that you just have to do stuff and you can’t do everything 100% right.  For example, I’m wearing Nike shoes right now, which is something that I never thought that I would ever do.  And I don’t know how I feel about it, they look really cool, the colors are really cool.  And, people take photos of me now, and I’m wearing clothes that are made in foreign countries where I’m sure people aren’t treated very well.  There are a lot of compromises that I make on a daily basis but I think to be in denial of those consequences that we are all making by living in this country is to kid ourselves.  If I can not get so stuck on the small stuff and really work for large change, on larger levels, then I can keep moving and I can keep growing and helping things.  At the same time, I think it’s got to be a balance of moving forward and also staying conscientious and really attempting to make real concrete change.  For instance, we go through 80,000 stupid plastic water bottles, and I really hope that my next tour I can have it specify in a rider that we don’t do water bottles.  It’s just these little tiny things that I really believe in that if I just make more of an effort, I think we can really have that be policy.  And also, organizing musicians.  Musicians have a ton of power, and it was really amazing to be in a room of a bunch of musicians from all sorts of different types of music being like, “We all want this stuff, how can we make this happen?  How can we make touring less environmentally awful?  How can we reach the people that we tend to not reach?  How can I keep my ticket prices down so I can still have my old audiences that came when I played at DIY spaces afford to continue to come to my shows?”  This is all to say, now I feel willing to get my hands dirty, so to speak.  I’m here, and I am making money now, and buying clothes in a way that I never used to, but with that comes continuous self-examination and really working for change on all fronts. 

CG: How do you push yourself musically?  You’ve reached a point where people like your music and you’re good at what you do—it must seem easy to put out another album doing the things that you’re good at that you know people already enjoy.  What’s something that you’re bad at that you want to work at to make yourself better in the future? 

MG: That’s exactly the answer—taking a look at the things I’m weak at and going there.  With the way that I write songs, I think I can’t actually just be like, “Let’s write another ‘Bizness’” without copying it exactly because there’s no kind of formula for them and I think that album kind of came together from a whole bunch of work on myself and on my music and from where I was at that particular moment.  So I think that’s the answer for me, and I think it means taking a long break.  For instance, I want to get better at playing drums.  That’s one thing I want to do is get really good at percussion and live percussion and make sure that my limbs are starting to learn new skills.  I also need to stop, rest my voice, and take voice lessons.  That’s always a really good thing to do.  I end up forgetting the technique I use to protect my voice, and if I start forgetting that, it can mean bad things for my voice.  My weakness is harmony, I can do rhythm and I want to get better at complex dance rhythms, and I can do melody, but Nate’s been on base really reharmonizing a lot of the songs that I wrote.  It’s amazing to have him there, and that’s something I want to work on—how to make songs harmonically a little bit more interesting, not necessarily complicated, but to feel like I have flexibility there so I’m not always writing songs that change between two chords and are hypnotic, which is what I’m better at.

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Getting to know an artist through an interview or a face-to-face encounter can often produce mixed results, causing you to like the music more or less depending on the artist’s personality.  Merrill Garbus is as genuine and interesting as she appears in her music, and speaking with her only makes tUnE-yArDs that much more compelling.  Her music is filled to the brim with the energy and inspiration of social movements, begging its listeners to look inward and shout outward.  It conjures a vision of a better world; one animated by dance and bright colors, where creativity and free, courageous expression win the day.  We look forward to Merrill taking a well-earned break from touring so we can see what wonder she brings forth next.