A Different View

Merrill Garbus

She describes her band as “a three-person rhythm section where two people are making up the drumkit for a lot of the time.” The leader of Tune-Yards is obviously willing to go pretty far out to realize her unique musical vision. We wanted to find out why, and how.

by Will Romano

Merrill Garbus, the founder and leader of Tune-Yards, is nothing if not eclectic. In one moment Garbus stitches carefree, singsong lyrical tapestries reminiscent of children’s nursery rhymes. In the next she’s belting it out like a blues survivor or an R&B diva, as if her life depended on it.

Part songwriter, part griot, part rhythm sorceress, Garbus is a ukulele-plucking, genre-hopping compositional hunter and gatherer whose songs are an amalgam of non-Western styles such as African and Haitian music, twentieth-century classical minimalism, rock, folk, electronic dance, melodic pop, and hip-hop. In concert, Garbus is just as musically mobile—she multitasks by simultaneously singing, interacting with rhythmic loops she’s constructed on the spot, and playing an assortment of drums while sidling up to the microphone.

Although unabashedly lo-fi, Tune-Yards’ songs nonetheless recall the precision of a well-rehearsed alt-classical ensemble, the complexity of sub-Saharan communal chanting, and the sweep of a grand symphony. Meticulously choreographed for the stage by bassist/synthesizer player/songwriter Nate Brenner, touring percussionist Dani Markham, and two backing singers, the rhythm and vocal patterns heard in Tune-Yards’ material frame Garbus’s pop sensibilities and fuse seemingly disparate musical worlds.

A former puppeteer and member of the Canadian band Sister Suvi, Garbus issued Tune-Yards’ first album, Bird-Brains, in 2009; she recorded it entirely on her own. Soon after, she moved to Oakland, California, where she teamed up with Brenner. Whokill followed in 2011, garnering critical praise from the Village Voice and Rolling Stone magazine, among others. Last year saw the release of Tune-Yards’ most accessible and perhaps most robust work, the playfully titled Nikki Nack.

Modern Drummer caught up with Garbus to discuss the fusion of different rhythmic styles in her music while she was commuting from Oakland to San Francisco, on her way to producing an undisclosed artist for Beggars Group.

MD: What you’re doing with Tune-Yards, fusing non-Western rhythms and music with Western rock and pop, shares a connection with other artists of the last several decades, including Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and Joni Mitchell, even Traffic.

Merrill: I sometimes feel old, and I’m at the ripe old age of thirty-five. [laughs] I’d been exposed to jazz at a pretty young age. Joni Mitchell’s collaborations with jazz musicians make me think of artists who may be jumping out of their comfort zone because they know there’s a lot of incredible material in another genre. Some of those kinds of experiments and collaborations don’t work well, but others, like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell, work. I’m wary of it not working well.

MD: You play the Hawaiian ukulele on stage, and apparently you’re attracted to rhythms from locations such as South Africa and Haiti. Why?

Merrill: I thought a lot about that question. I should start by saying that my parents are both musicians and brought us up with folk music. I think their old-timey fiddle music, which my dad performed and taught me how to play when he bought me my own fiddle in high school, is derived from African music. Going to New Orleans in the past few years, I’ve gained an understanding as to how African rhythms entered this country.

Also, my aunt and uncle traveled to Africa when I was about ten. It was one of those “wow” moments. It was like listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland for the first time. Suddenly there was a tangible connection to a world so different from my own in Connecticut, where I was growing up. From then on there was an overwhelming curiosity about other cultures.

MD: Inevitably, naysayers will criticize someone like you for what they perceive as cultural imperialism.

Merrill: I think the sticky territory is when we get into what the music is being used for, who’s making money, and who’s not making money. In so many instances I think people perceive African music as being something that’s so exotic and removed, instead of it being, “This is the sound of contemporary African music.”

I’m honored to have a career as a musician. A part of the job I love is that I can meet with musicians from all over the world and there’s a common bond. We’re all here as musicians—and equals.

