By CHLOE ROTH
In 2009, tUnE-yArDs frontwoman Merrill Garbus was lured from Montreal to Oakland by "Love and fear of illegal immigrant status in Canada." Lucky for us. "I started sadly playing a ukulele that my mom had given me," Garbus says. "Though it crossed my mind that being a doctor was probably more helpful to the world, I didn't have much choice when it came down to how I felt I could spend my time." Even luckier for us.
Fast forward two short years, and Garbus' resume includes a bevy of landmark moments. It was an unexpected road from handheld voice recorders and recycled cassette tapes to signing with 4AD, recording an in-studio album, touring the globe opening for Dirty Projectors, getting recognized by Rolling Stone and the New York Times, co-producing Thao & Mirah's record, and lending her music to a Blackberry commercial. But there is nothing expected about Garbus, from her voice, lyrics, and costumes to her backstory. When did she start performing? After she quit her day job as a puppeteer, of course. Welcome to the wonderfully wacky world of tUnE-yArDs. It only gets better.
tUnE-yArDs performs this Wednesday, Nov. 23, at the Regency Ballroom. In March, we predicted that Garbus' unique brand of African-influenced vocal athletics would take indie ears across the globe by storm. Eight months later, we catch up with Merrill again to find out what it means to return to the Bay Area after her rise to face-painted looping-pedal stardom, misconceptions about her African influences, and how the words of the now late Steve Jobs (Garbus mentioned this before his passing) keep her motivated.
Big things have happened since you left for tour after your Great American Music Hall show in April. What was the Jimmy Fallon experience like and how do you prepare for something like that?
Jimmy Fallon is one of the nicest people I've ever met, as are the Roots. You can't really prepare for TV except to try to calm yourself down and have practiced and played live hundreds of times, which luckily we had! I had a vision about Tariq rapping over that middle, out-of-time section of the song, and he and Questlove handled it with such brilliant musicality. I think we all felt incredibly lucky to absorb some musical lessons from them. I know I had a much easier time drumming with Ahmir right behind me.
Then there was Outside Lands. What made that performance particularly special?
It's always great to perform at home -- and combine that with a eucalyptus grove and a pro team and friends and the end of the summer? California is so awesome and so one-of-a-kind. There's really no place like it in the world.
Your live shows differ so much from listening to the albums because we see you juggling insane percussive rhythms, singing, and looping on the spot. Is the looping more high-stress than just playing uke?
Depends, I guess. It can be stressful when it's just the uke, too. The looping situation is sort of like a playground to me. If I focus too much on the difficulty of what I'm doing I can really psych myself out. If it's a rehearsed dance with room for some improvisations, I can relax into it.
You seem to think very big-picture, designing every aspect of your sound and image with a lot of intention, from videos to face-paint.
Yep, I think visually, so it makes sense to be wary of what images are associated with the music. I also think a lot about what tUnE-yArDs means or what I'm supporting or standing for, so every element matters to me.
Who inspires your makeup and costume choices?
My friend-turned-stylist Alina d'Aubermont, who is the best-dressed person I've ever known. Her style is brave and individualized and expressive and inspiring.
The videos for "Bizness" and "Gangsta" are very different. How did you approach them?
Mimi Cave directed the "Bizness" video and she gathered together these incredibly talented people from all over San Francisco and the Bay to work for free to put a pro video together. It took months of planning and a lot of sweat from all the people who worked so hard. For the second video I didn't have the time nor the willingness to ask people to work for free like that again! So I did it like the first tUnE-yArDs video, homemade and more like abstract art.
Tell us about your band name and the stylization of tUnE-yArDs?
"And we'll fly over tune-yards in our dreams" was a lyric from an old song of mine. A place where songs just grow instead of needing to be concocted and convoluted. The capitalization was a way to get attention on Myspace.
You allude often to race, gender, and social justice. Where do you find inspiration for lyrics?
Just look around the Bay. It's all there.
How about "Gangsta"?
Asian kids forming a gang before our eyes in Oakland. What people feel they need to do in order to feel empowered.