tUnE-yArDs Uses Her Lungs

Merrill Garbus defeats the curse of the real thing on incredible new album Nikki Nack

Rigorously, Garbus made two demos a day for all of January 2013, handing over her hard drive to Brenner during the occasional exhaustion, for him to make "Save As" versions of basslines, "so she wouldn't feel pressured to use anything that I did."

"She'll write the same song 20 times," says Brenner. "All the verses in ‘Wait for a Minute' were completely different lyrics. Sometimes it's like, ‘Maybe it's about me, I don't know?' I don't wanna ask her too many…because I know it's so personal. But sometimes they start really personal and then just end up a way to, you know, relate to people.'"

w h o k I l l's depictions of sex and violence were more blatant than the more satirical, ambivalent-seeming Nikki Nack. I can hear Brenner shrug over the phone when asked about a song like "Powa" ("My man likes me from behind/ Tell the truth I never mind"): "I might be wrong, but I don't think a lot of people know we're in a relationship. I don't think about it that much."

Location Info


Rough Trade NYC

64 N. 9th St.
Brooklyn, NY 11249

Category: Music Venues

Region: Brooklyn


tunE-yArDs plays Wednesday, May 7 at Rough Trade in Brooklyn.

On the new single "Water Fountain," it's up to us to figure out what the blood-soaked dollar, the two-pound chicken, Busta Rhymes-cum-Al Pacino "woo-hahs" and "jump back, jump back, Daddy shot a bear" are all doing there.

Perhaps the anticipation of a larger audience for Nikki Nack led Garbus to pull back the curtain more lyrically.

"That's a good question. I mean, it's a great and annoying question," she says. "It's like ‘can I really say that?' Not because it's personal or anything—if people want to think they know a lot about me from listening to my songs, that's fine—these songs are obviously extremely personal. But I'm not worried about what I'm…disclosing. In ‘Stop That Man' it gets uncomfortable to come to talk about or grapple with in a song, my own fears, my own racist tendencies, my own really fucked up shit in myself that I'm not comfortable with, that I'm working out through a song. That's what's vulnerable I guess, that I'm working through stuff by using the songs. I'm not the kind of songwriter who's like, ‘Everyone knows about my relationship with John Mayer through this song.' It's not autobiographical like that, and I'm always suspicious when someone's like, ‘Really? You really want to tell the world about that?'"

Brenner talks about the sexism they witnessed while touring early on: "Before anyone had heard of us and we were opening for Xiu Xiu, the sound guys would assume she didn't know what she was doing. She'd show up with her loop pedal and floor tom. They wouldn't listen to her, but I'd be like ‘If she says she wants more vocals in her monitor, that's what she wants.' They didn't believe that she knew what she was doing. Then every time after we played they'd say, ‘You were amazing, here's my card if you ever need a sound guy."

In 2011, w h o k i l l was the first album by a woman to win this paper's Pazz & Jop critics poll since Lucinda Williams in 1998, an honor not bestowed on Beyoncé, Bjork or M.I.A.—or Radiohead. It's worth remembering that people expected Bon Iver to win, despite mixed appeal. Bon Iver placed at #9 in the poll, at the time having sold exactly 300,000 more copies than w h o k i l l's 47,000, the lowest-charting and selling Pazz & Jop winner of all time. Partly the runaway surprise was that such an unknown artist had captivated critical hearts. But the critical establishment became less friendly to women around the 2000s, with previous winners like as Liz Phair and Courtney Love dragged through the mud as easy punchlines, while M.I.A., Lady Gaga and most recently Lily Allen have all been subject to widespread backlash after just two albums. Following its Pazz win, pop culture author Chuck Klosterman wrote a widely-reviled piece on w h o k i l l for the launch of Grantland that among other things, confused the terms "asexual" and "androgynous," and "asexual" with the woman who sang "Powa."

(Klosterman tells the Voice by email: "I hadn't heard the album. I decided to write something about it after throwing it on without any preconceived notion about what it supposedly was. I generally liked it. But people freaked out, because the Internet exists and people are crazy. And I obviously can't control the kind of person who misinterprets my work on purpose.")

"We joke about a tUnE-yArDs backlash a lot," says Garbus. "But it's not really my business, in a way. I'm powerless over how I'm perceived by people. We're out here [currently on tour]with Arcade Fire and we kind of see that [mentality], like ‘Oh those guys are playing a stadium, they can't be cool anymore.' Which I have been guilty of. I just can't care about that. The more I can be centered in my own integrity about what I want from this music and the emotional, physical and spiritual health of the band—that's what I want."

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