Puppet Maestros: How Oakland's tUnE-yArDs Conquers the World, One Bag of Rice at a Time

Barely post-slumber — definitely pre-caffeine — and nearing the exact midpoint between two seven-hour band rehearsals, Merrill Garbus appears both irreparably frazzled and warily content. It's 7:45 on a Thursday morning in mid-April, and Garbus, the 35-year-old creative epicenter of the critically acclaimed art-pop outfit tUnE-yArDs, has just sat down for a cup of coffee at a small café in East Oakland. Her hair, often chopped into baroque patterns and dotted with feathers, is today smeared across her head like a dab of butter on toast. Her eyes, neon blue in pictures, are grayer than expected. And where in concert she's shouting and wailing and laughing, today Garbus is wearing the tired smile of someone who believes, perhaps because she has to, that the best is yet to come.

Her third album, Nikki Nack, is due out on May 6. Like its predecessor, 2011's w h o k i l l, it is a breathtaking and densely layered affair. Anchored by Garbus' acrobatic, impeccable tenor, it erupts with percussive flourishes and sonic peculiarities. It is somehow both tidier and more volatile than anything she has done before.

More than anything, though, it is a meditation on the doubts and frustrations of creative life ­— an album whose very inspiration is the pressures of grasping for inspiration. From its broadest themes all the way down to its tiniest textures, it is a study ­— gorgeous at times, anarchic at others ­— of what happens when you sit down and force yourself to create beauty from the jumbled shards of the world around you.

Garbus, by now, is renowned for this process of reconstruction. w h o k i l l was by turns supple and vicious, peppered with references to life in Oakland. Songs like “Doorstep” and “Gangsta” were reactions to the city's sometimes-violent climate; “Riotriot” was informed largely by the Occupy movement. If Nikki Nack is as popular as its predecessor, it will owe that success largely to Garbus' capacity for seeing her surroundings through a distinctive lens ­— one that positions her, perhaps better than any other musician in the Bay Area, as the region's pre-eminent pop narrator.

At this point, the title is hers for the taking. All she has to do is get out of her own way.

Because the time allotted for interviews is shorter than ever, and because rehearsals are so gruelingly long, Garbus should get down to business. She should first address the somewhat turbulent road that led her here: After attending Smith College, she spent years bouncing aimlessly around the Northeast ­— first working as a puppeteer in Vermont, then as camp counselor in New Jersey, then as a shredder of deceased medical patients' documents in Massachusetts. She settled temporarily in Montreal, where she recorded 2009's BiRd-BrAiNs, her first major work as tUnE-yArDs. On the strength of this album, she soon signed to the celebrated indie label 4AD, home to artists like Bon Iver, Iron and Wine, and The National. She began work on w h o k i l l in 2010, shortly after moving to the Bay Area.

She might also talk about the rich array of dichotomies that have characterized her career thus far: Composing BiRd-BrAiNs on a voice recorder, then just a few years later employing the help of producers John Hill and Malay (of M.I.A. and Frank Ocean fame, respectively) on Nikki Nack. Playing w h o k i l l's arrangements early on at a tiny coffee shop in Oakland, then returning a few months later to play them in front of a screaming crowd at the Fox Theater. Plunging into a deep depression in her 20s, only to come rocketing out of it with a sense of boisterous purpose.

Instead of hitting these points, though, she's fixated on the existential dread inherent in creating an album.

“There's a spiritual exercise in getting over your own shit in order to do what you need to do,” she says. “I'm a perfectionist. I want to do it right, and I want to do it right now, and I want the first ideas to be completely on point. That's just not the way it works. There's a lot of failure involved.”

w h o k i l l did not fail. Far from it; it garnered heaps of critical acclaim, including glowing reviews from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, the BBC, SPIN, and others. It made her a veritable superstar in indie rock circles, which is to say it edged her close to major mainstream recognition. Perhaps most significantly, it earned her a No. 1 spot in the Village Voice's coveted Pazz & Jop poll, a collective endorsement from hundreds of American music critics.

