From nothing to something

Found in translation: Merrill Garbus writes songs with plenty of room for interpretation, for both her audience and herself. Photo by Chloe Aftel

In the hyper-cathartic song, “Riotriot,” tUnE-yArDs front woman Merrill Garbus sings, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand.” It’s a surprising statement on an album (2011’s critically-acclaimed w h o k i l l) full of insight, ferocious passion and empathy-tempered politics. It’s also a great example of Garbus’ penchant for framing her personal politics — railings against injustice — within questions and open statements that allow for the listener’s own slant.

But, even if tUnE-yArDs fans don’t speak the language, the message still seems to resonate. “I write lyrics thinking about the sound of them first,” says Garbus. “There’s room for a lot of different interpretation and room for people to find themselves in the songs.”

Garbus tells Xpress about how tUnE-yArDs recently performed in Croatia. The promoter told them that they’d be playing at a place where his grandfather was executed. “It puts a new framework on everything for me because I realize we’re bringing this moment of celebration and people coming together in a place that has pretty much had the exact opposite of that in its history,” says Garbus.

She says that she does feel like an ambassador: “I get to represent but also explore other cultures and then come back and talk about them.” She adds, “Even just to know that there are fans of tUnE-yArDs in Brazil and in Argentina and in Turkey: I’m confused, almost — how is this translating and how are we so lucky to have our music spread so far and wide?”

Travel, for Garbus (who recorded tUnE-yArDs’ debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, on a hand-held voice recorder to recycled cassette tape before that album was rereleased by 4AD Records) has been a boon in many ways. She tells Xpress that it’s something she believes in deeply. “I’ve had incredibly spiritual experiences with audiences and a real feeling of bringing a sense of community and something greater than us all,” says Garbus. But also, “It’s a very strange way to live, in a new hotel and a new city every night.”

That strangeness and disorientation, the very things that threaten to burn out even the most enthusiastic of touring artists, is probably what accounts for Garbus’ continued excitement about performing tracks from w h o k i l l, an album the band (which also includes Garbus’ partner, bassist Nate Brenner, and two saxophone players) has been touring behind for more than a year now.

Of the songs Garbus says, “Every night they mean something different, depending on what’s on my mind and where we are.”

She adds, “In terms of the spirit of a show or the spirit of a song, it’s interesting how it changes” but, “my musical approach has to remain the same because with the looping it’s a memorized choreography.”

Originally a one-woman band, tUnE-yArDs began as, and is still based on, live-looping. Garbus builds, on stage, an orchestra of found-percussion, vocal weavings and ukulele parts. If that sounds techy, it’s a surprisingly organic process that nods to Afrobeat and tribal rhythms. “There’s something that feels really great about creating a piece of music in front of people, that they’re seeing it from nothing to something,” says Garbus.

And, while she wonders if the live looping translates less successfully at larger festivals where not everyone can see the stage, she does feel that she’s pushed the boundaries of the looping process. “People are like, ‘Wow, you really do create the sounds of the album,’” says Garbus. “I think we’ve made it a viable way to do rhythm.”

Rhythm, more than looping and more than politics, drives tUnE-yArDs. It’s what makes the songs — unusual, almost aggressive with Garbus’ forceful, high-energy vocal — instantly catchy.  From w h o k i l l, singles "Bizness" and "Gangsta" landed on 2011 top album and song lists from the likes of Time, Rolling Stone and Spin; “Gangsta” was also heard on Weeds and The Good Wife. These are songs of equal parts righteous anger and celebration; both elements are palpabale in the movement-based videos for “Bizness” (choreographed with Sonia Reiter) and “My Country,” which feature what Garbus calls “grotesque dancing.”

“If I can’t feel a rhythm in my body, it’s hard for me to create a rhythm to share,” she says. However, Garbus suspects a lot of people in the world think they can’t dance, so she wanted to convey a type of movement that “was evocative of something not pretty.”

While tUnE-yArDs’ front woman takes a hands-on approach to all of the band’s endeavors, one thing she isn’t focused on at the moment is a next album. She says that, after a break, she plans to “give myself the freedom to make whatever music comes out of me at that point.”

Want a hint as to what that might sound like? “I’ll certainly change something about the looping, whether it’s the objects that I loop, or the instruments,” says Garbus. And, “It would be interesting to involve different people in different ways.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

who: tUnE-yArDs with Mariachi el Bronx
where: The Orange Peel
when: Wednesday, June 6 (9 p.m., $17 in advance or $19 day of show.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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