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Tune-Yards perform songs from 'sketchy.' in a virtual session

Tune-Yards: Virtual Session
Tune-Yards: Virtual SessionPhoto Courtesy of Artist | Graphic by MPR

by Maddie

April 02, 2021

Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner of Tune-Yards join Maddie for a virtual session to play songs from their latest record, 'sketchy.' The three of them discuss the band's first time scoring a film, how martial arts movies played a role in their creative process, and thinking of themselves as athletes in the studio.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

MADDIE: Hello I'm Maddie sitting down with a virtual session for The Current. We are here today and have the pleasure to being joined by Merrill and Nate of Tune-Yards. Hi guys! Thank you so much for being here.

MERRILL GARBUS: Thanks for having us.

NATE BRENNER: Thank you.

We are gonna get right into the music with a couple songs off of their upcoming record sketchy. We're gonna hear "hold yourself," "hypnotize," and "make it right." Is there anything you guys want to say before we hear those songs?

MERRILL GARBUS: We love you, Minneapolis. Please enjoy.

So here's Tune-Yards playing some songs off their upcoming album.

[music: "Hold Yourself", "Hypnotized", and "Make It Right" by Tune-Yards]

Thank you again, Merrill and Nate for being here, and special guest Coco that I can see the bottom of frame. A prominent figure and in the scene here. How are you guys doing this morning?

MERRILL GARBUS: Great. Yeah, feeling lucky to be alive this morning.


How has your quarantine routine been as you're gearing up for the release of your new record?

MERRILL GARBUS: It's really varied. I think a lot of people are finding, I'm sure more than us, day to day, we're getting new information about what is going to be happening. So, it really depends. We taped a live stream gig yesterday at our studio. That's been a kind of new routine. In the beginning, it was a lot of jogging and cooking. Yeah, so it's really varied over the months.

Good to stay active, recording shows--that kind of element of business is definitely something that I think we're all looking for. I've noticed in some of the content that we've gotten so far from sketchy. there's so many bright colors and patterns. I know that that's nothing new for you guys as a group, but how is that visual world sort of felt in the making of this album?

MERRILL GARBUS: One of the first things we did, the first times we ventured out from our home in the pandemic was to do a photo shoot, and we all got tested and figured out how to do it safely and got Pooneh Ghana who's an incredible photographer to work with us and Jordy Scheinberg, who has done costuming and styling for us. So we all got together and I had a big Pinterest board of different colorful--a lot of it's colorful imagery, really kind of saturated colors of 70s/80s photography--analog photography that I really liked. So we've had a whole team of people really working on the creative side and then Mike--I'm spacing on his last name.

NATE BRENNER: Zimmerman?

MERRILL GARBUS: I think you're right. Zimmerman, like Bob? Like Bob Dylan? Yeah, I guess so. Mike Zimmerman at Beggars, at our label. He worked with us to do these--the album design and from the beginning, I think we had this idea of cutouts, and he really just put together imagery that we've been so happy with. Probably some of the best artwork that's been associated with Tune-Yards stuff, I think.

Yeah, I feel like it definitely encapsulates the sound of those singles that we've gotten so far off this upcoming record. I know with your recent Late Night performance you had a lot of fun childlike elements with you, Merrill, singing from the colorful beanbags. How's prep for those virtual experiences been in contrast to what you were doing with in-person live shows before?

MERRILL GARBUS: It's different and the same, I guess? I mean, prep--what do we do to prep?

NATE BRENNER: It was a lot more--obviously like Zoom meetings and the shoot itself was just kind of surreal because every one had face masks and like kind of up until we did the take, we were pretty much like wearing masks. But the producer did an amazing job of just making sure everyone got tested multiple times.

MERRILL GARBUS: I guess we had less rehearsal than--we normally would have a lot of rehearsals. Hamir Atwal, who plays drums with us, for the last record we rehearsed hours and hours and hours in our basement studio in Oakland. This time we all rehearsed on our own, pretty much Nate and I got to rehearse together. We're a pod. So we have that advantage of being able to rehearse together a lot. Then the singers rehearse on their own, everyone really rehearsed their parts. So it was just the day that we were in the studio that we really got to play together. But we did do four days of recording a whole bunch of things. We made the most of this time that we had. A safe time that we had with people to record.

That's a lot different than the way that a tour or previous live shows might have looked for you guys. I know that the last release you guys had before sketchy. was actually a film score for the Boots Riley film, Sorry To Bother You. How did making that film score contrast with what you're doing now?

MERRILL GARBUS: Film scoring is really is so different. The main thing is that we're working toward Boots' vision, which for me was super--I think for both of us, was super refreshing to make music that--which we had done a little bit here and there, but make music that was really serving another purpose besides fitting into a Tune-Yards record or the ideas behind Tune-Yards songs. So yeah, process--how was the process different?