Fellow musicians joined the chorus of praise, too. “She writes provocatively, boldly, and she very directly airs grievances and calls/bellows bullshit whenever she sees it,” says Thao Nguyen, the leader of the San Francisco band Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. “Merrill is power. She very deftly creates driving cacophony with objective and purpose. She does it in a way that feels like the blood of the earth pumping. And when you hear it, you think you better jump in and get going.”

Of course, w h o k i l l didn't please everyone. In January 2012, critic Chuck Klosterman penned a critique of Garbus and tUnE-yArDs, titled “The Pitfalls of Indie Fame.” In it, he argued that Garbus' brand of stardom ­— punctuated by her “hippie aesthetic” and “cultic, chaotic” instrumentation ­— is an inherently fickle one. There's a slim chance that Garbus will become a legend, he wrote. The safer bet is that she'll “become the punch line for highly engaged music fans who want to make jokes about how they themselves were wrong about her.” Garbus, post-w h o k i l l, “will end up with this bizarre 40-year-old life, where her singular claim to fame will be future people saying things like, 'Hey, remember that one winter when we all thought tUnE-yArDs was supposed to be brilliant? That fucking puppeteer? Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?'”

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Klosterman's essay sparked a flurry of counter-criticisms, which themselves highlighted a theme in the public perception of Garbus and her work: Those who “get it” stand behind it with a near-fanatical fervor; those who don't ­— or, in Klosterman's case, those who barely make an effort to ­— are left to decode a sonic experience that feels chaotic, inchoate, or, worst of all, merely trendy. The two tracks on Nikki Nack that have so far been released ­— “Water Fountain” and “Wait for a Minute” ­— have been praised. But the album's central challenge will not be rounding the bases Garbus has rounded before; it will be winning over those in the second camp, those who have not yet been convinced there's beauty to be found in Garbus' chaos.

Garbus has a solid shot at this, mainly because she holds nothing back. Her voice, a contender for the strongest in contemporary indie rock, is beautiful, but she's willing to make it sound shrill and ugly. She is not doing this by anyone else's rules — and as cliched as that might sound, that's exactly what makes her such a beloved figure. She's willing to go deeper into her art than most of her peers. If that unwillingness to follow the rules makes her sound ridiculous to some ears, that may also be because she's reaching a lot farther for her music than is sometimes comfortable.

Drums are integral to Nikki Nack. The album overflows with them. They are by turns organic and synthetic: sometimes warm and reverberant, sometimes stretched and warped and flipped backwards to form tight crescendos. The earliest song ideas were roughly sketched rhythms, composed mostly on drum machines and an iPad. The album's final moments are percussive, too ­— punctuated by sputtering loops and wood blocks.

Even as Garbus talks now, she jiggles a frayed stick in one hand. Its steady pat-pat-pat underscores each pause in conversation. Drums, she explains, were a crucial tool for breaking through a period of feeling “exhausted and depleted on every level,” post-w h o k i l l.

“The first experiments I did were with drum machines,” she says. “That was really fun. The second type of searching is kind of hard to describe. It's how hard it is for me to sit down and make music. There's a very elusive poetry in what I'm trying to do. When that is gone, there's nothing to do but keep searching.”

The drumming has always been a part of Garbus, and tUnE-yArDs. But it ramped up shortly after she returned to the Bay Area from the w h o k i l l tour in October 2012. She joined Rara Tou Limen, an Oakland-based Haitian dance and drum company. There, under the guidance of instructor Daniel Brevil, she set about trying to understand the nuances of Haitian Vodou rhythm. Her first lesson, she recalls, yielded only an instant or two of comprehension.

“For a hot second, I got it,” she recalls. “For that one brief moment, where I was like, 'I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing. Let my hands keep doing what they're doing, and then take my head outside ­— like, zoom out and listen to the whole thing instead of just my part' ­— I was able to do that that one time.”

A second later, it all fell apart again.

