Published May 23, 2014tUnE-yArDs front woman Merrill Garbus seems a little hysterical, repeatedly describing her current state as "hilarious." She's getting ready for an extensive summer of touring ahead, her first stint back on the road in almost two years. Today, she takes a break from her seven-hour work day of prepping, practicing and generally learning how to play this new set of songs, but still appears to be frazzled by all the work she has to do before hitting the stage again.
"It's going really well, but there's so much music to learn, it's really intense and really hilarious," she admits, on the phone from her home base in Oakland, CA. "Because I wrote the album in the recording studio, there's a learning curve now where you have to learn all the music and when it's all said and done, it's so huge and I'm laughing at myself at how complex the stuff is."
In addition to Garbus and her partner, bassist and percussionist Nate Brenner, their live show now includes two backup singers and a classically-trained percussionist who Garbus praises, with a slight hint of nervousness. "I have to live up to her now!" the self-taught musician exclaims with a laugh. "Again, the only word I can say to describe it all is hilarious."
Nikki Nack, tUnE-yArDs' third album, is quite the elaborate follow-up to 2011's highly-acclaimed w h o k i l l, which topped the 2012 Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll for best album of the year. A polyrhythmic dreamscape that teeters around a multitude of percussions, bouncing bass lines and Garbus's signature wails, Nikki Nack is the natural progression from its predecessor. But while it may utilize the same lauded elements, they have been subtly relearned and revitalized through a series of lessons Garbus and Brenner took up between albums.
"What happens on the road is that you start losing your chops," Garbus says, contrasting her current schedule with her lengthy tour supporting w h o k i l l, where she only flexed her musical chops onstage once a night. "You start to really lose your tiny muscles and get back into bad habits. I think that we all agree that we all kind of deteriorate as musicians when we're on tour."
Garbus adds that her state of languish extended to her mentally as well: "I think any person who's not a complete egomaniac — which I hope that I'm not — gets tired of the world being about them all the time.
"I started to become this person that I didn't want to be and some of it is just the nature of this job, but I just wanted a break and I just wanted to be a normal person for a year and be like, 'Oh yes, I do my laundry once every couple of weeks and I cook myself dinner.'"
Part of this normalcy found Garbus taking up singing lessons as well as Haitian drum and dance lessons in the midst of feeling creativity drained. With just a few snippets of ideas floating aimlessly on her phone, Garbus took to these classes as a way of acquiring new skills in a field she was already presumed an expert in. "I wanted to reach further though," Garbus discloses, maintaining a self-effacing attitude throughout the entire conversation because, as she will unabashedly concede, she's still very much a student.
"In the past, I might've said that my voice was the backbone of the music, but it's really the rhythm," Garbus assures. "And now that I have more skill in drumming, I realize how much I always did want to treat my voice as a rhythmic instrument, even in songs like [w h o k i l l's] 'Gangsta.'"
Through learning, Garbus's goal was to "have rhythm in my hands and in my feet a little bit more so in that regard, I can make dance music for the future, which is really my aim!"
In ways, Nikki Nack achieves that. The album charges with a pace that keeps the body moving throughout, but doesn't necessarily carry the trademark components that futuristic sounds are known for. Synths and drum machines are more prominent, taking the place of Garbus's illustrious ukulele, but instead of transporting the listener to another universe, Nikki Nack's intricacy stays deeply rooted to the ground, in our feet.
There's been much talk about Garbus and Brenner's trip to Haiti as well, an addendum to their lessons, but Garbus is the first to elucidate that Nikki Nack's not "the quote, tUnE-yArDs 'Haitian' album."
"I was really sensitive to this just being one of many influences that I had making the album," she adds. Garbus detailed her experience in Haiti (not her first trip there), for the online blog the Talkhouse. "There are these really wonderful rhythms where you really need to know exactly where the words fit in rhythmically with these songs and that's something that really appealed to me, but of course, I was just scratching the surface of it all."
In the grand scheme of Nikki Nack, Garbus is right, her new education is just one of the many elements that create what she calls a "puzzle of things working with each other and against each other."
Before returning to her rehearsal room to continue honing in her live set, she speaks with a sense of enthusiasm about her upcoming months. Two years, after all, is a long break, but when asked if she was ready to hit the road again, if fear of regression will sink in again, she sounds happily determined, if not still a bit frantic.
"I think so!" she replies. "Mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I think it's time. I could use a little bit more sleep, to be honest, but yes, I'm ready."