Earlier in April, Oakland, Calif.-based indie-poppers Tune-Yards released their score for Sorry to Bother You, a magically realistic social satire about race and corporate America by first-time director (and fellow musician) Boots Riley. But because it’s a score, and one for a movie that came out last summer at that, it’s not getting the same sort of attention that Tune-Yard’s last proper album, early 2018’s I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, received. Which is a shame, because as band founder Merrill Garbus points out, the new release—full of loops and film samples and surprising sounds—is among some of their very best work.
We recently spoke to Garbus and her Tune-Yards collaborator (and husband) Nate Brenner about working on the Sorry to Bother You score, almost buying a bitcoin, and no longer caring (much) about the Grammys.
Your score for Sorry to Bother You just came out. It seems like there’s a lot of overlap between the themes of that movie and your last album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, in which you explored whiteness. Did one inform the other?
Merrill Garbus: I started talking to Boots probably four years ago now about the film, so that was before or during the writing of what became our last album. A lot of it was actually really unconscious. I was doing a [six-month] course on whiteness and have been in constant exploration of that for all the years that Tune-Yards has been in existence. And then it just happened to be while we were working on a movie that had as its main theme the concept of a literal white voice.
I’m sure a lot of it was subconscious, but I think the other thing about what Boots was so great about bringing into culture is that there’s a reason these themes keep popping up—because we live in racialized capitalism. Capitalism depends upon racism. There’s a reason when you dig deep enough into whiteness and into race in general that you very quickly hit capitalism and quickly hit economics.
The movie was out in theaters last summer. How does it feel to finally have the score released to the public?
Nate Brenner: Obviously it would have been nice if we had it out last summer, but better late than never, I guess.
What was the delay in getting it released?
Garbus: It was our first score. And we didn’t know that the movie would actually ever come out. It felt like a movie that was too good and too cool. And also too kind of—I wouldn’t say DIY, because there certainly was a lot of production behind it and a lot of support for it, financial and otherwise, but it was a really homegrown. Boots is a first-time director.
So with that in mind, we just did the cues: 30 seconds here of music, five seconds here of music or whatever. Turning that into an album’s worth of music, and not just of cut, cut, paste, duplicate, duplicate, duplicate—we wanted something that would be dynamic, and not just looped versions of the music we had done. That was really important to us, to make it something that people would want to really listen to.
Brenner: We wanted to turn the music into something that would stand on its own without needing help from the movie. A lot of times we actually had to rewrite some sections and develop them more. It was really fun to do that.
Garbus: It was music that I felt was really some of our best. There were certain compositions like the orgy scene—that was pretty complete. The performance art scene. And then there were more of the things that turned into the dancier tunes. They were the ones that we needed to really work on and flesh out more.
"Boots said it best, that [the Oscars aren't] built for the things that are most exciting and that are growing culture. I feel that way with the Grammys, as well."
Sorry to Bother You didn’t get any Oscar nominations, which upset a lot of film fans. Do you think the movie was robbed?
Garbus: Boots said it best, that [the Oscars aren’t] built for the things that are most exciting and that are growing culture. I feel that way with the Grammys, as well. Those things don’t represent the growing edge of culture. They represent a lot of work by a lot of independent people over decades, usually. A lot of it’s on the backs of a lot of people who don’t get awarded, and that’s always the case and will always be the case.
Have Tune-Yards Ever been nominated for Grammy?
Garbus: No. I do think that it has caused me an undo amount of pain, not being nominated for awards like that. But I feel like I’ve dug into a lot of music, maybe music scenes even, where it feels like there are just so many more people that are invisible to mainstream culture who get robbed. I don’t feel like we’ve been robbed of a Grammy. [Laughs.] It’s not like someone’s punked our style and then gotten an award for it, yet. Though that’s the case for a lot of other artists.
Brenner: Don’t you think there’s just not enough categories in the Grammys? Like, where would Tune-Yards even fall? Alternative or something?
Garbus: Like we’d be in the same category as Radiohead. If it’s Radiohead up against Tune-Yards, it’s clear who’s going to get the Grammy. [Laughs.]
Merrill, you said not getting nominated caused you pain. Were you listening to the Grammy announcements going, “Shit, we didn’t get nominated again”?
Garbus: You know what I think it is? It’s actually that I’m a voting member. I was so psyched the first few years of being involved. I was on one of the committees one year. I really was like, “We can change the music industry.” And even with music as strange or different as ours, I still felt like I had a seat at the table—and I was one of the only women in the room. I had this false hope. I felt like the system was going to reward me, and then I realized that doesn’t need to be where I derive my idea of success. And in fact, that’s a huge distraction against the real work that I feel needs to be done immediately in the world. Like, fuck a Grammy, man, we gotta save the planet. [Laughs.] We have shit to do besides waiting for Grammys.
How are you helping to save the planet? Is that something you’re doing outside of music?