NATE BRENNER: Definitely as Merrill said, just being a small part of a bigger vision that wasn't our own vision, but helping someone else realize their vision. Obviously, the most--not having lyrics I think was one of the biggest things for us musically. So just working more on writing themes, and we'd never scored a film score before. So there was a big learning curve both musically and also just like, what do we name these files? Like, how do we like stay organized? That whole technical side of things.

MERRILL GARBUS: Yeah. Things you don't think about. I just realized we could do this. [adjusts microphone] Speaking of technical things, we can do that, right?

Yeah, that sounds good to me.

MERRILL GARBUS: [to Nate] Now people can see your shining mustache.

A whole new view. Do you think that writing that film score changed the way that you looked at songwriting for sketchy.?

MERRILL GARBUS: For sure. That freedom of not having to think about lyrics and--it's like someone gives you a puzzle that you have to figure out and then you start using all these tools that you never would have used before. So I think there was a lot of filtering of vocals, especially a lot of using more of the classical range of voice to to do that kind of main theme. They're just elements of our what we're able to do and Nate, I feel like I leaned on you a lot for your compositional knowledge and skills and talents in terms of, how do we take this theme? And then how do we make a lot of music, a lot of it's just like, it's a ton of music to fill that time and to, at a certain point, there was just a quantity that we had to compose. So I think that was new for me, kind of bringing in some of the compositional knowledge that you have.

NATE BRENNER: I think one of the main things for me was seeing how much of the film they got rid of, in the editing process, to see the film go from--the first cut was probably like two and a half hours, down to like 80 minutes. And there was really good stuff that they got rid of, but getting rid of it made the movie so much better. So I feel like when we're in that phase, where we were like, "Oh, actually, we don't need this song on the album," or, we don't need this section, the album will be stronger with less material.

MERRILL GARBUS: Yeah, we learned a ton. Plus working with Boots. Working with someone who just has a vision and then everyone just is like, "Woahhhh," gets in, it's part of this wave of creativity. It was super, he's an amazing artist.

I had read that you wrote, "Hold Yourself," one of the singles off of your upcoming record, some time ago, a couple years ago? Was most of the album written ahead of time and something that you worked on recording now? What did the timeline for recording this creating this record look like?

MERRILL GARBUS: Yeah, it's interesting, that timeline, now it feels so relevant, more than ever of what was written pre-pandemic. It was all written pre-pandemic, so even the songs that feel resonant, none of those lyrics were written after the pandemic. I think all of the songs were written in 2019, right? And then we were done. We were pretty much done with the album, compositionally, by the end of 2019 and then we did a kind of last production burst in the early part of the year. So all that was left by March of 2020 was to mix the record and that was what changed, who was going to go mix it in person with Eli Cruise out in upstate New York, but that was the trip that got canceled. So we did the mixing remotely, but otherwise everything was written and pretty much tracked and recorded by March of 2020.

It's interesting to hear that because I feel like particularly on "hold yourself," it does feel so resonant with like the current times, do you feel like that is kind of something that you've like rediscovered new meanings in those songs throughout the past year?

MERRILL GARBUS: Yeah, for sure. I didn't know that kind of meaning, but I guess not to say that I am particularly wise or that I predicted a pandemic, because I certainly did not. But we don't think a lot about right before the pandemic, because our whole existence has shifted, but there were similar things, a questioning of what do we do and the questioning of how do we get through this? It was it was already a hard time existentially for a lot of us. I think that the ideas--it's not like they came out of nowhere and the pandemic also didn't come out of nowhere. That's something that we don't talk a lot about, but culturally but that there are things that are not working in the way that we are in the planet, are on the planet--and being on the planet and certainly many of those things brought brought us where we are today.

Yeah, absolutely more of an amplification of what was going on than this whole new situation that was being thrown out.


What have been some things that you feel like were inspiring to you in both the creating of this record as well as more current days throughout this quarantine life?

MERRILL GARBUS: Inspirations and quarantine life.

NATE BRENNER: We started watching kung fu movies for the first time.

MERRILL GARBUS: There you go. [laughs] I feel like it's been cycles of inspiration. That's definitely been an inspiration for sure. I'm trying to think of--I had this like nerdy Bertolt Brecht section of the pandemic, that was like, a good couple months of reading a book. That's literally--it's not a book about Bertolt Brecht, it is a literal, date by date, what he did in his life. So it's like April of 1926. And like, literally what he did like where his body was in space, and for some reason, it was the most comforting book I could have been reading in whatever May of last year. I never thought about time that way, but if you don't interpret your life's events, and you're just like, "and then I went here," there's so much of a story there. You know, just the facts was really interesting. Actually Brechtian for those for those of your listeners who are Brecht fans. It was a very Brechtian way of presenting his life.

