(Soundbite of song, "Gangsta")


The music of tUnE-yArDs can be deceiving. Instruments transform, recordings morph, one voice can sound like four or five. In this case, they can even sound like a police siren.

(Soundbite of song, "Gangsta")

ADAMS: And the woman behind tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus.

(Soundbite of song, "Gangsta")

tUnE-yArDs (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

ADAMS: This is a track called "Gangsta" from the new album "w h o k i l l." Merrill Garbus found her musical voice during a life-changing trip to Africa. And when she came back to the States, she started trying to recreate some of the vocal melodies she heard in Africa by herself with a digital looping pedal.

Ms. MERRILL GARBUS (Musician): A looping pedal is a pretty simple device. You know, you press it once, it starts recording. You press it twice, it stops recording. You press it a third time and you start recording over what you first did. So it's this really wonderfully simple device.

ADAMS: We're going to listen to a YouTube video of one of the live performances, and people here can hear the individual vocal parts that you are electronically looping.

(Soundbite of music)

tUnE-yArDs: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

ADAMS: So you're onstage. You're standing. Are you on a chair, a stool? What do you do?

Ms. GARBUS: I stand most of the time, yeah.

ADAMS: And I read that you play that loop machine with your stocking feet. You have socks on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GARBUS: It's very important to be as close to the center of the Earth as possible. It's mostly, you know, it's stomping in time, really. I mean, my whole body has to be involved so that the looping pedal is responding to the same rhythm.

ADAMS: So you can be bad at it, play it badly, play it out of time? What's the downfall?

Ms. GARBUS: I mean, it's very finicky. If you don't press that looping pedal in time, if someone hollers out a swear word while I'm recording the loop or anything from the audience, it is then in the loop for the remainder of the song.

I studied puppetry, and they taught me this thing of when the puppet's arm falls off in the middle of a scene, you've got to go with it, you know. You've got the audience in a place - you've got their attention in a way that you never had before, and that's what it's like when the looping pedal's arm falls off. I've got them right there, and it's what I do with it that counts.

(Soundbite of music)

tUnE-yArDs: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

ADAMS: Tell us, please, about your trip to Kenya and what you learned from there. What did you bring back that you could use for your music?

Ms. GARBUS: So much. I told someone the other day it was really the before, the during and the after. I mean, I studied Swahili language before I went for a couple of years. And then being there, I studied music with some Tarib(ph) musicians on the coast of Kenya.

And, you know, it wasn't a music that I expected to find there. I think that in my imagination, there was this Paul Simon-"Graceland"-influenced fantasy, that I would be bounding across the savannahs, you know, chanting things. That was my very ignorant, American perception.

Musically, African music has always drawn me in because the sounds were so different than anything I'd ever heard.

(Soundbite of music)

tUnE-yArDs: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

ADAMS: Our guest is Merrill Garbus, also known as tUnE-yArDs. Her new album is called "w h o k i l l."

Ms. Garbus, you mentioned earlier that you had been a puppeteer, kind of going into that work. How did you get from doing the puppets to doing the music?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GARBUS: It was combining the two, at first. I had a show called "The Fat Kid Opera," which was based on Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" about selling children to be eaten.

So that was a not-for-kids puppet show that I wrote songs for using the ukulele, a soprano ukulele, which at that point was the instrument that some friends of mine had sort of clued me into, saying, you know, listen to how creepy this instrument can sound. So that was my first introduction to the ukulele.

(Soundbite of music)

tUnE-yArDs: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

ADAMS: This comes from the new album. It's called "Riot Riot." Do you think you're going to stick with the ukulele, always have it with you there on stage?

Ms. GARBUS: That's a good question. People have been telling me that they can hardly recognize the ukulele on this album, even though it's on nearly every song. I think so. I really love it as an instrument that's very simple and easy to compose on and very unassuming. It's not a daunting instrument.

ADAMS: And Eddie Vedder has a new ukulele album.

Ms. GARBUS: I know. I've been hearing this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GARBUS: I have not heard it yet. Have you?

ADAMS: No, I haven't. No. Looking forward to it. We have ukuleles all over the house, just as to why I ask you.


ADAMS: Yeah. But...

Ms. GARBUS: It's the heyday - another heyday of the ukulele, I believe.

Adams: Yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

tUnE-yArDs: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

ADAMS: So in your career, mostly what you're doing is, in a way, deliberately minimal music. You're on stage, a loop machine, a bass player. And now you're starting to bring in other musicians. How is that changing from going from a very small spotlight to being the headliner or bandleader?

Ms. GARBUS: It's an evolution, I guess. And we're taking small steps by adding two saxophone players. But it's been interesting. And, you know, as this whole thing has grown, it really is a business. I mean, I find myself being a business owner. And no one really taught me about that, you know, getting a theater degree at a liberal arts college. No one said: Hey, by the way, you're going to need to know spreadsheets and accounting.

So that's been a really interesting thing, to sort of graduate into really needing to be responsible for a business of a band.

ADAMS: Let me ask you to design the perfect concert for yourself, the perfect Merrill Garbus evening onstage.

Ms. GARBUS: Wow. Well, we are in the woods, and everything is covered in moss and is nicely padded in sound, and we're all sitting there together, and it's sort of an amphitheater type of thing, very round. And you can hear the quietest notes, as well as being really engulfed by the louder ones. That's my dream concert.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: That is Merrill Garbus. She is tUnE-yArDs. Her new album is called "w h o k i l l."

Merrill Garbus, thank you very much.

Ms. GARBUS: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

tUnE-yArDs: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

ADAMS: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams. You can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode on Sunday nights.

We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great week.

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