Garbus: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. What the fuck does music have to do with saving the planet? One thing is writing songs about being on the planet at this time and kind of asking people to [accept the] reality of our impact on the planet. I don’t think there are a lot of healthy ways that people know how to grieve the fact that the planet is changing and that it has consequences for us. I believe that music can help with that.
And then there are the more technical aspects, like how we’re doing carbon offsetting to at least do something about our terrible habit of taking a bus across the country, and planes and all the travel that’s involved in music. And offering our fans ways to contribute to offset their carbon use.
Brenner: And Merrill, we also created that Water Fountain fund for water-based charities.
Merrill, you were on the board of the Future of Music Coalition. What what did that position entail? What did you learn about the future of music?
Garbus: Oh boy, a lot. And also a lot about what we don’t fucking know. For instance, there was that report that came up about how streaming is a big part of climate change, actually more than physical CDs and vinyl. I think I was on the board around the time when streaming outpaced physical sales. And no one understands the impact of that yet.
"Artists are very much obeying the industry and obeying corporations and what they want from us. It's arguable that that's what consumers want from us, too."
What I got from that experience was that, as is often the case in many industries, the actual workers, the creators, aren’t organized. That’s what Future of Music is attempting to do is ask the questions “What do artists need to to thrive?” and “What keeps the ecosystem going for artists to be able to continue to make music?” It was interesting to see the parallels with the tearing down of the labor union structure for the past few decades. Artists are very much obeying the industry and obeying corporations and what they want from us. It’s arguable that that’s what consumers want from us, too. But I think consumers are also obeying corporations.
When we were talking before the interview started, Merrill, you mentioned that the Future of Music Coalition was where you first heard about blockchain. Do you think blockchain will be a solution for music creators?
Garbus: I mean, that’s what they’re saying. I don’t know. I guess my question would be, “Will the culture be ready for that to happen, whether it’s blockchain or not?” Because the little I know about blockchain is that it would be a big cultural shift. Am I right about that?
Yeah, it’s ongoing. In theory, it could be invisible to the average consumer once it’s perfected enough. Right now it’s pretty clunky, though. And Nate, you mentioned before we started that you almost bought a bitcoin. What happened there?
Brenner: I was in Europe, and then I had to be in a U.S. IP address or something. And then when I got back, Coinbase wasn’t letting me upload my driver’s license. And then I just like kind of forgot about it.
Garbus: I remember it being a huge, a huge joke on tour. It was the first time that we were seeing places in Europe accept bitcoin as a method of payment.
Brenner: Then a few months later, it dropped back down, so I was like, “Oh, maybe I would have lost a bunch of money, too.”
Speaking of technology, Merrill, I heard your Talkhouse chat with Laurie Anderson and you were discussing how musicians have a love/hate relationship with technology. This a question for both of you: What what are your relationships with tech looking like these days?
Brenner: I feel great. We just made a music video in our apartment that I think looks really good and professional. It’s for a solo album that I’m releasing in June [under the name Naytronix]. There’s no way we would have been able to make a music video like that 20 years ago. We just finished it this morning. Merrill helped me. It should come out in a couple weeks.
Garbus: I edited it first on iMovie, and then we brought it over to Adobe Premiere, and Nate finished the edit there. But I’m always asking the question, “Who has access to what, and who doesn’t?” because there’s these things that I think upper middle-class America, and oftentimes white America, just assumes are normal that aren’t. It’s normal that we have high-speed internet, it’s normal that we all have Mac computers. We should always being trying to be aware of who struggles to have access to those things.
At this point, my relationship with tech really feels like one of self-imposed limitations. So not getting overwhelmed by the possibilities, but making sure that I know the parameters of what I’m working with. Like my looping pedals are extremely low-tech. They are the lowest of digital technology. It’s like so basic. It’s one button. You press it, it starts recording; you press it again, it dictates the end of the loop; then you press it again, and you’re looping on top of that loop. So it couldn’t be simpler, but it’s a tool of technology that I am completely reliant upon and have so much fun with, within those limitations.
You’re not on tour at the moment. Are you working on new Tune-Yards music?
Garbus: Yeah. I’ve been looking at ASMR videos on YouTube, and I have been really curious about literally therapeutic sound. These are questions, as we start working on new Tune-Yards music, of the literal therapeutic nature of technology and the ways that people use technology to access some kind of connection with other human beings that, ironically, the technology itself has probably created a real longing for. That is my my current fascination.
There’s always some kind of tension for me with Tune-Yards between analog and digital or organic and inorganic. In a time of Auto-Tune and all of these incredible ways to manipulate human voices and organic sound, how does the humanity of the creator of that music still come out?
Wouldn’t it be ironic if, now that you don’t care anymore, this is the album that will win you a Grammy?
Garbus: [Laughs.] Well, please put that into the universe. You can think about it, but we can’t.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo credit: Eliot Lee Hazel.