The stately setting of the Anglican Cathedral is preparing for a riot of colour on Friday 6th March 2015, when Merrill Garbus brings her Day-Glo outfit TUNE-YARDS for a party that seems at odds with the venerable building’s sombre atmosphere. Being at odds with things is Garbus’ default setting, however, so it would actually seem like the perfect setting. Ahead of this show, which comes in the middle of a massive UK tour, the New England experimentalist took time out of her busy schedule to talk business.
Bido Lito!: When did tUnE-yArDs start and were you in other bands when you were younger and growing up?
Merrill Garbus: I had actually been thinking recently about those old bands. tUnE-yArDs started in about 2007. In about 2006 I started writing songs on a ukulele, songs which I was originally using for a puppet show because I was originally a puppeteer. So I was writing these songs with just me and a uke, and then tUnE-yArDs sort of grew out of that. Before that I used to live in Vermont and I was in a number of bands with lots of different people. I was the back-up ukulele player, if that is even a thing, in a Vermont reggae band called Baked Earth. Eventually I moved from Vermont up to Montréal and from there I took music a bit more seriously, touring round the country with lots of different Montréal bands and, yeah, that was basically the start of me wanting to make music my full-time job.
BL!: You mentioned that you’re a puppeteer… Are there any crossovers with that and your current role in tUnE-yArDs??
MG: First of all, for me both jobs are about being a performer and that in itself is its own career type. A lot of musicians come into music without having a lot of experience of being on stage but you can really tell when you see the ones that do. It makes you really pay attention to the visual side of things and that is how we build our shows, with a connection between performance art and music. In the first tUnE-yArDs gigs I did in Montréal, there was always other stuff going on besides the music, but no puppets at that point. Now I realise how much I have learnt from my puppeteer mentors who taught me about being on stage and how to approach performance, and I feel that have carried all of that with me. Whether it be on small stages or whether it be in the big festivals that we get to play these days, it’s all about a performance-based experience for me.
BL!: Who were your influences when you were getting into music?
MG: Early on, Deerhoof were a band that I felt were doing something that was really connected to performance art. As much as I have also grown up listening to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, they are the bands that everyone has heard of; whereas Deerhoof and other bands really connected personally to what I was doing and what I could be doing, and they gave me a new view on rock and roll. Dirty Projectors were defiantly one of those bands too who were also just experimenting with rock music; you know, doing weird and out-there things? But whenever people ask this question I know that I have a lot of influences but I never know what to say. I actually think that the first tUnE-yArDs album had a lot of Cindy Lauper and other 80s stuff as well as rock and roll. It helped create that kind of lo-fi sound, you know?
BL!: Can you explain a bit more of how you go about creating your music?
MG: The truth is that the music is always changing and it’s all a big mess. I wish there was a formula that worked every time but it’s usually just some sort of rhythm that starts everything and then that’s when I know we’re starting something… A lot of it basically starts with how I want to move to a song. With Water Fountain it began with the chorus. I had that tune in my head and had to get it out. It’s like little shards, little tiny things that need to be put into a bigger place. The lyric “No water in the water fountain” was a clue to the rest of the song and I followed it. At that point Nate Brenner, who also writes the songs, usually comes in and reflects what I have been working on, and I’ll say “this is going to work”, to which he’ll say “what about this?”, and we’ll go back and forth. One thing that puppeteering gave me was the sense of a world that you are trying to create, so the big question for me is always “What kind of world am I trying to create?”
BL!: So you mention performance and space. How are you approaching the show at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral then?
MG: These days people should expect a lot of bright colours, which is really fun. I think also a dynamic feel, and we’re going to bring a tonne of energy, which doesn’t just come from the musical performance. We are going to be theatrical and all encompassing. I’ve really been enjoying making our performance something that people can lose themselves in, you know? People should come to the show and forget about their normal lives. What more do we want than to forget our normal lives for an hour a week? But it isn’t about numbing out; it’s about feeling different and changed. Maybe that is a really pompous thing to say, but it is what I think.
BL!: Is it a different experience for you playing in the UK compared to the US?
MG: Oh yeah. The UK has been one of our strongest allies, in the way that UK audiences are so open to different types of music and strange stuff. It’s hard to shock UK audiences. I also think that if you smash a performance and are clearly committed to your music, UK audiences will be right there with you with their energy and spirit. I think there’s a strong musical culture, especially in Liverpool, that has been going for a long time so people are very excited about new work. I love Liverpool and it’s an honour to be playing there.
BL!: Festival season is also on the horizon. Do you enjoy doing lots of musical festivals or do you find them hectic?
MG: Oh, both. It is a shit show in so many ways. You have to be ready for this whole new style of “one, two, three, go!” instead of a sound check and prep for the show. It can be very panicked and last minute but that adds to the energy and electricity that’s part of the performance. It isn’t the easiest thing for your system to take on but it is always rewarding for us. It feels like being in a new band sometimes, as you have a little bit more to prove in festivals, but that’s always a good thing for us.
BL!: Your most recent album, Nikki Nack, seems to have been really well received. Did you approach this album differently from the other ones?
MG: Well, we had more resources and I was a little more fearless with what I could try and get away with. There was room to go a little bit bigger with the sound for this album. I really wanted to challenge myself and to write differently, not just write songs on a looping pedal like the previous albums. So I tried to write longer and more composed pop songs. I also wanted to leave a lot of room for other elements that we had never used before to come alive within the record, and I think we achieved that with the record.
BL!: Do you have a clear plan for what you want to achieve next?
MG: I have no idea. If I knew, I would tell you. I want surprises; I want to keep surprising myself. We’ll be on the road till the end of the summer and then who knows? It could be anything. I literally have no idea… but surprises are good. Expect surprises.
Words: Paddy Hughes / @paddyhughes89