We’ve Got A File On You: Tune-Yards
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Merrill Garbus has always marched to the beat of her own loop pedal. Over the last decade, the 41-year-old singer-songwriter has made some of the most intriguing, eclectic, and thought-provoking music in the world of indie as Tune-Yards, crafting sounds that are at once dense and jagged, like spelunking in a cave where the walls are lined with knives. The music that she and partner Nate Brenner have made across four albums — including their latest, sketchy., which comes out tomorrow — has often sounded singular amidst the musical climate it’s been situated in.
But the drive behind Garbus’ abrasive cut-and-paste indie-pop has a clear artistic lineage too, and it just so happens that over the course of her career thus far she’s collaborated with a number of those like-minded creative spirits. From her work with indie-rap scion Boots Riley through scoring his provocative film debut Sorry To Bother You to working on projects with artists like K Records legend Mirah and the perpetually towering David Byrne, Garbus has cut a fascinating trail in and out of the Tune-Yards universe since hitting the scene with the project’s 2009 debut BiRd-BrAiNs.
Ahead of the album’s release, we had a delightful hour of conversation about her artistic journey — from her role in an internationally touring puppeteer company to crafting unrealized children’s TV show scores on iPads — as well as the striking and toothsome sounds on sketchy., which includes a statement-making centerpiece “silence” broken into two parts (subtitled “when we say ‘we'” and “who is ‘we’?”), the second of which features an actual minute of silence. Although most of sketchy. was conceived of pre-pandemic, “silence” was a “post-pandemic” choice that was also influenced by the massive protests following George Floyd’s murder.
“Our music is so dense, and our whole society just stopped [during the pandemic],” she explains. “Having this silence on the record might be the only remnant for me of stopping. At the beginning of the pandemic, so many of us were like, ‘There’s no planes in the air, no traffic. We have to deal with ourselves.’ There was also a lot of asking white people to slow down and feel the feelings of this violence. Even Bill Gates is saying we need to re-examine our systems. There’s very little in our culture that’s about slowing down, other than these tiny and pathetic bits of slowing down like ‘It’s okay not to be on your phone for a bit.’ What is it going to take to slow climate change, to heal racialized trauma? The silence is one way for me to resist the urgency of capitalist culture that’s part of the toxic way of how we live right now.”
Puppeteer At The Sandglass Theater (Early ’00s)
MERRILL GARBUS: Somehow, against my better judgment, I decided to major in theater in college. I say “against my better judgment” because I had no interest in going to New York and auditioning for plays, so it was a funny choice. I’d learned about Sandglass from a friend of mine who was studying with Eric Bass at Marlboro College. She told me about how their shows were created and conceived as an ensemble, instead of the more typical way of making theater. It was a revolutionary spirit that I was interested in, and I found out that they were looking for an intern who could help with the technical aspects of a show they were creating. I applied, I interviewed, and somehow instead of doing my intern duties I ended up sneaking on stage as a performer. I ran the sound and lighting from the stage too, and I started touring with them internationally.
Was that your first time touring while practicing an artistic discipline?
GARBUS: No. If we’re going really deep, my first time touring was with my college a cappella group, the Noteables. We took a van down to Virginia to the A Cappella Carnevella. [Laughs] For Sandglass, though, our first residency was somewhere in Alsace. Getting that per diem, packing up gear, going on a plane to travel from city to city — Sandglass was my first experience doing that.
What have you learned about yourself through touring?
GARBUS: It’s a good question, because any of the shows we’ve had planned over the past year or the coming year are obviously cancelled. We might be looking at some dates early next year, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because when I saw those dates my heart leapt for joy. [Laughs] Which I didn’t expect! Because I used to take touring for granted — which I won’t do ever again, says the human being with zero memory and who always takes everything for granted. I was trying to tease apart the situation, and I was like, “Well, we shouldn’t be touring. We shouldn’t be burning fossil fuels to perform music that are asking why we are burning fossil fuels.” I have a lot of questions about touring, and I was like, “Well, what’s the positive response my body has to touring?”
