Merrill Garbus has just had a life-altering experience at Oregon music fest Pickathon. “I promise I did not do psychedelic drugs,” she laughs while describing it over the phone, en route to a series of intimate Northeastern shows that will culminate with Saturday’s Celebrate Brooklyn! performance at Prospect Park. She’s been touring with her band tUnE-yArDs in support of their latest album, Nikki Nack, since its release last year. “[I] was feeling really vocally tired. I sing hard at these shows, and I just felt kind of depleted. [Pickathon] really reminded me why I play music — the element of the unknown, the unexpected happening.”
Perhaps it’s a testament to how grueling a tour can be — it’s hard to believe that Garbus has ever lost sight of the unexpected. The phrase might as well describe the entire trajectory of tUnE-yArDs, a project that began with Garbus, then a puppeteer, singing songs into a tape recorder in her former Montreal apartment. The resulting material became her astonishing debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, but even with the critical interest it piqued, no one was prepared for her sophomore effort, w h o k i l l, to nab the top spot in the Village Voice’s 2011 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll.
More importantly, “unexpected” also describes the sonic thread that runs through both of those records, as well as Nikki Nack; cryptic lines are belted out over a flurry of digital textures, non-Western beats, bleating horns, and a veritable kitchen sink of tones and sounds that rarely find their way onto indie pop records. Garbus famously hemmed and hawed over the tracks that would make it onto the album, writing and rewriting myriad demos before coming up with a finalized collection. But with all the touring, she says, some of those early versions have made their way back into her sets. “Somewhere in the middle of tour, I was like, ‘Hey guys, you wanna hear the raw demos that all these songs came from?’ ” Garbus recalls. “And it was fascinating to go back to those and be like, ‘Oh, I really miss that old rhythmic feel’ or ‘I miss that crazy melodic part that we had in there.’ ”
Pickathon was mind-blowing to Garbus in part because it offered a rare opportunity for experimentation. “We got to do two sets, and I wanted to make them very different from each other…and it brought out the other iterations of things and other possibilities, and man, it was so enjoyable. I haven’t enjoyed myself so much onstage in such a long time.”
Garbus is looking forward to bringing more improvisation into tUnE-yArDs’ sets, and hints that this could be the focus of their upcoming stretch of tour dates. “We have these amazing small club shows….I don’t know how many people will actually come to them, but we have them — Providence, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; and Burlington, Vermont — these perfect opportunities to try new stuff.” With that excitement comes a note of caution. “I’m trying not to pressure myself right now because, again, there’s an element of just, like, surviving this lifestyle at this point in the tour where we’re just trying to get sleep and not get sick. I don’t want to lose my voice!”
Likewise, Garbus sees Brooklyn as a great proving ground for new material as well as creative presentation of familiar work. “Brooklyn is another place where I feel so comfortable and I feel so very accepted in my art, and my art form — whatever I choose to make out of tUnE-yArDs. And that’s been true from the early years, that I think I feel more comfortable to stretch out and deepen the performance aspect of it,” she says. “It’s not every place that we can go and have performance art and theater elements come into a concert experience, and in Brooklyn, people are just like, ‘Sure, bring it on!’ So that’s something I really love.”
Garbus thrives on absorbing that kind of energy and reflecting it back out into the world; her songs are a patchwork of her travels, experiences, and sonic experiments, collaged and cobbled together into something that feels wholly and completely tUnE-yArDs. Whether that’s Haitian rhythm, vocals modeled from Mbuti pygmy tribes, or working with classical vocals in a new way (as she recently did performing in David Byrne’s Contemporary Color shows in Toronto and New York, with Emanon Winter Guard performing a routine to music she composed specifically for them), Garbus manages to subvert pop music’s formulas again and again. “I love this work where I get to, particularly with my voice, explore whatever sounds there are, Western and non-,” she says. “As a musician, to absorb music from everywhere that I either go or go through listening to records, there’s something about that that feels very now. We’re so interconnected and we have so much access to information about the whole world, it does kind of get absorbed into this huge, mashed-up ball. And I think one of my goals has been to really deepen my knowledge about what’s actually happening in places. To actually go and meet people who are living there and to understand what life is like there, it revolutionizes the whole concept of what your knowledge of the world is.”
First and foremost, Garbus is eager to learn and adapt, with an uncanny openness. She says that playing the songs from Nikki Nack on a year-and-a-half-long tour has given her insight into how her next record will take shape. “I think if I were to do it again, I probably would play the music live way before putting out the album,” she says. Though she had some anxiety about putting Nikki Nack out into the world, its content feels different to her now. “Now we feel like we’re in our stride and there’s such a pleasure at this part of the record cycle where we don’t have to think about the music — it’s just kinda the air we breathe, the food we eat; it’s just kinda part of us now. It’s been really satisfying.”
Despite the exhaustion that comes from her relentless touring, Garbus doesn’t plan to slow down. “Basically, instead of stopping working after this, I think I’m just going to keep working,” she says regarding what comes after the tour. “A lot of that will be collaborations with other people, so I’m really excited for that aspect of my job.” She can’t mention who she’s been collaborating with as of yet, only that there’s something in the works. And soon, “Rocking Chair” will get a brand-new video, animated by longtime friend Sarah Pupo. “It’s like the opposite of videos that we’ve done in the past,” she says. “It’s abstract, kinda like looking through a kaleidoscope. The images that she used, I’m just so excited to attach them to that song, which is really rare…it’s kind of like the cherry on top of the record cycle.”
And eventually, Garbus will do it all over again. “[It’s] like you walk towards this cliff of the end of an album cycle, and [into] a new potential world of music that is yet to be written. And it’s both terrifying and completely exhilarating. So I am tentatively walking forward.”
tUne-yArDs play Celebrate Brooklyn! on August 8.