Interview: Talking bangers and boulas with tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus
For 5 years now, Merrill Garbus — the creative, driving force behind tUnE-yArDs — has delighted fans with her quirky concoctions, employing vocal loops, kitchen-sink percussion, skillful juxtapositions, and more. Her 2011 record w h o k i l l was a surprising break-out, earning top marks from critics for its spastic, genre-bending content and smart themes. With 2014’s Nikki Nack, she ups the ante once more—offering songs that are not just brilliant, creative, and uniquely tune-yards (excuse me, tUnE-yArDs)—but also insanely catchy, dance-able, and fun. Partially inspired by a trip to Haiti, where she submerged herself in the local rhythms and culture, Nikki Nack peaked at Number 27 on the Billboard charts, positing Garbus as indie’s newest cross-over star.
This Sunday, she brings her eccentric creations to Union Transfer for a sold-out show. We rang up Garbus in advance—to talk bangers, boulas, and her fave memories from Philly.
TK: To me Nikki Nack is a perfect record for summer in the city—it’s warm, bright, and colorful, but then there’s also this undercurrent of social, socioeconomic, and racial tension that could apply to city life as well. Do you see the record as a summer record, or was there any conscious decision to make a record for summer?
MG: Well, the record was actually finished in the winter—but we chose to have it come out in May for a reason. I think that a dance-able record is sometimes a summer thing and we were hoping you would be able to dance to it. We were hoping that people would be ready to just go crazy with it—to go on vacation and just be done with the winter.
TK: Yeah! I am ready at least. And I agree that the dance-y sound definitely contributes to the summer vibe—especially on songs like “Sink-O.” That’s what I would call a “banger.”
MG: [laughs]. Awesome.
TK: It reminds me of something that like, M.I.A. might put out.
MG: That’s cool. It was a little worried that people might beoverwhelmed by it, just because it’s really chaotic, but I guess that’s also what I enjoy about it.
TK: What inspired the song?
MG: “Sink-O” was actually the first song I wrote when I came back from Haiti. The boula, which is an instrument used frequently in Haitian music, was a big inspiration. The boula is generally used to produce certain rhythms, one of which is the katabou rhythm, which is playing beat 2 and 3 of the triplet—so you never hear the downbeat. It frustrates the ear, and creates this kind of complex and disorienting feeling. So that’s being used in the song. But then also I really wanted something that was super fast and super energetic—because I felt like much of my time in Haiti was just spent watching things whiz by, and as a result, it felt like there was a kind of sonic chaos. So that’s partially what I was thinking about as well.
TK: A lot of critics have focused on the political and social content of the record in their reviews, particularly songs like “Water Fountain” or “Stop That Man.” As an artist, do you feel an obligation to raise awareness, or is it just intertwined with the songwriting?
MG: I’d say I do feel an obligation—although I don’t necessarily think every artist feels an obligation. The obligation for me is to tell the truth as I see it, and not pretend things aren’t there when they are. People want different things from you as an artist—and I don’t want to seem pretentious because like, “I’m talking about the important stuff.” Talking about what it’s like to be at a party as a teenager is important to some listeners. That’s valid.
For me, I’ve always had heroes like Woody Guthrie and Fela Kuti, who were extremely focused on educating their audiences. I think my audience is asking me to talk about difficult things. They’re ready for it. I truly feel like what people are interested in these days is great music that is also concerned with tough issues.
TK: So tell me a little about your live show. The last time I saw you perform (on the w h o k i l l tour), you contributed most of the vocals yourself, through looping and such. I read that this time you’ll have back-up singers. How does not being able to control all the vocals yourself change how you perform?
MG: [laughs]. I actually still loop some of the vocals—I do have back-up singers but there’s a lot I still do “on my own,” as they say. The difference is that now there’s this whole wealth of human beings that can do other things on their own at the same time. I like to think of it as less of what I can’t do myself—and more what I can do now that we have more human beings on stage.
TK: How did you connect with your back-up singers? Are they the same people that sing on the record?
MG: They’re not. We found them because they came to auditions and happened to be part of a theater production in San Francisco. So we kinda got lucky in that they were willing to leave their world—the world of theater—for a while, and join the world of music. We auditioned a lot of people—for both vocals and also for percussion—which was really what we were looking for at first. But the vocals on this record are really complex so we decided we’d have vocalists as well.
TK: So Nikki Nack has done very well popularity-wise—it peaked at Number 27 on the charts and earned dozens of great reviews—which is awesome! How does this popularity affect your day-to-day? Does it feel any different?
MG: I don’t know; I truly try to ignore it. It’s kinda weird—Nate [Brenner, bassist] and I were talking about this the other day. One of my sad, little, rock’n roll dreams, or whatever [laughs], was always to flip through Rolling Stone and see my band listed on the charts. But I always assumed, in my head, that it would be the college charts. So then when we saw we were on the top 40 charts, but not the college charts, we were like, “oh no, did we bypass the coolness on our way to the mainstream?” [laughs].
It’s just so crazy how things work, but I guess there are tons of examples of bands who break through in these weird ways we don’t expect. It’s been really interesting, especially trying to not care and just enjoy the fact that we’re selling out shows. That’s really what we’re focused on more—it’s just such an incredible feeling to sell out shows—and sell out big shows—and just enjoy really excited audiences.
TK: I am definitely excited for your show this Sunday at Union Transfer. Do you have any memories of shows or hanging out in Philadelphia?
MG: I actually have a lot of really positive memories of Philly. Nate and I actually met at a summer camp right outside of Philly in Southern New Jersey—that summer was so much fun. I went to one of my favorite weddings of all time in Philadelphia—and I spent many nights with friends from summer camp in smoky dive bars, or at the Italian Market. Our merch guy lives in Philly and we were talking the other day about how it’s a lot like Oakland [where the band is based]. Philly has similar social issues—as do many metropolitan cities—and it has that same grit.
As for playing in Philly, we are super excited to come back to Union Transfer, because we had such a great show last time. I remember on the last tour, the Philly date was really big for us—it was such a large venue and it felt really important that we sell it out. We felt good just knowing that Philly can be one of those towns for us where we have really good shows and positive support. We love playing there.
TK: We can’t wait to see you play!
tUnE-yArDs play Union Transfer Sunday, June 15. The show is sold out.