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It’s 7:30 PM when a compact car pulls up in front of The Crepe Place in Santa Cruz, parks and turns on its hazards. A woman get s out of the driver’s side and busies herself with unloading a back seat that looks like a hoarder’s treasure trove. Wearily but graciously accepting my offer of assistance, Merrill Garbus seems as though she’s all-but resigned herself to humoring the world this evening. It’s only day three out of 29 that she’ll be opening for experimental art rock heroes Xiu Xiu, but her distraction belies a deeper fatigue.
After apologizing for the delay she disappears to refresh and refuel, promising some face time after sound check. Meanwhile, as opener Noveller drones out a minimalist, audio dreamscape, bassist Nate Brenner catches me up on tUnE-YaRdS’ recent stint in Europe and his shared history with Merrill (the two worked together as summer camp counselors in New Jersey). After their performance I catch her finishing off the remains of a leftover salad – looking much more of sound mind, not to mention downright tame compared to the barking Amazon I’d witnessed minutes before – and we retire to the dining room to sit down to discuss the politics of DIY music and road snacks.
SOTR: Well, I’m really glad you have food in you now.
Merrill Garbus: Yeah, me too. Not that I didn’t before, but eating after being in the car is-…
SOTR: You always have these great hopes for the road food you keep in the car, but it dwindles quickly and all you have left are five pistachios-…
Merrill Garbus: Exactly, the raisins and almonds don’t cut it. No, you need the bag of Cheetos stashed under the passenger seat. That’s the thing: by the end of the tour, you’re like, “I’m made of MSG.”
SOTR: So, clearly you’ve been on the move. A lot. During the show you mentioned the fact that you now live in Oakland, but you grew up in New England.
Merrill Garbus: I grew up in Connecticut mostly. A little bit in New York state but mostly Connecticut. New York from age 8 or 9 through high school. Then I went to [Smith College] in Massachusetts, then I lived in Vermont for a long time doing puppets, then moved to Montreal and then here.
SOTR: What prompted you to set down in the East Bay? Was it the abundance of puppetry gigs or all the moving around and needing to settle?
Merrill Garbus: Yeah, my boyfriend was the primary reason. Secondary reason was that I was in Montreal working with this band not entirely legally. I needed to get out, to be in a place where I could do my taxes legally – not that I’d ever do my taxes illegally, I just needed a place that I felt like I could come back to safely after every tour. I was traveling so much anyway that where I live is often somewhat arbitrary. But California is really nice; it’s really good to come back to. The thing with the West Coast is that… in some ways, yeah, I am a stressed-out East Coaster. I get really stressed, so maybe that’s part of it too: just coming to a place where it really is more relaxed and I can move at a slightly slower pace, at least.
SOTR: Since the release of your album you’ve undertaken some extensive touring that has generated a fair amount of press. Most of the pieces out there focus on your bare-bones approach to song crafting. What motivated you to pursue that method?
Merrill Garbus: Necessity was first and foremost. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anything. Someone had given me a hand-held voice recorder and I only wanted that to make demos, but then I realized I wanted a multi-track record. All these things sort of evolved as I was involved with a band, Sister Suvi. I wanted to do a solo project while my band mates were on other tours with their other bands. That was also born out of necessity – I’ve got me, I’ve got a looping pedal, and that was all I needed. Then the DIY thing came from touring all around. It became more of a mission as I went along and met a lot of musicians who asked “how are you doing what you’re doing?” and I could only think, “I’m just doing it.” My only answer for them was that I got in my car and called some people up to book shows and met bands in Detroit through MySpace, you know? Whatever it was, I started to see a connection that people feel that they can’t do things on their own without some kind of approval from authorities. When I started to see that, I decided to just do this. It keeps me awake. Sometimes my imagination has to catch up with reality because I started doing this album on my own and now it’s been released by a big record label.
SOTR: It seems as though what you’re able to do by yourself – which seems so simple – comes from a larger, more complex theory. Were you influenced by your background in theater and stage performance, or did you have experience elsewhere that led you to collect field recordings and use found noise?
Merrill Garbus: A few things. I sometimes think I should have been an ethnomusicologist. I went to Kenya to study abroad and I brought a recorder and recorded as much as I could. I then encountered the politics of capturing sound. You know, “what are you going to do with that sound?” et cetera, and through that was also listening to a lot of African music and a lot of field recordings. I’ve heard a lot of field recordings, including the Smithsonian collection [Anthology of American Folk Music]. My parents always played folk music, so they exposed me to things like fiddle tunes played in the Appalachian Mountains in 1932 – that was always around. The sense that folk music – and music in general – is present everywhere, whether someone’s recording it or not, or applauding for it even, I think that influences what I want to hear. I want to hear a sound as if I really heard that sound, not as if I’m on an alien planet.
