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Thursday 5th May, 2011 2:55PM

Merrill Garbus has been creating eclectic DIY music in Montreal, Canada since 2006, culminating in her 2009 debut album Bird-Brains. A move to California and an additional band mate has pushed Garbus' sound into new territory as sophomore album w h o k i l l demonstrates. We caught up with Garbus to discuss the balance between DIY and professionalism, why she wanted to do it on her own, and how construction in Oakland has affected her sound.

Tell me about adding another member to the fold of tUnEyArDs:

Yeah lately we've been more of a duo because I’ve been playing so much with Nate Brenner. For the past year and a half we’ve toured and he co-wrote some of the songs on this album by adding his incredible talent at the bass, so it’s felt like a duo for a long time and now we’re bringing two saxophone players on tour which is exciting.

Tell me about the new record?

This particular time in my life has been one of pretty big transitions. I moved from Montreal where tUnEyArDs got its first outing through the community of artists I was living around. I moved from there to Oakland, where I am now, for a number of reasons but you know I love it here, and I get to be with my partner. Also I’m an American so it’s easier to feel legal here. But the album were written in Montreal and Oakland and there’s that trauma of moving on the album. I think in this album there’s a lot of the sounds of Oakland which is a much different city to Montreal. It’s a more confrontational city.

How do you see it as a progression from your earlier work?

I think I’m always trying to challenge myself as much as possible. Bird Brains, our first album, was all done in a digital voice recorder so it had this real – I had my hand in every little piece. Because I’ve been touring with Nate now and because our audience has really grown and the size of our performances have grown it seemed like the recording had to grow, what I was looking to do was take up more space. On songs like 'bizniss' I tried to do demos of it on my own and it was just feeling really flat. Then I said OK it’s time we go to a studio and get a sound engineer – as much as I had resisted it up till now – it seemed appropriate to have someone who could handle the intricacies of sound engineering. So we went to a studio in Oakland which I think was the right choice.

What do you like about being a solo artist or duo as opposed to being in a full band?

tUnEyArDs started as a solo project because of my frustrations with being in a band. I was in another band called Sister Suzy based in Montreal and my band mates were in other bands and therefore really busy. So instead of twiddling my thumbs just waiting I felt this constant need to create. The tUnEyArDs music was necessarily the stuff I was able to do on my own. I did not want to start a second band and wanted to see how far I could push myself. Also, I found it really challenging firstly to be a woman musician amid a lot of male musicians and secondly a relatively untrained musician among trained musicians. I think having a solo project was this way of gaining confidence where I could have my own voice and not fight for it. The musicians I worked with were wonderful people and listened to me very well but I still think there was a part of me that had this reservation or was ashamed of my inability to do certain things so doing it by myself allowed me this space to just stretch out and not be scared.

So, how does a songwriting process go down for you?

It starts in different ways. It’s these little fragments of melody or a ukelele part. Lately I've been on tour a lot and at soundcheck I fool around with the looping pedal and the drums and come up with things that way. Now that we’re home I can do that in our rehearsal studio and set up my drums and set up my looping pedal and it’s this wonderful way of being able to create songs on my own in a very full way. And then there’s the excruciating fleshing out process; they start from these wonderful beginnings and then they require so much time. The lyrics are especially time consuming and I find that’s one of the things where if I’m not in that inspired place it’s really hard to force them to come out.

Your sound is extremely eclectic. How do you describe or define it?

Eclectic is good, let's call it that. Um, yeah I don’t know it’s such a funny thing and it's very hard to describe ones own music because I don’t have much perspective on it. I like to think it’s a patchwork of the sounds I hear, all coming through the filter of me. All the sounds in these songs are these threads of things I’ve heard; rhythms or a dog barking or in Oakland there’s been a lot of construction so they have these huge giant machines for drilling holes and that’s been interesting, listening to these rhythms.

So you're interested in exploring found sounds and sounds within your natural environment?

I wish I could say I listened to more music. I think it’s clear I have an influence of afro-beat and Tony Allen and those are huge influences as well as hip hop, so I do not pretend I haven’t listened to music but I am trying to come away from listening to so much music unfortunately maybe, but I need to access sounds from within, and not worry about absorbing other people's music so much.

Tell me about your plans for the rest of 2011:

We’ll go on tour for about a month in the States and then Europe and then what? A bit of a break but it’s going to be a lot of touring this year and we’re hoping it will include down where you are. New Zealand is the place that I’ve heard spoken the highest of, people don’t say anything bad about it ever.

Courtney Sanders

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