For me, it’s the idea of being a flâneur — a wanderer taking in the sensations of daily living. There’s something about touring that allows you to be in a liminal space. I’m not at home, I don’t have the mundane responsibilities of quotidian life. Oh my God, my vocabulary this morning. [Laughs] But you’re also not in someone else’s space. You’re just in between. It’s a time where you’re fed and taken care of and welcomed like royalty. You have a purpose every night. Nate mentioned to me the other night that what appeals to him about going on tour is having a purpose and knowing the schedule. My job is to take care of my body and show up at soundcheck. It’s the best of both worlds for someone like me. You can be in a dream world a lot of the time, but you also have a real sense of purpose when it comes to “What the fuck am I supposed to be doing right now? Who ever told me this is an actual job? What am I doing for the world?” It feels like you actually have direction.
Sister Suvi (2009)
GARBUS: That was really my first band. I started it with Patrick Gregoire, but originally we were called The LMNOP’s, and we started it with our friend Suvi. We all met at this camp Apple Farm in southern New Jersey in 2005, and the year before I’d just started writing songs on ukulele. Patrick was living in Montreal during the heyday of indie bands coming out of Canada, and he saw that people were making a living doing that. I was like, “I’m barely making a living as a puppeteer, and now I’m writing songs on the ukulele. There’s no way there’s money with this.” But we really hustled with the idea that we were trying to get popular, and to make music good enough that we could make a living doing it.
Don’t get me wrong — the music was of utmost importance, and it was my first experience playing with a band where I had transcendent experiences onstage. The experience of playing so much together felt like we were reading each others’ minds and bodies. There’s nothing like playing music with a band. It got me hooked. But at the same time, it was almost like doing a business degree. [Laughs] There were spreadsheets, and we didn’t have money, so we really had to make it last. “Is this gig going to make us enough so we can buy gas to get to the next gig?” It was real economics, and that was where I learned that $0.99 for a huge bag of corn chips might work for a few days, but I’d also feel like I was going to pass out onstage. I was weighing how to survive economically on music against an unsustainable and horrible lifestyle. I was like, “We need to get our shit together, fast.”
Tell me about the formation of Tune-Yards.
GARBUS: I needed something to create stuff that there wasn’t space for in Sister Suvi. That was no fault of the band, but Sister Suvi was a collaborative project, and we all wrote songs. It wasn’t concentrated Merrill. [Laughs] I needed to know what concentrated Merrill was. Patrick was on tour with Islands, and while he was doing that I had to keep making music. I’d started recording myself in 2005 or 2006 — I had an 8-track Tascam machine, and I bought a voice recorder and learned how to multi-track.
I was working on these recordings that sounded simultaneously shitty and correct to my ears, and I realized that I should be a solo performer, too. So I’d do open-mics with just me and a ukulele, and another friend said to me, “Hey, here’s a delay pedal that works as a looping pedal. You might have fun with it.” I was working these things out and combining it with my theater and performance art skills, and the shows eventually felt like me. That’s what became Tune-Yards. I wrote a song that had a line that said, “We’ll fly over tune yards in our dreams,” and I realized, “Yeah, that’s the place I want to be in this project.”
Citay – “Mirror Kisses” (2010)
GARBUS: Ah, Ezra Feinberg. This reminds me that he texted me and I owe him a text back. I was hustling — like, calling up venues and writing emails to random bands to drum up Tune-Yards shows in my Northeast corridor of the US. I really wanted to play in Portland, and I noticed Citay was playing, and I basically forced my way onto the bill. [Laughs] I mean, I asked if I could open. So I opened that show, and there were probably six people in the audience. It was at Space Gallery. Citay were just trying to have anyone remotely local get an audience there, and I couldn’t do that. [Laughs] No one knew who I was either.
But I had my looping pedals, and I played “Powa,” and maybe the audience was composed of the members of Citay and two or three other people, but I remember being like, “Yeah, I’m fucking killing it.” I recall those feelings of the early days of Tune-Yards where no one knew the songs, but the audience would be like, “Ah! What is this? Why have I never heard of it?” Those are really special moments. Ezra and I stayed in touch, and eventually he was like, “Are you on a label?” I said, “I don’t have anything.” He introduced me to his lawyer, who became my lawyer and shopped my record around, and the rest is history.