She soon began logging long days in her studio, collecting and refining the rhythms that would eventually become Nikki Nack. When writing previous albums, Garbus had the advantage of honing her ideas in live settings; here, she was starting from scratch. Her creative frustrations eventually became ideas about creative frustration itself, which then became buzzing, explosive mandates against inertia. In “Hey Life,” she sings, “I can never seem to focus on the task at hand/Ten times a day I can never seem to understand.” On “Find a New Way,” she presents “all the reasons that I had to never sing again” to an imaginary counterpart. He responds by shouting the song's title back at her.

Thinking about this process now makes Garbus's stomach churn. “It's an awful, awful feeling,” she says. “When you start from zero, and you know that this album ­— which is chock full of so much ­— when you have to think about that being the end product.”

There are moments on Nikki Nack where this creative chaos is laid explosively bare. Then there are moments where it's tucked into something that sounds orderly. On “Hey Life,” Garbus and Nate Brenner, her musical collaborator and romantic partner, employed an array of percussion to underscore the song's itchy impatience. Garbus first created an electronic drum loop, then layered upon it a crisscrossing snare and tambourine pattern. For the bass drum sound, she whacked a padded stool with a mallet. Atop all of this, Brenner played a tin can, and Garbus banged on an apple butter jar.

Half of these objects are indisputably junk. But the point of Garbus' approach is that they are only junk because someone has not yet put in the work to find their potential. Why rely on an arsenal of conventional instruments, like so many others do, when you can go exploring instead? Why settle for a hi-hat or cowbell when the song calls for a pot's lid? Why play it safe when you could crash with spectacular, incendiary élan?

There's rice on “Hey Life” too, tucked into the percussive menagerie. A one-pound bag of it, Mahatma brand, extra long grain, enriched. Purchased at a grocery store. Whacked with a drum stick. Listen very closely, and you can hear it ­— chiff chiff chiff ­— in stuttering, syncopated spurts. Interwoven in the verses with samples and tambourines and that guttural Garbus shout.

This is not the rice that helped shape Nikki Nack. But it's related.

In March 2013, Garbus flew to Haiti with Brevil, the drum instructor, and several other members of Rara Tou Limen. They spent two weeks dancing, drumming, and eating meals of Diri Ak Pwa, a simple rice and bean dish, which was prepared daily by Brevil's friends and relatives.

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Near the end of the group's stay, the time came to serve food to the neighborhood. This meant lugging clothing donations up a network of broken brick roads (“As anyone who has traveled to Haiti will tell you,” Garbus explains, “you are very often compelled or asked to bring stuff”), then serving Diri Ak Pwa to approximately 700 locals. The stuff was cooked in massive pots, which sat precariously atop mounds of coals. Since word about a party tends to travel quickly through Port Au Prince, it wasn't long before a crowd formed around Rara Tou Limen ­— in front of them, behind them, on nearby rooftops. Someone had rigged up a PA system; someone else had hand-painted a sign that read “Byenvini Kalifonia Lakay Nou,” which means, roughly, “Welcome California to our home.”

When the food was ready, Garbus and the other members of the group set up an assembly line ­— rice, beans, chicken, pickled vegetables ­— and began serving as fast as they could. The first portions they handed out were to kids so young they could barely lift them. The food, which had seemed like so much at first, was beginning to run out. Meanwhile, the line for it was just getting longer.

Garbus had traveled to Haiti to learn about music. But all of a sudden, the trip felt more like an exploration of her limits, of what she could never accomplish. She had spoken her “shitty Creole” and delivered “a terribly small amount” of chalk and crayons and pencils to local children. She had lugged a few suitcases of American clothing into one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. And now, at a crucial moment, she had run out of rice.

“We gave out 700 meals, and that wasn't enough,” she says. “At a certain point it felt absolutely overwhelming.”

Garbus pauses here, sips her latte. She knows exactly how this sounds. A white woman, landing in Haiti for a couple of weeks to drink in the culture and spoon out some food, then retreating back to Northern California, with its mild climate and hybrid cars. Then, to boot, creating and profiting off an album that doesn't so much borrow Haitian rhythms as it does weave them into its very DNA.

She knows the question well by now.

