“You know, we weren’t sure how this record would do,” says Merrill Garbus, of Nikki Nack, about 45 minutes in to her sold-out show last night at Union Transfer. “We thought maybe it was a little weird.” “It is weird!” yells a guy from the crowd. “But that is why we love it!” Garbus grins. Over the past 5 years, the Oakland-based artist known as tUnE-yArDs has transitioned: from a quirky fringe artist looping vocals in her bedroom, to a touring monolith—who is as revered for her creativity as her live chops. Her newest record, Nikki Nack, earned rave reviews from critics, and peaked at Number 27 on the U.S. charts, leading to sold-out shows across the country. Last night, she proved exactly why, treating fans to a fun, energetic, and inspired set that had the crowd singing and dancing along.
“I try not to think about it,” said Garbus, a few days back, when I asked her how her new found popularity makes her feel. “It’s kinda weird.” It’s weird—I’m assuming—because she grew up on the fringe, doing experimental puppet shows and recording tapes full of strange loops. But in another way it’s perhaps not weird at all, coming from a culture that’s already embraced Animal Collective, and The Dirty Projectors, and M.I.A., and other artists who are challenging our notions of pop. Nikki Nack is an odd, quirky record with meaningful inspiration, for sure—but it’s also a pop record, filled with cathartic belters like “Time of Dark,” bangers like “Sink-O,” and reggae-tinged bbq fodder like “Stop That Man”—which live felt like a futuristic luau, with Garbus as its spirited emcee.
“Sink-O” and “Time of Dark” were both set highlights too—the former a raucous, emphatic opener that immediately sent the couple next to me into hardcore grind mode—and the latter a refreshing romp through jittery harmonies and Garbus’s powerhouse vocals. Her unusual stage set-up consisted of myriad eyeballs—pasted on the back wall, and draped over keyboards—and strips of pink, flowy fabric, strung across the back wall like waves. She was joined by bassist and long-time collaborator Nate Brenner, plus a drummer and two back-up singers (poached from the Oakland theatre scene), who together added to her futuristic circus, through harmonies, hand-claps, and choreographed dance movements.
In about an hour, Garbus ricocheted through 12 songs, trading her synth for uke for older material like “Powa” (which felt both beautiful and impassioned) and “Bizness” (which sent the crowd into hysterics). “Water Fountain”—the debut single off Nikki Nack—was an exuberant, Afro-pop explosion, and when it transitioned to closer “Find a New Way,” we were all dancing and singing along as if these songs had come out years ago, and not just one month back.
And one more great thing about Merrill too. She’s extremely talented, and creative, and a force to behold on stage, for sure. But she’s also surprisingly down-to-earth (or as down to earth as one can be while covered in day-glow face paint). There’s sometimes a tendency for art-rock—and its fans—to adopt an air of pretension—yet Sunday night was all about accessibility and good times. “I truly feel like what people are interested in these days is great music that is also concerned with tough issues,” said Garbus, in our interview. I think she’s right. The people are ready for interesting pop—and luckily for us, tUnE-yArDs are here.
2. Hey Life
4. Real Thing
6. Time of Dark
7. Real Live Flesh
8. Stop That Man
10. Water Fountain
11. Find a New Way
For 5 years now, Merrill Garbus — the creative, driving force behind tUnE-yArDs — has delighted fans with her quirky concoctions, employing vocal loops, kitchen-sink percussion, skillful juxtapositions, and more. Her 2011 record w h o k i l l was a surprising break-out, earning top marks from critics for its spastic, genre-bending content and smart themes. With 2014’s Nikki Nack, she ups the ante once more—offering songs that are not just brilliant, creative, and uniquely tune-yards (excuse me, tUnE-yArDs)—but also insanely catchy, dance-able, and fun. Partially inspired by a trip to Haiti, where she submerged herself in the local rhythms and culture, Nikki Nack peaked at Number 27 on the Billboard charts, positing Garbus as indie’s newest cross-over star.
This Sunday, she brings her eccentric creations to Union Transfer for a sold-out show. We rang up Garbus in advance—to talk bangers, boulas, and her fave memories from Philly.
TK: To me Nikki Nack is a perfect record for summer in the city—it’s warm, bright, and colorful, but then there’s also this undercurrent of social, socioeconomic, and racial tension that could apply to city life as well. Do you see the record as a summer record, or was there any conscious decision to make a record for summer?
MG: Well, the record was actually finished in the winter—but we chose to have it come out in May for a reason. I think that a dance-able record is sometimes a summer thing and we were hoping you would be able to dance to it. We were hoping that people would be ready to just go crazy with it—to go on vacation and just be done with the winter.
TK: Yeah! I am ready at least. And I agree that the dance-y sound definitely contributes to the summer vibe—especially on songs like “Sink-O.” That’s what I would call a “banger.”
MG: [laughs]. Awesome.
TK: It reminds me of something that like, M.I.A. might put out.
MG: That’s cool. It was a little worried that people might be overwhelmed by it, just because it’s really chaotic, but I guess that’s also what I enjoy about it.
TK: What inspired the song?
