Being weird in a good way seems like a more difficult status for artists to attain than it used to be. We can tell when you’re trying too hard — the Gaga meat dress, the Miley tongue-wags felt ’round the world — and it’s straight-up unappealing. Thanks to Ye Olde Internet, we’re also genuinely harder to shock than we used to be. At the same time, the acceptable box that artists seem to need to fit into to be marketable, to achieve anything like mainstream success, feels smaller all the time.
Enter tUnE-yArDs: Even if you count yourself in the camp of people who “just don’t get” the music, there’s no denying that the delightful weirdness that spews forth from the brain of Oakland’s Merrill Garbus has never felt anything but authentic. On her new album, Nikki Nack — out today on 4AD — she seems more than ever like she’s receiving musical cues from sort of secret invisible wood nymph from the future, and also that wood nymph has been listening to a lot of drumming and hand-clapping videos and maybe some Janet Jackson lately. She (Garbus) keeps you guessing, and you get the sense that that’s due, in part, to keeping herself guessing. All of this is good. It’s good for music.
Garbus debuted some new songs last month at The Chapel, then hit the road for a national tour, including several dates opening for the Arcade Fire. She won’t be back in the Bay until two Fillmore shows (June 6 and 7, with Sylvan Esso and The Seshen opening, respectively), but she gave us a call from the road to chat about the new record’s Haitian influences, how tour is going so far, and The Arcade Fire’s culinary prowess.
San Francisco Bay Guardian Thanks for talking! Where are you right now?
Merrill Garbus I’m in a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee. We just drove all the way from Columbus and now we have a night off, which is nice. But I’ll probably spend most of it on the phone, doing interviews.
SFBG I’m so sorry.
MG No, it’s great! It’s your job! (laughs) I’m excited that people want to talk about the record.
SFBG I do love the new record. Can you talk a little about how heavy it is on the drums, and some of its Haitian influences? I know you traveled to Haiti not too long ago.
MG Thanks so much. As far as the Haitian influences, I would say it was less about the trip than a community I got involved with at home, at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in downtown Oakland, which is a center for African arts, and the culture of Africa and the diaspora. It’s an incredible place. So for about a year I was studying with Portsha Jefferson, who is an amazing American woman who has devoted much of her life to studying Haitian folklore and dance, and Daniel Brevil, a Haitian-born drummer who teaches drum classes. This company they’ve created in Oakland is a community of people who are studying and immersed in Haitian culture, to see how it’s affected people around the world, especially as the first independent black republic that’s been an inspiration for generations of people.
For me it was, oh my gosh, music and revolution and cultural history, and folk music versus pop music, all of those [topics] were really present in studying with these two people. And it was important to me that I wasn’t just going “Oh, that sounds cool, give me that cool rhythm” — I was a student of those drums. And there are definitely through lines of Haitian drumming in a lot of the songs that, lyrically, deal with the relationship between the quote-unquote developed world and the developing.
SFBG Your last album, 2011’s w h o k i l l, brought you to such a bigger platform (the national stage, really) than your first one had. Did you feel pressure with this album to follow that up with something even bigger, or to try to reach the people who still don’t “get” you?
MG I really do everything I can to not think about what how other people are going to receivewhat I’m making while I’m making it, because it just kills it right away. It’s something I have to practice, just like I have to practice singing or practice things with music, I have to practice not considering what other people think. Especially when you feel like you’re failing, because there are always moments when you’re making something going ‘This is not good.’ Or ‘people are not gonna like it.’
It’s the same thing with reading reviews or interviews — unless someone tells me “Oh, I think this one would actually really be helpful for you to read.” Otherwise it’s kind of poison, regardless of it’s good or bad. Because there’s a sense of being outside of yourself, and I always want to get really inside myself. I kinda shut down on the social media.
SFBG How’s Oakland treating you these days? Have you reached the point where you feel like a a kind of famous person, or is life pretty much business as usual?
MG You know, people say hi at the farmer’s market, but no one really cares. Which is great. Oakland’s been really good for my head, and I feel like there are a number of factors that keep me grounded. My relationship, the ways I’ve started to ground myself. It helps to remember that it’s all a mirage — I mean, if I give [press and publicity] any more weight than that, it’s kind of entering into the fictional world.
SFBG How’s tour been going so far? What’s it like opening for the Arcade Fire?
MG It’s awesome. One of them the other day was like, “If you want to sit in on anything, let us know,” and I was just like — I don’t even know what that would be, or mean (laughs). They’ve been so nice to us. I knew some of these guys from Montreal, and what they want to do is nerd out about music. Which is exactly what I want it to be about. They’re crazy, too; they play for two hours.
Tour in general — I love seeing new places around the world. Driving from Denver to Nashville is such a cool way to see this country, and we got to go to Australia this year, Europe several times. I do have to navigate my extreme fear of getting ill on the road, and it’s not so emotionally easy to be with seven people riding in a van for so long, but that’s why I feel so lucky that all the people with me are really dedicated to the project — Nate [Brenner] and I wrote a lot of this music together and then asked these people to play it with us for the next few months of their lives, and there’s no way I could do it without them. I’m also really excited that we sold out the Fillmore.
SFBG Best thing you’ve eaten on this tour?
MG When we were in Kansas City, the Arcade Fire guys got these huge things of barbecue backstage, and they knew what they were doing. Let me think…yeah, definitely that.