EXCERPT: Where The Wild Things Are


Where The Wild Things Are

From Dave Matthews Band-loving-anarcho-hippie-feminista-puppeteer to indie rock’s warpaint-smeared world-beating It Girl in just 10 years, tUnE-yArDs wonder woman Merrill Garbus has been chasing The Real Thing from the mythical savannas of Africa to the humid ruins of Haiti, from the leafy Birkenstocked redoubts of New England to the sun-kissed liberal paradise of the Bay Area. MAGNET goes Left Coast to find out why she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for.

Jonathan Valania

Merrill Garbus has this weird obsession with eating babies. It comes up a lot, and she doesn’t even try to hide it. For example, there’s a spoken-word track smack dab in the middle of the highly anticipated new tUnE-yArDs album, Nikki Nack (4AD), called “Why Must We Dine On The Tots?” that goes, in part:

“What good were those kids before they were our food?
Outrageously smelly, impulsive and rude
Plus you know very well that the fresh produce rots
So clearly we’ll dine on the tots”

Years ago, before tUnE-yArDs even existed and she was working as a puppeteer in Vermont, Garbus mounted a Punch & Judy opera based on Jonathan Swift’s child-chomping manifesto A Modest Proposal that she called Fat Kid Opera. And before that, she created an experimental theater piece called Kinder Munch, which in English means “munch kids.” And this from a woman who once worked as a nanny in Martha’s Vineyard.

Right now, however, she’s munching on Thai food, not kinder meat. She’s ordered the flame-thrower-hot green curry with vegetables because she likes it hot. Like, Pope-Of-Chili-Town-hot. I puss out and order the merely volcanic red curry. We’re sitting on a bench in the Lower Pacific Heights section of San Francisco, a few blocks away from the legendary Fillmore, where tUnE-yArDs is staging a triumphant two-night hometown stand in the midst of a standing-room-only national tour in support of Nikki Nack.

These days, tUnE-yArDs—at core Garbus and BF/bassist/songwriting partner Nate Brenner—is living pretty high on the hog, relatively speaking. In the bad old days, the starving-artist days of the early-mid aughts, the curry did not flow like ambrosia. Food stamps only went so far; there’s only so many nights you can eat popcorn for dinner. So, Garbus would improvise. Some nights she’d dumpster-dive, or when all else failed, she’d shoplift some sustenance. “The organic shop was my favorite (dumpster-diving spot),” she says. “Because I could get organic whatever—Brussels sprouts—and know I was getting something for free that would have just went bad and costs, like, $12. There’s something very satisfying in that.”

As for the shoplifting, “It was only twice because I’m such a wuss,” she says. “I was such a goody-two-shoes, straight-A student, so it did not last long. It was just kind of, you know, in moments of—I say desperation, but again, it’s like, there’s no excuse for that. And, you know, oftentimes I’ve felt like a complete asshole because there are real homeless people doing the same thing. And that’s a theme in my life, that there’s this kind of overwhelming privilege that’s an umbrella over my poverty. You know, I have a Smith College education, I have parents who, as much as I don’t like it when they lend me money, had lent me money. In a lot of ways, mine was a chosen poverty.”

Feeling a little ass-y—I blame the curry—I ask how many babies she thinks she’s eaten in her 35 years on this Earth and where did they come from? The organic-market dumpster? Or did she just shoplift them? Plus, isn’t eating babies against the law? Garbus rolls her eyes in mock-exasperation and clarifies that the recurring baby-eating theme in her work is actually a metaphor for how we are trashing the planet with our toxic gluttony—a.k.a. the Western standard of living—and thus dooming future generations of children, who, we can all agree, are our future. Basically, she says, it comes down to this: She’ll stop talking about eating children as soon as we stop killing the planet they will inherit.

“It’s weird how little has changed since I was a 17-year-old hippie horrified by how wasteful and horrible suburbia is,” she says, fishing the jalapeños out of her green curry. “When I got to college, that’s when I started to really look at the politics of the world. And the same stuff I was thinking about and talking about and grappling with when I was 20, in college writing a puppet show and a weird theater piece, is the same thing we’re facing today.”

Things certainly have changed for Merrill Garbus, who, in the last 10 years, has gone from Dave Matthews Band-loving-anarcho-hippie-feminista-puppeteer barely filling performance spaces that held tens of people to selling tens of thousands of tickets to see tUnE-yArDs make some of the most strikingly original music of the last three decades. To paraphrase Lester Bangs, if tUnE-yArDs didn’t exist, we would have never thought to invent it, which only points out the shortcomings of our own imagination and explains why, on paper, the burgeoning popularity of tUnE-yArDs doesn’t make a lot of sense: war-paint-streaked women’s-studies refugee who looks like she cuts her own hair blindfolded, making experimental-yet-danceable drum loops while plucking a tenor ukulele, then growling and ululating in unexpectedly funky and soulful ways, backed by a saxophone section and a bright-eyed beardo bassmonster who looks like he should be hosting a landscape-painting instructional video on YouTube.

But when w h o k i l l was released in 2011, the world fell pretty hard for it. The critics swooned—w h o k i l l was voted the number-one slot on the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll by a quorum of the nation’s rock-crit scriveners—and the crowds grew from ecstatic to overflowing, with popular demand keeping Garbus and Co. on the road for nearly two years straight. The only real naysayer was Chuck Klosterman, who, after a single half-listening to w h o k i l l while, presumably, masturbating to the cover of KISS Alive II, declared in the pages of Grantland that tUnE-yArDs was destined to become the answer to an indie-rock edition Trivial Pursuit question nobody bothers to ask anymore.MORE