Master of Puppets

There are some strange things going on in the tUnE-yArD. Clattering, swirling, weird things. Merrill Garbus runs the ramshackle sonic junkyard, with lilting ukelele melodies and looped vocals that sound like African yodels one minute and sweet multi-harmony pop the next. Her voice recorder snags bits of her dexterous finger picking, homemade percussion, and found sounds. Bass drums rattle the soundscape quilted with tiny layers of harmonic and rhythmic dissonance. Frankly, it sounds like chaos, it sounds like folk art, and it sounds absolutely captivating. Garbus’s debut full length, BiRd BrAiNs, is a collagist collection of experimental songs just released in LP record format by Marriage Records. Ink 19 caught up with tUnE-yArDs to discuss the virtues of vinyl, mixtapes, and her love for putting socks on her fingers – a.k.a. puppetry.


tUnE-yArDs conjures up the imagery of a playful, musical junkyard of sounds. What was your inspiration for the name?

The word tune-yards itself is from a lyric in one of my older songs that says, “and we’ll fly over tune-yards in our dreams.” I wrote it at a time when it felt like songs were just growing in a specific place that I could harvest from, as if they did not come from me directly at all, but from a garden of sorts, in a dream land.

Junkyard is an awesome word to use. The capitalization was indeed intended to annoy people. It was not just aesthetic, although it looks junky, as you say, which I enjoy. But lots of reviewers say, “Pain-in-the-ass capitalizer tUnE-YaRdS has just ruined my life by making me use my shift key too many times.” And I guess part of that was to force people to slow down, to alter their routine, in whatever minute, stupid, insignificant way. I have a deep fear of being homogenized and easily swallowed.

MySpace says you are from Merrillville, United States. Where is that located?

Hmm. Right now it’s often in my car.

It needs to be somewhere located in my body because that’s the only place I seem to be for more than six days at a time.

I have a deep love for Montreal. My legal residence is in Vermont. And I have a hard time feeling comfortable anywhere, as if comfort is going to make me forget about all of the work I need to do in the world.

What would BiRd-BrAiNs smell like? (The album, not the delicious delicacy.)

Good-ass question. Burnt pine.

How does your puppetry training influence your musical prowess (dexterity with the fingers)?

I owe much of my life as an artist to two puppet theaters in Vermont. First is Sandglass Theater, where I learned this idea of creating worlds. It was never just about a puppet and how it moved, it was about the invisible world that the puppet lived in. The songs I’m interested in creating are worlds, sonic worlds, with texture that you can feel, smells (as you suggest), things you can see. But what’s so wonderful is that the world can be different for every person who listens to it. That sounds pretty preschool cheesy, but it’s a rule that I strictly obey with my music. If something isn’t appropriate to the world of a song, it’s OUT.

And the same world thing goes for live performance – a lot of how I’ll frame things, the gestures I use, theatrical elements, all came from studying at Sandglass. I think I could write a manifesto about Sandglass and its relevance to all contemporary art.

AND if you don’t know how Bread & Puppet changes anyone who comes near them, you should take a trip to Glover, Vermont and see for yourself.

What is your single favorite place to perform your music?

Back woods of my parents’ house, on the stage I constructed for reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets to the green sprouts that came up after I raked.

What is the best environment in which to hear BiRd-BrAiNs (mental, physical, spiritual, whatever)?

Definitely wherever there’s a cassette player. I believe a lot of it is probably driving music, but stop driving. Pull the car over. Open the window. When the last song is over put the keys under the mat and eject the cassette, put it in your back pocket, and start walking.

What is the strangest instrument you own (self-made instruments included)?

Man, I wish I had more interesting instruments. I think collecting instruments necessitates a home to keep them in for years and years, and that hasn’t been the reality of my life for a long time. Somewhere I have this wind instrument that I got in Kenya. It’s sort of like a shawm, a really reedy, buzzy, and mo-foin’ LOUD thing with about 3 or 4 holes like a recorder. You demand attention when you play that thing, and it just brings you immediately into the world of a parade or wild celebration of some sort. It’s carved out of some kind of tropical wood and the “reed” was bamboo or something, split down the middle.


What was the last music event you attended that was not your own? What brought you there?

