An Interview With tUnE-yArDs

Having emerged from what she described to us as her “cave of creativity” – Merrill Garbus, better known as tUnE-yArDs, finally soared back onto the music scene this month after perfecting her first release since ‘w h o k i l l’ came out in 2011. Bold, joyful and as expressive as ever – we too had just hatched from our cocoons after the harsh Berlin winter when her third album to date, “Nikki Nack” arrived. Bursting with evocative lyrical content and a whimsical musicality which is as playful as it is punchy, her latest tracks were definitely worth waiting for. As her tour is already in full force, she lands back in Europe this week with a headline gig at the Berghain in Berlin on 14th May, and we were privileged enough to grab a quick chat before the tour set off on the road!

“Merrill Garbus has performed as tUnE-yArDs since 2009, and that band name has always been synonymous with forward movement—whether because of her explosive performance style or the always-surprising way in which her songs unfold. First gaining notice with the debut BiRd-BrAiNs, which The New York Times called “a confident do-it-yourselfer’s opening salvo: a staticky, low-fi, abrasive attention- getter,” Garbus forged a reputation as a formidable live presence through relentless touring. In 2011, tUnE-yArDs released its second album, w h o k i l l, a startling and sonically adventurous statement that led to a whirlwind period where Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner accrued accolades from critics (including the #1 spot on the Village Voice’s 2011 Pazz and Jop poll), performed in front of increasing numbers of rapturous crowds around the world, and collaborated with the likes of Yoko Ono and ?uestlove. It was a thrilling ride, but it was one that needed a little bit of recovery afterward. Nikki Nack has uncertainty about both the past and the future, but that’s in keeping with Garbus’s overall aesthetic of constantly questioning and burrowing for a “new way,” tempered by the joy that goes hand in hand with new discoveries.”

KALTBLUT: It’s been a while since you released any new material, congratulations on the record! Have you been enjoying the whole experience so far?

Merrill: I have been honestly, I left home thinking, I don’t know what I’ll find when people start talking about the music.. but I’ve been pleasantly surprised truth be told, I’m glad people are liking it cos you know, you come out of this kind of cave of creation and then you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

KALTBLUT: Can you tell us a little about your time in the caribbean after the release of ‘w h o k i l l’, surely that was like a dream – to spend time in such a musically spiritual place growing as an artist – how did the Haitian drumming influence the percussion on the new album?

Merrill: Wow, it’s funny because that’s so the opposite of how I experienced it! Of course it sounded like that from the outside [laughs]. Afterwards I guess these small personal things take on more meaning, and then even bigger concepts, like what right do I have to claim that – not being Haitian and not having any heritage from there.. but that’s the music industry, everybody needs and wants a story to attach to the album! Actually I hadn’t been to Haiti until after I started writing a lot of the songs, I had just started to study the drumming; most of the rhythms on the album were created before the trip, when I was just practising – and then a seed for a song came from one rhythm that I was learning at the time.I met my teacher in Oakland, California through a friend, started taking drum lessons, and at the same time I was taking voice lessons and also dance classes that he was playing for, pretty mundane things actually! I would go once a week and was hoping that I would practice what I learned there so that it was worth the money… but in the process I was using the boula drum — a smaller of the set which I was really trying to learn to play because I liked so much the sound and roll of it — out of the three drum set of Haitian bata drums it would be the most consistent whilst the other drums could change and be a bit more improvisational.

KALTBLUT: Your music is filled with a very earthy and natural energy, did you find it challenging to recreate that using new technology and software? How easy was it to blend such tools into your acoustic songwriting process?

Merrill: Yeah totally, and I think that’s what’s always been gripping to me, that juxtaposition between acoustic and digital, or old traditional folk with new modern technology, that there’s so much discord and friction there, but that they bring out these aspects of each other that are so interesting, and I’m proud of how it begets these very unique sounds, if you can really layer the acoustic with the digital. A lot of what we did was taking the acoustic drums and placing microphones around them and putting that signal through equipment so that they sounded digital and I was like aaah, I love that!

KALTBLUT: There’s not many musicians that manage to strike a balance so that is doesn’t sound as though the acoustic is competing over the digital or vice versa, are you happy with the result?

Merrill: Yeah, I think there are some bands – like The Talking Heads for example – that did that really well, or bands that found that pretty early on… or Peter Gabriel even, but yeah totally, you have to kinda transform the raw creation in an organic way rather than a ‘let me try on this mask’ way.

KALTBLUT: What was it like working with producers Malay (Alicia Keys, Frank Ocean, Big Boi) and John Hill (Rihanna, Shakira, M.I.A.)?

