January 17, 2018
“What I loved about the history of house music was that it was a story about people coming together through adversity and creating an extremely special atmosphere of love and acceptance.”
Merrill Garbus is cross-legged on the floor, delivering a beaming rendition of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’.
Sitting amid the bric-a-brac of 4AD’s London HQ alongside her bassist, husband, and full-time collaborator in art-pop alchemy Nate Brenner, Tune-Yards’ bandleader is telling a story from around the year 2000, when she was working as a puppeteer near Brattleboro, Vermont, where the only place to go dancing was in a small club on the outskirts of town.
“They played a lot of hip-hop, which I loved, but there was always that one part of the night where they’d play ‘Sandstorm’. I mean, rhythmically, it was really fucking boring to me, but there was just so much drama in it.”
Strange though it may seem, that drama and directness goes at least part of the way to explaining the writing process behind I can feel you creep into my private life, the Oakland-based outfit’s fourth album. Where previous outings – BiRd-BrAiNs (2009), Whokill (2011), and Nikki-Nack (2014) – were irresistibly complex, stacked with intricate percussive arrangements and rollicking trampoline vocals, this time around the songs thrive in their immediacy and deep grooves. While the influences from numerous strands of African and Caribbean music, pop, funk, and R&B still kick about, the recurring compositional catalyst here has been their newfound fascination with dance music, particularly the sound and spirit of early Chicago house.
You can hear it in the piano chords that open the album on ‘Heart Attack’, in the smack of the Tempest analog drum machine that carries singles ‘Look At Your Hands’ and ‘ABC 123’. It’s everywhere in Garbus’ typically vibrant lyricism, cartwheeling on a tightrope between the absurd and the candid in its confrontation of environmental concerns, race, intersectional feminism, and politics (‘Colonizer’, ‘Coast To Coast’, ‘Now As Then’).
On the frosty November day of our interview, the pair have just landed in to London after playing Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht. Brenner is nursing a cold and has opted for an armchair. He scooches forward with a grin when asked how the new live setup has been working out, given that they’ve stripped the ensemble back to just the two of them and a new drummer. “It’s going really well,” he says. “This is the most prepared we’ve ever felt for the live end of things.”
“It was awesome!” agrees Garbus, whose regular and hearty bursts of laughter could fill a room with light and colour. “Dutch people danced! They don’t always dance for us so that was great. We’re a tight trio now, whereas before there were five of us and a lot more intricate parts. I don’t have drums this time – I have a sample pad but otherwise I’m a lot more freed up. It’s been so fun and nice to have a loose dance.”
Immediately, the appeal of liberation and freedom offered by a “dance” focus shines from Garbus, who first became interested in those styles when she took a weekly DJ residency in a bar up the street from her Oakland home after finishing touring Nikki-Nack. Having never played records or CDJs before then, she was afforded the opportunity to play whatever she liked “because there were barely ever any people there”. Quickly, she became fascinated by the risk factor and subtle technical prowess of early house music and wanted to somehow emulate that organic energy in Tune-Yards’ work.
“It was mind-blowing for me to listen to Chicago house music,” she explains. “People like Marshall Jefferson and others who were doing all this absolutely crazy shit on the fly without a click, people who could take a record and go back and forth over the breaks and still have it perfectly in time with another record. Recording things, adding things on top of one another, layering things, it was all so creative and so risky. When you’re dancing and you know it’s Ableton or whatever, you know it’s going to be perfect and quantized. I wanted a level of risk. All that interesting dance music in the beginning had a real human flow to it. People can feel that.”
The challenge in transferring those ideas into I can feel you… was in the adapting of the meticulous chaos that defined their earlier work into something more immediate. Given that neither of them had any strict roots in house music, though, they were free to take those influences to places they may not have gone otherwise. “The question was,” she explains. “What does a Tune-Yards song influenced by dance music of a specific era sound like?”
She points to album highlight ‘Honesty’, a euphoric cut with an opening melody straight out of the Warehouse in Chicago. In it, Garbus samples her voice as she did on their 2011 single ‘Bizness’ and sequences it through an OP1, giving it a sheen reminiscent of Frankie Knuckles. The spoken-word bridge that breaks up the triumphant rhythm is as spiritual an evocation as D.F.X.’s ‘Relax Your Body’.
“‘Honesty’ went through so many permutations,” she says. “Chunks of it being removed, put back in, shortened, lengthened… If it was going to have a 4/4 dance groove through the whole of it, how were we to sculpt it so people stayed engaged?”
“Once we added that bridge it was like, right, now it’s a song,” adds Brenner. “It was about finding these little things that stopped it from being the same the entire time.”
That process led to the finished album being what they describe as something of a “remix” collection. “We had pretty much mixed the whole album, but we were really unhappy with it,” remembers Garbus.