MG: “Sink-O” was actually the first song I wrote when I came back from Haiti. The boula, which is an instrument used frequently in Haitian music, was a big inspiration. The boula is generally used to produce certain rhythms, one of which is the katabou rhythm, which is playing beat 2 and 3 of the triplet—so you never hear the downbeat. It frustrates the ear, and creates this kind of complex and disorienting feeling. So that’s being used in the song. But then also I really wanted something that was super fast and super energetic—because I felt like much of my time in Haiti was just spent watching things whiz by, and as a result, it felt like there was a kind of sonic chaos. So that’s partially what I was thinking about as well.
TK: A lot of critics have focused on the political and social content of the record in their reviews, particularly songs like “Water Fountain” or “Stop That Man.” As an artist, do you feel an obligation to raise awareness, or is it just intertwined with the songwriting?
MG: I’d say I do feel an obligation—although I don’t necessarily think every artist feels an obligation. The obligation for me is to tell the truth as I see it, and not pretend things aren’t there when they are. People want different things from you as an artist—and I don’t want to seem pretentious because like, “I’m talking about the important stuff.” Talking about what it’s like to be at a party as a teenager is important to some listeners. That’s valid.
For me, I’ve always had heroes like Woody Guthrie and Fela Kuti, who were extremely focused on educating their audiences. I think my audience is asking me to talk about difficult things. They’re ready for it. I truly feel like what people are interested in these days is great music that is also concerned with tough issues. Continue reading →
Woods | Photo courtesy of the artist
So here’s the deal. The Indie Rock Hit Parade is taking next Friday off to make room for the incredible live performances of the 14th annual NonCOMMvention (which you should totally listen to). So join us tonight for an explosive two-hour show starting at 10pm on XPN. We’ve got a brand new session to premiere featuring the Brooklyn psych-folk collective Woods, and a new album from tUnE-yArDs to dig into. Also lots of fresh tracks from across the musical spectrum, including (but not at all limited to) the following:
Another action-packed Indie Rock Hit Parade is in your immediate future! Tune in to XPN tonight at 10pm for a full, two-hour mix of brand new tracks (and a couple of old favorites, too). We’ll spotlight the newly released sophomore album from EMA (that’s Erika M. Anderson), The Future’s Void, and meet a couple of truly outstanding up-and-comers. Here are a few songs you’ll hear in the mix tonight:
It’s another jam-packed Indie Rock Hit Parade tonight at 10pm on XPN! Listen in for our latest IRHP Live Session, as we welcome the Virginia trio Eternal Summers to the studio! We’ll hear the band perform tracks from their newest album, The Drop Beneath! Plus, a few of these recordings will be in the mix:
This week’s Gotta Hear Song Of The Week is “Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs from her forthcoming album, Nikki Nack, out on May 6th. Since 2009, Merrill Garbus has performed as tUnE-yArDs. In 2011 she released her critically acclaimed w h o k i l l and in the Fall of 2012 she began studying Haitian dance and drumming. A trip to Haiti furthered her exploration of non-Western musical discovery which informed the making of her new album. The first single from the record, “Water Fountains,” is one of her most celebratory songs yet; she turns a Bo Diddley beat – and a nod to “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow – inside out with funky, playful, highly energetic, percussive grooves and a schoolyard chant guaranteed to be the soundtrack to double dutch tournaments, three-on-threes in the paint, and dance floor explosions. Listen to it below. tUnE-yArDs play Union Transfer on Sunday, June 15th.
tUnE-yArDs has shared their first single, “Water Fountain” from her forthcoming album, Nikki Nack, out on May 6th. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs has made one of her most celebratory songs yet; she turns a Bo Diddley beat – and a nod to “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow – inside out with funky, playful, highly energetic, percussive grooves and a schoolyard chant guaranteed to be the soundtrack to double dutch tournaments, three-on-threes in the paint, and dance floor explosions. tUnE-yArDs play Union Transfer on Sunday, June 15th.
tUnE-yArDs and Questlove of the legendary Roots crew have teamed up with Angelique Kidjo and Akua Naru on a cover of Fela Kuti’s “Lady” from (RED) Hot + FELA. Listen to the song below, and go here to purchase the song. All proceeds from the song benefit the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. tUnE-yArDs performs tomorrow at the Roots Picnic. According to the Join Red blog:
(RED) Hot + FELA, pays homage to the music and spirit of Fela Kuti and will be the first collaboration between (RED) and the Red Hot Organization, creators of a long running line of musically original compilations that benefit AIDS organizations, ranging from 1990’s Red Hot + Blue (which featured U2 on Cole Porter’s “Night And Day”) to 2009’s Dark Was The Night produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National.
Merrill Garbus started tUnE-yArDs as an experiment in looping her voice and ukulele on a home recorder. Now tUnE-yArDs is a full fledged band, featuring bassist Nate Brenner. Merrill and Nate recently brought the sounds of tUnE-yArDs’ celebrated new album, w h o k i l l, to the XPN2 studios. Now you can stream the session whenever you like! With the help of a pair of saxophone players (cultivated from the Oakland jazz scene), tUnE-yArDs’ blending of folk, pop and R&B is as vibrant as ever. In the session, we’ll hear the band play a selection of songs from w h o k i l l, including XPN2 favorite “Gangsta.” XPN2’s Eric Schuman talks to Merrill about her global influences and the various roles she’s taken on throughout her career. Stream our session with tUnE-yArDs anytime with the XPN Media Player. Be sure to tune in for a brand new Studio Session every Friday at 3pm on XPN2!