POPULARITY HASN’T DESENSITIZED TUNE-YARDS FRONTWOMAN Merrill Garbus. Four years on from the commercially successful and socially conscious Nikki Nack, Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner are back with a fourth album that gazes headlong into the catastrophe of American life. I can feel you creep into my private life finds Garbus speaking to white privilege, environmental disaster and social conditioning in concerned, sometimes apocalyptic tones. Tune-Yards’ penchant for energetic, rhythm-oriented pop remains intact, but streamlined production and an increased emphasis on electronic beats make these new songs sleeker than anything else in the band’s catalogue. “I think for me to get through those feelings and those experiences,” Garbus says, “it’s been kind of necessary to dance my way through them.”
What are you up to?
I have a radio show on Red Bull Radio called C.L. A.W., which stands for “Collaborative Legions of Artful Womxn,” and we are about to release our first film score for a film called Sorry to Bother You.
What are your current fixations?
I am pretty obsessed with this book called Radical Dharma [by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah], and looking at specifically how Buddhism instructs us on social justice.
Why do you live where you do?
I moved to Oakland to come be with Nate Brenner, who is the other member of Tune-Yards. I came out here to be with him, and I stayed because it is more invigorating and diverse, by which I mean majority AfricanAmerican, and also representing more immigrant communities and languages and cultures than any other U.S. city.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
I was talking the other day about
the Storm King sculpture park [in Mountainville, NY]. It combines to create an atmosphere where your scale feels really different, as these sculptures are so huge that you start feeling very small.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
I would say, most recently, the Solange show at the Greek Theatre — the energy she brought, and being able to feel the crowd and feel her relationship with the crowd, even in such a huge venue.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Career high: There have been lots of them, but winning the “Pazz & Jop” [poll], which is the Village Voice’s culmination of all critical acclaim for a year. That was in 2011 or 2012. Career low: Probably playing to one college student at a gig when I was first starting Tune-Yards. An audience of one.
What should everyone shut up about?
It’s not often that I would tell people to shut up, but I think people often need to check themselves when they are standing in judgment of other people on social media.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I like that I’m generous. I don’t like that I sometimes consider other people’s needs before my own.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
I don’t listen to anybody’s advice, and then I regret it later on, but I would say probably caring what other people think about me. I have been advised by so many people to just focus on my work and not get bogged down by other people’s opinions, and I think it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand the difference between taking in criticism and worrying about what people think about me.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Happy times. I spent a lot of time in Montreal when I started Tune-Yards. Tune-Yards wouldn’t exist without Montreal, and without my friends and without the camaraderie and the way people support each other in art there.
What was the first LP/cassette/ CD/ eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I’m going to say Thriller. I’m not sure if it was with my own money, because I was very young, but I have a feeling my parents probably had some kind of allowance system through which I could get such a thing. You know what, I take that back. It was the cassingle of Björk’s “Human Behavior,” now that I think about it.
What was your most memorable day job?
House cleaner. I was doing that when I was a puppeteer, which was pre-Tune-Yards. I mean, you never forget cleaning people’s houses, and long hours spent wishing I was doing something else.
What do you fear most?
Disconnection between humans. Not understanding each other to such an extent that we commit violent acts on each other.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
We saw David Hasselhoff at Coachella one year, and that was pretty bizarre. I think that I sat on his lap.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
“Radio Generation” by Pat Jordache — he’s my good friend up in Montreal. Because I hope that if I die before Patrick, he will be at my funeral, and because it’s one of those songs that speaks to community, and to the community that brought me up, and that communities are possible, and the possibility of a love of community.
“We saw David Hasselhoff at Coachella. I think I sat on his lap.”