If there was ever an all-American success story it would be TuNe-YaRdS. Going from self-financed tours where she played in basements to releasing a ferocious album recorded on nothing more than a digital recorder and mixed using free-software, everything about Merril Garbus’s rise through the ranks of indie notoriety seems taken from a Horatio Alger story. I sat down with Merril before her show opening for Sunset Rubdown, we chatted about recording, music happening in basements across America and the Wu-Tang clan. Her album BiRd-BrAiNs is out on Marriage/4AD records.
Inyourspeakers: Birds-Brains is fantastic, it was the first album I reviewed for Inyourspeakers, so I jumped at a chance to talk to you about it. First, it seems like all everyone can talk about is the recording process. You recorded the whole album using a Sony Digital Recorder, really simple looping equipment, mixed using shareware. The cool thing about the album is that it sounds really live and intimate. What was the decision to go with that no-fi aesthetic was it out of necessity or was it something you wanted to do?
Merril Garbus: It was both. First out of necessity I started experimenting with that recorder because I was recording demos of recordings with it, but then I could layer tracks with it and it sounded dope. As soon as I started to do that I was like, “oooh yeah.” I realized I had never heard anything like that before and I was like, “this is sooo rad and messed up.” It was a little bit out of necessity but also out of safety too, I knew it sounded cool to my ears but it was clearly lo-fi or no-fi so I knew I was working in a limited medium that would not be judged against a lot of studio albums. It was my own thing; no one can touch this because it is my own thing.
IYS: When I listened to it I began thinking of this literary and mathematic movement called “Oullipo”. For example a writer will write an entire book without using the letter E or will write a poem using all ascending syllables. The idea is that you are using set limitations to try to find more creative ways of expressing yourself without having limitless possibilities. Do you feel like an idea like that helped contribute to Bird Brains?
Merril: Definitely. I have a background in theater and have a lot of experience in both musical and performance improvisation. You have to set really clear limitations for yourself and with that it is incredible what can happen. For example, like in jazz you have the chord changes you are working with and on top of that you have all the freedom in the world, but it is that limitation that allows you that creative form. I love limitations.
IYS: So that begs the question how much of Bird-Brains was improvised?
Merril: A lot of it. Not the song forms, I always start with a song. I always started with a Ukulele part, lyrics, and a song structure. Everything other than that - total improvisation. In terms of on the spot arrangement, I was like “ok, what do I have in my room?” I have a keyboard from 1994, I have an amp and all of it needs to go through this hand held recorder. There are my limitations…go for it.
IYS: I actually heard Sister Suvi before I heard Bird-Brains, it was so good and it wasn’t until after the fact that I learned you were in it and I learned there were members of the Islands. How did that come about?
Merril: So tonight I am playing with Patrick. I met Patrick at an arts camp in the summer where we were teaching kids different things (I met Nate there as well). Patrick and I started playing music together at the end of that summer, but he is from Montreal. I had just quit my puppeteer job and was kind of at loose ends; I was living at my parents house and what was a great thing to keep me out of my parents house was to go up to Montreal and play shows with him. So, we started writing songs together, the two of us started Sister Suvi that way. The two of us really started finding a lot of commonalities between what he was doing on classical guitar and what I was doing on Ukulele and the rest was that. I am sort of in transition mode now I have been living in New England/Montreal for the past couple of years and now Sister Suvi is going to take a long break, I am going to move to CA and focus on Tune-Yards for awhile.
IYS: So you are playing with a band more or less? How does that set up work?
Merril: Band is maybe a strong word. No it’s not. They are my band. Patrick is on guitar playing this leg of the tour and bass on one song. Nate and I have been playing together most of this tour with me doing percussion loops, ukulele and vocals and he plays bass. So that has been the set up. He plays drums on a few songs. They are both really musical flexible so it is great. When I was in Montreal playing Pop Montreal I was playing with nine other musicians and I find that the Tune-Yards tunes are very flexible in what they can incorporate. It felt good with a lot of people it just depended on how many people I could afford to have with me.
IYS: I’m trying to imagine a Tune-Yards song with that much accompaniment. One thing I loved about the album is the percussion. What did you use?
Merril: I wish I could unite by one thing. I took samples from a couple summers long and then I would take samples on the spot. I was like “you know what I need a slapping sound” and then, “oh there is a pile of wood boards back there”. I would take a sample of that. In my head I hear what I needed and then other times I would go for a walk. For example, one song “Jamaican,” there are chainsaws in the background. For me everything became a potential drum, a potential beat, which was a really cool way of looking at things; to listen to every single sound around you. In that way a lot of people ask me if I will start to do stuff that is more hi-fi to which I answer, “Yes, probably” because I want to explore as much as I can sonically, but I want to maintain that aspect of being able to capture sound from everywhere.
IYS: You actually answered my next question which was if being signed to 4AD, and being given a budget would factor into your sound. But that kind of assuaged my fears that Tune Yards as I know it wouldn’t change.
Merril: Haha. Yeah, you know we were driving today and drove a lot of it through Wyoming and it is pretty flat and beautiful and it gives you time to think. I was thinking a lot about everything that has changed in the past year. I mean, I was here a year ago in a tiny Volkswagen with my friends the Disposable Thumbs, booking our own tours, barely eating. We were fine, but you know crashing with friends on their floors and roughing it. I am not making a lot more money right now but it is a different world. I think a lot of this year is trying to get my feet on the ground and trying to figure out what do I want. Because there are a lot of things I know I don’t want from my rock and roll career like drugs and alcohol, addictions and sleeplessness. The one thing though is I want to maintain what I want in the music and not be too swayed by the opinions of other people who are in the business of it.
IYS: Yeah, it seems like Bird-Brains definitely took off on its own merit, just by word of mouth. Could you tell me about some of the more interesting venues you played at?
Merril: There are so many amazing things happening in this country. Sometimes I feel sorry for bands that didn’t get that, bands that go right from not touring to playing at clubs and having a booking agent. The best one on that tour was a basement in Bloomington Illinois. I booked it through friends of friends, I didn’t know what was going to happen…On the way there I started to go a little crazy being alone on the road and I wrote a song in my head and played it as the first song. It was a basement at a party and kids packed in there and I played that new song that I had never even heard my self play out loud, and the sound system sounded amazing.
IYS: That is really awesome that you had that experience. I feel the same way living in Salt Lake City that isn’t on the map musically but I bet right now there is an amazing house show going on with some original musicians…
Merril: Totally, it is really important for me to stay connected to that because that is the only reason why I am here doing this right now. People telling each other, me being on the road meeting people and them seeing me and telling me, “come back and we will put on a house show” and that house show turns into a coffee shop and then they get on the mailing list. And it really happens that way.
IYS: There is an obvious hip-hop influence on your cadence in songs like Jumping Jack. I was wondering, is Hip Hop a big influence on you, and if it is who inspired you?
Merril: That is a good question. I wish I was more up on contemporary hip hop because for me in high school and college hip hop was the music that blew my mind and when you are a teenager what else do you want than your mind to be blown or possibilities opening up that you didn’t think were there being a kid from the suburbs. And that was everything that was politically, socially and musically like that. I still think WU-Tang clan is awesome.
IYS: Yeah, I mean they were probably awesome to you in High-School and now they are still relevant.
Merril: They scared me in High School. I listened to A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, the Black Star album, the Roots - a lot of aware hip hop, not so much gangsta rap. In high school Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were really big at the time. I’m 30 now, so in the late nineties the west coast stuff was just hitting the white kids at that point. To me the music that makes your hips move is the most important. When I come back to what really moves me, it is literally what moves me and that is what I will always come back to.