Merrill Garbus and her avant-pop project tUnE-yArDs have jumped on board the Splendour In The Grass bandwagon this year to show off their freshly released third album,Nikki Nack. They’ll be sharing it with live audiences at sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne as well – and the performances are as much about visual expression as the music. Bright colours and boldness correspond with what tUnE-yArDs’ music wants to do, says Garbus, as she runs through what punters can expect from their upcoming gigs.
“There’s going to be a lot of insanity. We have a really strong live show; we’ve honed it. We now have two backup singers in addition to me, and then a percussionist, and it’s pretty incredible how much we all intersect. It’s hard music to make look easy and relaxing, but that’s what we are trying to do.”
It’s fair to say that relaxing is not exactly what Garbus was doing in the lead-up to recording the new album, having sought out the help of two of the industry’s most respected producers to refine the band’s earlier sounds. John Hill (Rihanna, M.I.A.) and Malay (Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys) taught Garbus and her long-time collaborator Nate Brenner how to get people moving.
“I wanted to make a dance album; I wanted to make people shake,” says Garbus. “The reason why we brought in producers for help is because they have the inside scoop about what makes dance music and radio pop work.”
tUnE-yArDs’ sound definitely has the ability to get people up and out of their seats. Listening to tracks featuring layers of repetitive drumming like the personality-packed ‘Water Fountain’, it’s almost impossible not to want to throw shapes wherever you are.
“Nate comes from a jazz background and I come from a more DIY background,” Garbus says. “We learnt about the really deep synth and subharmonic sounds and drum machines and some other really technical tricks of the trade.”
Even with the help of some bigwig producers, Garbus has her own ideas on how the process of making her version of pop music has developed since tUnE-yArDs were born.
“I think for me, of course, it’s hard to have perspective on what I am doing sometimes. I’m just following my nose, but I’ve been told that it sounds crisper and more refined. I still like to think that it’s got a lot of rough edges – an abrasiveness that’s intentional. It’s gone from being a really lo-fi project to having the lower-fi elements being a part of the overall sound, and we have been lucky enough to record with amazing engineers, too. I feel more like a composer now. The early years were pretty simple and I feel like I have a broader confidence now.”
But it’s not only her music that has undergone a transformation, as Garbus opens up about the personal challenges she’s dealt with in parallel to her music.
“You know, I used to wear all black. I think as part of tUnE-yArDs, I’ve really enjoyed coming into my body more. My body was always a source of pain and shame for me for a lot of my life, and it’s been great to become bolder.”
Indeed, a common thread throughout tUnE-yArDs’ music videos is the presence of colour, movement and energy – three elements that Garbus now exudes in her own personal style. “I looked in the mirror the other day at this crazy clashing outfit that I had on and thought, ‘That just makes me happy; it gives me energy looking at it.’ And that’s the bonus of being a rock star. I can get away with anything.”
Having visited our shores before, tUnE-yArDs are well versed in where to find a delicious kangaroo steak – and that’s at the top of their ‘to do’ list during their one scheduled day off in Sydney. But it’s not just our unique culinary delights Garbus wants to sample. This time, a spot of retail therapy is also on the cards.
“There’s an Australian designer – I forget the name – one of our band members Jo [Lampert] loves. She definitely has her eye on their stuff. Apparently they make clothes with sequined eyeballs all over them.”
And though tUnE-yArDs are in the midst of an exhausting touring schedule, Garbus tries to remember that this lifestyle of music, food and shopping won’t last forever.
“Being at home and writing an album for a year has really made it clear what a privilege it is to be able to travel internationally and be witness to other people’s lives first-hand,” she says. “For me, that is really priceless information.”
tUnE-yArDsare playing atSplendour In The Grass2014 withOutkast, Two Door Cinema Club, Lily Allen, Foster The People, London Grammar, Darkside and heaps more atNorth Byron Parklands fromFriday July 25 to Sunday July 27. They’ll also be playing a sideshow at Oxford Art Factoryon Monday July 28, with D.D Dumbo, tickets available online.Nikki Nackout now through4AD/Remote Control.