SOTR: In what sense were you met with resistance when you took your own field recordings?
Merrill Garbus: It was more internal for me that I felt, you know, what am I recording? What am I going to do with this? Do I ask permission? If I’m too scared to ask permission, then doesn’t that mean there’s a problem with me recording this? If there’s no one for to ask permission from, is this OK? It just brought up a lot of questions; it’s the same with photography. I think travel as an American brings up a lot of issues. The whole experience was just troubling – we were rich American students in Africa, getting way more from the communities that we were staying in than we contributed with our projects we’d hoped would help them. There wasn’t enough we could give, and all I saw was that we were taking away. As much as I was studying music there and it was important to do recordings, I felt I had already taken so much from their country [as an American] through that that to take more just brought up a lot of issues.
SOTR: Was the material you compiled for BiRd-BrAiNs pieces you’d been sitting on a while?
Merrill Garbus: It took two and a half years and started when I was a nanny and it ended when I was living full-time in Montreal. In some ways it took me that long to figure out how to record like I did. The first tracks that I recorded – not necessarily in the order on the album – do sound much different than later ones. You know, “She’s Not Jamaican” versus “FIYA”? Even though I’m using the same medium, I got a little bit more out of it by the end of it, and that took a while. I was doing all this while I had full-time jobs and other bands and projects so trying to get it done was intense.
SOTR: In light of the fact that you were doing so much at once and trying to maximize on your time, and now that you’ve been touring in America and Europe, has that changed the process much? Have you been able to refine the process through touring?
Merrill Garbus: I don’t know. I’m really struggling with touring. We were in Europe for three and a half weeks, and then I got really sick on the one week we had off. I think I’m struggling with it so much because knowing that so many people are going to hear it now brings a different sense of audience. I never had any time before, but the time I did have was alone. I really had a lot of loneliness in my life, whereas now I’m in a relationship, I tour all the time and I’m meeting people all the time. […] Now I have to carve out a month to be able to sit and record, but we got these great shows with Xiuxiu and played Glastonbury Festival in the UK and these huge things which of course we want to do and so I’ve had to quit my day job. I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but it will somehow.
SOTR: Between losing some of that personal time and having so much focus on you at shows, do you find that you’ve turned the show into a way to reflect it back at the audience? Is that also changing the content of your material and the songs you write?
Merrill Garbus: Yeah, that’s amazing that you say that. Totally. I didn’t do it tonight, but there’s a song where I’m definitely shouting and directing it at the audience. There are a number of the new songs where I’m pointing at somebody, now that I think about it. From the beginning that’s been important to me, but open mics are all about “look at me, look at me, because I have to draw your attention if you’re going to put a tip in the jar.” Now I don’t want it to be an experience of me, I want it to be a shared experience.
SOTR: In another interview you said “I don’t care about people; I care about what I tell people”, which could easily be misread or turned around. It elicited some brash comments from readers about the sexually graphic imagery created by some of your lyrics, which that statement could just as easily counter in the right context.
Merrill Garbus: I said that? What did I mean by that? I did read those comments and that was the moment I decided I was never reading any press about me ever again because I get really, really, really upset, even though I don’t want to. I realize that people doing those kinds of things don’t know that I read them, they don’t think about me, so I won’t read them anymore. I’ve been touring since 2005, so in other words I’m not worried about what people think of me, I’m just concerned with the art form of the song. As a woman, I would want to hear my songs; I would want somebody to say those lines. It doesn’t mean that it’s coming from my reality or my experience necessarily – I just want to know that there’s someone somewhere saying it. It’s my imagination and my choice of how to use the art form. It’s hard to say things in songs that your mom’s gonna hear, but that’s what it is: that’s my responsibility as an artist to be true to my visions. I wonder what the aural version of vision is?
[Pause for tea break and the interviewer’s explanation of how the asymmetrical placement of owls’ ear openings actually aids them in sound localization and allows them to create precise mental images of their surroundings.]
SOTR: You say that as a woman there are some things you would want to have said. You make a valid point that some people might find it unnecessary “in our day and age” to be concerned about women’s voices, but did any one thing personally prompt you to take this stance?