Afuche – “Danice Marino” (2011)
GARBUS: Patrick was just bringing this up the other day on the phone. When you’re a band that nobody knows about, one mode of survival is other bands you respect also respecting your music. On that level, it’s a bunch of bands no one’s ever heard of before, but you’re digging and supporting each other while putting on shows. Ruben De La Costa had this band Afuche, and I don’t even remember how we got introduced, but he was our Brooklyn guy. He probably still is our Brooklyn guy. [Laughs] They had a van, and they had enough support to actually put on a show and have people come. Ruben is a musician forever — the Frank Zappa of my world. He’s a performer after my own heart.
Both of these collaborations might just seem like one-offs, but they actually represent deep familial love between bands. We knew that when you’re on these tours and you’re basically playing for nothing and living on corn chips, it means the world to be welcomed into someone’s apartment in Brooklyn, especially when they have three records they want to play you and they know the best taco truck. Afuche were the family band for us.
w h o k i l l (2011)
This was your breakthrough record and it got a lot of attention. What was that experience like?
GARBUS: I’m tired just thinking about it. I’m like, “No wonder my fucking knees hurt right now!” [Laughs] It was super scary and wonderful. I feel like I went through a lot in those years. As soon as we signed to 4AD — a little before that, too — it was a lot of live performing. I just wanted to put myself in front of people. We got a tour opening for Dirty Projectors in Europe, and that’s when I decided that if I was gonna play clubs I needed a bass player to be with me. Nate and I had started seeing each other, so I asked him if he’d come out on the road with me.
Some of these songs I’d started writing around 2006 or 2007, so I was already building another record apart from BiRd-BrAiNs. We were playing “Gangsta,” we were playing “Bizness.” I had songs that had never made it on a record but were based on the live shows. Audiences would look at me and be like, “Oh, another chick with a ukulele,” and I’d be like, “Fuck you. I’m going to fucking rip your face off.” I was trying to write and perform songs on the road that would say, “I shall not be ignored,” and that became w h o k i l l.
My problem was that BiRd-BrAiNs came out of 30 years of living, whereas w h o k i l l was, “Oh my God, I have to make a record, I’m going to go to a real studio.” I really felt alone in a lot of it, so I learned a lot during that time, but once w h o k i l l was finished, I’d learned what I wanted from my own music and how to maintain my agency over how it sounded.
Performing “Gangsta” On Fallon (2011)
GARBUS: I can remember being very out of my body. It was extremely scary — and by “scary,” I mean the most thrilling experience I’d had in my life up to that point. I was very grateful that a friend of mine, who is an unofficial stylist, helped me dress myself — because there were one too many things to think about. Playing in front of Questlove? Even saying that out loud now feels completely absurd. And it happened twice because we did “Water Fountain” on there too! So crazy. Normally, the bands don’t play with house bands, but the Roots were super generous in learning some of the music of the bands that came on the show, so I asked Black Thought if he’d do a verse over the bridge of “Gangsta,” which there’s no meter to. I was basically asking a rapper that I did not know to rap over no time signature. [Laughs]
It was a dream and it was also really interesting to be like, “This is the reality of being a pro musician and knowing how to communicate.” Especially as a woman bandleader. These were musicians that changed my life — Things Fall Apart is one of the handful of albums I know back-to-front. So to keep that respect and also have respect for my own music and be clear about what I need from this band that I really respect … it was a huge learning experience. Our sax players were so pissed that they had to wear these shirts that had pom-poms on them. [Laughs] That was the styling!
Theme Song For Lily The Unicorn (2015)
GARBUS: Lily The Unicorn never even made it to fucking TV! Have you heard the song?
Nope, couldn’t track down anything about it beyond the fact that it exists.
GARBUS: [Laughs] We were on tour in Europe, so I was trying to demo for what would’ve been my first scoring gig. I met with the people who were in charge of doing the pilot, and the author of the original children’s book. It seemed like a super fun project, and it was also the first time someone was asking me to compose something with guidelines. It was supposed to be fun and upbeat, but not too kid-like. We were catering to more sophisticated elements of a child’s understanding.
