The ever eclec­tic Tune-Yards tells Jim Car­roll she’s no record la­bel pup­pet,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

IF THINGS had worked out dif­fer­ently, Mer­rill Gar­bus would have been a pup­peteer. From what we know about Gar­bus to­day, it would have been a strange twist of fate. But she wanted to do some­thing the­atri­cal, so she moved into pup­petry.

“Pup­petry seemed ex­cit­ing to me,” she re­mem­bers. “I love per­for­mance, and there’s a lot more im­pro­vi­sa­tion and creativ­ity with pup­petry com­pared to the stereo­typ­i­cal the­atri­cal thing of learn­ing your lines and do­ing Ib­sen.

“There’s very few peo­ple do­ing any­thing fresh or new in theatre. The tra­di­tional ap­proach didn’t ap­peal to me, so I went into pup­pet theatre be­cause it lent it­self to these new ex­cit­ing per­for­mance tech­niques that I wanted to try out.”

One of her ear­li­est gigs as a pup­peteer was with the Bread and Pup­pet theatre group in Ver­mont, where Gar­bus was in­volved in mak­ing huge, ex­tra-large pup­pets that were used in protest marches and other large-scale per­for­mances.

“It was my first ex­pe­ri­ence of hands-on art, you know. It taught me that art should be for ev­ery­one and art did not have to be ex­pen­sive to do. I was 19 years of age and it was re­ally em­pow­er­ing to see that do-it-your­self attitude in ac­tion.

Alas, Gar­bus and pup­pets went their sep­a­rate ways. “I soon re­alised that the peo­ple who were mak­ing a liv­ing were work­ing for cable tele­vi­sion chan­nels like Nick­elodeon, and I knew that I didn’t want to be a mup­peteer. I wanted to do avant-garde per­for­mance art and I re­alised that it wasn’t about the pup­pets, so I moved on to other things.”

Pup­peteer­ing’s loss was mu­sic’s gain. As Tune-Yards, Gar­bus has al­ready pro­duced two deeply in­fec­tious, thrilling al­bums. The first, Bird-Brains was an idio­syn­cratic tribal gather­ing that fea­tured Gar­bus mak­ing merry with a bat­tered ukulele, creaky loops, a batch of crackly field record­ings and a su­perb honk of a voice.

Her sec­ond al­bum, Whokill, sees the whirl­wind of en­ergy and imag­i­na­tion that pow­ered her de­but lashed into ser­vice on an al­bum that is full to the gills with tribal stomps, vivid sounds and glo­ri­ously wild tunes. It’s both strange and spec­tac­u­lar, a record with a giddy, dar­ing, dash­ing imag­i­na­tion at full pelt, but which also has some dis­tinc­tive songs to back it all up.

For Gar­bus, Whokill is about un­leash­ing a new take on the sounds she’s been hear­ing all her life. “Clearly, all these in­flu­ences have popped up along the way in my mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion. Peo­ple say there’s dub and reg­gae and Afrobeat, and I think there’s also a a lot of ex­per­i­men­tal avant-garde jazz and folk on the al­bum. When re­view­ers men­tion those things, I find my­self nod­ding my head a lot.”

She’s the first to ac­knowl­edge that the Tune-Yards sound is a pick’n’mix of widely flung mu­si­cal delights. “Some­one once said that Tune-Yards is an eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist’s dream,” she laughs, “and I def­i­nitely wanted my mu­sic to be that when I was younger. I was con­stantly ab­sorb­ing mu­sic from wher­ever I could get it.

“When I was in Kenya and Nige­ria, I was con­stantly find­ing new sounds and try­ing to play them and un­der­stand them. I had been study­ing Swahili for two years in col­lege know­ing that I wanted to travel to east Africa, and I ended up in Kenya hav­ing lots of ad­ven­tures like learn­ing tra­di­tional Tarabu tunes by play­ing with lo­cal mu­si­cians. That process of as­sim­i­la­tion has never stopped.”

Aside from the leap in song­writ­ing qual­ity be­tween al­bums, there have also been some changes in how Gar­bus works. Her de­but was a fuzzy, charm­ing home-pro­duced arte­fact, which she recorded when she was work­ing as a nanny for a sum­mer. All Gar­bus had to work with then was a hand-held dig­i­tal voice recorder and lap­top, hence why the al­bum sounded rough around the edges.

But the new al­bum sees her la­bel, 4AD, firmly in her cor­ner, so there was a bud­get for Gar­bus to use a stu­dio, en­gi­neer and as­sorted giz­mos she couldn’t af­ford the first time around. She was ini­tially ret­i­cent about the move. “Even though Bird-Brains wasn’t crit­i­cally adored, I liked it and loved the sound of it, and I sup­pose I associated Tune­Yards as a record­ing pro­ject with that sound and that al­bum. I wasn’t sure about the jump from a very lo-fi al­bum, where I was in charge of ev­ery­thing, to a stu­dio where I had to rely on some­one else. I sup­pose the re­luc­tance was also be­cause I was a lit­tle un­sure about what the next Tune-Yards al­bum would sound like and what Tune-Yards would be­come in the fu­ture.

“But I found a good stu­dio and a good en­gi­neer to work with in Eli Crews, and what he was do­ing in­stantly ap­pealed to me be­cause the process didn’t make the songs sound ster­ile. They sounded alive and as if they were go­ing to the right place.”

She quickly re­alised, too, that the stu­dio was a way to shape and em­bel­lish a new Tune­Yards sound. “I felt pretty blind go­ing into the process, but when I started the demos for Biz­ness, I re­alised I could be on to a sound, and thought it de­served a lot of qual­ity and we should go into a stu­dio to get a dif­fer­ent, less lo-fi sound than we had the first time. It wasn’t the plan, but it quickly be­came clear that it should be the plan.”

One of the themes that comes up again and again on Whokill is vi­o­lence. “I don’t think it was a con­scious move, but the songs ended up be­ing one af­ter an­other about vi­o­lence,”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.