Interview: tUnE-yArDs

Musician, theater student and "Mad Men" addict Merrill Garbus, AKA tUne-yArDs, talks about performing live, writing from the road and reaching her fear limit while opening for Beirut.

Musician, theater student and "Mad Men" addict Merrill Garbus, AKA tUne-yArDs, talks about performing live, writing from the road and reaching her fear limit while opening for Beirut.

Past Event

tune-yards / Pat Jordache

  • Monday, November 7, 2011, 10 p.m.
  • Jackpot Music Hall, 943 Mass., Lawrence
  • Not available


It's difficult to describe what Merrill Garbus does. As the creative force behind tUnE-yArDs, she crafts percussive and vocal-heavy music on the fly through creative sampling and liberal use of a looper. But to see Garbus live is much more than a simple, one-person performance. It is a show and, incidentally, a sound that evokes a variety of influences including afro-beat, tribal chants and child-like dancing and it carries a sense of playfulness that is infectious as it is present. Before her Monday performance at the Jackpot Music Hall, 943 Mass., Garbus talked with us about the necessity of writing on the road and how she pictures her role as a channel.

Trevan McGee: Does being on-stage magnify certain elements of your personality that aren't as present when you're off-stage? Do you adopt a persona?

Merrill Garbus: I think magnify is a great word. That's actually a word that I've been using lately because what never feels true to me is the sense of becoming a character on stage. It is more of a magnification, I wouldn't even say of me as a person, but that I am a magnifying glass of some sort.

I studied theater, so that has really informed how I approach being on stage. I think what studying theater has allowed me to do is see that the performance is very much separate from myself, even though I can totally be there as Merrill on stage, my two feet on the ground and you're seeing me do my thing, but I don't need to have an attachment to what anyone thinks of me or what it means to be up there or being judged moment-to-moment.

What I've been practicing is that I'm just there as a way that we can have an experience together. That's what the best performers in my mind are. They're channels of some sort. Whether it's Charlie Chaplin, who's a personal hero of mine, he just becomes a character, but you really can see Charlie Chaplin in the little tramp. He's there. And you're aware with all actors and performers that it's just a person, but they're able to do some kind of magic where they bring you into a different world or time or place. That's what I want to do.

I know that sounds pretty out there or vague, but that what I've been feeling lately. I'm there to do a job of altering the space that we're in.

TM: Given your method of making music, is are there more unique challenges to playing larger venues as opposed to smaller venues?

MG: It's gotten a lot easier, mostly in a sound sense because the looping can get really complicated the larger spaces we're trying to fill. We played outdoor festivals where everything is just so big and booming that we end up getting some feedback in the loops.

This time around we've been able to afford a sound man to come along with us, which is a pleasure and that's really alleviated the technical side of things. I was just telling someone that I think as audiences grow, so does my excitement about how large the music can be and how large the performance can be and how large my voice can be.

We opened for Beirut in Europe and we played a show that was 5,000 people. I recognized that as my fear limit. 'Oh my gosh, I'm scared!' There is definitely a certain point at which it gets more overwhelming , but honestly, a thousand people who are there to see you and are excited to be there, feels totally manageable. There's a lot of good energy in the room.

TM: While you're out playing in front people, making loops and constructing songs and song structures while singing, does that process ever inform what you eventually do in the studio?

MG: It definitely did on this album ("w h o k i l l"). Before we recorded "w h o k i l l," we were performing a lot of those songs. By "we," I mean myself and Nate Brenner, who's on bass. He had been touring with me for months before we recorded the album and we were testing these things out in a live setting. It totally did influence how we wanted to and were able to record.

First of all, we knew those songs inside and out. The audience told us where the powerful moments of the songs were. We had had the ability to sort of sculpt the songs to be more effective live. And that then ended up in the recorded version. It's very influential.

TM: Do you like to write for the road?

MG: There's like and then there's necessity. [laughs] We have to. We're out there a lot, which is a total blessing because it means people are excited about the music and they want to come to the show, but it means that I write during sound checks and I write bits and pieces as they come to me. Improvisations, basically.

And I honestly … sometimes I envy musicians who are able to take more time off and I actually don't know if I would know what to do with that time anymore because I'm so used to writing on the fly and not having this luxury to wait around and wait for inspiration to come, but grab it at any moment of the day.

Do I like it? I think I secretly like it. But I also wish I had some more time sometimes. But that'll come. And I'm sure I'll be really bored when it does. [laughs]

TM: So you're not going to rent the Tate Mansion anytime soon?

MG: No. [laughs]

TM: What puts you in that writing mode?

MG: The musical part of them can come through improvisation. So a lot of times it's me with a looping pedal at soundcheck. Trying to test the drums and the vocal looping and out comes the rhythm that I'm feeling that day. The majority of the music comes out of some kind of improvisation with rhythm versus melody, at this point.

Where do the lyrics or the theme of the song or melody come from? I think those are things that are really hard to come by. Especially when you're on tour and your brain is going, "How many T-shirts should we order for the next show?" or "Is that knob on my looping pedal going to fall off tonight?" Your brain is very consumed with these technical things and I think those moments of inspiration about lyrics or deeper inspirations in songs — I need time and space. I need to let my brain be able to melt a little bit.

One came on the bus on the way to the airport when we were in Iceland. I was like, "Oh, this is it. Here's one of these moments."

I think walking around Oakland when I was writing for "w h o k i l l," that was a huge inspiration too. The walking and the meditation that comes from walking and looking around at the world that we're in, also provided those moments of meditation on myself and the world.

TM: How do you document an idea when you have an epiphany like that?

MG: Scraps. Scraps and the same voice recorder that I recorded my first album on. It's still in my pocket. A lot of melodic ideas come that way. I'll be walking and I'll have a little segment of a tune and I'll make sure … if I don't have a recorder I'll make sure to remember it somehow. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.

I've been addicted to "Mad Men" and I was just watching an episode and his (Don Draper's) wife opens a drawer and finds all of these napkins with ideas jotted on them. I certainly have that. I've just got to get it down on something, some piece of paper. That'll be the seed that will trigger a memory of what I was thinking about at the time.

Definitely a fan of little bits of paper.

TM: Do you also have a shoebox with all of your Dick Whitman keepsakes and proof of a past life?

MG: [laughs] Exactly. Yes.

TM: When you're making the songs live, are there elements of the process that you prefer more and want to make the focus of your songs in-studio?

MG: I think lately maybe I've derived a bit more pleasure from the danceable parts of things, so in that sense it might be the rhythm. But it also might be a vocally created rhythm. Layering my voice can also be a drum kit of sorts.

I've been doing some work with this vocal ensemble called Room Full of Teeth and they are a vocal ensemble that studies vocal techniques from different cultures from around the world.

That has made singing fun for me again. I think singing was this thing that was kind of taxing on my voice and was something that people expected from me, but maybe I didn't feel like doing it the way people wanted me to do, but studying with these guys has really been a great inspiration to say, "I get to play with my voice on stage." But that playful quality is really what I like to do the most and where I like to head, when I'm writing music.

And being playful is also what an audience reacts to and wants, so I don't feel like I'm too far off, if that's my focus and how I like to derive inspiration. Hopefully I'm on the right track.


Lawrence Morgan 8 years, 3 months ago

Where is "Room Full of Teeth" from? Could I hear them or get a CD?

Commenting has been disabled for this item.