It was supposed to be a badass kids’ song. I didn’t have kids, I still don’t have kids, and my version of children’s art tends to be on the twisted side of things, so I remember that my favorite versions were dissonant and minor-key, and the people in charge very gently nudged me towards [sings brightly] “Lily the unicorn — LET’S GO!” [Laughs] I was very disappointed when the show didn’t get picked up, and also a little relieved. At that point, all I had with me was an iPad, so I was demoing on GarageBand and singing on planes. I wasn’t entirely ready to do an entire score on the road.
Producing Thao & Mirah (2011)
You’ve produced a few artists’ albums besides this one — you also produced a albums from Thao And The Get Down Stay Down and Sonny And The Sunsets. Tell me about your production approach.
GARBUS: The way I produce records comes a lot from my experiences in studios — which were often negative, where I wasn’t listened to. The Thao & Mirah record was a great opportunity because we all co-produced it, so they were generous with me. The great thing about co-production is that we’re all operating with the understanding that we’re all empowered. No one person has more power over another. Also, frankly, if it fails, it isn’t my fault. [Laughs] That was the first label-funded “You get a cut of the royalties” gig that I had, and it was also great because we were working at Tiny Telephone, which was full of John Vanderslice’s energy. RIP Tiny Telephone. We were working with Eli Cruz who’d worked on w h o k i l l, which I was very comfortable with. In any production scenario, I just try to facilitate the artist’s vision. They have to be happy, and to feel like they were heard.
I feel like I’m well-suited for the type of production work where the artist wants to be involved. I want it to be good — I have that kind of ego in the game — but I also feel like I’m increasingly able to produce something that doesn’t sound like a Tune-Yards record, but like what the artist wants. I really liked making the Sonny record for that reason. He knew I could bring what he needed for that record, but it still sounds like him, and I was there to facilitate and offer tools. A lot of the time, it’s just fucking encouragement. “No, you’re not crazy, that sounds awesome,” or, “That sounds like shit, and it’s exactly the sound we want.”
Contemporary Color (2016)
GARBUS: I mean, that was totally awesome. I received an email from David Byrne, and when you receive an email from David Byrne, you respond, “Fuck yes, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” It was an assignment with specific guidelines, and it’s interesting to think about it now because it helped me open my mind up for film scoring and serving a purpose for someone else’s needs, while at the same time bringing my own creative vision.
It was around the time I was also doing work with Roomful Of Teeth, so I was really interested in working my way out of this imposter syndrome. There had been a particularly cruel Chuck Klosterman review in some magazine after w h o k i l l came out. I didn’t read it, but I got the gist of it from people around me. “This hipster shit may be popular now, but let’s see where she is in a decade and I’m literally betting against her.” Not to say that Chuck Klosterman guided the trajectory of my life, but I wanted to prove to myself that I had skills and could grow. Like many women and people who are not white men, sometimes we don’t have the pedigree that says, “We’re officially composers or music producers.” I felt like I really wanted to hear my music not just in a DIY world, and I wanted to prove that my musical vision could be really broad and huge. And Contemporary Color was really fucking huge, so I was able to make music on a grand scale while still being myself. It was a really special challenge.
Sorry To Bother You Score (2018)
GARBUS: The entire process of working with Boots was so vigorous and rigorous — intense and joyfully creative. It’s very rare that people really mean it when they say, “Do what excites you.” People say that a lot, but they actually mean, “Only within my guidelines of whether it feels like I’m in control.” Boots recognizes art and creativity and really respects it. He’s an exceptional person, and truly an artist in that way where his vision is light years ahead and he’s trying to bring us all with him. The offer was so genuine from him that he really respected what tUnE-yArDs is and the process of Nate and I working together.
I felt real responsibility as white people making music for a very Oakland film. What’s our responsibilities and accountability when it comes to making art while still respecting the ground that we stand on? It felt really great to make art in service of Boots’ art — to feel lifted up by him while also wanting to lift him up, and make music that took risks while putting ourselves all the way out there. And we did! There’s thousands of hours of our work within that film, and we’re really proud of it.
sketchy. is out 3/26 via 4AD. Pre-order it here.