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