tUnE-yArDs brings new album and new questions about privilege and power to Union Transfer

tUnE-yArDs | photo by Koof Ibi Umoren for WXPN

tUnE-yArDs’ core, Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner, has stayed consistent since the band’s 2009 debut. For their current tour, which came to Union Transfer last Thursday, they’ve forgone the spectacle of the saxophone section, background vocalis and percussionists of previous tours. Adding Hamir Atwal on drums and keeping the band a trio-piece is no hinderance to the music, as Tune-Yards has perfected the ability to bring their full album sound to a live stage. “Make sure you watch her feet,” went a reminder from an audience member during the set break, calling attention to the fact the Garbus’ instruments of choice this tour were mainly a small drum pad, minimal ukulele, and a slew of effect and loop pedals that she seemed to have a virtuosic mastery of. Continue reading →


Now Hear This: New music by Belle & Sebastian, Django Django, Tune-Yards, Soccer Mommy, Nils Frahm, Shopping and more

Belle and Sebastian | photo courtesy of the artist

Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.

We’ve had a pretty good last month or so here in Philadelphia, on a couple of fronts.  Musically though, at least in terms of the broadest, pop-cultural arena, things have felt just a tad uninspiring lately.  The best-selling album of the year thus far, by a wide margin, is the Greatest Showman soundtrack; an artistic triumph I have no doubt.  Camila Cabelo’s full-length bow, despite a couple of serviceable bangers, basically failed to make good on the promise of “Havana,” the year’s first new Hot 100 chart-topper and one of the best we’ve had in a while.  The most notable musical performance, the halftime show of that one football game, was a perfectly enjoyable and well-executed medley of five-to-fifteen-year-old hits with no real relevance to anything in particular – I’m not sure whether it’s more dispiriting that Justin “Man of the Woods” Timberlake chose not to even attempt promoting his just-released new album by actually performing something from it, or that this was, on balance, probably the right decision.  I mean, no offense JT…

Then there were the Grammys, which despite well-deserved (if largely meaningless) acknowledgments for the likes of LCD Soundsystem, The National, Aimee Mann and our very own War on Drugs, overwhelmingly reaffirmed its own insignificance, diversity issues and fogeydom (I mean, no offense Bruno); adding insult to irrelevance by denying a performance slot to (sole female) album-of-the-year nominee Lorde.  That hot pile of nothingness was capped off by the truly vile, toxic comments of Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, who, in response to questions about the underrepresentation of women among winners and nominees, called for “women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls…to step up, because I think they would be welcome.”

Of course, it goes without saying that, beyond the psychotically warped bubble that is mainstream culture and the self-congratulatory machinations of the “music industry,” music itself continues on and, as always, the past month offered plenty of tunes worth digging into.  You’ll find a smattering below, from indie-pop earworms to exuberant dance jams, including a handful of artists experimenting in various, intriguing ways, with strains of world music.  And – I swear I didn’t plan this – it just so happens that all but one of the selections below were made, either by solely or in part, by female artists.  Step on up! Continue reading →


Tune-yards pry open a conversation on privilege in i can feel you creep into my private life

tune-yards | photo by Eliot Lee Hazel | via artist’s Facebook

Merrill Garbus’s experimental pop project tune-yards has always radiated as a genre-bending, unexpected collaboration of sounds. Heavily infusing Haitian and Afrobeat elements into her nuanced music, Garbus has not shied away from conversations of cultural appropriation and her part in the matter. But after the racially-charged 2016 election and the ensuing divide of 2017, Garbus felt she needed to address her personal role head on and in full force. In a piece with NPR Music, it’s stated that Garbus attended a six-month anti-racist workshop at the East Bay Meditation Center and studied up on the works of anti-racist educator, Tim Wise, and the progressive activism of Standing Up for Racial Justice. What followed was the process of tune-yards’ recently released album, i can feel you creep into my private life. Continue reading →


tUnE-yArDs host a weird, fun carnival of pop at Union Transfer

Photo by Kate Bracaglia |
Photo by Kate Bracaglia |

“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.


1. Sink-O
2. Hey Life
3. Gangsta
4. Real Thing
5. Powa
6. Time of Dark
7. Real Live Flesh
8. Stop That Man
10. Water Fountain
11. Find a New Way

12. Fiya


Interview: Talking bangers and boulas with tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus

Merrill Garbus
Merrill Garbus

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 →


Hear Woods play live, discover new tUnE-yArDs, Parquet Courts and Tycho on tonight’s Indie Rock Hit Parade!

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:

Continue reading →


Get hip to new sounds from tUnE-yArDs, EMA, The Afghan Whigs and more on tonight’s Indie Rock Hit Parade!

tUnE-yArDs | Photo By Holly Andres
tUnE-yArDs | Photo By Holly Andres

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:

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Hear Eternal Summers play live, discover Cloud Nothings, tUnE-yArDs & Slasher Flicks on tonight’s Indie Rock Hit Parade!

Cloud Nothings | Photo by Pooneh Ghana
Cloud Nothings | Photo by Pooneh Ghana

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:

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XPN’s Gotta Hear Song of The Week: “Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs

Photo by Holly Andres
Photo by Holly Andres

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.