I’m a part of the horrors that go on in this world too.
“Civil rights … Climate change … The Haitian rice market … Gentrification … Armed robberies … Our complete exploitation of the developing world”: Merrill Garbus has a lot on her mind.The fearsome voice behind tUnE-yArDs, Merrill is softly spoken in person but has just the kind of wild, eager eyes you would expect from the creator of three convention-defying albums. The latest of these, Nikki Nack, is a complex, loop-laden, wonderfully experimental, and surprisingly catchy journey that she hopes“will strike a nerve with somebody. I also use these things to put myself on an uncomfortable position too, to see where I stand because, as uncomfortable as they are to talk about, I’m a part of the horrors that go on in this world too.” Despite the underlying serious subject matter (found in Water Fountain and Stop That Man in particular), Nikki Nack is a playful record – but then if you’ve ever come across anything the Californian native has done with bassist Nate Brenner, you would know that already.
Fresh from the morning’s photo shoot, face paint still intact, she explains how tUnE-yArDs maintain a balance. “I think in general tUnE-yArDs is about light and dark. The lyrics might be really dark, but also silly and funny at times. The music might be ebullient and joyful but there are still sounds in there that are like messed up and crunched out. The album was going to be called Sink-O for a long time, but to frame the whole thing as ‘sinking’ didn’t feel like it would give it a chance to be a lighter album. When Nikki Nack came along it felt good. Also, when you’re making an album, you’re thinking ‘no one is going to like this’ so to have the title rhyme with ‘stinko’, that’s just asking for it you know?!”
Did I mention that Merrill has a great, if not utterly wicked, sense of humour? “I’ve been working out my obsession with cultures eating children” she says when we reach the subject of the album’s interlude Why Do We Dine on the Tots? and the literary influences of Roald Dahl. “The BFG really changed my life for sure. That was the one I read over and over again. Later on in high school I got into reading his adult fiction, which is appalling at times. I mean really, really gruesome. Back when I was in college I did a show using puppets that was called ‘Kinder Munch’ that was about children being sold to the butcher and fattened up and everything. Then I did a show when I was a solo puppeteer that was called ‘The Fat Kid Opera’ about the same thing.” The ‘Interlude’ she reveals is a poem from her college days:“I discovered that I’d written it in 2004 and I thought the metaphor of it still applied.” Since her 2009 debut BiRd-BrAiNs, tUnE-yArDs has always been a vehicle for Merrill’s incredible imagination and wonderful, childlike stories but the influence of things like Grimms’ Fairy Tales and 80s American cult TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, in particular, make themselves felt on this year’s effort. “The sophistication of children, the fact that kids understand a lot of what’s going on, is something I hadn’t really realised. I mean I was young watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse and it was weird stuff. It was really weird, but I loved it. The pleasure of a bowl of cereal on Saturday mornings watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse, man, that was heaven!”
The BFG really changed my life for sure. That was the one I read over and over again.
“There is also an overall aesthetic of like … hyperbole. There’s the colours that are just completely out of hand. There’s so many different kinds of media like claymation, animation and the puppets and it’s like, they just had it all. It was great to use that as an influence. With this album I had nothing to begin with.I had some scraps of songs and we were playing songs, but none of them really felt like what I wanted to be doing, so it helped me to think, ‘What do I love? What are the things that, on a very deep and old level, still get to me?’ And that was one of them.”Merrill’s trip to Haiti plays an important role in the new album as well. During her time off after the last record, w h o k i l l, she started taking Haitian dance classes because she wanted to get her body more involved in rhythm. “I’ve taken West African and Caribbean dance before and really missed that sense of being able to feel rhythms in my body that I couldn’t necessarily play right off the bat. I can identify where a song is hitting hardest if I’m really connected through dance. Then I took Haitian drum lessons as a result of that.”A trip to Haiti led by her drum teacher followed. “We had our teacher come in and drum on the album and I did check in with him to say, ‘Is this OK that I’m using not just Haitian rhythms but Haitian Voodoo, religion? I mean, that’s a religion, right? It’s a form of spiritualism. And there are spirits associated with these rhythms. I think he said, ‘Why not? This is beautiful to see where your music meets with Haitian music.’ And certainly there is a tradition within Haitian popular music of taking these traditional voodoo rhythms and combining them with a more modern band sound; with guitars, with keyboards, with secular singing on top of them, so it’s definitely being done. It’s not ‘the Haitian album’ though,I don’t want it to be framed as that. I feel like an album is just a record of where you are at that moment and that was just what I happened to be doing and studying.”
Nikki Nack is such a fascinating and multi-faceted record that there is no real risk of that happening. “I hope that it’s dense and maybe difficult at times, but what I always hope for is that it’s not empty. Sometimes what annoys me about music is when it comes up flat, shallow or two-dimensional, when it doesn’t have meat to sink your teeth into. So that’s what I want to bring to the music world.” If we had to judge, we’d say tUnE-yArDs has been more than successful in that endeavour.
tUne-yArDs play Village Underground May 12th (Sold Out) and Electric Brixton September 3rd