tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus on Fame, Fashion and Empathy

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There are few artists out there reaching for the same originality as Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. Her combination of loops and rhythm have put each of her three albums on best-of lists, and the world has been able to watch her grow from a bedroom act to a top festival attraction. She’s currently touring behind her latest LP, Nikki Nack, which is where we caught up with her to talk fame, her unique sound and fashion.

Paste : So the new record is fantastic! Every record’s been fantastic. I feel like you keep setting the bar higher for yourself. It almost seems inevitable that one day you’ll let us down.
Merrill Garbus: It’s because it must be. If one stays a musician long enough, you will inevitably let everybody down.

Paste : It’s true. Look what happened to U2. First time they’ve let anyone down in their careers.
Garbus: Well, that’s my comparison usually, Bono.

Paste : Merrill and Bono. I want to talk a lot about this. I thought about we were going to talk about Israel and Palestine and ISIS but no, I don’t want to know about how you feel about all those things anymore
Garbus: Are you sure? Just bring it on in if you want to.

Paste : Okay, in all seriousness, the thing I find interesting about your sound…It’s like you go out and you see the world and you hear the world, and you decide you can turn it into a song. When I go out and I see the world, traveling around America especially, it almost becomes like any-little-town. You’re landing in the airport and you look down, and it looks just like the place you left and you can lose that specialness about it, but I don’t get that from you. What I get from you is you go out there and you see the world, and suddenly it arrives in your head differently. How does that all come together for you?
Garbus: That’s very complimentary. I think because in this day and age, it is funny how same everything looks. We had a day off in Tulsa, Oklahoma—I had never been there before—and what a lot of us felt compelled to do was go to the mall and hit the air conditioning and hit the Barnes & Noble and hit the movie theater and hit the same things that are consistent throughout all of these American towns.

Paste : It’s like going on vacation and eating at McDonald’s.
Garbus: Totally. And that’s what our culture is based around is safety, right? Safety and consistency—that we all want to know exactly what’s coming and we want to not be surprised too much, a little bit of surprise, but not enough to really shake us. What I love about living is being surprised by different parts of the world and ways of looking at the world. We were just talking about Kentucky. My mom grew up in Pineville, Kentucky, and I grew up in the Yankee north in Connecticut, and so we were always “Yankee girls.” I always came from…my dad’s side of the family being Jewish New Yorkers and my mom’s side of the family being Presbyterian Kentuckians, coming from that somehow, of things that don’t make sense together but work, and learning so much about having different perspectives about the world. And my overarching super cheesy thing is that I think if we all could walk a mile in each other’s shoes more often, there would be a lot more peace and understanding in this world. I do love bringing that into what I do for a living, which is music.

Paste : What a perfect time for any kind of statement like that.
Garbus: And more complicated. It’s an oversimplification of that maybe, but at the same time, no. If someone could really try to be compassionate and really, really empathize and try to situate one’s self in a different perspective. And I think what that takes is a level of security in your own perspective. It’s so easy to say, “Well you’re just wrong.” It’s a lot harder to try to see the other person’s perspective.

Paste : When you write, do you try third-person writing like that? Do you ever try those exercises with lyrics?
Garbus: Well I think it’s tricky because I don’t…yes. You know a song like “Doorstep” on w h o k i l l or on this album, “Stop That Man,” I’m trying on different voices. I think I’ve always tried on different voices and hearing phrases come from different people like what trickles into your ears at a coffee shop or in a McDonald’s, in the mall. There are all these things. We’ve been playing the song “Esso” lately, and there’s that line “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” and I’ve heard so many people say that. I love taking fragments from somebody else’s perspective that has been refracted. We’re all reflecting and bouncing ideas and conversations off one another so I love taking fragments of that and kind of displacing that so you see it in a new context or maybe hear it differently.

