Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel. Graphic: Karl Gustafson.

Tune-Yards—the duo—on the happy accidents and uncomfortable truths of their new DJ-inspired album

Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel. Graphic: Karl Gustafson.

Nearly 10 years after Tune-Yards made their debut with the lo-fi curiosity Bird-Brains, the Oakland outfit helmed by Merrill Garbus is set to release its fourth full-length, i can feel you creep into my private life, on January 19. It’s the project’s first release as a duo, with longtime bassist and co-writer Nate Brenner now rightly sharing top billing, and it follows 2014’s deliciously colorful, chaotic Nikki Nack. Loosely borrowing that album’s synth-driven aesthetic, i can feel you pushes the pair’s playful, confrontational noise-pop into club territory—influenced, as Garbus tells us below, by her own foray into DJing, both on the stage and on the airwaves with her Red Bull Radio show, C.L.A.W. It’s a natural evolution for the band, whose rhythm-forward arrangements are often infectiously danceable. But i can feel you is less overtly wacky, more ruminative and instinctive, while still showcasing the duo’s skill in pushing listeners to unexpected, often challenging places.

When we caught up with Brenner and Garbus by phone a few weeks ago, they were as inspired and candid as their music, talking to us about how the new album came together, the daily practice of creativity, self-care as essential to political engagement, and scoring their first film. Our chat also reinforced just how charged Tune-Yards’ music can be, when a seemingly casual production choice carries hefty questions about race for its creators and listeners alike.

The A.V. Club: You two have worked together for years but are presenting this record as a duo for the first time. Has anything changed in your collaboration?

Merrill Garbus: I think this is—thank you for acknowledging that—I think a lot of the press around Tune-Yards centered around me and my big, fat face [Laughs.], and so we wanted to clarify Nate’s role. And over the years, Nate’s taken on a bigger and bigger role and is listed as a co-producer on this album, so I think we felt—I mean, even stuff like this where we’re both on an interview, instead of it just being me, we wanted to make it clear that it’s a real collaboration and that it acknowledged both of our contributions.

AVC: You guys wrote and produced the album yourselves, right?

MG: Yeah.

Nate Brenner: But we had a lot of help. There was Beau Sorenson, who also helped with recording a bunch of some crazy synthesizer filtering, and the entire album was mixed by someone else. So, obviously we did a lot of work ourselves, but we couldn’t have done it without help from a lot of other people and other musicians who played on it.

MG: Yeah.

NB: Matt Milton and Michael Coleman and Hamir Atwal.

MG: In terms of production, I would say it was the two of us, but definitely, as is with any album—well, not every album—but yes, we had a lot of help this time for sure. And then we also did a lot in our own rehearsal studio, where we’ve been learning how to record ourselves a lot more over the past few years as well.

AVC: How did this album come together? Did you have a vision from the start? Did it reveal itself over time?

MG: No vision. Totally blind. [Laughs.] First of all, no idea. Yeah, and it feels like a really weird time in general. 2017 has been so weird, and 2016 was no less weird. But I think something that Nate’s helped me understand is life as a musician: if we’re musicians and trying to be actively practicing music all the time. And so that’s really helped me—oh yeah, Nate’s pointing to The Artist’s Way. Do you know that book?

AVC: Absolutely, yeah.

MG: So he’s reminding me, “Remember that time when you did all of The Artist’s Way?” Yeah, I had no [plan], but I knew that I’m trying to practice, I’m trying to write all the time, even when we’re on tour. And so at the end of the last album cycle, I wrote music for the David Byrne Contemporary Color project and wrote a song for Mavis Staples and was kind of doing this other writing that felt really freeing, to not just work on Tune-Yards stuff all the time but to work on other stuff. So, in other words, I tried this time to blend songwriting from one album to the other, just keep writing through it all. But it really started in the beginning of 2016 with doing The Artist’s Way, commuting to and from the studio, getting into a regular meditation practice, a regular writing practice—especially freewriting—and just trying to make a routine life of music and creativity.

