Perfecting Utopia

Slamgrass, Screaming Eagle soul, stuttered rhythms, and sweet pop shock Utopia Fest

photo by David Brendan Hall


Sunday, 10:30pm, Cypress stage

"The world of Tune-Yards was created with intention," says bandleader Merrill Garbus. "There's a methodology behind our music, down to every last piece of equipment we use."

The New England native debuted DIY in 2009, releasing her dictation machine-recorded solo LP via recycled cassette tapes. The Oakland migrant's m.o. has since sprouted into sonorous avant-pop spectacle. Live, the face paint enthusiast and bassist/boyfriend Nate Brenner cross freak-folk with syncopated rhythms and Afro-beat loops.

"We use samples," she concedes, "but we're building from a relatively primitive place. It's all about curation of sound. We're not using laptops and staying exclusively in this digitized place. That philosophy – of not trying to disguise flaws – runs through our music. Even my voice conveys ugliness, somewhat."

In 2013, the onetime puppeteer traveled to Haiti, where she studied native dance and Voodoo drumming. The experience shaped the Smith grad's third LP, last year's worldbeat whirlpool Nikki Nack.

"I don't necessarily set my sights on country A, B, or C for influence," says the singer. "Rather, I feel compelled toward ideas as a forever learning student – rhythms, mostly. These ideas of dissonance, of incorrect harmonies, stuttered rhythms ... It's what continually calls me forward as a musician. These 'not quite right' sounds that maybe aren't so apparent to Western ears."

On the home front, the ACL vets continue commanding massive festival crowds.

"At first, I was wary that our 'in-your-face' live intimacy wouldn't translate to bigger audiences, but our recent sets have felt so powerful. Ten-thousand-person fests have felt like 400-person rooms."

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