If tUnE-yArDs' music were a shop, it would be Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. The core duo—New England native (and onetime puppeteer) Merrill Garbus on vocals, ukulele, drums, and loops with Oakland's Nate Brenner on bass—have fashioned together super-freak folk into their third album, Nikki Nack. Complex patterns and loops woven with call-and-response experimentalism take on 8-bit, electronic shapes. Your ear thinks it won't work at first, but it does. Then Garbus drops it into an Annie Lenox gear and you're hooked. What's that over there, a shrunken head wearing pink knee-highs? A two-headed calf in a tutu? Whoa. It's a mummified astronaut with a banjo. Live, tUnE-yArDs' ensemble swells to five, and they perform the sideshow beats and compositions extremely well. Garbus had just returned from the European leg of their tour when we spoke. She was in New York. It was very early, still dark, Seattle time. On top of making coffee, I ate a mouthful of the beans and sang John Denver's "Sunshine on My Shoulders" to wake up. When Garbus's call came in, I kept singing.
[In my best John Denver] Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy. Sunshine in my eyes makes me cry.
Hello! Yes. Sometimes sunshine does that. Sorry it's so early over there.
Should I just sing John Denver songs for you? We could scrap the interview.
That would make my day. Let's get you some information first.
Okay. I really like the talk you did with Laurie Anderson. What was your favorite part? What sticks out?
I think the hot-dog-heating trick. When we think of well-known, successful artists, people generally assume they never have any financial worries. And that they're always self-confident, and they've always been known. The truth is that most artists go through earlier stages of only being able to afford a hot dog, which you have to electrocute in your hotel room for dinner. The other thing I took from it was that you need to be willing to do anything for your art—for the art's sake before the commercial value's sake, and before the moneymaking part. What I got from Laurie was that the "O Superman" thing was a total fluke. She had very little idea that her art would ever be commercially viable.
She said when "O Superman" first charted in Europe, she didn't know what charts were.
Exactly. tUnE-yArDs have been in Europe for the past month, and it's kind of a different world there. It's not better or worse. Well, for art it's probably better. It's like there's a respect for art there without it needing to be popular. I think here, if you're a musician, trying to chart can sometimes become too important. I can now say it's part of what I'm trying to do—to make really crazy, experimental, and strange music be part of pop culture. Laurie comes from a tradition that's very important for me to remember, where art is everything. Art is our way of understanding life. And that is priceless.
At one point, you and Laurie were talking about pieces of chewed gum and how each piece of chewed gum is its own world. What were you talking about there?
In London, there's a guy who makes drawings on pieces of discarded, chewed gum. People spit their gum on the ground, and it gets trampled on, and it makes these weird shapes in different colors—pastel pinks and pastel greens. So the art is improvised on the gum, making these little pieces of artwork in the shape the gum is in on the ground. Chewed gum/bubble gum was one of our first visual clues for Nikki Nack. I've been thinking about gum a lot lately [laughs].
Seattle has a famous gum wall at Pike Place Market. It's got all the chewed gum you could ever hope for. That gum artist would never leave if he saw this thing.
I'll have to check it out when I'm there. Sounds like a must-see.
"Water Fountain" is such a cut. It's more like Water Park, with an obstacle course, the way you're practically doing circular breathing. What are you getting those 8-bit sounds with?
We fucked up an iPad to get those sounds. I know that might not sound so romantic.
You get intense with mannequins in your video for "Real Thing." I thought you were going to eat one. Where does that intensity come from?
Good question. When the cameras are on, you're just trying to give it life. The story, the video. Why be boring?
In Europe, did you rave and party with the people? 'Cause man, people over there get after it.
This is true. We ourselves are not such partiers. We had a wonderful time. Spain is a good example of maybe partying [laughs]. There's a huge unemployment problem right now in Spain. We were taken on a small tour of Northern Spain by these guys who run a festival called Voces Femeninas, and they took care of us the whole way. They were so incredible. In Spain—and so many of the places in Europe—there's this importance to the quality of life, the quality of art, the quality of the experience, versus how much money you're going to make off of it, or versus the professionality of it. The festival was professional, of course, but it's the care they give to you—they celebrate you as an artist. We were given these ornate meals. They really want to show you what life is like there, and treat you well, and give you a slice of their ways. By the end of the week, we felt like close friends. It's a little different in the States. It's been a while here since my days of booking tours on my own and through friends. But people party hard in the US of A as well [laughs]. When I played Detroit when I was on my own, the friends I made there were the same way. They wanted to show what Detroit had to offer—here's a frickin' weird chili dog, this is how we do it. I love Detroit.
You played Jools Holland's show and Robert Plant was there. I heard he loved you.
He was really sweet to us. He saw us play from across the room.
And then you totally bro'd down with him.
Well, after we played, there was a little break. He came right over and complimented us. It was super huge and validating and means a lot. What he's doing now is really interesting. After all he's done, he doesn't have to do anything else now, if he doesn't want to. But he seems to be genuinely curious and fascinated by music from all over the planet, like I am, like we are.