The Personal Is Political: Tune-Yards interview

Since the mid 2000s, the steady rise of Tune-Yards from cult lo-fi DIY indie-folksters to critics’ favourites has thankfully seen Merrill Garbus lose none of her amazingly creative drive to experiment. Long Live Vinyl finds out more about the themes behind fourth album I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life

Merrill Garbus is a musical hoarder. She grew up in New York and Connecticut listening to The Rolling Stones, US folk-rockers Indigo Girls and South African anti-apartheid musician Johnny Clegg. Her folk-musician parents taught her about traditional American music and English country song and dance, including – whisper it – Morris dancing. She’s been exploring the sounds and rituals of Kenya, Haiti and beyond for years and her genre-defying albums are neon-bright catherine wheels of pan-global psychedelic pop. But until recently, there was one form of vibrant music that Garbus had no room or use for: electronic dance music and, in particular, UK acid house. “But I did watch 24 Hour Party People!” she protests.

Garbus sounds a little sheepish when, on the phone from her home in Oakland, California, she tells us of her old intolerance of club music. “So much EDM… like, we go to these festivals and I would question, are people just on drugs? Do they hear how bad this music is?” But she doesn’t tar all dance music with the same brush any longer. In a prolonged break between Tune-Yards’ last album, 2014’s Nikki Nack, and her new (fourth) album I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, Garbus learned to DJ and lost herself in Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s essential book about club culture, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. For her, reading how rave culture was as much about protest and creating a utopia as it was about chemical-induced partying was an epiphany. “Learning about house and techno, and where this music comes from, and rave’s Summer Of Love – the UK’s 1967 – was so inspiring,” Garbus says of that late-80s youth movement. “Change was happening on the dancefloor and love was the centrepiece of it all. It was an ecstatic experience, something people wanted to head into, whereas so much politics these days is repellent. People are running away from getting involved and from engaging with it at all, because it feels so overwhelming. That scene is so compelling to me.”
Her prejudice finally speared, Garbus has since delved deep into electronic music, both old and new, and this has given Tune-Yards’ new album a fresh, propulsive energy. House euphoria, cosmic techno, disco grooves and bubbling synths are all constants, however subtle, in a warm patchwork that seamlessly knits together Haitian rhythms, African melodies, indie pop and new-age electronics. Exploring the transcendental power of electronic music with her accomplice Nate Brenner, tripping out to drum machines and synthesisers, helped Garbus to carry
the heavy lyrical themes that dominate I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.
“Music stressed me out for a while there,” Garbus explains. “I’d be at the studio alone trying to write lyrics or a melody, or singing these words and I’d be so disgusted with myself. I really mean it when I sing that I don’t want to hear my voice on the track Private Life. I was disgusted with the sound of my voice and all that it carries with it.
“That’s natural when we start to engage with how we’re part of oppression, but then, what do we do with that? I needed the music to propel me to more exploration, to embolden me instead of me shrivelling in fear and disgust. So there’s a lot of ‘let’s dance the fuck out’!”
No one needs reminding how things have fared for the world since Garbus and Tune-Yards were last active four years ago. Indeed, it’s tempting to re-imagine 2014 as a land of milk and honey. Except it wasn’t – and on Nikki Nack’s Stop That Man, and Doorstep, from Tune-Yards’ 2011 album w h o k i l l, Garbus zoned in on the problem of police brutality. Alongside the treadmill of calamity we’ve been on since 2014, those two tracks, and Garbus’ experience of performing them live, set her on the soul-searching path that enabled her to write I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life in the first half of 2016.
The memory of one New York concert in 2014 still makes Garbus wince. Coinciding with the huge Black Lives Matter protests after Eric Garner died having been restrained by the city’s police, Garbus suddenly felt uncomfortable playing Doorstep and Stop That Man. “It just felt like whatever we were trying to do with music, it wasn’t doing it. We just weren’t engaging with it. We played Doorstep that night, and it felt like either we play it and it feels relevant, or we play it and it feels like a confused white person trying to understand the black experience. We haven’t played that song since.”
The discomfort Garbus felt that night knocked her for six. It made her question everything she thought she was doing to try to engage with the world, from singing about racial inequality to studying Haitian Easter rituals, and she came to the conclusion – a little harshly, perhaps – that she was “just another white musician whitewashing black culture for white people”. It was this painful, disillusioning experience, along with everything else going on in the US at the time, which kickstarted a process of reflection that resulted in I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. As well as learning to DJ and exploring dance music, Garbus kept a journal “voicing really ugly stuff that I wouldn’t want anyone else to see”, read up on whiteness and the Sixth Extinction, and meditated at a centre led by people with different racial backgrounds to her own.
“I wanted to understand how growing up white in this country has affected me,” she says. Without hectoring, Garbus asks compelling questions throughout the album about gentrification and social displacement, racial and gender equality, climate change and, most notably on Colonizer and Private Life, concepts of whiteness and the role it plays in the world’s many messes. She’s unapologetic about this. “People don’t talk about anything in music any more,” Garbus says, provocatively. “Like, are we talking about love and relationships again? I get annoyed with myself for being so direct – and people have critiqued that, like the lyrics are too obvious, too conversational – but if I’m naming things that tend not to get named in pop music, that’s okay by me.”
During their extended hibernation, Garbus and Brenner – now a fully fledged member of Tune-Yards – didn’t just smooth over their sound, turning the chaotic, poster-paint splatter of old into something with focus and depth. Garbus’ lyric writing evolved, too. Hyper-aware of what she calls the “barely formed reflections” on previous Tune-Yards albums, as well as her tendency for word-soup splurges, the lyrics on I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life are precision-tooled and efficient. There are no knee-jerk reactions. “It’s counterintuitive, because it’s a time when we need to take action and be present in the streets and protest,” Garbus says, explaining the longer than usual gestation period of I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life in a roundabout way. “But at the same time, I saw a lot of protests go awry, people unaware of their impact. I went on a women’s march and I saw it walk over a homeless encampment as if it didn’t exist. I thought: ‘I need to slow down’. There’s so much that happens as a casualty of not being aware.”
However nuanced outspoken lyrics are, though, they can still make people switch off, which is why Garbus and Brenner have made the new album Tune-Yards’ grooviest, most danceable record to date. It’s an album energised not just by electronic music and tough questions, but also by the late-80s and early-90s African music that dominates Garbus’ vinyl collection, including Odion Iruoje’s Down To Earth album; and the better-living-through-dreaming philosophy of Afrofuturism thinkers such as sci-fi writer Octavia E Butler. Garbus thinks change will arrive only if we question and explore, a belief that fuels her new album.
“It feels like we need so many new answers to so many new things,” she says. “I’m constantly worried that music is pointless and that it has no business in social change. So I’m in constant pursuit of, like, if we can open up avenues sonically, maybe, somehow, that’s going to open up other things, too.” And if it doesn’t? Well, then we can just “dance the fuck out” to this fine album.