tUnE-YarDs' Merrill Garbus is the type of artist whose music somehow manages to retain its edge of inscrutability while being as instantly accessible as anything on pop radio. In other words, she's a straight-up, old-school rock star.
Owing largely to the years she spent studying music in Kenya, Garbus imports only the most prickly and idiosyncratic aspects of East African music -- arrhythmic shouts and angular ukelele strumming that mimics African thumb pianos -- employing them in a way that could just as easily be read as a Dirty Projectors-esque nod to the mid-20th Century classical avant-garde as her own easygoing, globe-trotting inclusion.
What's made tUne-YarDs successful on a grand scale, and turned the band's sophomore album, W H O K I L L, into a bona fide smash, is Garbus' knack for making music, no matter how disjointed and weird it seems on the surface, that's always a ridiculous amount booty-shaking fun. Live, it's even more striking. In performance, Garbus creates twisting symphonies of vocal lines and drum rhythms, using looping pedals to multiply her powerful yelps into a force of beautifully creative destruction.
We caught up with the recent Oakland transplant, who is playing San Francisco's Regency Ballroom on Wednesday evening, to find out how her newfound hometown shapes her music.
Your set at Outside Lands was amazing. What was it like playing for that many people at Golden Gate Park? It was really incredible. That sounds so lame! But that's exactly what it was--to play in my new home (well, home-ish, as we live across the Bay) and have a hillside full of excited people come out in the afternoon to see us. Glorious. Festivals can be really hard for us, mostly because of sound issues with the loops, but this one was one of the best in my memory.
Where in Oakland do you live and how long have you lived there? Cleveland Heights? China Hill? There seem to be different names for it. Between Park Blvd. and the freeway and Lake Merritt, in a hilly residential, family kind of neighborhood. I lucked upon the apartment and am so happy there.
You're a New England native, so how did you end up in Oakland? I moved to be closer to my boyfriend. That's the simplest answer. After visiting him a bunch in Oakland, I felt that California would fit the next phase of my life really well. I am a total stress-case and tend towards moody depression, so the sun and the relaxed vibe and the outdoors really help me.
Are there any artists in Oakland's musical history that you find particularly inspiring? Sly and the Family Stone, clearly. Some of my favorite songs in the universe are Sly songs, songs I want to hear over and over again for the rest of my life. But the list goes on! Del, En Vogue, MC Hammer, Tony! Toni! Tone! I had an obsession with Hieroglyphics in the early 2000s. But don't forget that the most exciting stuff is happening right now in Oakland: Ava Mendoza, Beep!, Mwahaha, Arts and Sciences, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I know nothing about.
What's your favorite place in Oakland? Probably one of the scenic look-outs on the trails at Redwood Regional Park.
What's your favorite meal to eat in Oakland? We eat all the time at our favorite Thai place on Grand Ave, Neecha Thai. Green curry with brown rice.
Oakland has become a center of the Occupy movement. Why do you think things reached a fever pitch so quickly there? That's a great question, and one I am probably not very qualified to answer, since I'm a very recent resident. But from a sort-of-outsider's perspective, I think Oakland has a deep history of activism. It also tends not to flinch when it comes to violence and radical protest. And as opposed to places in the Bay that have more affluence and a pristine reputation that they're trying to protect, there can be a "we've got nothing to lose" mentality in the Oakland.
What's the most underrated Bay Area music venue to play or see music? Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut. And Mama Buzz, that was basically where the first tUnE-YarDs show was in Oakland.
Your songs seem to operate within their own particular internal logic, making it difficult for people to find the seams in them. It's often hard to discern precisely how they were written (a song based around a vocal melody vs. one based around instrumental hook). How do you usually compose songs? Are they different fragments assembled together or do they begin as grooves? Does it vary a lot from song to song? I appreciate that it's hard to recognize the source of the song--I think that's something I aim for, because I'd like for them not to be songs as much as quilts or collages or something. They all start differently, sometimes with the looping pedal and drums, or with ukulele, or with something I find myself chanting over and over again.
What's one song you wish you had written? I don't know...I don't think any, I wouldn't have any business writing somebody else's song. I think even the most poppy pop songs come from someone's very personal experience (at least the good ones do.)
For people who have never seen a tUnE-YarDs show before, can you describe what people can expect live? Did that live setup come out necessity, or was it a specific decision to present audiences with something they haven't seen before? I create loops live on stage, vocal and drum loops, and I play and sing over them. Nate Brenner adds electric bass and percussion and Matt Nelson and Noah Bernstein-Hanley are the saxophone section and they also bang on metal things. We scream. Looping was sort of a necessity at first, when tUnE-YarDs was a solo project, but now I think I keep using it because it allows the music to be organically created in front of people's eyes and ears, like magic. It's a magic show!
Check out these clips of some of tUnE-YarDs' past performances: