Interview Ellfian Rahim
Merrill Garbus’ third LP, Nikki Nack, is her most straightforward record yet. Mostly informed by pop music of yore and considerably more structured – for want of a better word – it might seem like an odd deviation at the onset. But for an artiste who’d made a lofi debut recorded on a dictation machine and then a hifi noise pop follow-up influenced by world music, a straightforward third record with some songs produced by Malay (Big Boi, Frank Ocean) was the decidedly weird choice to make. Just before she plopped up on stage at The Gathering, Singapore last February, JUICE caught up with Garbus to speak about her being a ‘one-woman Sonic Youth’, quirkiness in pop, and activism… of sorts.
We have trouble trying to put a finger on your music. It’s like you’ve piled ideas into your songs like you’re putting your favourite things into a closet – is this an accurate observation?
Actually, this was a rather recent development – this waywardness! After 2011’s W H O K I L L, I was getting bored with myself. Sure, a lot of people are telling me “you’re great,” but I wasn’t feeling great physically, and I was tiring of the setup that I had. So I tucked away the things that I relied on to write with before. I was ready to do something new.
Some people are comparing you to a one-woman Sonic Youth. What do you think of this comparison?
(Laughs) You know, that’s actually a new one! I guess a girl can be a little flattered every now and then! But seriously, Sonic Youth relies of tuned guitars for its out-of-this-world soundscape, I take that a bit further by using a wide variety of different instruments and vocal sound effects to create the music that I want. I suppose the principle behind it is very similar, but wait till you hear how different the two can be on stage later.
How does one achieve to be so individualistic in today’s music industry?
Suppose I have a different way of working. I read books about how to write a pop hit, listening to talks by experimental singers like Meredith Monk (American multi-disciplinary artist and musician), and taking up [Haitian] vodou drum and dance lessons. The latter experience involved a trip to Haiti, where I spent four hours a day pounding drums and swivelling my hips. I’ve been making a wild mess and my music sometimes sounds like an out-of-control beast I cannot begin to tame. But you know what, I just love it.
Nikki Nack, your most recent album, sounds like it has a whole lot more structure to it. It’s interesting that having ‘structure’ is the evolution of someone as experimental as you…
I know, right? It does feel new, difficult at times, and very dense. There’s a bit of dancehall, and ‘80s r’n’b à la Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam [and] there are several lyrical and thematic layers. It carries more darkness because it’s couched in joy. You can’t expose a child to a super disturbing idea, you have to have a fun thing, but the adult creating the art has this darker understanding of the world, and they don’t want to lie to the kids. I think there’s a lot of that [in my music]. I don’t want to just say, “Let’s dance all night,” as if there’s nothing wrong with the world. Because that’s a big old lie.
Do you consider yourself an activist of sorts then?
I don’t know about that, but I do take my messages seriously. I think about how everything that we have here comes at a cost to someone somewhere else. People are still unaware about what’s happening outside of their world and they divorce themselves from it. It’s like, “Oh, those poor, pitiful people in Haiti,” and it’s insulting to not say, “Well, part of Haiti’s poverty is because of how Europe and America have exploited its riches for itself, and not given it a fair economic chance, ever.” And sure, there are earthquakes and hurricanes, but politicians and people don’t see the connection between what we do here and what happens in the rest of the world, as if we’re very innocent.
tUnE-yArDs played at The Gathering, Singapore on Saturday 14 February ’15.