Merrill: It was wonderful! Nate and I wrote a lot more together this time, you know he has written bass-lines for the last few years in tUnE-yArDs, but this time we really, it was a much more organic back and forth, and I think we both came away from those experiences saying okay you have to pay some money to work with a producer, but we kind of grew our own sense of what this job is, and even little tricks of the trade [laughs]. It was really positive – and truthfully, this whole process was so scary – making an album is no joke, but it was a really positive experience.

KALTBLUT: Introducing new people to your process can be make or break, especially when you’re used to composing alone! How did you feel about this decision whilst you were creating the record?

Merrill: The initial fear before I even met with them was far greater than my fear after I guess, but yes, especially because I’m my own producer – and the more I learn about what a producer actually is the more I realise that I’ve been doing that since the beginning you know – influencing the overall sound of my album and making musical choices, so I think in this case it was more about my own fear that I wouldn’t be able to be vocal about my opinions about my own music, it comes across in the lyric, “not going to say yes when I really mean is no” – I think by that time in the record-making process I really needed a chant to say to myself, that it’s okay to be honest, and that I do have the respect of the people that I work with – very much so.

KALTBLUT: We support a lot of DIY and independent artists at KALTBLUT, and it’s admirable that you stayed true to your sound and continue to challenge the listener to look outside of their sonic comfort zone even as your success grew. If you had a message for new artists who find themselves under pressure to sell out or conform, what would it be?

Merrill: I know that it’s very difficult today, and I’m glad it comes through because that’s certainly a great fear of anyone who signs to a record label or starts to “commercialise” their art. For me it’s very helpful to look at other artists in other art forms who are either not at all commercial or who were not successful commercially until very late in their careers. I think there are a lot of examples, and some of them aren’t within the music industry, but there are certainly examples of artists who really regard art as their way of being in the world, of understanding the world and coming to terms with who they are in the world, and that trumps anything else right? That trumps the money, the fame: it is very easy to get caught up, but I think DIY is a great way of working – I mean it gets put into this box you know, but it’s just “doing it yourself” – doesn’t every artist really do that? I’m talking about a true artist, not a manufactured act, but anyone who is really engaging with art is doing something themselves.

KALTBLUT: You mentioned that your first single from the record “Water Fountain” was inspired by themes from your local community in Oakland – what other kinds of experiences influenced your lyrics for the album?

Merrill: I mean it was long, at one point I realised that I’ve never written so many lyrics in my whole life! Yes it came from walking around Oakland, usually it takes a long time but “no water in the water fountain” came to me pretty fast, that was the seed of the whole thing, that and the hand claps. Walking around in Oakland and kind of reflecting on my community was the first thing, then Nate and I went to the desert to do some writing, and there’s this sense of total lack of water – and then there’s Haiti and the words about rice which has to do with what I learned about Haiti and the Haitian farmers being undersold by American rice companies, and therefore put out of business. I guess what I’m saying is that I have to wait a very long time because there are all these very disparate ideas that do fit into the same world of the song, but if I don’t wait long enough I might not make the connections happen, so I have a huge word document of all these lyrics, and sometimes lyrics that don’t have a place yet and then suddenly I’ll think ‘oh, that fits here’ and so on.

KALTBLUT: ‘Left Behind’ is our favourite track on the record – it has a special meaning for what we are living here in Berlin right now, there’s a constant tug of war between those in the city who don’t want things to change and develop, those who just charge on through regardless – do you think that nostalgia stops people from embracing the possibilities of the future?

Merrill: Oh it’s the ugly duckling track of the album so thank you! I mean all the time, and people have been asking me a lot about my childhood because of all the childlike elements and I battle with that in myself, because I feel that people are blinded by nostalgia and that has a real fear beneath it a lot of the time, fear of the future, and I think that this certainly is another theme. That song talks about what people do really say about immigrants, new neighbours – that happens in every city of course, but then people very quickly forget who they once were as well.

KALTBLUT: We are really looking forward to seeing the live show, it will be a very different kind of sound from what the Berghain is used to hosting! Have you had to make any changes to your live set-up for this new album?

Merrill: Yeah we definitely have, the saxophones won’t be with us this time we’ll have 2 singers, and one percussionist – she’s trained in classical percussion but she’s also playing some digital sample pads too – so yes, the whole thing, everything has changed, and of course the essence. I’ll still use looping pedals and things, but yeah it should be exciting, I’m excited to go home and build it and then bring it back!

KALTBLUT: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, and have an amazing tour! xo

Nikki Nack is out now on 4AD, get it now on ITunes.


Wednesday 14th May – Berghain/Panorama Bar – Berlin, Germany
Tuesday 15th May – Nochtspeicher – Hamburg, Germany Friday 16th May – Cique Royal – Brussels, Belgium

Full details of all the dates across Europe and the USA can be found over a SongKick over HERE.





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