“There was a moment where we really thought we had failed, that it was over. But then we took a break and came back to it and that’s when it started to really make sense. We stemmed out so much of it and started moving around kicks, snares, bass parts and everything. It started to feel so much clearer than before, and started to feel more alive.”
“I think that’s the creepy way music works,” she adds. “We’re talking about these dance influences because they’re so clearly there but it’s crazy how they were just absorbed.”
Brenner, who trained in jazz in the The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, agrees: “I do some synthesiser improvisation stuff in the live show and there’s one song that has this really open-ended solo section… A couple of shows ago I was like: ‘What if everything I do is just for people to dance to instead of being focussed on the intellectual side of things? What if we started to think of ourselves as a dance band instead of an experimental or jazz band?’ It helped me to get into it just wanting everyone in the room to dance instead of just to ponder.”
That’s not to say at all that the intellectual side of things has been abandoned on I can feel you… or that “pondering” is being cast aside. But, as ever, the absurdity and consideration in Garbus’ lyricism are presented in such a way that their impact might only sink in when least expected, long after the dance is over. Lines like “I turn on my white woman’s voice to contextualize acts of my white women friends” in ‘Colonizer’, for instance, only reveal their weight after the chorus hook becomes buried in your brain.
The reflections on whiteness, accountability and environmental responsibility in ‘ABC 123’ and ‘Coast to Coast’ become more apparent, and unravel in the mind so easily, with the aid of Garbus’ infectious delivery. (“I know your language but I wish it were silence / The seeds are sown in all the small acts of violence.”)
“[The ‘pondering’] can happen later I think,” says Garbus. “The best situation I guess would be for someone to get a melodic hook or lyric stuck in their head. They only realise later that they’re singing ‘Coloniiize it’. It becomes about people questioning what those lyrics mean instead of being knocked in the head with them. Instead of it being an anthem about something specific, it creates the seed of an idea.”
“You trick them!” Brenner chimes.
Garbus has been consistently perplexed when people tell her the lyrics on I can feel you… are her most socially charged to date, given how abstract she felt she was being. But perhaps that’s just a sign that they are working?
“I was really trying out not being so literal about things,” she says. “With so much dance music you get a chorus like – ‘Everybody, EEEVERYBODY’ – where it’s literally just a word repeated but it’s open enough for people to find meaning in.”
The socio-political determination and ideology found in house music communities, both in the ’80s and today, played a role in Garbus’ growing admiration for the music, and fed into the lyrical process of the album.
“What I loved in reading about the history of house music was that it was a story about people coming together through adversity and creating an extremely special atmosphere of love and acceptance,” she explains. “Who doesn’t love that?”
This fascination went hand in hand with her C.L.A.W. show on Red Bull Radio, where she has championed female-identifying artists since April 2016. “It’s fascinating to see how many DJ collectives are coming together with that same spirit,” she says. “I’m seeing all these people who are women or trans or coming from queer communities who are not invited into these clubs where they mostly only hire big-name straight white dudes as DJs. What we’re seeing now is people saying ‘fuck that’ and making their own communities where they can feel safe, creative and expressive.”
Ultimately then, Garbus doesn’t expect people to turn to her for any answers. Instead, she wants to provide signposts that direct people to whom they should be listening, asking them to question the voices that are constantly given platforms, including her own.
“I’m asking myself lots of questions,” she says. “I’m seeing where all these ‘isms’ today live in us and how they affect all of our personal questions and decisions. People ask what the message I’m trying to convey is and I’m like: ‘Don’t listen to me! Listen to other people! Listen to the people you don’t listen to. Listen to people who make you uncomfortable’. That’s where we need to be. White people need to be passing the mic to people of colour and other people who don’t have voices: queer communities, trans communities, people who’ve never had centrality in public narrative.”
“What can be a challenge for white folks is to not be totally centred on their own whiteness so much. We don’t ask how much we are really seeing. . . I should really be examining where I’m causing harm, where my shit, no matter how badly I want it not to be there, is still. If we don’t deal with it we’ll cause injury as we go through the world.”
For Garbus to pose these questions in a way that encourages personal reflection, and for her and Brenner to be writing music built on the foundations of scenes that championed individualism, expression and freedom feels significant, and certainly much more powerful than any hypocritical “Feed The World” self-aggrandisement. Despite its vast sounds and sonic eccentricities, I can feel you creep into my private life, is a far more personal record than that. And it seems that what Garbus and Brenner want is for this to become a personal album for anyone who wants it to be so; be that in the joy of dancing until your bones hurt, or in finding the route to some necessary self-reflection.
“Those overtly political songs don’t take into account where they’re coming from,” says Garbus, standing up to get ready for what will likely be a radiant photo-shoot, despite the greyness of the day in London. “All the music that has helped me has been totally personal. It’s been part of my interactions with others, my friendships, the ways I’ve bonded with other people. It shapes the human being that I am.”
Tune-Yards’ I can feel you creep into my private life is out on 19th January via 4AD.