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Interview: Tune-Yards

Tune-Yards discuss influences behind new album 'I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life'...

“I think British audiences are more adventurous,” says Merrill Garbus, vocalist and founder of the unique American band Tune-Yards. The comment comes on the back of a conversation about the group’s last British appearance, some three years ago, at the Field Day festival in East London’s Victoria Park. The band had, despite their mid-afternoon slot, pulled a large and very enthusiastic crowd and clearly won over a host of new fans as they delivered the polyrhythmic, percussive thrills of their third album ‘Nikki Nack’.

Their live show, nothing short of spectacular with its legion of live drummers, was tailor-made for the festival circuit, Merrill admits. But she insists that UK audiences have a special place in the band’s heart. “I think that it has certainly helped us, being signed to a British label,” Garbus says of 4AD, the London-based label who picked up on and have nurtured the group’s development from early on in their career. “It’s definitely helped with the number of fans we have in the UK.”

She says the band, who are based in Oakland, California, are looking forward to their next live outing in the UK in March, especially as it means a chance to reinforce their fanbases in regional areas where they’ve been in the past. “We’re playing in Gateshead, which I know is just next to Newcastle where we’ve played before. We’re playing in Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester, and we’ve played all those places before too, so it’ll be nice to go back because we know we have fans in those places.”

In keeping with the more stripped down and electronic-sounding new album ‘I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life’, not to mention the band officially became a duo in the three years since the last LP, the new look touring line up is a leaner, meaner three piece comprising of core members Merrill Garbus (vocals, ukulele, percussion) and Nate Brenner (bass guitar) and additional percussionist Hamir Atwal.

They’ve already been busy roadtesting the new line up and material with a string of relatively low key shows on the east and west coast of the US late last year. “We only announced the shows at the last minute so we knew the people at the shows would be the real fans,” she says, adding that she was pleased with the way the shows had gone. The start of 2018, meanwhile, has meant an extensive promotional tour of the US, which explains why New York-born, California-based Garbus is speaking to us over the phone from a hotel in a very chilly Chicago. As well as the media merry go round of interviews, they’ve been playing short sets of four or five songs at a time at a number of TV and radio stations. It all means they should be a finely tuned unit by the time they reach the United Kingdom in March.

While the new album ‘(I Can Feel) You Creep Into My Private Life’ certainly marks a shift towards electronic music – something which Merrill says she’d previously dismissed as “not rhythmically complex enough” but has re-evaluated in recent times – the trademark Tune-Yards sound is still very much in evidence. Their mix of joyous, infectious vocal hooks and irrepressible rhythms are especially in evidence on the second single from the LP, the current release ‘Heart Attack’, also the opening track on the album.

With a hint of the smooth and glamorous sassiness of Grace Jones, only with hand-clapped African rhythms in place of the Jamaican reggae and funk favoured by Jones, the track showcases the LP’s retro 80s elements, albeit re-processed and re-invented in a thoroughly modern and original way.

“Some of the 80s throwback production came from wanting the vocals to sound robotic, maybe to counter the sincerity of the lyrics. I started sampling my vocals in an MPC which I’ve wanted to do for years, and there was something that felt really right about my voice being trapped in a machine.” The use of an MPC or Music Production Unit, a small, self contained unit that combines elements of the sampler, drum machine and MIDI controller, is a lo-fi, DIY approach that harks all the way back to Tune-Yards’ first album ‘Birds-Brains’ in 2009, which was captured entirely on a handheld voice recorder.

Lyrically, the album continues in the vein of previous releases in examining politics and social issues, but arguably in the most direct manner yet. As you’d probably expect, the shock of Donald Trump’s election a year ago has clearly left its mark on Merrill’s lyrical landscape, most obviously on ‘Coast To Coast’, which is about the huge swathes of the US, away from the more progressive metropolitan centres on either coast, where Trump found most of his support. “ I know your language but I wish it were silence,” Merrill sings, “The seeds are sown in all the small acts of violence.”

Garbus says that rather than resorting to blatant political sloganeering, the lyrical approach she’s taken on the album is to examine the effect that Trump’s politics and the wider state of the world are having on her personal, internal world. Explaining its title, she says: “Yes, the world is a mess, but I’ve been attempting to look more and more inward: how do all of these “isms” that we live in manifest in me, in my daily activities, interactions?”

Another of the most striking moments on ‘(I Can Feel) You Creep Into My Private Life’ is the environmentally-concerned ‘ABC 123’.

“Sun sun sun burn down on me…California’s burning down,” declare the dramatic lyrics, written long before the golden state was hit by the wildfires and mudslides it’s suffered the during the past couple of months.

Covering a wide spread of contemporary issues, from race and feminism to the self-examination of Garbus’ own privilege on ‘Colonizer’ – pop musician in self-awareness shocker – the album is political, but political but in a subtle, multi-faceted way. Oh, and fun – a lot of fun – too.

So when Merrill declares “It’s definitely a very troubling, a very scary time,” we can only agree. But we’d just want to add that bad times never sounded so good.

‘(I Can Feel) You Creep Into My Private Life’ is out on 4AD on January 28.

Tune-Yards play:

13 March – GATESHEAD, Sage
14 March – EDINBURGH, Liquid Room
16 March – MANCHESTER, Albert Hall
17 March – LEEDS, Church Leeds
18 March – BRIGHTON, Attenborough Centre For Creative Arts
20 March – LONDON, Roundhouse 

Tickets on sale now at www.ticketweb.co.uk/tune-yards 

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