tUnE-yArDs: Merrill Garbus on Found Sounds and Live Looping

IF THE PIONEERS OF MUSIQUE CONCRÈTE COULD KNOW THAT IN THE EARLY part of the century after theirs, Merrill Garbus would tour the world to critical acclaim from outlets as different as Pitchfork and The New Yorker, they might say, “Yes.

By Stephen Fortner

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IF THE PIONEERS OF MUSIQUE CONCRÈTE COULD KNOW THAT IN THE EARLY part of the century after theirs, Merrill Garbus would tour the world to critical acclaim from outlets as different as Pitchfork and The New Yorker, they might say, “Yes. Our work here is done.” They’d probably also want a do-over to make their own music as joyful, kinetic, and danceable as hers is. We recently caught up with the one-woman force of nature that is Tune-Yards.

The vocal parts in your latest viral single, “Bizness,” sound as though you’d sampled yourself and were playing it on a keyboard.

I actually programmed myself into a drum machine on a sequencer—the ReDrum device in Propellerhead Reason. What I did was pitchshift the voice—I sung “ooh, ooh, ooh” and then edited the steps at all the pitches you hear into Reason’s sequencer manually. I really love the resulting effect.

Can you discuss your early exposure to music and how it led to the way you assemble songs today?

I had piano lessons from my mom from ages six to 13. I learned how to read music playing piano, and I sang in lots of choirs. The first Tune-Yards album [Bird-Brains] was me with a digital voice recorder going around taking snippets of things and thinking, “Oh, that would make a cool drum beat.” Using found sounds, teaching myself enough synthesizer to do pretty pa-dunky-dunky bass lines and pads, and singing into this voice recorder.

Can you give an example of being inspired by a sound in the world and then making a beat out of it?

From Bird-Brains, the song “Lions”—I was working on Martha’s Vineyard. To get off the island I had to take this ferry, so I was hearing the whir of the ferry a lot. I sampled that, and I realized that I could create a beat just by varying the volume control. So I’d have this drone in the background and then buh buh buh buh. That was one of the first experiments. A light went off —I realized I could do this with anything. It’s just making a collage of sound, and that was so incredible to me. Then I realized that I needed a “clack” sound. There was all this extra wood in the room, so I just slapped boards against each other. I was also working with kids at the time, so in one of the songs, a sneeze is a little percussive thing that gets repeated.

What was this voice recorder?

The one I made the Bird-Brains album on—was a Sony ICD. It’s not a video camera or even pro audio, but a small Dictaphone kind of thing for office work. The unit has deteriorated a bit over time; it’s got a very different sound to it than it used to, which is interesting to me.

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What do you use now for capturing sounds?

I actually use the same Sony—it just has a different flavor to it. I also use the Zoom Q3HD, which has been great. Also my smartphone— everybody now has a device on which they can capture sounds.

What tools did you have on Whokill that you didn’t have on Bird-Brains?

With Bird-Brains, I had the Sony digital voice recorder and a desktop computer from 2000. I had Audacity—just the basic free version. With Whokill, I had a studio. I started with that “Bizness” loop we were talking about earlier. I created a demo that went along with it, and it fell short. So we took a lot of the rough stuff, went to a studio to track it with Eli Crews in Oakland at New and Improved studios, and got all these delicious-sounding things.

Can you tell me about the bass line and the beat on “Gangsta”?

That one was another Reason ReDrum beat that I created and then we overdubbed. In the studio, in an effort to get away from the rigidity of a click, I’d do a looped click track that would have a little bit more human error in it—just enough to make it flexible. Then I did live drums in the studio, and when we came out of that, I added what had been a demo of what I’d done in Reason, and ReDrum was the more industrialsounding thing. At a certain point I thought, “I want that machine in there as well, not just the acoustic drums.” We also ran things through a [Tech 21] SansAmp—one of my top ten favorite pieces. We used it on that drum track, and it gives it a real crunchiness; it’s abrasive, like it’s gonna tear you up. I love it.

What keyboard synths are on Whokill?

The MicroKorg. The first track, “My Country,” is when the MicroKorg comes in. The Roland Juno-60 was the first analog synth I was ever exposed to, and I got goose bumps. Waves of sound are physical, and I needed to have something like the Juno to make those waves malleable in my hands— then I could understand what a synth was doing. So many people are obsessed with synthesizers— analog, modular—I’d heard those words for so long and couldn’t connect with them, and finally I got it. The only “synth” I was comfortable with before was a Casiotone because it was something from my childhood. On Bird-Brains, the synthesized sounds are all coming from two Casios I had as a kid.

The looper pedal plays a pretty significant role in your live sets. . . .

The live show couldn’t happen without it. I use the Boss RC2, which is just the single pedal with a start switch instead of the double pedal. Press once and it’s recording, press twice and you’ve got the end of the loop, then you press again and you’re recording over that, over and over again. That was technology I could handle! [Laughs.] Any more than that and I’m like, “Whoa, we’re not making music now, we’re dealing with computers.” I’m a believer in limitation bringing about creativity.

How has this limitation in particular helped your creativity?

Something I’ve learned about performing live with this pedal is you really need to have a close connection with the audience because something is bound to go wrong every show. Even if it’s not wrong, the song can have such a different feel from one night to the next. That’s what I love about working with the looping pedal—you and the audience have to be right there with each other. When you mess up, if you’re lucky, you can get them to laugh with you instead of booing you off the stage. I didn’t know one piece of machinery could influence my life so much but it has.

Was there a light bulb moment when you said, “I want to do this”?

Yeah. It was my song “Jamaican.” That was the very first track I did with the digital voice recorder. At the time I thought, “Oh my God, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life”—to create feelings with sound.

Watch the video for “Bizness.”

Watch the video for “Gangsta.”