Musical appropriation, she says, is “being done already. So if I can be someone who's doing it intelligently, and using it to bring about a larger discussion about appropriation ­— not just culturally, but on a grander scale ­— then at least there's some kind of positivity that's coming out of this musical borrowing.” In other words: Why try to conceal your doubts when you could harness them for something productive?

For good measure, she approached Brevil before recording. “I very explicitly asked him, 'Is this okay?' Because these aren't just Haitian rhythms; these are Haitian Vodou rhythms. This is a spirituality. This is a religion.”

His answer was one of the only simple ones Garbus got in the process of creating Nikki Nack. Had the question been about a musical texture, a harmony, or a plinking sound effect, it could very well have come straight from Garbus herself.

“Why not?!” Brevil exclaimed. “If it fits, use it!”

Garbus' “real career starts now,” Klosterman asserted back in 2012. “For the next 15 years, she must validate other people's belief in her own brilliance. There is no other option. Because if she doesn't, those same people will view her inability to become transcendent as hilarious.”

The Merrill Garbus who bounds onstage at the Mission venue The Chapel on April 21 for the first tUnE-yArDs show in a year and a half seems keenly aware of this. Drumstick still in hand, she looks entirely different from the person who collapsed into the café chair a few days beforehand. The hair, for starters, is assembled in a series of geometrically improbable curls, pinned to one side, then spiced with a handful of glitter. Her eyes, too, are rimmed with sparkles and shrouded in dual bandit masks of eyeliner. Her dress is form-fitting and teal, with a stripe of red across one leg and poofy, sequined shoulder pads. She appears determined.

With only a few exceptions ­— “Powa” and “Bizness,” from w h o k i l l; “Real Live Flesh,” from BiRd-BrAiNs ­— it's all new songs on display here tonight. “Manchild,” a simmering funk piece, might as well be directed at Klosterman. “I've got something to say,” Garbus howls. “I mean it/Don't beat up on my body.” “Water Fountain,” the album's first single, seems informed by her time in the developing world. Its questions ­— “Why do we just sit here while they watch us wither till we're gone?” ­— feel like a reflection of her insufficiency there. Garbus' doubts and struggles ­— to create, to make sense of the “plastic shit” in her world, to acknowledge, then forget, the criticisms she's been dealt ­— have been flipped. Harnessed. All the uncertainty is fuel now; the doubts are themselves potent declarations about doubt.

Onstage, Garbus is loosening up. This is the easy part. With all that messy conceptualizing complete, all the turbulent, frightful creativity aside, she's free to explore. She has the air of a creature released after a period of prolonged captivity. This is Garbus as she was meant to be seen. Garbus in her natural habitat.

The evening's indisputable centerpiece is “Sink-O.” It's a scorching dance workout with a refrain that escalates anarchically: “Peace/Peace and love/Love is waiting/For the feeling of discomfort that comes before killing.” The band's percussionist, Dani Markham, hammers out a chaotic drum pattern, and by the three-minute mark, it's a full-on collision. The textures jostle and crash, like a handful of change dropped into a blender. Garbus leans into her own drums and flings her words out with flawless grace.

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The song feels at once like a celebration and an obliteration. A visceral shout and a well-formed thesis. Everyone's jumping now, both onstage and off, and Markham directs her attention to one small drum in her setup, slapping out a fragmented triplet rhythm. This is Brevil's part on the album, and it's basically impossible to replicate. Markham's pattern is a bit more jagged. It seems to trip over itself.

Just as abruptly as all the mayhem began, it screeches to a halt. Garbus and Markham, whose heads had been bowed to their instruments, glance up at each other, then at the audience. They laugh a little bit, almost bashfully. They look surprised at themselves. In the crowd, there's a second of punch-drunk silence, pregnant with the doubts that swirl around Garbus. The doubts she does her best to absorb, twist into art, then fire back out into the world.

For a moment, it feels like the reaction could go either way. Transcendent! Boundary shattering! Electric! Or: What the fuck just happened there?

The silence feels impenetrable. Infinite. But within seconds, it's obliterated by a sold-out crowd's gleeful, chaotic approval.

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