Tune-Yards: ‘The more I come to understand the way the world works, the more I understand that these issues are interconnected’

It’s early morning in California as Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards sits down for our Zoom call, apologising for the absence of her partner and fellow bandmate Nate Brennar, who is resting in.

Nate Brenner and Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards.

Despite the hour, she’s an engaging conversationalist as we chew over Sketchy, Tune-Yards’ fifth studio album in a career that began in 2008 as a DIY solo act with a ukulele and loop pedal but expanded in 2011 with the arrival of bass player Brenner.

As with the rest of their catalogue, Sketchy offers considerable food for thought, as Garbus grapples with such issues as climate change, capitalism, misogyny and racial privilege.

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She says she’s long been interested in artists willing to embrace complex debate, citing “Fela Kuti, so much hip-hop and singer-songwriters like Ani Difranco” among her favourites. “I was always really drawn to songs that were about the things that I was taking most seriously and that could do that in a way that was also captivating. A lot of music that I care about and feel most attached to has that aspect.”

Where their last album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, seemed dominated by internal conflict, Sketchy’s outward-looking vibrancy suggests the 40-year-old singer has moved on. “Maybe instead of moving on, I felt the need to integrate,” she says. “I needed to be able to really live into the joy of my life, at the same time as living into how I was going to move forward with kind of waking up to what it means to be white, specifically.

“It’s a difficult thing to talk about because the question is ‘how do we move on?’ I think part of the reason I liked the album title is because one meaning of the word ‘sketchy’ is you can’t really see the full thing, it’s just an outline, I think that’s how I’m feeling. There are a lot of potential solutions on the horizon but it feels only loosely outlined, and trying to celebrate that space too instead of what I think we do a lot of in our society, which is look for right and wrong and then head there immediately, and if it’s not right then it’s wrong, instead of living in a very liminal space.”

Garbus recently mentioned the Beastie Boys as an example of a band who managed to negotiate a successful career in the correct manner. “Maybe ‘correct’ is a strong word,” she chuckles, “because I can think of a lot of things maybe I wish they had engaged with more directly, but I think they were always who they were and they never really pretended to be anybody else. You could accuse them of many things and they would always be, like, ‘we’re just some goofy guys who were one of the first white hip-hop bands’, and coming from playing rock instruments and this pretty punk ethos of how to make music.

“But there’s a lot in their creative process that I gleaned a lot from, especially not taking yourself so seriously. I think if there is something correct that’s a great thing to use in a career in music.”

She believes it’s dangerous to view climate change, Sketchy’s predominant theme, in isolation. “Even though these songs were all written before the pandemic hit, I think it’s tricky to also not see that in isolation and just see it as a result of how we are living on this planet,” she says. “I think people get overwhelmed and say, ‘I can’t think of racism on top of the glaciers melting’. I think that’s an extraction of the kind of exploitation we’ve been living under and exhibiting on this planet for so long.

“There are so many through lines to the kind of extractive lifestyle that we have that is also why people are exploited in the workforce and why we need people to be unemployed so that labour stays cheap. There’s a reason for racism. I’ve heard ‘racial capitalism’ get used a lot more, of an economic system based on the subjugation of other people. It’s all related, and the more I come to understand the way the world works, the more I understand that these issues are interconnected and interwoven. For me it’s actually helpful to think of them in that way because it’s not just issues at the border, it’s not just refugees. It’s all of these things very much interwoven.”

If the Trump era seemed a manifestation of the thorniest aspects of US society, Garbus worries that “there’s a little bit of stuffing it under the rug” since the former President left office. “Now that he’s out of power there’s still all of those people not only that voted for him, but people who still swing very much to that end of the spectrum politically who I think would like to live in a far more fascist state, to have people really controlled,” she says. “However anti-government they proclaim to be I think they really would prefer that many people were controlled by the government. Just not them.”

While attempting to reduce Tune-Yards’ carbon footprint as a band, Garbus recognises the conflict for musicians who derive most of their earnings from touring. “There are a lot of questions that feel existential and that is one of them,” she says. “I think we also need to be clear that the internet also has a huge carbon footprint, and we don’t talk about that a lot, but we should be clear what the cost of servers is.