MD: It seems Tune-Yards’ live performances have been highly choreographed, especially in terms of the interaction between you and percussionist Dani Markham. How do you coordinate live acoustic drumming with the looping patterns you’ve created?

Merrill: There isn’t a lot written out. I never had formal music training, but Nate studied upright bass for years. He transcribed in a way that worked for us. When we hired Dani we knew she was an accomplished percussionist and she had chops like I will never have. It’s really a three-person rhythm section [Garbus, Brenner, Markham] where two people are making up the drumkit for a lot of the time. It’s very pleasurable when it works, but we have to push and pull a whole lot in order to find where we are going to sit [in the rhythmic framework].

We had recordings where I played most of the drums and percussion parts on the album. I knew exactly what I had done, and I could say, “I’m going to play this part and you can play that part.” Dani has a Roland SPD sampling pad as part of her setup, to recall some creative sounds on the album that I was excited about. She’s got so much going on. It’s incredible. She has a triangle, floor tom, conga, snare, the SPD pad with a foot trigger and tons of options, and multiple metal objects. All that and she sings too. We desperately cling to her as part of this live band.

MD: Would you say you’re influenced by specific rhythmic patterns, and have you followed the careers of specific drummers?

Merrill: Absolutely. Haitian rhythm and Haitian drumming is ingrained in me. I would say that hip-hop, soul, R&B, and anything that’s derived from that tradition of drumming is where my head goes. Generally that means that I prefer playing behind the beat a bit. As far as individual drummers, I would say Tony Allen is probably the first drummer that I really knew by name and knew he was an influence on me. That meant spending as much time as I could with the Fela Kuti records, but also [Allen’s] solo records, which combined new technology or new sounds with his style of drumming. Then there’s my dear beloved Questlove. I think that hearing so much of his drumming when I was in my teens and twenties influenced me as well.

MD: You mentioned that you’re producing these days. What do you contribute to a production? Do you help compose songs, offer rhythmic ideas…?

Merrill: It’s kind of everything. I always hesitate to say songwriting, because unless specifically requested from a producer, the songwriting really belongs to the band and artist.

As a producer I’m trying to discern and underscore the rhythmic emphasis of a song. When an artist says, “I want this song to be driving,” I have to know what that means and how to translate that rhythmically. Also, a band may like dragging [the time], because it’s the specific feel they want, but sometimes I have to tell them, “I think you want 156 bpm here.”

The truth is, some of my rhythmic ideas are for the world of pop music and are pretty weird and out of place in other musical settings. As a producer I try not to impose that on anyone. Recently I worked with Jason Slota, a Bay Area drummer who is so solid and so versatile. He’s absolutely the kind of drummer you want when you’re producing a project, because you can say, “Can you give me more of a breakbeat?” or “I need this to sound like you’re at the bottom of the ocean,” and somehow he knows how to tune his snare appropriately.

MD: Since you’re so nontraditional, we saved this one, usually an opening question, for last. When did you pick up a pair of sticks and start playing?

Merrill: I was wondering when you were going to get around to asking that. I dropped out of drum lessons in middle school, because I didn’t want to play straight quarter notes for hours. I started by looping drums live when I was around twenty-six, twenty-seven years old, right at the start of Tune-Yards’ existence. I started playing live drums a couple years later. That’s my experience.

Finding a New Way

Translating Tune-Yards’ Percussion-Heavy Tunes Live.

“If there’s a specific clap or electronic sound that Merrill overdubbed,” says Dani Markham, the university-trained percussionist who could be called Tune-Yards’ secret weapon on stage, “I play that on the SPD. In order to reproduce the snare and high-pitched metal sounds in a song like ‘Hey Life,’ I would play around with different tins, different metals, to try to make as much of the song acoustic as possible while also emulating what I’m hearing on the album. In fact, [multi-instrumentalist] Nate [Brenner] did a lot of production on the album and played some metal parts and percussion. While I’m using these metal sounds, Merrill is playing snare drum. When you slow things down you hear how everything is supposed to fit together. It’s all been worked out to the tiniest, tiniest minute detail. Basically, we’re intertwining one drum part with two people.”