NB: I think this is the first time for us when we weren’t really trying to “make a record.” We were just, “Let’s just spend time making music,” and then, after the end of a year and a half, then we decided to put it together into an album. Versus in the past, I think we were like, “We need nine songs or 10 songs.” This time it was more about the process of just making music every day instead of a specific set of songs.

AVC: The album covers a lot of sonic territory, as your work tends to do, but it’s got a distinctly cosmic vibe, with glimpses of acid jazz and soul, even some psychedelic moments. You’ve talked about some of the non-music influences, but were there any particular artists or albums you were taking in that influenced what you were writing and recording?

MG: I started learning how to DJ, and I think—dude, that’s really cool that you say “acid jazz” [Laughs.], ’cause I think it sounds much… I don’t know, DJing is awesome because it’s so creative, and I think that there’s a way to do it that feels really creative and it’s like making this cool collage of whatever you want to play for people and making it work. And because I’ve also been doing this radio show primarily featuring female-identified producers and emcees, I was listening to way more electronic music than I usually do and way more specifically dance music, club music by contemporary producers. So I feel like there was Holly Herndon and Suzi Analogue, a couple producers, FXWRK and Tygapaw—all these New York club DJs that were making music that sounded really different than stuff I was used to. And then kind of engaging with that, with new music and new dance music in a way that mixed it together with older music as I did DJ sets, and noting how people are using computers and using digital elements and really making sounds that I really—like none of us have really heard before. And it was only through listening to that music pretty closely that I started to “get it” a little bit more. I started to appreciate it a little bit more.

AVC: The songs definitely reflect that, the way they shape-shift—that comes through.

MG: That’s cool.

AVC: You used an MPC for the first time, and generally you guys seem to often write accidents or surprise encounters with technology right into your music. What are some of those moments on this record?

MG: Definitely “Look At Your Hands” has a lot of my first attempts at the MPC, including the ways that it’s like, a lot of the “He got, he got, he got,” I think that I did that with the MPC, and then I did it live and then tried to make my live vocal sound like a sample. And probably there’s a third layer of “he got”s that are somehow processed in different ways. So yeah, there’s a whole shit-ton of accidents. Nate, do you remember?

NB: Well, when I think about it, in a lot of ways, it’s our whole process, is just creating accidents—

MG: [Laughs.]

NB: And then [we] go back and pick what we like. But I feel like going into the studio, a lot of times we’re just like, “Let’s see what this crazy pedal can do,” on the synth or something and then just set up weird sounds. And then we might take that and turn it into something else. But for [“ABC123”], the synth sequences, we spent a lot of time experimenting, and then I don’t even remember what we were thinking so… You just kind of create these weird little sounds, and you can take them and put ’em—and also, we did sessions where it was just synth sounds or just white noise, and then later you could go through and sample your own sounds that you made.

MG: Right. I mean, and [To Brenner.] can I talk about the “Look At Your Hands” accident?

NB: Oh yeah.

MG: Well, in terms of accidents, I think that it’s true that we set it up, like Nate said, we set ourselves up for the improvisation/accident thing. And so we were doing this thing where we had, like, an hour and it was like, “Okay, I’ll start something for an hour, and then you take it”—sorry, for a half hour. So for a half hour I made this drum beat that was weird, and then Nate sat in front of it, and I left. I started doing something else. And when I came back, I was like, “Oh, this sounds sweet,” but we realized that we thought the downbeat was in different places, and so we were sitting in front of the same piece of music, which ended up being “Look At Your Hands,” but Nate had written a bass line thinking that the downbeat was in a different place than I had intended it to be in the beat. And that is probably one of the most musically frustrating things, when you can’t feel it the opposite way. And so I ended up changing it so that there was a backbeat to actually clarify it, ’cause if Nate can’t hear where it is, how is an average listener gonna be able to hear it? But stuff like that, where he would never have written that bass line or he might not have gotten there had it not been for this happy accident of hearing it differently.

AVC: On “Private Life” there’s a cool recording of a woman yelling, “Let me go to that place, let me sit in that place”—who is that?

MG: Oh, it’s me.

AVC: Oh, it is you. You sound completely different.

MG: [Laughs.]