Yeah, that's really interesting. I'm kind of curious to hear more about kung fu movies. What has kind of drawn you guys to watch those recently?

NATE BRENNER: We started with a--it just popped up on our Netflix.

MERRILL GARBUS: Ask Netflix. Why did we suddenly get recommended tons of kung fu movies?

NATE BRENNER: And I think it was Ip Man.

MERRILL GARBUS: Yeah. Ip Man was the first one, who was Bruce Lee's teacher. It's just--there is something I think when we were writing the album, too, there's a way that we go. I mean, should we talk about Rocky mode? Where did it come from?

NATE BRENNER: It was just one of my friends who's a musician. Whenever he gears up to really focus, he says, I'm going to go start some Rocky. And then I can't say the next word. We're on the radio, but it starts with an "S". So he's like, time for the Rocky, you know what.

MERRILL GARBUS: Let's just call the Rocky mode. Yeah.

NATE BRENNER: And so we kind of picked that up where we're like, we're going full on Rocky mode. And it's like, wake up early, go on a jog. Go to the studio. Like take a break, do push ups.

MERRILL GARBUS: And setting timers, like set a timer, 20 minutes, vocal warm ups, 30 minutes, I'm gonna work on this one melody idea.

NATE BRENNERT: Yeah. And then it's kind of just, I think, after being in the Rocky mode, it's helpful to get inspiration from obviously, like basketball players.

MERRILL GARBUS: It's like an athletic--it's more inspiring than thinking about the idea of songwriting being like--you go to the office, and you put your hours in, even though that is what it is. I've learned over the years, but it makes it--if you feel like you're about to win a game somehow that makes it more motivating. Also that we are athletes, I'm realizing only now later on as being a singer, that being a singer is truly being an athlete, you have to take care of your body in that way and think about your body in that way.

NATE BRENNER: I think during the process, anything that can trick yourself into thinking that it sounds good. Sometimes if your heart rates up, you're like, "Oh it sounds good!" But it's just that your heart rates up.

MERRILL GARBUS: Yeah, and I'd walk to the YMCA after we work in the afternoons, and go swimming. I think that a lot of song lyrics got written on that walk between our studio on 15th Street and the Y which is on whatever a few blocks away that they were, you know, they're there. Anyway, you asked about kung fu movies--the point is that there's, you know, seeing someone else train and work really hard for something and be able to use their selves in this in this beautiful, very disciplined way is just endlessly inspiring.

Yeah, absolutely. I like the approach of looking at music as a source of athleticism because I think that is something that a lot of people often overlook. I also am just obsessed with the idea of a Tune-Yards mockumentary that's like filmed Rocky style where you guys are like going to the studio and really just going in.

MERRILL GARBUS: Interesting you say that because we're kind of working on televised mockumentary. Top secret. You didn't hear it here.

No, I heard nothing.

MERRILL GARBUS: Thank you for the idea.

I really hope it includes a cover of the Rocky theme song because I just--the wheels are turning and there's a lot there. You guys know.

MERRILL GARBUS: Great. I'm catching your vibe.

Thank you so much for sitting down today Merrill and Nate, your record sketchy. comes out on March 26. Is there anything that you are particularly excited about having this record coming out into the world?

MERRILL GARBUS: I'm excited to offer people more music. I think I realized that music is really important to me during this pandemic more than ever before. Or since high school or these early days of being a real music fan of how much music can really just even physically help get us through. So I really hope that for this music, what are you excited about?

NATE BRENNER: The same for me. Exactly the same, just having it be released and available for people to listen to.

MERRILL GARBUS: Yeah, we're really excited. Kowing that it's been a hard time and that there are hard times ahead, and we are thinking of you out there. And just really wanting music to be a part of giving people what they need to, as it says, not to quote my own lyrics, but we all--now I'm gonna forget my own lyrics. We all have trouble being brave enough to turn the page. So like we're all going to need to adapt and change even more than we already have. And we hope that music can be part of lending people some some strength there.

Absolutely. I'm really looking forward to having a whole album out into the world as well. Thank you so much to Tune-Yards for sitting down and thank you to engineer Erik Stromstad as well as producers Jesse Wiza and Derrick Stevens, and thank you to the members of Minnesota Public Radio for making it all possible.

MERRILL GARBUS: Thank you Minnesotans. We love you. Take care. Thanks.

Tune-Yards - official site


Host - Maddie
Guests - Merrill Garbus & Nate Brenner
Technical Director - Erik Stromstad
Producers - Derrick Stevens, Jesse Wiza