ANDREW R TONRY: SO REALLY WHAT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IS HOW TUNE-YARDS CAME TO BE. WHERE IT ALL STARTED. AND ALSO WHAT RELATION YOU HAVE WITH PORTLAND.
Merrill Garbus: There's a big rumor going around that I've lived in Portland. But I actually haven't—ever. I hooked up with the Marriage Records guys when I was on tour in 2008. They heard the album, and I guess were listening to it while they were working with the Dirty Projectors.
ALRIGHT, WELL I'M ALL FOR STOMPING OUR RUMORS. NOW, SO WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I grew up in Connecticut. I went to Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts. I moved to Vermont to do puppets. I'm really an east-coaster.
PUPPETS? WHAT KIND OF PUPPETS?
(Giggles) Mostly it was, I guess they're close to bunraku puppets, which are Japanese puppets that are very life-like looking. They're the size of a large-doll, and meant to really look as a human. The movements are meant to really fool you. No strings or anything. It's all hands on, but very detailed.
I graduated college in 2001. This is 2001 to 2005.
WERE YOU PLAYING MUSIC AT THAT TIME?
I think I was always singing, somewhat. I sang all through college. I was singing in a friend's choice when I was in Vermont. I play the fiddle. There's always been music around.
WAS PUPPETTEERING A FULL DEMAND OF YOUR CREATIVE TIME THEN?
I never anticipated being a musician at all. I decided to write a puppet opera. In doing so I got a soprano ukelele and was writing on that.
At a certain point I was really frustrated with theater. In general, theater audiences are just slimmer. There aren't as many people seeing that art form any more. I didn't feel like I had access to audiences at all. I got really frustrated. In doing that, I said 'I like the songwriting part better anyway.' The puppets are one thing, but what if I keep playing these little creepy songs I'm writing?
After I quit the puppet theater I went to work at this camp and there I met my friend Patrick. He said, 'you know, your songs are really good. We could probably make a living this way.' I was like, (self-loathing funny voice) no way! He and I started a band after that. It was called Sister Sufi. I moved to Montreal to play with Patrick. At the time he was also in the band Islands.
NOW, OBVIOUSLY THEATER CAN BE A TRANSFORMATIVE ART, WHERE YOU REALLY SHARE SOMETHING TANGIBLE WITH AN AUDIENCE. BUT IT'S REALLY DIFFICULT TO GET TO THAT POINT. NOW IT SEEMS YOUR MUSIC IS REALLY REACHING OUT AND HAVING SUCH AN EFFECT. DID YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WERE ABLE TO ESTABLISH THAT CONNECTION BETTER THROUGH MUSIC THAN YOU COULD IN THEATER?
I think so. Theater has all these weird rules. Or not rules, but traditions. It's strange—people all of a sudden are supposed to believe you're a character. They're asked to believe these really old rules. At a certain point I didn't feel that instant access to people that I do in music.
WHAT WAS THEME OF THE PUPPET OPERA?
Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal." It a satyrical essay—in order to to solve the hunger crisis they thought it would be a good idea to eat Irish children. It's the story of a mother who sells her daughter to the butcher for money.
HAVING NEVER BEEN IN BANDS AND PLAYING IN ROCK CLUBS BEFORE, HOW WAS INITIALLY GETTING ON STAGE?
It was really, really hard. Awkward for sure. It was hard to know what of the performance stuff that I had taken from theater and what parts belong in a rock band.
And also my voice, though people remark about it's power now, at that point I was really finding it, so it was awkward. It was like an adolescence.
HOW DID YOU START TOURING AS TUNE-YARDS? AND HOW DID THE LOOPING COME ABOUT? JESUS, THAT'S A TERRIBLE TWO-PART QUESTION. THE SUBJECTS ARE TOTALLY UN-RELATED.
I didn't want to have a band because with Sister Sufi, that was the whole problem—that my band was busy and they couldn't tour. tUnE-yArDs was always going to be a solo thing so I could just do whatever I felt like.
The looping pedal came pretty early in. I knew I wanted a rhythmic element. What I used to do is plug the ukelele into the looping pedal and just tap on it, and make these little drum beats. When I was playing these Vermont cafes or open mics, that would do. When I wanted a louder drum I just knew that it was time to put a microphone in there and get a floor tom.
THE WAY THAT RHYTHM BANGED OUT THROUGH THE UKELELE BODY, I IMAGINE, PROBABLY HAD A LOT TO DO WITH DEVLOPING THE RHYTHMICAL CHARACTERISTICS THAT YOU CARRY TO THIS DAY, I IMAGINE.
There was a song on the first album called "Safety." And it's sort of hard to do not on the ukelele. I think you're right—it has a unique feel to it. It's different when you use drums and sticks.