“We’ve done mostly carbon offsetting (as a band), using proceeds from the tour – merch items and things – to buy offsets through green energy projects, but that’s not the same as simply not using fossil fuels which would be the best thing. I don’t know any way other than to keep following the most progressive (ideas) that we’re hearing from people, that might mean that we really don’t tour as much and we consciously sacrifice that.

“I think the idea seems to be that we’re all going to have to give something up, and that’s going to be hard, especially after the pandemic where most people feel that they have given so much up that we’re all waiting to jump on planes – and I’m one of those people, I can’t wait to go back overseas, but I think we need to be ready. I think we’re a privileged enough band, we’re further along in our career, so we’ll see. We already have some dates that seem to be coming to fruition so I’m not at all promising that we’ll never hop on a plane again, but we’ll definitely be more mindful.”

The pandemic has given us all pause for thought this past year. Garbus believes it has brought many of the issues she tried to address on this album to the forefront. “Hold Yourself and Hypnotised really feel apropos, even lines like ‘the people aren’t anywhere to be found’ I just thought it’s eerily relevant to what’s going on,” she says. “I am of course horrified not just by George Floyd’s murder but the murders of many people since he died, but I think that was a really big wake-up call for the whole world about the need to really address racial injustice now. I also was pushed to another level of accountability and my own personal commitments around that work and I feel we got there because of the pandemic, because we all had been stuck inside pent up. We wouldn’t have seen the (Black Lives Matter) movement erupt in that way (if that had not happened).”

After George’s Floyd’s death, Garbus says she added a minute’s silence to the middle of the album because “it felt like we needed to take a pause together”. “That’s not the only reason for doing it,” she adds, “but it felt important for me to stop and slow down and feel.”

In Hold Yourself Garbus discusses motherhood, “feeling betrayed” by her parents’ generation and “seeing how we are betraying the future”. It is, she admits, a lot to condense into a catchy three-minute pop song. “I really did not want to write it, it’s so sad, but that’s OK,” she says. “I used to go to therapy and I would cry to my therapist about this song, she heard about it for a good year of not just the feelings as a woman of my age, I’m at the latter end of that decision of whether I will have children and I’m also entering that phase where women generally start to disappear in society and in the music industry. Then I’m watching my parents age and seeing the world that they’re seeing in their latter years which I know they don’t want me and my sister to have to inherit, but I think the sense of having to encapsulate all that in really a handful of lyrics in the end, what I found is it’s very easy to write an accusatory song, or it was easier for me to write Nowhere Man, for instance, which feels far more finger-pointy.

“The first verse is more pointy and the second verse is pointing back at myself and there’s something so painful in that. It reminds me of some of the whiteness work, actually, because there is such pain in understanding that you have caused pain and will cause pain, so much so that our first reaction is often to do anything to deny that we’ve caused that pain, or to say ‘I’ll do it better’ or ‘I’m not going to be that way’. For me, it was an exercise in grief knowing that I am betraying the next generation even maybe by saying that I can’t give up touring. Maybe if I had more courage, if I had more bravery there would be things that I would be willing to sacrifice, so it’s really tough stuff to grapple with.”

Nowhere Man was written in response to the state of Alabama banning abortion in 2019. Beyond anger, Garbus says she felt a sense of disbelief that the clock was being turned back on women’s rights during the Trump era. “I read a book called Down Girl by Kate Manne, its subtitle is The Logic of Misogyny, and I think much like racial capitalism, I started to understand that it’s really part of the system so much that it at least demystifies shock and horror,” she says. “Frankly it makes such little sense to me that it’s hard to remember what that book says because it’s so absurd and unjust that that law was signed by a woman.

“For me it’s always be hard to understand the logic behind banning abortion, especially because usually what it goes along with is women must go through with having children but then aren’t funded to get support as mothers in every way, whether that’s food stamps or mental health or free healthcare which we don’t have, it’s so myopic. I guess I’m shocked but not surprised any more, and then I know that there’s extremely important and great work being done here to make sure that women still get access to care.”

Sketchy is out now. tune-yards.com