Interview: Merrill Garbus a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs

Photo by Abby Wing

tUnE-yArDs is the brainchild of Oakland resident Merrill Garbus. Our first encounter with her was in 2008 at a small dingy pub where she single-handedly conjured up a catchy soundstorm using percussion, pedals, instruments, and her torrential voice. Since then, she’s been picked up by label 4AD, toured behind her debut BiRd-BrAiNs, and played to packed houses and outdoor festivals. Occasionally she has invited guests to add to her live performance: from dancers, horn players, and other assorted musicians, to a fleet of backing drummers at The Hollywood Bowl. Whether she’s surrounded by a motley band, or simply flanked by permanent bassist Nate Brenner, she begins her songs with drum loops she creates on the spot. A fan of Tom Tom Magazine, Merrill shares with us the gear recipe for creating her unique sound and chats with us before the new tUnE-yArDs album, w h o k i I l, comes out on April 19th.
-By Jem Fanvu

Merrill’s gear, courtesy Merrill:
• 2 Boss RC-2s plus stop pedals
• floor tom
• snare onna stand up high
• hi-hat
• ukulele
• Fender Blues Junior amp
• Boss Equalizer pedal
• thick sticks
• Shure 58 for looping
• mixer

Tom Tom Magazine: When you began, you were a one-woman show: drumming, looping, playing ukelele and singing. As your audience grows and you’re playing bigger venues, sometimes you add more people to the mix. There was one tUnE-yArDs show I saw with 3 drummers. Where did that idea come from?

Merrill Garbus: The reason why we had those other drummers is because we got asked to play Glastonbury Festival and then The Hollywood Bowl, both of which are these humongous stages. It’s mostly just a technical sound thing. If the looping pedal gets too loud, it feeds back. I was afraid that if I only do looping, that the sound would be like someone banging a tin can in an empty stadium. It would basically have no weight to it. It was also the visual aspect of having more people on stage, so [having multiple drummers] was a functional thing of those performances.

Tom Tom Magazine: Was it just guys that drummed for you?

Merrill Garbus: Indeed. Except one time when it was all women.

Tom Tom Magazine: Where was that show, and who was in your troop?

Merrill Garbus:  It was Lisa Schonberg and Heather Treadway who were in this band, Explode Into Colors, and Lindsay Schief who’s in Lake. I would always see them and be like, ‘I want those badass drummers to drum with us!’  We played a show about a year ago at the Natural History Museum in L.A. They made this drum pod—highhat, floor toms and snares—so they were all standing and sharing drumming. It was really, really awesome.

TTM: What was the reaction to the female drummers?

MG: I think it depended on who you asked. Honestly, it was just one show and we were in a room with stuffed animals, and by that I don’t mean teddy bears—I mean literal animals that had been taxidermied. It was an experience unto itself. We were also an opening act for Atlas Sound. I had a good friend there, Chris Pureka, and she, being a woman musician, was like, ‘That was so amazing to see so many powerful women onstage.’

I’ve been reading some Tom Tom Magazines lately and I think something I find constantly said and resaid is that drumming, the act of it alone, of a woman battering something really hard and having an impact and making people dance is really weird. That, in and of itself, is an atypical role.

TTM: What are you up to this year?

MG: In February I was commissioned to write this composition for an 8-piece vocal ensemble. We’re doing a couple of Tune-Yards songs at the show. For ‘Hatari’ for instance, instead of me looping my voice, they’ll sing those parts.

In March we go to SxSW, and then in April the shit hits the fan and the album gets released and then we’ll go on a US and Canada tour. In the summer we play some festivals and then we’ll go to Europe at the end of May. It’s just going to be a lot of touring. I’m hoping that we’ll get to Japan and Australia and Brazil. I’m crossing my fingers!

TTM: Since you travel a lot, what are your Top 5 favorite cities and why?

MG: One of my favorite cities is Detroit. I’ve never met a city full of really amazing human beings who are just generous and kind and super-creative and super-nice. So, Detroit: #1 city.

2. St.Louis is a tremendous city, which I’m excited to spend more time in. They have that City Museum which is, like, an adult playground made by people who wanted to weld cool shit together. It’s another city that, because it has been, gutted—I guess is my word for it—in terms of industry and economy and stuff then that means cool spaces and communities pop up. I love it there.

3. Montreal is the best. It’s amazing because there really is no place like it. I have what I feel is a whole family and community there. You can walk everywhere even when it’s -30 degrees. Because the cost of living is pretty low, you can live as an artist.

4. I like Oakland because it’s incredibly beautiful almost every day. It’s like, ‘It’s January and it’s 70 degrees?’ I feel like I’m in the US when I’m here in all of its horrible glory. There’s something about it that rubs me the wrong way but I like that because I think this country rubs me the wrong way, so it feels like an accurate representation. And there’s really amazing, cool people doing amazing things all over the place.

5. Berlin is pretty frigging amazing. It also reminds me a lot of Montreal and Oakland in a lot of ways—gutted. It’s really different, all these transitional spaces that you see used to be one thing and now are another. Also it has this tangible sense of history, like, ‘Yes, this was reality’ and now ‘This is reality.’ There’s nothing like it.

TTM: Do you have any advice for drumming and singing at the same time?

MG: (laughs) Yes. Use your body. That’s my advice. I still find it hard to define myself as a drummer because I see other drummers practicing and making it a part of their physical practice. I do that when I’m on tour but I don’t, like, have a practicing pad. I don’t sit there and do paradiddles and stuff, though I’m sure I will at some point!

I studied singing first and singing is so closely connected to breath. I realize how much breath and being in your body is just what rhythm is about. It helps me that I’m standing, that I can really be completely physically involved in finding a pulse, then pray that my limbs will obey me, or be part of that same breath. That’s all practice. To me it’s a real internalization of rhythm that helps me do both at the same time.

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