tUnE-yArDs - Merrill Garbus on Puppetry, Her Sheltered Suburban Childhood, and Visiting Haiti

All in a Day’s Work

Aug 19, 2014 Issue #50 - June/July 2014 - Future Islands
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Tracking down tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus for an interview is difficult, not because she doesn't like to talk about her music or thinks she shouldn't have to bother chatting with journalists. No, Garbus is hard to get on the phone simply because she treats her music like any other job, working standard 9-to-5 days to rehearse and make music, and there just isn't much time left over. That's the situation when I call her at 9:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning to discuss her new album, Nikki Nack, and she admits that the all-consuming business of translating her new songs for her live show would go much more smoothly if she didn't have to worry about promoting those songs, as well. But she has accepted that this is part of the job, too, something she mentions as she explores the role that class struggle plays in her songwriting, the benefits of approaching your music as a job, and the paradoxical notion that you have to get more serious about your craft in order to relinquish control over it. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Garbus, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on tUnE-yArDs.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So when you're working on the record, was it difficult to determine when it was finished as a whole?

Merrill Garbus: Yes. It's funny, you're not the first to ask that question, and I'm like, "Maybe it sounds like we aren't done with the album!" Yeah, it feels like it could have gone a number of ways. I will say that I chose to drop a song that used to start the album, so I do trust that I know what's right in the end. Certain things are just like, "Nope, that feels bad. That doesn't feel right at all." And I will also say that I made really minute changes to transitions between songs, like, "Actually, no, the five-second gap between these two songs won't do. It actually needs to come in right away, and it needs to be two seconds." Very, very small decisions like that. It makes me think that I did know what would finally make a song done. But for a lot of the songs, it's just kind of a feeling of there's no more that really bothers me. If something doesn't grate on me and something feels like, "Okay, I can get with this," then I'm cool. But it's surprising how long it takes for me to get there. The other part of it is that you're racing against your own exhaustion of listening to these songs over and over and over again. At a certain point, I don't hear it anymore; I can't hear it anymore. I think deadlines are really helpful. I thought it would be done in the fall and it wasn't done until January. So I had the sense of the fire under my butt, but, also, I need this to be done. I need this to be done soon rather than "This isn't going to be ready for the rest of my life because I'm always going to find some kind of fault with it."

If you listened to the album now, would there be parts of it that bothered you?

No. We were listening to it a lot, because we were often playing to it in the studio to get the tempo and to get these little parts that we might have missed. So, no, with this album, it's cool. It's called Nikki Nack, and that is a character in one of the songs. There's something that I like about calling it after a character, because it did kind of feel like, "Well, I guess she's done now. This is a way to get to know her a little bit better." I don't have kids, but maybe when you have kids you give birth to this thing. It has been cooking in the oven for a long time and you are like, "Oh yeah, I'm making a baby." And then when it comes out, you're like, "Oh shit. What is this thing?" Now it has its own look, its own face, its own personality. It's not a neutral creation; it starts to have a life of its own pretty much immediately. So, no, I'm not sick of it; I'm kind of curious about it. And maybe something I got to have this time around was a little bit of distance. It's not me, it doesn't have to represent me, and it doesn't have to be the be-all and end-all of what I'm trying to say creatively. It just has to be what it is right now, a record of this particular time in the life of tUnE-yArDs.

Is Nikki Nack a specific person?

She kind of came out in the song "Left Behind," and who knows where that lyric came from? Somewhere in the recesses of my brain it made sense. But, of course, I love wordplay and just the sound of words, so it's a fun pair of words to say. But, no, her character in that song is kind of mysterious anyway. I don't even understand those characters. Who is talking at any one time, and what are they talking about, and where did they live? The person who talks about Nikki Nack in that song doesn't seem to like Nikki Nack very much. But maybe I do. I think something I learned working in puppetry was this weird sense that you don't have control. You're not supposed to control the puppet. You're supposed to allow the puppet to breathe and live and follow it, actually. When I finally got that concept it was pretty amazing. It was pretty freeing to let the art come and do what it wants to do and get out of the way. Certain people hear that concept and they're like, "Yeah, right. Your muscles are working the puppet. What are you talking about?" But, really, that's the feeling that I eventually got with puppets—that the puppet's weight will hang in a certain way, and you try let it move the way it wants to move and breathe the way it wants to breathe. So I feel about songs the same way, this idea that, "All right, I knew exactly what I was doing, and I knew exactly how it was going to turn out from the very beginning"—I don't know any musicians who talk that way.