A Ladyfingers show in Montreal. It’s my friend Adam’s band and at his shows, there are always many weird things happening simultaneously: words that he just CAN’T be saying, songs sung from the perspective of blushing teen girls, hecklers egging him on to do more Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano curlicues… if you haven’t seen Ladyfingers in a seedy bar with free pool and a picture of a naked girl masturbating as the sign for the women’s restroom, you’ve really been missing out.

What were some advantages of using a voice recorder for this album?

I really like how it compresses everything, especially my voice. I know people have had problems with my voice being distorted and unclear but I actually think it’s been my favorite vocal sound of any recording session I’ve ever done.

And it’s also handy to have something you can carry around anywhere to record. I did field recordings in the woods, by the ocean (wind was a problem, though) and while walking, etc.

You include field recordings in your songs. What artist(s) would you be overjoyed to hear using your music as source material?

I think they should get their own source material! It’s more fun that sampling my stuff, which sounds like crap anyway. I would be overjoyed to have Björk or Laurie Anderson or Patti Smith listening at all to my music, but I would want them to be sourcing their material not from me, but from Icelandic elfish woods calls, etc.

What does vinyl add or detract to the release of BiRd-BrAiNs?

Add, add, add. I’m so lucky to have Marriage Records as my new pals on this record. They had faith that it would sound good on vinyl, and truth be told, I haven’t heard it yet, so I dunno. I think it sort of sounds like it’s on vinyl to begin with, in its digital form. I think it very much adds to the release because first of all, I get to stop dubbing so many cassette tapes, and second of all, it will be available to more people via the vinyl. My great friend Alex Chitty did the artwork, and the Marriage guys are hand-screen printing every single one, so they will be very very special records.

You originally released BiRd-BrAiNs on cassette. What is your favorite medium for listening to music, and why?

Cassette’s a close second favorite to vinyl. Because it reminds me of being in the backseat of my parents’ car with my Walkman and albums like Rhythm Nation [Janet Jackson] and Faith [George Michael], which were some of my first cassettes. Because it makes you slow down a bit, and register the fact that you can’t have the song you want instantaneously. So much has changed in the past two decades in terms of speed of access of things. And I like a cassette because it has this warm sound that says, “Just sit back and let me take care of the next song.”

Vinyl is just wonderful. It just sounds so darn good. For sheer listening experience, that’s certainly the one. And that definitely makes you slow down. You have to be in one place, probably at home or at your friend’s house, sitting or standing but not jumping up and down too hard.

You cite cassette tape mixes as a musical influence. How have they influenced your sense of composition or musical structure?

I think the answer is in your question. Maybe I’ll just turn it into a yes/no question. Yes, indeed, it influenced the composition and musical structure of the album.

The best was when the end of one song was in the same key of the next, or if it had one great note in common. Or when you could overdub your voice for a second onto songs.

I also was into dubbing my voice over itself using two blank cassettes. It wasn’t a mix tape for anyone but myself, but that was what was so cool about it. My own personal mix tape.

Also I think what’s cool is when you can’t hear the end of a song without hearing the song that came next on your old mix tape from ‘92.

Do you remember the first mix tape you received/sent? What was it about?

My first mix tape is hard to pin down; it was probably one from the oldies station that I started getting obsessed with in about 1988 or so, when I got sick of listening to like Lisa Lisa [and the Cult Jam] on pop radio and had this spell where I only listened to Christmas music. After a short Classical period to calm the nerves, I got really into oldies and would make mix tapes off of the radio. In fact, that’s when mix tapes were the best, when they were all about catching your favorite songs happening live. And the trick was to get it right at the beginning, and not cut off the start.

That mix tape had “Easier Said Than Done” [The Essex] on it, and probably this amazing song called “Western Union” [The Five Americans] that no one ever seems to know.

After a couple of amazing tours, and BiRd-BrAiNs out on vinyl March 10th, what’s next for tUnE-YaRdS?

Dancing. More dancing. I will probably ask more people to play with me. And altering the way the music industry functions to positively and responsibly impact our communities and our people, to act not only as soothing pacifiers with music but also activators, inspiring innovators, and revolutionary booty-shakers.


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