PROGRESS REPORT: Quirky Canadian ex-pat Merrill Garbus set to release w h o k i l l, her sonically expansive sophomore LP.
Merrill Garbus is really fun to talk to, which somehow doesn’t surprise me. Before calling her up to discuss her new record, I had already come to suspect that any person capable of concocting the loopy, cut-and-paste glitch pop on 2009’s BTW-earning BiRd-BrAiNs would have to be some kind of crazy genius. Or at least someone with a really good sense of humor. Originally a cassette-only release, the record was recorded entirely using a small digital voice recorder and then pieced together using a simple shareware program. On most of the record’s eleven tracks, Garbus is accompanied only by a ukulele and her own multi-tracked voice. The record was an experiment that, in the wrong hands, might have yielded simply weird or completely annoying results. Instead BiRd-BrAiNs proved to be the little record that could — eventually snagging Garbus opening spots for bands like Dirty Projectors and ultimately landing her a record deal with 4AD. These days Garbus spends her time in California, and it’s the place where she recently completed work on her highly anticipated sophomore album, the cryptically-titled w h o k i l l.
“The past two years have been totally insane and life-changing,” says Garbus, “It’s hard to separate all the changes in my personal life from my private life, but basically two years ago I was living in Montreal and playing in a different band. I was eating popcorn for dinner and dumpster diving for things. I was happy, don’t get me wrong, but it was a very different life. Then I fell in love, moved to California, got a record deal, and started touring the world. The scenery is very different now.”
Different too are the circumstances surrounding the making of Garbus’ new album. While the first tUnE-yArDs record was, in many ways, a product of creative problem solving (“I only started using the looping pedal because I literally needed something I could do by myself — I needed a way to create rhythm, melody, and harmony without any other people helping me. I recorded using the equipment that was available to me.”), the chance to work in an actual studio with the aid of engineers and fancy gear presented an entirely different set of problems. For a project originally based on lo-fi recording and a very specific and solitary way of working, how do you not ruin things by getting all fancy?
“Had we not had the opportunity to tour so much for the first record, this album would sound entirely different,” explains Garbus. “The first album was really the product of me in my bedroom with a ukulele, while much of this record came out of experimentation with the looping pedal and the dynamicism — is that a word? — the “dynamic” of our live show. This record is much more rhythmically oriented, more so than the first one. I also often write songs just based on words or sounds that get stuck in my head. When I first moved to California I’d sometimes get this feeling like, Ugh—there is sooo much going on, so much palpable tension. Too much! I think I spent a lot of time trying to digest that tension, which is what a lot of these songs are about. For the first record every single sound was filtered through this tiny device and then fine-tuned by me, but for this record it was different. I had to finally be willing to let go a little bit. I couldn’t control everything in the same way.”
According the Garbus, the bulk of w h o k i l l was written and rehearsed before she entered the studio with longtime bass player Nate Brenner, but the additional engineering work of Eli Crews added an extra dimension to the new songs. “I would ask for a specific sound and then he would produce that sound,” says Garbus, “so he really became like another instrument in his role. He had all these modular synths that we’d use to process the drums and process my voice, which sounded really great. He came up with things I’d never think of doing on my own. He helped provide this palette of sounds that I’d never had access to before, so having him involved was a really big thing for me.”
Though exploring the possibilities of a high-end studio and bringing in a few extra musicians was something Garbus was willing to explore, bringing in an outside producer was not. She was adamant about producing the record on her own.
“To be honest, sometimes when I see a female artist who has a dude produce her album, I start thinking stuff,” she continues, “I hate that I think that way, but that’s one of the reasons that it’s been so important to me ever since I started tUnE-yArDs that people know how much of a working role I have in the music I make. I know it isn’t fair to make assumptions about artists in that way — to assume that people have all these folks behind the scenes doing everything for them — but I know that people do sometimes operate that way and I don’t want anyone to make those assumptions about me. It’s so absurd, but when you tour in a rock band and you are out on the road, you start to realize how few women are working in this industry. There just aren’t that many of us out there. I want to represent accordingly, you know?”
Those worried that the almost alien, lo-fi quality of tUnE-yArDs’ early recordings will be lost in a big studio setting can rest easy. W h o k i l l, while undoubtedly a much slicker affair, still vibrates with the same kind of freewheeling improvisational quality that has made Garbus such a riveting live performer. That you can really hear how powerful her voice is now — complete with all the looping coos and yips and thunderous belting — is one of the new albums many victories. The album showcases not only what an amazingly unique songwriter Garbus is (her songs are so unusual and distinct that it would be nearly impossible to confuse her music with anyone else), but also what a powerful singing voice she has, which is something that often got obscured by all the audio fuzz on BiRd-BrAiNs.
“I think that I did a good job of keeping that tUnE-yArDs element intact,” says Garbus, “I wanted to make sure that there was still this patchwork quality to the songs and it didn’t just sound like it was coming from the vacuum of a studio. It still sounds like me … whatever that happens to be. There is a song called “Bizness” on the record that’s a pretty good example of how things with this record went. We planned on just going into the studio and tracking it, then I was going to take it away and mix it on my own. I basically taught myself three different software programs in the process of figuring out how to mix it. Finally I was mixing it in Pro-Tools and just thinking, “This sucks.” I couldn’t get it to sound the way I was hearing it in my head and it was a very humbling experience for me to realize that I couldn’t always do it by myself. Sometimes you need the help of others to realize your vision. It was another one of those damned ‘adult lessons’ that the past couple of years have been full of. ”
“I don’t have regrets about this album at all,” she continues, “I’m really happy with what we did. But this is just one way to make an album, you know? I was really happy to be able to pay people and work with my friends and include horn players and stuff like that. But I’m not saying that this is the only way, or that I’m gonna continue to work this way forever. You know, next time I might want to make a trip-hop album in my basement by myself. I like that. I like to set that precedent for myself that I can do whatever I want and people can like it or not like it. I like it.”
tUnE-yArDs’ forthcoming LP w h o k i l l is out April 19th on 4AD.