NB: Yeah, we slowed down the vocals, I think. And then, there was definitely some slow it down or speed it up, and sing on top of it. I think you slowed it down an octave.

MG: Yeah, it’s pitched down an octave, and I thought it—I mean, I thought it sounded, um… [Laughs.] I thought it sounded different. Let me be totally honest: I thought that when I slowed it down like that, that people would think, “Oh, that’s a black woman singing,” because that’s how it sounded to me, and I thought that was both really fucked up and also probably… complicated in exactly the right way.

AVC: Yeah, that’s interesting.

MG: And that’s really uncomfortable that I even talked about that, and I think that’s why I did it. And I think the lyrics of that song have to do with that, that a lot of people over the years—I mean, now people tend to know that I’m a white woman because they’ve seen my face a lot—but people have said to me in the past, “Oh, I just assumed that you were black based on your voice.” And I think that’s something that I’ve been trying to unpack myself and investigate more in myself, and I think that it brings up a lot about my musical influences and the music industry that we’re in and [Sighs.], you know, a lot about whiteness and the history of white musicians in music forms that are traditionally black music forms. So, anyway, it’s complicated. My brain can’t handle it this morning, but I feel like it’s complicated enough to open up questions for other people, and that’s what I hoped.

AVC: In the press release for “Look At Your Hands,” you note that you had largely turned inward and had been examining all these “–isms” in your life, much like you’re talking about now. Did you find the current political climate affecting your writing?

MG: For sure. And we were writing before the election, during the election, right after the election. But I think things took on a really different meaning. I think, if anything, it made it more complicated for me about what to tune out and what to tune into. And everyone can agree that it’s overwhelming to look at media these days, and I really wanted to stay engaged and sign petitions and be clear about the injustices happening in our community here in Oakland, at the same time as I really felt like there’s something that happens when you disengage. Nate and I went away for a little bit, rented a house, and to get away—I mean, we didn’t have phones there, we didn’t have internet really—and that feels really important, too. It feels really important to disengage enough to get, like I said, kind of in that meditation of “How are these things sitting with me?” Not getting my brain into this overly active, agitated state, but the need to also touch down into the effects that these things are having on me, and also just the self-care part of it. I think a lot of people have been feeling overwhelmed, and that that’s not—being in a place of overwhelm is also not productive, even while it feels like there’s such urgency to things these days.

AVC: The album does seem to talk about being grounded, particularly in the body. That’s very present.

MG: Yeah, I think it feels counterintuitive sometimes because of how much is—I think especially right after the election, those of us who were terrified of what a Trump presidency would mean, I think there was a lot of knee-jerk, there was a lot of reactivity. And I think it’s hard to make the choice to slow down at that moment. And certainly there are times for action, but I felt like—specifically around racism, around internalized racism, and then really wanting to investigate how racism lives in me as a white person in this country—it felt like very deep work that I have to do. And so that deep work isn’t gonna come from being online. That deep work is gonna come from going way down and getting in touch with really deep stuff in myself. And I think what I found is I need to make time for that. There’s no other way. And so I have to trust that if I slow down, the world’s not gonna fall apart.

AVC: You’ve taken lessons in dance, drumming, and singing for the last few years. Where do you feel like those practices manifest on the new album? 

MG: Well, definitely I got deep enough with studying Haitian rhythm that that certainly is deeply embedded in most music that I create now. So I think “ABC” is a good example where there’s that cowbell pattern, and that is certainly a Haitian rhythm. I think in terms of lessons—we’ve been taking voice lessons a lot over the past couple of years now.

NB: I think it’s more maybe about just continuing to always be learning new skills that can come out when you least expect them to. Or almost that you’re just wanting to keep getting better at music. ’Cause there’s so many great teachers here, too, that you can learn stuff from a lot of different people and just, instead of always feeling like you are—I guess it’s so that you’re constantly being inspired.

