Dissecting Tune-yards' ‘Whokill’ with FFFS's Merrill Garbus.
By Melanie Haupt, 10:36AM, Thu. Nov. 3, 2011
I wasn't paying attention to Tune-yards. In fact, Merrill Garbus’ 2009 debut, Bird-Brains, whizzed right past my radar. Suddenly, this spring’s Whokill (4AD) blew my everloving socks off. Its attention to detail and nuances of sound create a unique musical palette. When I got her on the phone, I just wanted to know how the hell she did it.
Austin Chronicle: The theme of violence in the new album has been covered, so I wanted to talk to you about the nuts and bolts of making Whokill. Can you tell me what your process is like in the studio?
Merrill Garbus: Sure. It’s rather haphazard, so I’ll do my best. This album was sort of unique in that it started by experimenting with pedals. Honestly, it really started years ago. Some of the songs are really old. It started at a time when I was touring a lot and the quickest and easiest way for me to write a song was to experiment during soundcheck. We always have to check the looping pedal and spend a few minutes getting that right every night. That’s a really good time to improvise with it.
In terms of the actual recording of it, I didn’t want to use the looping pedal because it doesn’t sound the best to put your stuff through the looping pedal and record it that way. We used the looping pedal to do a quick track of sorts and I created my own quick track to work with.
When Nick [Peterson] and I were in the studio in Brooklyn, we basically overdubbed each of the drum parts on top of that quick track one at a time. So we would do three minutes of the floor tom, three minutes of the snare, and three minutes of … whatever it was. That was how we did the rhythm. A lot of the album was written and well rehearsed by me and Nate [Brenner], because we had been on the road performing them for so long that we just went in and laid them down.
AC: Is there any improv on the album? It sounds like a lot of these songs were borne out of improvisation?
MG: That’s a really good question. I have a weird thing that perhaps someday will be remedied by having exorbitant amounts of money to spend in a studio, where we can lounge for three months at a time, not worrying about how much we’re paying. That tends not to be my personality and as a result, I tend to be very aware of the clock when we’re in the studio.
So, the times with the most improvisation were with the tracks that I started and overdubbed on my own. In this case, too, I did a lot of the editing myself, so that’s where most of the improvisation takes place. We recorded those tracks and I took them home for a long time, bought myself ProTools, and spent a lot of hours weaving and unweaving and cutting and cross-fading.
It was that way with the first album as well. It’s a wonderful time of sculpting with sounds. It’s almost a visual art in a way. Less of the improvisation is in the performance, it’s more in the processing of those.
AC: Film directors often find their movie in the editing. That’s what I’m hearing from you.
MG: Yeah, it’s exactly that. You’re choosing what gets heard. A lot of what I think about is silence, maybe in the way people think about poetry being the most distilled idea, saying the very minimum of what you have to say in order to get the idea across. I don’t think I’m making minimalist music by any means, but there’s that sense of I just want to say the bare minimum of what I have to.
The first version of the album I played for people I trust the most, the overarching comment was, “Too much. You’re trying to do too much.” A lot of that was coming from the first album that I felt like I had patchworked all the sounds together. I really wanted to make sure I had sounds from the outside world and voices and all of these extra things, and it turned out that that’s what they were, extra. Totally unnecessary.
And the editing is what makes a recording different from the live version, and for me that’s sometimes a struggle because people are very complimentary about the live show, which is great, but it tends to mean that they sometimes have trouble with the recorded version or I have trouble with the recorded version. And that was definitely an obstacle to get over, to find out how this recording had a life of its own outside of a live show.
AC: That’s interesting, because I hate it when I go see and act and it sounds exactly like the album...
AC: ... because I paid a lot of money to stand there and listen to the album?
MG: Exactly, exactly. But with me, people will say the opposite. They’ll say that they prefer the live show to the more complicated recorded version. They especially said that with the first album. I'm glad that the live versions have their own life, but I think that’s because I come from a performance background and I think a lot of bands struggle with how to bring their songs to even more life in a live show.
The place they have to start is, “How do we recreate what we did in the recording?” For me, it’s never been about that, it’s been, “How do I bring the life of performing the song live to a recording when I don’t have my audience in the studio with me?”