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tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus Loves Puppetry, and Other Quirky Facts

tUnE-yArDs are coming to Phoenix on Tuesday, June 3.
tUnE-yArDs are coming to Phoenix on Tuesday, June 3.
Holly Andres

Following her critically acclaimed sophomore album Whokill, it seems tUnE-yArDs' brainchild Merrill Garbus was crippled with self-doubt, perhaps gripped by a feeling known as the Imposter Syndrome. As she chirps in her song "My Country," "The worst thing about living a lie / Is just wondering when they'll find out."

Whenever it comes to musicians with the same caliber of "quirky" intensity (Björk, St. Vincent, etc.), the authenticity of the artist is always called into question. Which is kind of annoying and stupid of critics to do. Garbus was not immune to this scrutiny, but by reinventing herself on her third album, Nikki Nack, which came out in May, she proved she was legit. If "Real Thing" doesn't speak to that, then nothing does.

We called up Garbus to discuss some of the children's TV show themes, what makes puppetry a genuine art form, and how to concentrate in a world of chaos and disorder.

Up On The Sun: The first thing I want to talk about are your music videos. I think that they are really inspiring, there's so much going on and it's really crazy and amazing and I love it. Do you have ideas for a web series or a show or something like that?

Merrill Garbus: That's a good idea. I would love to [laughs]. I think there are only so many things I can devote energy to at one time. If I ever have time, that'd be rad. But I do know that we like to make several videos per album so we'll do a couple others I think for these songs. We're kind of brainstorming and thinking about what those will be.

How closely do you work with the directors?

Well, really closely when we're the most successful. For the latest video, "Water Fountain," that was kind of our idea that we proposed to the director. I think more and more, as I grow older as an artist, I realize that I've always thought visually and really need to have input into the visual elements of what tUnE-yArDs is. I think for a long time, people kind of, ask you to defer, they just assume you don't want to have control over that stuff as an artist. "Let's just have somebody else do this work for you. Why would you want to do this work yourself?"

For me ... the visuals are very integrated with the music, and they really need to stick together. It was my initial concept of hosting a kids' show as the "Water Fountain" video's premise. Then, from there we went really back and forth with Joel, the director. That felt great to initiate the idea and say, "We're looking at Pee Wee's Playhouse, we're looking at these artists and these filmmakers." We started the conversation and he took it to amazing places, I think.

 

I guess I can assume you're a fan of Yo Gabba Gabba?

You know, I've never seen Yo Gabba Gabba! That's really funny that you say that because you're not the first to suggest such a thing. We actually did these Arcade Fire shows and Kid Koala was opening with us, and I guess I didn't realize he had been around for Yo Gabba Gabba. [He went on tour with the show.] Yo Gabba Gabba has been following me around, but I've never seen it.

I think you'd really like it. It's right up your alley.

Well, now I'm gonna take your recommendation.

I read that you used to do puppet shows. I think that's really cool. Not a lot of people do that. What do you like about puppeteering?

It's funny, I think a lot of people do do puppetry, just no one knows where to see it because it's a really small world. I know so many puppeteers and a lot of them are ... I think the ones you see the most are TV puppets, shows on TV using puppets in that form. But I do look at companies that do puppetry as adult theater and that's something that people don't really talk about at all. Puppets are generally for kids and for silliness and funny things.

What I think is amazing about puppetry is you can use a puppet for really metaphorical things that human beings can't do. You can make a puppet stretch its limbs out to an absurd extent and the puppet can drop its foot off, the puppet can do these really super human things that lend themselves to, I guess metaphor is the word I would use. It's not as conducing as we as humans can't or wish we could [do] or horrified to think might happen to us. I think they're really interesting in that way.

That's really insightful. I like that. Some might describe your music as kind of ADD. Would you describe yourself as having trouble concentrating or getting bored with things easily?

That's a good question. I think I'm pretty focused, but I do think that maybe I'm aware of a lot of things at the same time. I think the world is complicated and maybe I like to reflect back my view of the world or how I'm experiencing the world or a lot of times in this day and age, that's pretty chaotic. I think that's more where that comes from, more than my inability to concentrate. It's more of that, of how I view the world.

That being said there's a song where I say "I never seem to focus on the task at hand" and I think that is often true. Maybe more in a bigger sense where, you know, while I was making this album I was OK, I'm a musician so I should be making music and in the middle of the day I would be like, "Why am I a musician, why am I doing this? What's the point?" that kind of losing focus when I start to question the whole thing.

 

tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus Loves Puppetry, and Other Quirky Facts

Yeah, I understand that. I have difficulty concentrating all the time, it seems like, so I just wonder about that with other people. I don't want to feel like I'm alone.

Is it like an ADD thing? Is it in that way, literally, your brain not wanting to focus on one thing at a time?

Well, I've never been diagnosed with it, but Adderall works really well for me so ... I don't know.

Maybe. [laughs]

I like it, though. I like kind of being scattered and going in all these different directions and I can see you like that too. There's too much to focus on in this world with all this fast-paced media and you want to go out in all these different directions. And I can relate to that in your music.

I think, it's kind of like fighting/finding what's true to me. And that feels truer to me than an organized and orderly world. That's not how I see the world. That's not how I want to experience music. I like dance music, but I think if it doesn't go "wild" at a certain point, you know, if it sticks to what the computer wants you to do, that doesn't feel full human to me. Spazzing out or whatever. What I like about music is you can really let your self abandon yourself to it. Really let go into it. I guess for me, that means, not being predictable all the time maybe.

tUnE-yArDs is scheduled to perform at Crescent Ballroom on Tuesday, June 3.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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