Paste : As far as sound goes, it almost seemed like you arrived with this sound fully intact, and I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but that’s the perception. That you came out swinging on that first record with this really unique…I don’t know. “Who does she sound like?” And it works from album one to two. This new record is still you, but it seems like a way more realized you. This seems like a much more complete version maybe of what you have been trying for. How hard was it to come to this sound? Was that natural? Was that something you sought out?
Garbus: It was really natural. I think maybe only after the fact did I say, “Wow. It’s a lot more hi-fi than the last album,” but that felt like a really natural evolution of the sound, but yeah, it still has similar elements. There are kind of collage-y elements, sampling ourselves. This idea of acoustic sounds sounding digital and digital sounds sounding acoustic. The ukulele is on almost every song, but it’s very hard to tell. It doesn’t sound like a ukulele. So there’s these same—not tricks per se—but things that are qualities of the tUnE-yArDs sound. I like to keep in the sonic world of tUnE-yArDs.

Paste : There will come a time, and it’s probably started already, of these bands that are just being launched right now naming you as their main influence. As kids come up and discover themselves at 15 or 16 and pick up tUnE-yArDs for the first time, that’s what they are going to do. They are going to be like”Oh yeah, tUnE-yArDs. I started a band because of tUnE-yArDs.”
Garbus: It’s really crazy. I never thought that would happen, but I also have already seen it happen. I wasn’t the first to do it, but using a looping pedal to loop drums live on stage. I certainly wasn’t the first one, but that happens a lot now, or people standing and playing the floor tom and the snare on stage, which again, I wasn’t the first to do it, but it is interesting to see that be a thing now and be acceptable and not so weird.

Paste : On the subject of rhythm, there was a drummer in my past somewhere who said to me that there are only so many beats. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not a drummer. But for an artist who bases so much of their music on rhythm, is that true? Similarly, it’s like “alright, there’s only 12 notes, what can we do with 12 notes?”
Garbus: Heck no. It’s like in the scale, there’s all those microtones. I think the same thing with rhythm, and that’s what I think I have started to explore on this album, and I’m really excited because I have really only scratched the surface of that. That was through studying Haitian drumming and getting this whole other perspective on rhythm to open up those worlds I didn’t know. Sometimes that is a depressing thought to me like, “Uh oh. What if it’s all done?”

Paste : Because you have those artists who say, “Well it’s all done before. I’m only just remixing it or rearranging it.”
Garbus: Now with electronic dance music, which I think we’re finding is really taking up a lot of space in the festival scene, the festival circuit, and in the lives of young music listeners, it’s rhythmically pretty much the same thing. It’s rhythmically pretty simple. I want to twist that. I think that human beings and even Western ears have a capacity for a much more complex sense of rhythm and to dancing to that rhythm.

Paste : That’s hopeful. There are way more people who unfortunately use music as wallpaper rather than be music obsessive. That’s not my world, but I see it out there.
Garbus: It’s not your world, and thank goodness. I would not be here.

Paste : This sounds pretentious, but I get scared that most music is allowed to exist just because people don’t care. We see that in certain formats, where it’s like “Man, that band’s been on that radio station for 20 years doing that song, just with different words.”
Garbus: I think that’s true, but I also am having this experience of being this totally weird band. I can’t believe sometimes that people are singing my songs and are here. We played in St. Louis last night, and I’ve probably been going to St. Louis for the past six years or something with tUnE-yArDs, and little by little it just grows. Not like shooting to the stars of St. Louis. Not like the celebrity status, but little by little people are still looking for something that is unique and that is different.

Paste : The other fun part about being a tUnE-yArDs fan is the fashion aspect. You come up with this great music, but then there are the music videos and stage settings. I found this parallel, and I can’t be the first person to mention this, to Cyndi Lauper. That is a compliment.
Garbus: Total compliment.

Paste : And she’s so unusual. There was a moment when you appeared in the Rolling Stone sales chart. Next to that, they did the little flashback thing, and it was Cyndi Lauper. It was perfect. How much time do you actually put in on thinking about the fashion side of it? Is that just you or do you say, “I want an image. I want this album to also be perceived visually in this sort of way?” Does all of that thought go into it?
Garbus: Yes, and this time far more consistently than it has before. And that’s because I have this wonderful friend who has become my stylist, Alina d’Aubermont. She’s my style hero because I used to think nothing of my physical appearance. The first time we played SXSW, the record label people were like “Really? You’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans?” Because they could see the potential that we now have of the spectacle of the show, and I came in being like “It’s the music. Enough about the frills of this visual stuff. People should be listening to the music and paying attention to the music.” I’m coming to realize that I come from a theater background, so the visual is everything.

