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

Wednesday, Apr 30 2014

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?'"

About The Author

Byard Duncan


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