Merrill Garbus is the face, the voice and the spirit of tUnE-yArDs. BiRd-BrAiNs, the Connecticut-based band's critically acclaimed first album, was a Garbus-only production. On stage and on record, Garbus masterfully conducts the band's every sound. With one critically important loop pedal, Garbus builds her empowered vocals, her eerily toned ukulele, and her floor tom and snare into the inspiring, polyrhythmic melodies that define tUnE-yArDs.
But standing behind Garbus is an often-overlooked key piece to the band's puzzle —bassist Nate Brenner, a Bloomington native.
Before embarking on her first major U.S. tour with Dirty Projectors in 2009, Garbus called upon her long-time friend, Brenner, to fill out the low end of her African-inspired indie folk. What started out as a solo project soon turned into a duo.
Brenner often goes overlooked, but according to interviews with Garbus in the past, his contributions both to their live performance and their second LP, W H O K I L L, have been significant. Garbus and Brenner co-wrote some of the albums standout tunes, including the single, "Bizness," as well as "Gangsta," "Killa" and "You Yes You."
Fresh off a European tour, tUne-yArDs returns to Brenner's hometown for a show at Rhino's Sept. 28. Ahead of the show, I corresponded with Brenner about his Indiana roots, his role in tUnE-yArDs and the band's swift rise to the top of the indie world.
NUVO: Tell me a little bit about your music background and growing up in Bloomington's vibrant music scene?
Nate Brenner: I was introduced to music at a very young age by my dad, Craig Brenner, a Bloomington-based piano player. When I was growing up, playing music was just a part of the daily routine like going out to the movies or playing sports. And Bloomington was actually a great place to grow up. There were many ways for kids to get involved in music, and the Lotus Festival brings some amazing music from all over the world to town. Being a college town with an amazing music school, there were always jazz concerts, and some big name bands would come through to play. In high school, I'd also go up to Indy to see some great music such as James Brown at the Indy Jazz Fest. And my dad always has some amazing players in his band, like Gordon Bonham on guitar, so just being able to be on stage with those guys at a young age really made me develop into the musician I am now.
NUVO: How did you get involved in tUne-yArDs and what do you bring to the table musically?
Brenner: I first met Merrill in 2005 when we were both counselors at a summer music camp in New Jersey. We became good friends, and after the camp ended we stayed in touch. I lived in Oakland and she lived in Montreal, but over the next few years we'd meet up at various times because we were both on tour with different groups. So basically ever since 2005 or so, we became sort of long-distance musical partners.
Merrill asked me to join her in tUnE-yArDs as soon as she got offered the Dirty Projectors tour. When she was first getting started she was playing a lot of these tiny places, even small cafes. But once she started playing bigger rooms, she felt like she needed bass to help people move their feet and dance a little more. I never tried to convince her to let me play in the band or anything; she asked me! I thought she was doing great as a solo act, so I never really wanted to step on her toes. When she added me to the band, I think she felt like there was a lot less pressure on her to do everything.
NUVO: You co-wrote some of the most popular songs on W H O K I L L. What was the songwriting process like?
Brenner: Most of them started during a rehearsal or sound check, when Merrill would set up a loop and sort of play what she had so far and let me play along with the beat and come up with something. When you add bass it can change the whole harmony of the song, so I'd try to see what kind of different notes I could play to change the mood of the song. I think she was really excited to have someone that she could bounce ideas off of and see what worked. She still writes all the lyrics, and they're very much her songs, but in a song like "Gangsta," where Merrill's playing live drums, the bass line really becomes a harmonic and melodic voice and a real foundation for the overall song.
NUVO: Neither you nor the contributing sax players seem to get much press attention. Is that difficult or frustrating?
Brenner: Not at all. I get a lot of attention for being a bassist in a band and plenty of attention from the fans every night. I can't speak for the saxes, but it's not something that we've ever talked about. I think we're all just happy to be making a living playing music. The horn players and I actually all when to college together studying jazz at Oberlin College. If someone told us back then that we'd be traveling around the world playing music together, we wouldn't have believed them. It's really great sharing the stage with Merrill every night. Every single show she plays, she brings all her energy and focus, whether it's in front of 10 people or 1000. Playing with her has taught me how to focus and bring my A-game every night.
NUVO: You're dedicated to recreating each song live on stage. On some song's Merrill plays and loops three instruments. What are the challenges to this approach?
Brenner: I think there's something exciting about seeing a band create a beat live, as opposed to just pressing a button on a computer or sampler. It creates a more human element: Every night the songs are different than the night before. It definitely keeps it exciting for the band. On the other hand, there's the challenge of dealing with difficulties with feedback getting in the loop. And if the loop gets a little off rhythmically, we all just have to deal with it. Again, though, I think that just makes it more human instead of robotic.
NUVO: What's it like being in a rising band like tUnE-yArDs?
NB: It definitely feels very surreal. With tUnE-yArDs, things just sort of started taking off, and I think we were both waiting for it to reach a plateau. We're still kind of waiting.