It was 2009 when the indie world was first introduced to Tune-Yards, Merrill Garbus' indie band of kaleidoscopic musical influences. On songs with African or Caribbean drum rhythms, she laid synth loops, ukulele melodies, and her versatile, powerful voice. Though topics often veered serious — violence, depression, body image — they were delivered with a kind of childlike glee. Garbus was a kid in a candy store of musical styles, with all the bright colors and world beats she could ask for.
Much has changed since the band, comprised of Garbus and collaborator Nate Brenner, released Nikki Nack in 2014. White privilege and cultural appropriation are at the front of many artists' consciousness, and, thanks to social media, the power of public opinion to approve or condemn has never been stronger.
Garbus has also been evolving. She delved into racial justice activism and took a six-month meditation retreat on racism. She also immersed herself in the history of dance music, even picking up a DJ gig near her home in Oakland, Calif.. These developments are thoroughly apparent on Tune-Yards' new album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, a record of disco and house music that unforgivingly examines her role in musical colonialism.
In anticipation of Tune-Yards' show at the Majestic Theatre on Sunday, Metro Times spoke with Garbus about dance music, her new approach to live shows, and confronting cultural appropriation.
Metro Times: Who or what first turned you on to house music?
Merrill Garbus: I was really confused about what was being called EDM, and by "confused" I mean judgmental. We were playing a lot of festivals with a five-piece band, and it felt like we were being drowned out by a bunch of EDM DJ acts. I had such a resistance toward that music and I felt bad about it, because I don't like to hate on music genres. When we came home from the tour, I wanted to look at the history of EDM and where it was coming from. And it led me to the book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and then I started DJing. EDM feels very "white male," and to learn that the history is more queer and people of color didn't surprise me. No, it did surprise me. I was like, "Shit, there's another genre!"
MT: As someone who saw you perform on your Nikki Nack tour, I can attest to there already being lots of dancing at your shows. Still, have you found that being a DJ changed your live performance?
Garbus: I think so. And thank you for saying that because of course dancing has always been a part of our shows. But now we are starting to think of our live sets like DJs in terms of how to continue from song to song without a whole lot of stopping. In live performance there's a sense of, "There's someone on stage that I'm supposed to pay attention to," and when you go out to a club to dance it's more like, "I'm just going to do my own thing and lose myself." I'm really interested in how we allow people to lose themselves in the music, at least in large parts of the show, and then maybe we come together to check in every now and again.
MT: This album is about confronting your white privilege. What brought this to a head for you right now?
Garbus: I've always been looking at it because I've always been a white, cisgender woman delving into cultures that I don't come from because it's music that I love. At the beginning of Tune-Yards, I was like, "What is this, that there's dancehall reggae in my singer-songwriter music? What are the implications of that?" So it's something I feel is an essential Tune-Yards question. I was seeing how our audiences are vastly white, and being like, "Wait a second, how am I different? Am I different because I talk about this in interviews? I don't know if that's going to cut it anymore." Because here we are, a bunch of white people, dancing to music that is heavily influenced by black music, and black activists are saying people of color are being killed by our state.
My point is not to be a party pooper. My point is that I feel shame and separation. So what I'm interested in is building a community that feels like it's headed toward healing instead of throwing up our hands in a kind of jaded "fuck-it-all."
MT: It reminds me of any big problem where people feel too overwhelmed to even begin to address it.
Garbus: Yeah. Especially music, which is something that is an escape for a lot of people. I think there's a little resentment there, like, "You're taking away my last comfort in life!" But for me, there's so much value in investigating it. There's a line in one of the songs that goes, "If music kills..." And I really was like, "Is music killing?" Everyone says music is healing, but what if it's not? What if we're performing at venues that are pretty exclusive and price a lot of people out, and performing for mostly white people because they're the ones who are accessing our music? What if this isn't good?
Tune-Yards will perform on Sunday, March 4 at Majestic Theatre with Sudan Archives; Show begins at 7 p.m.; 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; majesticdetroit.com; Tickets are $23-$26.