SO YOU BUILT MOMENTUM AROUND MONTREAL AND STARTED TO TOUR FROM THERE?
I was touring in and out of Montreal. That was how I escaped the immigration thing. My visa was only good for six months. So I'd always leave. I would tour with Sister Suvi and also on my own—a lot of the east coast and the midwest.
I released BiRd-BrAiNs on cassette in the summer of 2008 and digital download. It got passed around and played on radio stations and people actually started asking me to play in St. Louis, or Bloomington, Indian and I would go by invitation, basically, to people who were excited about the music I wanted to make.
It was really neat from the moment I released that album. It got me a bunch of gigs. And then eventually I ended up going to the west coast, and that's why I met the Marriage guys.
WHAT MADE YOU RE-LOCATE TO OAKLAND?
At the same place I met Patrick I also met Nate (Brenner). We kept in touch and became a couple later on. He was living in Oakland. Us getting together kind of coincided with tUnE-yArDs becoming my primary thing. And it was hard to live in Canada and not be Canadian. It was starting to get pretty anxiety-inducing so I moved it out here.
HOW DID TUNE-YARDS MOVE FROM BEING YOUR THING IN THE WAY THAT YOU DIDN'T WANT TO RELY ON ANYONE ELSE TO ADDING A MEMBER?
I don't know. I think it happened as an idea that Nate and I just wanted to try out. I definitely always wanted to have bass. Bass was the one thing I couldn't do. I only have so many limbs. And I always heard bass in there.
I asked (Nate) if he would come on this Dirty Projectors tour that we got asked to do in Europe. And that was like a trial basis. By the end of it, Dave from Dirty Projectors was like, 'come on tour of the U.S. with us and Nate has to come.' It was no longer an option. (laughs)
DID YOU FEEL THAT WAY TOO?
Yeah, it was really clear how much he was adding. And we were already trying out so new songs that he was essentially co-writing with me because he was altering them so much through the bass lines. It very quickly became apparent that I needed him.
YOU CERTAINLY ARE STARTING TO HAVE THE KIND OF SUCCESS THAT, IF YOU WANTED TO, YOU COULD HAVE A BAND. WHAT KEEPS YOU FROM DOING THAT?
Well this tour we are bringing two saxophone players, so it does feel a little more band-y. But people always ask, 'when are you going to get a drummer?' What we are bringing with us is a sound engineer. And to me, the looping is a huge part of the tUnE-yArDs show. The fact that I'm creating the loops on stage, right there by myself is a lot of what intrigues people—and certainly what intrigues me. I don't know... we'll see how big we can get with a simple looping pedal.
I AGREE WITH YOU. DON'T GET A DRUMMER. IT'S PERFECT THE WAY IT IS. AND TO THAT SAME EFFECT—EVEN THOUGH I THINK I KNOW THE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION—WHAT KEEPS YOU FROM USING ANY READY-MADE LOOPS OR SAMPLES?
There's this strange line that I walk with an audience of doing the impossible but also keeping them completely in the loop. (laughs) Pardon my pun.
At least when I see a show and someone presses a button and something happens I'm like, 'wait a second, where did that come from?' And I know someone has rigged something up beforehand, which is fine. But I never appreciate it as much as seeing someone create something out of nothing.
It's not out of the question—we've talked about it. Because some of these loops are incredibly difficult to do. And Nate and I are creating loops together and he was like, 'why don't we just have a recording of this and not have to do it ourselves?' It's the sort of impossibility of it that's the intrigue of the show.
IT MAY BE MY WRITER'S LICENSE GOING A LITTLE TO FAR TO MAKE THIS STRETCH—LIKE FULL-ON YOGA STRETCHES—BUT IT SEEMS THERE'S A COMMONALITY WITH THEATER HERE, WHERE IT ALL GETS CREATED ORIGINALLY, RIGHT BEFORE YOUR EYES, AND THAT'S WHERE THE STRENGTH OF THE CONNECTION WITH THE AUDIENCE IS BUILT. BUT THAT MIGHT ALSO BE TOTAL BULLSHIT...
No no, you can use that. (laughs)
WITH THE NEW RECORD, DID YOU WRITE AND RECORD IT IN A PIECEMEAL-Y WAY, DURING YOUR REGULAR LIVES? OR WAS IT ONE OF THOSE TYPES WHERE YOU SET ASIDE A CHUNCK OF TIME AND GO SOMEWHERE TO FOCUS FULLY?
It was definitely more of a piecemeal kind of thing, mostly because we just never stopped touring last year. It was a bit endless. There wasn't really this luxurious time to go hide out in a cabin for a month.
It ended up being a "time and place" record just by the fact that you can hear my transition from Montreal to Oakland in there. The kind of recording I end up doing most of the time is one where there's a clear sense of the location. There are found sounds, and I don't want it to have a studio feel, or at least not be confined.