Paste : Well, it’s an opportunity at least. Every artist has the opportunity.
Garbus: Totally. And now to use it in a way that I feel comfortable with. I think that what I didn’t feel comfortable with was, “Hey, why don’t you wear a pretty dress, because you should really look a little prettier on stage?” That wasn’t going to happen for me, but the ability to be like, “I want to wear kind of nasty-looking bubble gum pink, or I want to wear this weird vinyl red dress.” That feels a lot more wedded into the music. So in the beginning we started this whole Pinterest board before the album was even done. We pinned everything from…I was starting to get obsessed with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and really thinking of this sense of play for adults and play that has a darker side to it and a weirder side and a more complex side. We started pinning things that made sense and that went into the promo photos, and that went into the set pieces that we have now, which is like this huge stretched bubble gum-looking kind of thing. I had just been to Haiti, and we were looking at Haitian art, too. So all these things came together. And it’s lovely to have visual performance part of things as well.

Paste : It has to keep it a little more interesting than just walking out on stage every night, playing the same song.
Garbus: In fact, I’m so lucky to have these bandmates who are willing. I ask them to do weird stuff and they are like, “Okay great!” They do it with an excited smile instead of dragging their heels.

Paste : Mortality has come into your music with “Hey Life.” Is that something that’s on your mind a lot these days? I ask that in the most generic way. I know it’s on everybody’s mind, but now you’ve worked it into what’s become a very popular song.
Garbus: Bless your heart for making me feel like a star, because “very popular” is such a relative word. But yes, I think about it all the time because I think…does everybody? Probably. And the sense of what am I doing with my day and with my life? I’m thinking about whether I will or will not have children, and what kind of world I would be bringing children into. It seems to me that having a kid is a real…”I know what I need to be doing today. I need to be putting food on the table for this human being to keep thriving and being alive.” And I think, “Yeah, I’m 35.” It’s one of those times where I’m stuck on that tour bus too long and I wake up, and I’m like “What am I doing?” I know that might sound absurd because from the outside it seems like things are going well and they really, really are, but one can lose perspective really quickly. And I did lose perspective when we got off of tour and I was home trying to write an album. I was like, “Really? Does anyone care if I make an album or not?” Thank you, some people do apparently.

Paste : How do you date when you are on a tour, when you are in the public eye? I know you’re surrounded by people who know you, and the people you come in contact with probably know who you are. Does that become an issue?
Garbus: It’s weird because I’ve got a lot of friends who I don’t know very well, and they don’t know me very much. There is a level of that, but I ain’t famous compared to some. What’s wonderful is after a show…Nate and I were walking on the streets on St. Louis last night. We were just running into people who had just been at the show and talking to them and younger musicians. It’s a wonderful camaraderie that you can have with people and that I’ve always had with music. Touring has been a part of my life for over a decade now, but that notion of “Yeah, we all got a lot in common when you put your heads together.”

Paste : Is there a lot of life outside of tUnE-yArDs at this point? You talk about those between-album moments. Even days off, are you able to find a sense of self that has little or nothing to do with music?
Garbus: Yeah, and it gets more into a spiritual life like meditation and being good to my body. I don’t want to fall into the same trap that many musicians do. I think most touring musicians I know who are alive these days are like yoga, running, kombucha, kale. You know what I mean? That’s like the new rock ‘n’ roll, kind of.

Paste : The after-parties are so different.
Garbus: I know. I’m sure there are not many who are like me, but I’m pretty sober when it comes down to it because it’s my work and I want to be able to wake up in the morning and have a life before the show starts, before soundcheck starts, before all that starts so that I can write songs. I don’t want to keep writing songs about writing songs. Boring.

Paste : Luckily there are enough autobiographies out at this point that kind of show you the ropes of what not to do.
Garbus: Exactly, and we all know the horror stories.

Paste : And the VH1 series.
Garbus: Behind the crazy music.