Interview – tUnE-YaRdS

5/5 (1)

Editors Note: Due to a busy week here, we will be replaying our interview series.  When I talked to Merrill back in October 2008, she was self-publishing her BiRd-BrAiNs album.  Since then, she signed with 4AD, did not get her arse handed to her by Pitchfork (no small feat there), and even has one of her songs featured in the new Blackberry commercial.

We are living in a ukulele renaissance period.  Jake and James are pushing the technical bounds, we have great tabbers like Dom and Woodshed, and more and more people are picking up the instrument.
The thing I am most excited to see is artists pushing the instrument into uncharted sonic areas.  One such artist, Merrill Garbus, who performs and records as tUnE-YaRdS, creates music that no one would immediately associate with the ukulele.  Her songs rock and swing and kick with all the fun of the first punk wave, and are as abrasive as they are hummable.This song, Jumping Jack, recorded live at the Forward Music Festival in Madison, WI, can be found on her album BiRd-BrAiNs.

Merrill graciously agree to participate in the following interview:
First off, what did you do to that ukulele? Is that a pickup under all that duct tape? Did you make other modifications?Merrill Garbus: Hmm. Well, my original uke was stolen at a show quite a few months ago now, and the mistakes I made on that one I tried not to make again (namely drilling a hole into it.) I have a Schatten autoharp pick-up mounted just below the sound hole. I got the pick-up in a hurry right before a tour, and the autoharp was the only one they had in stock. I have a lot of trouble with feedback (which probably has a lot to do with it being an autoharp pick-up, but I’m sort of attached to the sound now.) Because of the feedback I stuff most of the instrument with paper towels I find in the bathrooms of clubs, and then I use hockey tape to tape up the hole and secure the pick-up wires, etc.

The only other “modification” is that although it’s a tenor ukulele, I tune it like a baritone, with the lowest toned string as a G, instead of a C as people tell me tenors should be tuned. My mom picked up my first instrument at an Army/Navy store in Maine and there was no one there to tune it correctly, so I sort of guessed, and then the songs came, and I couldn’t turn back. I stick paper underneath some of the strings on the upper bridge because they’re a bit loose on the instrument.

DB: Your sound is very unique, but I can’t stop thinking of other artists while listening to your album, BiRd-BrAiNs. Songs remind me of Nirvana, Laurie Anderson, Billie Holiday and the Soweto rock of the 90’s. Who do you think is the most influential on your musical style?

MG: Those are cool comparisons, and great that they’re so disparate. There are many influences that pop into and out of this album. In making it I realized just how much of the 1980’s are in my blood, which is maybe why it felt so appropriate to release it on cassette tape. Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, Graceland, that’s all in there. People tend to pick up on the African influence, which includes much music from Kenya and Tanzania where I spent some time, as well as Pygmy music of Central African Republic, dance music from Congo, and Johnny Clegg & Savuka from South Africa. I’m also an a cappella nerd, so anything having to do with multi-layered voices, doo-wop, etc., makes me a little nutso.

So to answer WHO is the biggest influence on this album? M.I.A. If I had to pick one person that made me want to do my own thing as a woman and explode onto recording devices all the sounds I have in my head, it’s M.I.A. And Woody Guthrie. See, I can’t even pick one person if I try.

DB: When you play live, you build your songs on short loops on stage and then play and sing along with them. When you are writing, do you start with these loops and pull the melody and lyrics out of them, or do you create the other way around?

MG: The loops definitely came out of a need for accompaniment, so I’d say usually I’m writing songs that I will later work out on the looping pedal for the live show. When I write a song I’m thinking about it pretty spatially, as in I’m considering the space it takes up, sonically and even visually. (I don’t know if that exactly describes it, but I’ve been trying to articulate it to myself lately, and that’s what I’ve come up with.) I’ve found it hard, because of the repetitive nature of the loop, to find the movement and space there, so I tend to work the other way, dealing with the live performance of a song after it’s written.

But that said, because I was on tour so much this fall, I got really into improvising live with the looping pedal. I wouldn’t say I was writing full songs on it, but I started to experiment with layering vocal lines, and then pounding out beats on the floor tom and looping that, and it was all very satisfying. I did actually come up with a song that way, which is all about repetition and a sort of meditative, driving beat, so I suppose the pedal is influencing me more than I think it is.

DB: At first glance, with the over-modulation and distortion techniques used on many tracks, your music is jarring, yet there are so many sweet, quiet moments on the disc. Do you feel you use these two poles more for balance, or juxtaposition?

MG: Probably a bit of both. I tend to loathe art and music that is oversimplified. Human beings are complex, I’m complex, you’re complex. Music that contains no complexity, no tension, doesn’t move me or affect me, so I seem to avoid it. I love simplicity, but even the simple moments on that album seem to have some twist to them that makes them weird, or uncomfortable, complicated. I also fear making music that doesn’t inspire action in people. I don’t want people to fall asleep, I want them to wake the heck up. Whatever that means: dancing, crying, yelling at me, cringing, dreaming, anything but falling into inaction, lifelessness. So spitting an odd sound out here and there and adding some thorns to the rose-songs always seems like a survival mechanism to me as a songwriter.

And balance, yes; perhaps I try to balance things too much, compulsively. But compositionally, whether it’s about the composition of the entire album, or one song, or even a verse of a song, I am concerned with balance and proportion. If you work towards balance as a general rule, then you can wield imbalance as a powerful tool whenever you want to.

DB: I have seen footage of you playing violin. Are you classically trained? Did the violin influence your choice to play ukulele, or was it some other factor?

MG: Not classically trained, and you are kind to use the words “playing” and “violin” in reference to me! My dad plays Old Timey fiddle and he taught me after high school. I love playing the fiddle because of the double-stops, or two strings played at once. The fiddle can create this real blanket of sound, through drone and texture. I first started on the uke because I was a puppeteer and writing a puppet opera in which I needed an instrument that would fit in my puppet stage. When I picked up the tenor uke, it had the same power as the fiddle to create sound that was rich and dense at the same time as being flexible and open. I had never thought about the connection between those two instruments before, but they do have that in common. And with both, you don’t have to do much to create a sound that is pretty enthralling and even physically pleasing. For someone like me with instrument phobia, both were perfect objects to pick up and play and enjoy, right there on the spot.

In March, Merrill is touring with her other band, Sister Suvi,  and then opening for Thao with the Get Down Stay Down in April.
Band Website: myspace

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  1. Woodshed December 11th, 2008 4:18 am

    Cool interview, Donnie. She’s incredible.

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