SO YOU RECORDED IT YOURSELVES, AT HOME OR WHERE YOU PRACTICE?
No. There's the rub. We did go into a studio, which was a challenge to make an album that doesn't sound like it's stuck in a studio while being in a studio. (laughs). We definitely did some recording in our rehearsal studio here in Oakland. A lot of the overdubs were done independent, outside of the studio.
The laying down of the tracks, it was the miracle of having a great engineer, Eli Cruze, doing his best to not make it sound stiff in that studio vacuum.
HOW DO YOU BALANCE WHAT YOU RECORD AND WHAT YOU ARE LATER ABLE TO PLAY OR RE-CREATE LIVE?
It's definitely changing. I have to get my head around the fact that the live versions are different and are better when they're different.
It's great, exactly replicating songs—I think fans really appreciate that. But I think we're doing a good job of both. We're doing the songs justice but letting them have a moment to breathe—not keeping every song to this three-and-a-half minutes, but giving them more room.
THERE'S SUCH AN AMALGAM OF DIFFERENT STYLES OF MUSIC—EVEN WITHIN ONE OF YOUR SONGS—I WONDER IF THAT'S SOMETHING YOU SET OUT TO DO? ALSO, IS IT THE PRODUCT OF WHAT YOU'RE LISTENING TO, OR JUST SOMETHING THAT HAPPENS NATURALLY?
I think it's just me, my personality. I just get bored with music that's too same-y. If every song is really similar on an album I get really bored. Some probably would argue that I've gone too far in the opposite direction (laughs).
I think I'm a product of the world I live in. I have access to lots of different sounds and I was brought up with many, many types of music around me. I don't need to cage myself into one genre. I can really bounce around, as we allowed to in this generation. And I feel a lot of freedom, actually, from genre.
YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU WERE TOURING PRETTY MUCH ALL OF LAST YEAR. DURING THAT TIME YOU WERE PLAYING WITH SOME SERIOUSLY IDIOSYNCRATIC, HARD-TO-BOX, AUTEURS IN DAVE LONGSTRETH (THE DIRTY PROJECTORS), JAMIE STEWART (XIU XIU) AND SPENCER KRUG (SUNSET RUBDOWN). I WONDER WHAT YOU TOOK AWAY FROM THEM?
The Dirty Projectors had a huge, huge influence on us. I think just in that we feel a kinship with them. They're really introducing very odd or different sounds into pop music. And I think that gave us a lot of freedom, that people can really get into a lot of stuff, whether it's parts of a song that have different time signatures, or these strange harmonies or strange rhythms. We saw those things being successful with audiences.
And also they really took us under their wing. They were so kind to us on the road, and sort of showed us what was happening to them in a way that was really important.
THEY ALSO SHARE THE MARRIAGE RECORDS CONNECTION.
Yeah, Curtis and Jordan are awesome at encouraging this music that might be outsider music. But they're really stoked on it and giving people a chance to hear it.
YOU SAID YOU NEVER FELT LIKE YOU'D BE A MUSICIAN, AND NOW IT'S YOUR JOB. HOW DOES IT STRIKE YOU? HOW IS THIS STRANGE NEW LIFE THAT FOUND YOU?
It's really amazing. I definitely pinch myself a lot. Especially now that the album has come out to generally positive reviews. A few months ago I thought... I don't know what I thought. I wasn't sure it was going to get a positive reception. And I think that's a good thing, that when you're recording you live in a shell of sorts, and don't think about whether people are going to like it or not. I wasn't sure. I guess as a musician you're never sure.
But I feel lucky for every show that I'm able to do where there are people standing there watching me. I think you always have to feel grateful. I will always feel grateful to have the opportunity. And I know so many musicians who struggle to get that opportunity every day. So I'm feeling like a real luck son-of-a-bitch.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THINGS ARE JUST ABOUT TO EXPLODE, LIKE THERE'S THIS BIG THING WELLING UP ON THE HORIZON? BUT THEN, I'M THINKING OF A BENEFIT YOU PLAYED LAST YEAR WITH YOKO AND LADY GAGA... THAT MUST'VE BEEN ONE OF THOSE PINCH MOMENTS.
I pinched a lot. I don't mean to say that I don't have confidence in what I do, because there's a part of me that's like, 'you know what, I do belong here.' (laughs)
There's a part of myself that I don't allow to vocalize very often. But there is a part of me that really does believe in this music. Like, I've never heard things like this before. I've never heard songs like this before.
It almost feels a little bit outside of myself. It's not entirely my doing or my creation. There's a reason why it's called tUnE-yArDs. It's because tUnE-yArDs is the place where you could pluck songs from, and that's totally how it feels to me.