MG: And I think it’s a lifelong pursuit for us both to not feel like, “Oh, okay, we’ve gotten successful, so let’s just keep doing the same thing,” but that we want to keep growing. I was going to say specifically with voice, I think my voice was able to go places on these recordings that it truly hadn’t been able to before—like, physically able to before. So I feel like on a song like “Home” or “Heart Attack” even, where I feel like my voice sounds different than it has in the past, and I think that was from going through this new vocal practice—specifically classical vocal practice—that was giving me more notes really high up and giving me more ability to belt, but in a smoother way. So it just feels like I’ve got more in my toolbox now vocally.

AVC: The tour for this album starts in February. What are you guys doing with the live shows this time around?

MG: Ooh, a sweet trio. [Laughs.] A power trio. We have a new drummer with us, Hamir Atwal, and Hamir is just amazing. Nate and Hamir have been playing together in the Bay Area for a lot of years now, mostly jazz, but just lots of different kinds of music. And so they have a great rhythm section together. I’m playing some sampled percussion, but mostly working on vocals and sampling vocals and doing live looping, which feels great. Someone said the other day, “Oh, I realized that the looping pedal is like an instrument.” And I was like, “Yeah.” You have to practice. It takes a lot of practice. It’s been great to have a local—now we’re a local band, and we can all rehearse quite a bit together. Now we’ve been playing for months with the hope being that when we hit the road on the album-release tour, we’ll be in a really tight and creative place where the improvisational elements of the music can come out and we can have a deep pocket and go to cosmic places, to use your word.

AVC: Nikki Nack was mostly written in the studio, then learned afterward for the live shows. Is that how it’s working for i can feel you, too?

MG: Ha ha! Good. Question.

NB: I think this time, we actually were trying out some of the songs live during the writing process, just because we felt like that was really hard to do, what we did with Nikki Nack. So we had a couple of shows—Merrill was doing a weekly DJ gig at this local bar, and sometimes we’d try out a few new songs as a duo. And we played maybe two other shows as a duo and were trying out the new songs, and then before we finished recording and writing the record, we even started rehearsing with Hamir. And you could figure out little things that—when you’re playing live, I think you just kind of know what feels right versus when you’re sitting in front of the computer—

MG: Totally.

NB: —listening to it. So we intentionally wanted to at least—we didn’t get to all of the songs, but—test out a lot of them in a live setting before we finalized the record versions.

MG: Yeah, I think on Whokill, we were playing a lot of—like “Gangsta” and “Bizness” we had been playing for months, if not years, before they were recorded, and it felt like we knew what audiences—we knew the response and the relationship of the music to audiences. And I really missed that on Nikki Nack. The music felt really difficult, first of all, and it felt like it took us a long time to learn it and be comfortable with it. So yeah, this time, I think we played, like, three shows under a pseudonym with Hamir, playing all the new music around here in Oakland before we finished the album. So that was really cool, to be able to see how they were sculpted and finesse them a little bit based on the reactions we got to them.

AVC: Speaking of Oakland, you guys recently scored Boots Riley’s film, Sorry To Bother You, which debuts at Sundance soon. How did that come about?

MG: Boots and I met a few years ago, and, I don’t know, he just asked. He was like, “I’m working on this film. Would you like to be involved?” And I was like, “Uhhh, me?” [Laughs.] And I said, “Well, not without Nate, because we definitely need some nasty bass on this score.” And Nate has so much more compositional background than I do. So yeah, it’s been awesome. It started with me doing some demoing of some strange vocal stuff, ’cause I think initially Boots had just envisioned a really vocal-heavy score for this thing, and also pretty weird and experimental. So it started with that, and it’s been super fun.

AVC: Had either of you composed for a visual like that before?

NB: I don’t think so, but I think it was really—the first time we did it, when we got the actual edit of the movie, the first draft of the movie, I remember feeling like, “Ahh, this is what I’m meant to do!” [Laughs.] I was basically like, “I only want to do film scores from now on.” But you know, now it’s kind of like—it’s really hard on the technical side. But it definitely felt really natural and really fun, and I think especially for me, since I don’t write a lot of lyrics, it felt like I could shape the scene musically without coming up with any of my own themes or lyrics.

MG: [Exhales calmly.]

NB: Yeah, exactly.

MG: Relief.

NB: Too good to be true.

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