Lo-fi yet sophisticated, Merrill Garbus' folk project as Tune-Yards is a patchwork of found sounds, field recordings and passionate vocals. She performs live for Morning Becomes Eclectic listeners at 11:15am.
Jason Bentley: It's tUnE-YarDs live on KCRW, the new album WHOKILL, and a triumphant headlining engagement this past Saturday at the Troubadour, that's got to feel good, to headline in LA on a Saturday night?
Merril Garbus: It did. It felt excellent.
JB: But I did hear, you know our DJ's do intros for the shows that we present, and so they get their brief, hear all the details on where to go and who to talk to, and so Eric J. Lawrence was doing the intro, he was given his information, and you were the contact for him on-site, you know, here's the person who need to, and so he was marveling on that, I mean, even though you're headlining a big show on Saturday night, it's like, you're not too high on that, you're still the primary contact.
MG: Down low.
JB: Down to earth. Alright, Merril Garbus is here, tUnE-YarDs. And so tell us a bit about your background. How did you get your start in music?
MG: Well, my parents are both musicians, and being a musician was the thing I always thought I would not be. You know, at least I had ruled that out, you can't be what your parents are, I had ruled that out of my career choices. But I had been surrounded by music my whole life, so my start in music was really being around it, and, you know, it came to me later that I am a musician, sort of through and through, and I was bred a musician basically. But technically, it was about 2005 when I quit doing the theater work that I had been doing before, and my mom had bought me this tenor ukulele at an Army-Navy store. She had actually bought it for herself, I believe, and then she was like, I think you'll get a better use out of this than I will. And I just started playing, and I had been a puppeteer and sort of disillusioned with puppeteering, if you can imagine that. So I decided that ukulele was a much better thing to pick up.
JB: So would you consider that your first instrument?
MG: I think the voice is probably my first instrument. I think it gets undervalued as an instrument. And then my mom's a piano teacher, so that was, from age six to 13 when I had hissy fits at the piano, and wouldn't, couldn't, take lessons from her anymore without having crying fits. That was really my first instrument-instrument, hand-held instrument.
JB: I described in the intro your music as arresting and captivating. Did you feel kind of captive by the music? Because I have this sense when I first heard it, it's something that you almost can't control, it just, it felt like you were channeling something that was a raw energy, and I wonder was it something as you were growing up saying to yourself, God, I have to let this out?
MG: Yeah, I have to, I mean, thank you, that's a big compliment. I think that I like to think of this inspiration really, coming from outside of myself. But that gets into these really, the spiritual realm, which is a scary realm for me, growing up very atheistic. But I think, yes, that's how it feels to me, and I think from my time being a theatre performer, that there was always a sense that I was, of frustration, that there was something in there, and some kind of expression that I was trying to get out, and I didn't know what form it was going to take, so I feel so lucky, I don't think that happens to every artist, where you find the medium that really is going to be the way that you can get that stuff out, and, I mean, I'm having such a great time, we had four hours of sleep, and this is the end of my voice, and yet this is so fun, and I just feel really grateful that I'm here and that this music is coming out of me.
JB: Where do you think the African influence, because we hear this African chanting, and sort of this rhythmic element, are you able to trace that back to something?
MG: Well, my aunt and uncle when I was ten went to live in Kenya for a year, they both were in the medical, are in the medical field, and I just sort of, that was the beginning of my fascination with Africa, and my consciousness of Africa as a place, and particularly Kenya, so I learned Swahili language when I was in college just to be able to go there eventually, and then I did go there, but I think that what I hear, and it's not just African music, I think there are these sounds that I've found in, you know, Bulgarian music, shape note music from here, from the United States, there's these sounds that I wasn't used to, and when you're captivated by that, a strange sound that's foreign to your ears, I think that can sort of come from anywhere, so, quote-unquote world music became very captivating to me because it was these sounds that I wasn't used to hearing in our sort of canon of popular music here, so I think my ears just go where the weird stuff is.