Merrill Garbus: To me, as soon as someone points out to you – as a woman – “hey, isn’t it different being a woman?” You know, I’m sorry, but-, Ani DiFranco. When I was a teenager, she was the only voice that I heard that said “I’m queer, I’m a pushy fuckin’ woman and I’m out here saying it”, whereas the folk singer-songwriters of earlier eras… I mean, I love Joni Mitchell. A lot. But at a certain point I didn’t feel as though she was speaking for me at all. I’m sure there are a number of other examples – Tracy Chapman, even. Musically I just didn’t have that exposure to women who were saying, “Man, it’s fucked up to be a woman.” And as I experience the world I absolutely feel those voices are still necessary, and in fact it makes sense that someone has to continue that, the torch has to be passed. If I can be any part of that, I feel very grateful and rewarded in my life.
SOTR: Are there any artists you know right now that you believe are taking on that mantle?
Merrill Garbus: Yeah, well, a great friend of mine is Thao [of Thao With The Get Down Stay Down], she’s based in San Francisco. We’re very different musically, but she’s got a really strong voice and our performance styles are similar in that we let it all out when we’re on the stage – no niceties, no trying to be pretty. Micachu – they’re a group from the UK. People compare our sounds a lot, but she’s a woman making freaky urban music. Explode Into Colors from Portland, they too carry on the Olympia, Sleater-Kinney spirit in a really new, relevant way.
SOTR: Why do you think people still make such a big deal when women take this route solely because they’re women?
Merrill Garbus: I don’t think it’s only that. I can’t decide, but good music is good music, regardless of gender participation. I don’t think it’s the end-all-be-all.
SOTR: In regards to where you find yourself now as an artist, are you pleased with the way things are going or the path that’s been taken? Is it disappointing not to have that time right now to really stop and reflect?
Merrill Garbus: No, I’m very grateful for all the recognition and the attention. It feels very validating. I won’t lie; I’m always dissatisfied with something, because the world is hard and hard for many people. I guess I don’t ever feel complacent and I try to live on this boundary of happy and unhappy –just unhappy enough to want to change things and change the world and continue to work, but I’m trying to be happier, to enjoy life.
SOTR: With that in mind and in terms of future recordings, is that happiness part of any larger themes you might be fixating on right now that you’re trying to incorporate in your material and what you’re presenting or reflecting back at your audience?
Merrill Garbus: I don’t know. Honestly I think I have to get to the studio in May and see. All my preconceived notions of what I thought it was going to be are immediately starting to feel like traps. The first album was me in that moment, but it’s not me forever or me ten years ago. What I’m trying to tell myself and what I believe is that if I approach it with that honesty, I can’t go wrong. It will be what it will be; even if no one else is happy with it, I’ll be happy with it and be able to feel like I can keep going.
SOTR: Do you have high hopes that this tour will generate the necessary material?
Merrill Garbus: That’s a good question. It’s interesting that you say that because I tell myself, “I just have to make it through this tour.” I’m so tired right now, but Nate and I are getting really good at playing together and that’s going to be really helpful when we go into the studio. The tour can get you really tight, and so tight that when you get to the studio you can be loose again and you don’t have to work as hard to get there. And I want to learn from Xiuxiu. Jamie Stewart’s been doing it for a long time now and there’s something to be gained from this exposure.
SOTR: It’s interesting that you mention exposure. There’s a lot of controversy in the field of ethnomusicology about exploitation when artists integrate styles and influences like that. Do you feel then that you’re a part of that?
Merrill Garbus: Yes, all the time. Of course not intentionally or maliciously, but absolutely.
SOTR: Regardless of the fact that it might not be that recognizable to listeners who don’t have the ear for it?
Merrill Garbus: Even more-so because they don’t. That to me is the worst, when American kids hear it and think “oh, isn’t that guitar cool?”, when I heard it off a sample of music from Nairobi from the 70s. That to me is even worse, because I’m paying musical homage but I’m not educating anybody and I’m getting paid. That said: it’s impossible. As musicians we exploit, we kill, we rape, we pillage. That is what happens Acknowledging that and then still existing has been the reason why I could do music at all. That was what paralyzed me after being in Africa, feeling that way and then thinking, “Oh God, I shouldn’t even be alive.” Being able to say, “yes, that’s what happens, that’s what my work is” happens to be within that realm. I think that The Very Best is so cool because [Esau Mwamwaya] is taking the Vampire Weekend song, which is exploiting highlife music, and with no malicious intent on his part says, “this is really good music, look what I can do with it.” I love that album because of that; it makes me feel so good because the African is re-exploiting the music. And it’s freakin’ good, it’s not just political. It’s glorious, beautiful music.
I grew up in an era of political correctness. The problem with that is you end up apologizing a lot and not being honest about what you really want, or say, or do. A sense of political correctness is important for peoples’ awareness, but it’s also important to me to be able to slobber and fart all over your music and make it my own and make money off it. It’s a reality, but it’s our job to change it
Interview & Photos by: Caitlin Welsh