In what way do you think traveling to Haiti played in creating the spirit of this album?

I guess in a way that any travel kind of re-orients your perspective. People have been asking me about the influence, but I do think that it was actually more the study of the drums before and after. The drums in the songs and the dance and all that—that showed up on the record. And the actual trip just felt like a reward that I got to have for myself. It was such a wonderful time and a wonderful group of people that I went with. I was very well taken care of by my teacher who led the trip, and, yes, it was a very perspective-shifting, spiritual thing to take a trip to that particular country with its deep history. But, again, I think about these different perspectives all the time, including here in Oakland, where there's so many different groups of people represented that I can't help but kind of feel like, "How does that guy see this town?" and "How do people orient themselves within their own city, within their own community, within their own neighborhoods?" I think I'm constantly thinking of that. But I wouldn't pin that right on Haiti. I would say that's kind of all-around in my life.

Since you aren't originally from Oakland, do you feel pretty integrated into the community or is that still a process?

I don't know. I have my friends. I think it's a great area, and I fit in as the chick who wears brightly colored pants and Vans walking down the street. I dare not call myself a hipster, but I certainly dress like one. The truth is that I work all the time, so even when I'm here it's hard to feel a part of a community. I think it's the way that I felt in Montréal, when I was just starting and we all were supporting each other's musical projects. And here, I wish I could go out more, but I'm 35 and I'm tired. I work all day, and I generally like to come home at night. In my older age, there's a lot of self-care stuff that has to happen for me to be okay, for me to be healthy. In other words, being tUnE-yArDs is a new situation, and it means that I don't have the same amount of time that I used to for being part of my community, particularly in the musician community. And, that being said, I did connect with the Haitians' dance and drum community here, and that's been a wonderfully fulfilling thing in my life. We have a new studio in downtown Oakland where there is a new community of new musicians and artists and galleries and a whole bunch of wonderful people doing wonderful things that we have pretty quickly grown a part of, so I shouldn't be too hard on myself. I do think that particularly in a big city, it can be hard to identify what my community is apart from the wonderful friends that I have here.

I hear a lot of class struggle in these songs, and I imagine that's at least partly influenced by your environment.

Yeah, but also it's a perspective I've always had. Since I was pretty young, my grandparents were always in the Bronx when I was growing up, and that's where my dad grew up and we lived there for a while. But then pretty early in my childhood we moved to suburban Connecticut. Visiting the Bronx in the early '80s, that was a pretty gritty place then. I think I always had an awareness as a kid, in a really wonderful way, that the sheltered suburban world that I mostly lived in was not the whole world. And then I have my aunt and uncle traveling to Kenya when I was about 10, and this idea of an entire other continent which is so full of differences from my continent. So I think that's always interested me and that's propelled my studies—studies of different languages, doing a lot of African studies and studying Swahili in college, always wanting to know these other perspectives and kind of wanting to give voice to people who don't have voices. I think that was always a passion of mine and a question of mine—could I be part of that? Could I do that?

I also know that you would set aside certain weeks to just focus on drum machines or vocals. It sounds like a very disciplined approach.

Yeah, well I was trying to trick myself into writing different kinds of songs, so I kind of set these parameters for songwriting. And the first parameter was you have to come up with two ideas a day. And the first week, use drums machines first and the second week, you may not use drum machines. It was all a construct to break habits. That was what I was frustrated with when I came home [from Haiti], was just like, "I'm tired of the kind of songs I've been writing. How can I do this differently?"

I also know that you read a book on songwriting [Molly-Ann Leikin's How to Write a Hit Song], and that seems like something that so many musicians would avoid doing, simply because they'd be afraid that it would stifle their creativity.

It really helped. If anything, it helped to kind of frame this as a job. And I think that particular book, bless her heart, I forget what song she's written, but I think she said that she had written some hit song. But she really emphasized that this is a job and that the way that you make this work is by putting the time in. I think that this was the first time that I really gave myself the permission to say "Yes, if I want this to be my living—which I do—then let's take some time to figure out what this really is as a craft."

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital/tablet/smartphone version of Under the Radar's June/July issue (Issue 50).]

 



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