JB: Is it important to you that also your music is confrontational in a way? Either your own kind of demons, or things without you, is it important that it is confrontational?
MG: Well, yeah, absolutely. And I think part of that stemmed with working with Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont, this kind of art being relevant to what's happening in the world. I never wanted to make art just for the sake of being pretty. I don't think that this is pretty music. I mean, it has moments of beauty, but I wasn't interested in creating something that would just make people feel at ease, because I find for myself that I feel way more alive and way more comfortable when I'm aware of everything. And so to me it's important to sort of be in your face with some stuff, like, hey, wake up! What's really going on? Don't lie to yourself, because in my mind that's the only way that that change, necessary change can come if you look at stuff.
JB: You know, artists have kind of a lifetime to make their debut album, and then two years to do the follow up. What were some of your goals on WHOKILL? What did you really want to do that was different from your debut?
MG: Not to screw up royally, that was my first and foremost goal. It was so much pressure, mostly from myself I think, because a debut album is like, oh wow, this thing that I never thought possible suddenly exists in the world, and I had such a great time with that album, and then the next one defines who you are actually. I mean, the first one can be the first one, the second one is sort of like, oh this is my sound, and this is what tUnE-YarDs is going to be. I think I wanted to allow myself to go a bit more high fidelity you can say, allow the songs to really blossom and have this full, full sonic world around them that I really felt like I couldn't achieve by myself, so we were so lucky to have Eli Cruz, who's been on tour with us the past couple of months, engineer the album, and really be sensitive to my lo-fi roots and the fact that sometimes I do want things that a sound engineer is taught not to ever do. Sometimes I wanted that stuff still in there. So my goal was to keep, to stay true to myself, and stay true to these things that are, "wrong in the sound engineering world, but to give the album something that I couldn't, so it could have room to grow."
JB: You mentioned your lo-fi roots, and I first saw you at that show that I mentioned, at the Natural History Museum, which was terrific. But Rachel who's here in the studio said that she had seen you earlier than that, at a house party here in LA. You performed in a living room. And she mentioned that she wanted to get music at that time, this was before you were on 4AD, and wanted to bring it to the station. You were only selling cassette tapes, and this is maybe four years ago.
MG: Yeah, if that, maybe three.
JB: Maybe three years ago.
MG: Yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, stuff's happened pretty darn fast. That party was awesome though, it was really fun. I was on tour with my friend Disposable Thumbs and we were in his little Volkswagen Golf, I think, just tooling around.
MG: Yeah. To me, I'm glad, I'm really appreciative of the years that I spent on the road with my first band Sister Suvi, we drove around in my Chevy and I drove around in my Chevy and then we drove around in that Golf and all of that work has led to, like you say, I'm pretty darn comfortable doing this stuff now, partially because I did it in living rooms and I did it, you know, you do it where you have to do it. And like you said, I felt compelled enough to do it to do it any sort of odd circumstances and sometimes difficult circumstances.
JB: Do you think you'll always represent that in your shows, even as they get bigger? Because I got the sense from the show on Saturday that the improvisation of it all, and the potential for mistakes that aren't mistakes, you know, all of that is important but I think it also draws the audience in, they feel a part of art as it happens.
MG: Ya, I think it's important, I mean someone that's really sweet who went last night, said that she was star-struck by me, and I thought, "I'm not a star, that's ridiculous," and I think that's what, I mean I want to sort of keep it on a ground level, where people understand that they can do this stuff too, that this is all really hand-made, and that's why I prefer no studio gloss, and no…you know, I want to see the seems of things, and I want to see how things are created ‘cause it just feels more true and honest to me. So, we'll see how big I can get before that goes away completely.
JB: tUnE-YarDs, our guest in-studio as we head into your second set. I'd like to remind people that we will have copies autographed of the album WHOKILL for our KCRW subscribers a little bit later, without further ado, tUnE-YarDs, on Morning Becomes Eclectic.