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tUnE-yArDs Trips Up Pandora with Unique Sound

Published: Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 14:11


Anna M. Campbell

tUnEyArDs is just beachy keen.

For all fair intents and purposes, tUnE-yArDs is officially a duo, although it's driven by the powerhouse of quirk Merrill Garbus, whose vocals and melodies are off-beat in an on-point way. tUnE-yArDs is an experience. In one song, you're transported from the sweaty streets of some mid-brow metro to suburban brass to the musical sensibilities of indigenous nations.

tUnE-yArDs is unique enough to stand out on its own. The brain behind the band, Garbus, has that charismatic quality intrinsically found in the DNA of wunderkinds and those destined for notoriety. As such, her work ethic is one that band mate Nate Brenner says he finds inspiring.

"[Garbus] is a very hard worker and is very serious about being the best artist she can be and the best musician she can be," Brenner said. "I went to music school and I felt like I was a serious musician and I work hard, blah blah blah, but as soon as I worked with her she's in a whole other level. For me, it was like, ‘oh, I'll go play music then I'll go out to eat dinner and hang out with my friends,' and she's just, like, in the studio all day. It's almost the most dedicated I've ever seen anyone, which makes me realize that's why she's so successful and so good. She just works so hard. It's very inspiring."

Sometimes equipped with a ukelele and other time with her drum sticks, the oft-face-painted Garbus started tUnE-yArDs as a solo project. Her debut album BiRd-BrAiNs was recorded on a handheld Sony voice recorder with songs that often contain samples of city speak or found sounds from the real world.

For her second album, Garbus called up bassist Nate Brenner, a counselor she knew from a summer music camp they worked at in 2005 who toured briefly with her previous Montreal-based band Sister Suvi.

As Brenner tells it, Garbus added him to tUnE-yArDs for a fuller sound after she was asked to open for The Dirty Projectors.

"All of a sudden, she went from playing in these small cafes to (being) in front of 800 people and big venues, so she thought she needed bass to help the sound fill out the room," he said, adding later, "As we get more popular, we'll probably add more people and make the sound bigger to fit the rooms. […] Even when I saw Björk [at a club in Iceland a week prior to the interview] she had like 15 singers."

Brenner studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music (with the touring saxophonists) with a background in jazz and experimental music. In addition to working with Garbus, he's a member of the collective Beep and a solo project Naytronix. But he hasn't quite quit his day job and is, by day, a Pandora music analyst, meaning he spends his spare time assigning "DNA codes" to songs based on the key of the song, its length, style, medley, etc., before sending them into the music genome of online radio where stations are created around songs with similar qualities to them.

"It's like taking a music theory test," he said.

Many critics have had a hard time really finding the core of tUnE-yArDs and even Brenner, who analyzed the first tUnE-yArDs album for Pandora, won't do the band's sophomore release w h o k i l l.

"I did the first tUnE-yArDs album but […] a lot of people emailed Pandora to complain about it," Brenner said. "It's just a really hard album to do. I feel like it made me realize just how much tUnE-yArDs doesn't sound like other bands. And people said, 'Nothing good comes up on the tUnE-yArDs radio.' It's hard for Pandora to do a group like that, but it's also hard for me to analyze a band that I'm a part of. It's like looking in the mirror where you don't really know what you look like. It's the same with music where you don't really know what it would sound like to someone else."

Brenner may feel too close to the music to be objective, but that kind of quality is something he respects in his band mate.

"[Garbus] has a clear vision of what she wants but she's always open to other people's suggestions," he said of the writing process. "At this point, I think she's happy to have me and the sax players because she's done so much for herself on BiRd-BrAiNs."

Now that the 28-year-old bassist is involved in multiple creative projects he feels fulfilled.

"I don't feel like either of us are sacrificing anything artistically," he said.

The band's touring line-up includes two saxophone players, Noah Bernstein and Matt Nelson. Garbus and Co. are touring with supporting band Pat Jordache, featuring Patrick Gregoire, who was in Sister Suvi, and also was a counselor with Garbus and Brenner in 2005.

tUnE-yArDs w/Pat Jordache, Crescent Ballroom, Thursday, November 3, 7 p.m., $13-$15

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