The duo of Merill Garbus and Nate Brenner, tUnE-yArDs combines soulful vocals, unusual percussion, and trenchant social commentary into uniquely vibrant music. Starting with the raw collages of 2009's self-released BiRd-BrAiNs, the project immediately attracted attention for its impassioned sound and viewpoint. Though Garbus and Brenner polished their music slightly on albums such as 2014's Nikki Nack, the combination of their explorations of complex issues like race, gender, and privilege with bold song forms indebted to playground chants, work songs, and non-Western musical traditions remained as distinctive and acclaimed as ever. The duo took a more reflective, electronic-based approach on 2017's i can feel you creep into my private life, but by the time of 2021's Sketchy., Brenner and Garbus combined more personal songwriting with the anthemic, kinetic style of tUnE-yArDs' earlier work.
Born in New York City and raised there and in Connecticut, Garbus had an eclectic creative background. She spent some time as a puppeteer at Vermont's Sandglass Theater and also played ukulele in the Montreal-based band Sister Suvi. She began writing and performing under the tUnE-yArDs moniker in 2006, using a digital voice recorder and shareware mixing software to assemble her first songs. It took Garbus two years to craft her debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, which she offered on cassette and as a pay-what-you-want download on the tUnE-yArDs website. Thanks to frequent touring with artists like Thao and positive buzz from music blogs, the album became a cult favorite. In June 2009, Marriage Records released the album on cassette; that August, 4AD reissued it in a special screen-printed version before distributing a CD version of BiRd-BrAiNs in November that coincided with a tour opening for the Dirty Projectors.
Following BiRd-BrAiNs' release, Garbus moved to Oakland, California. In 2010, tUnE-yArDs appeared on Citay's Dream Get Together. During this time, Garbus worked on the project's second album with bassist Nate Brenner, who became her creative and life partner. Brenner co-wrote some of the songs on April 2011's W H O K I L L, which the pair recorded at Oakland's New, Improved Studios with engineer Eli Crews. Boasting a more polished sound as well as more honed societal commentary, the album earned widespread critical acclaim and topped The Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop poll of music critics. W H O K I L L fared well on the charts, reaching number 17 on the U.K. Independent Albums Chart and number eight on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart in the U.S. Also in 2011, tUnE-yArDs appeared on Afuche's album Highly Publicized Digital Boxing Match and produced Thao & Mirah's self-titled collaboration. The following year brought collaborations with Elephant & Castle and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as well as a cover of Fela Kuti's "Lady" that also featured Questlove, Akua Naru, and Angelique Kidjo, and appeared on the Red Hot Organization's second tribute to the Afrobeat innovator, Red Hot + Fela.
Early in 2013, Garbus and Brenner returned with tUnE-yArDs as Yoko, a single that saw them covering and remixing two of Yoko Ono's songs to benefit the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, one of the charities helping those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Later in the year, they worked with the Blind Boys of Alabama on their album I'll Find a Way and lent their production skills to a pair of songs on Latryx's The Second Album. When Garbus and Brenner started work on tUnE-yArDs' third album, a trip to Haiti provided inspiration, while collaborations with producers Malay and John Hill -- known for their work with Big Boi and M.I.A., among others -- and Roomful of Teeth gave May 2014's Nikki Nack an even more eclectic and accessible feel. The album peaked at number 11 on the U.K. Independent Albums chart; in the States, it hit number four on Billboard's Independent Albums chart.
Prior to the release of tUnE-yArDs' fourth album, Garbus produced a pair of 2016 albums: Thao & the Get Down Stay Down's A Man Alive and Sonny & the Sunsets' Moods Baby Moods. She also curated C.L.A.W., a Red Bull Radio show featuring music from female-identifying artists, and had a weekly DJ set at an Oakland, California bar. Her DJ sets, as well as electronic, Haitian, and Kenyan influences informed January 2018's i can feel you creep into my private life. Reaching number ten on the U.K.'s Independent Albums chart and number 11 on the Independent Albums chart in the U.S, the album was co-written and co-produced by Garbus and Brenner and found them streamlining their music while tackling complicated issues in their lyrics. That year, tUnE-yArDs also provided the score to Boots Riley's acclaimed satire Sorry to Bother You. Following an appearance on Battles' 2019 album Juice B Crypts, Garbus and Brenner set to work on the project's fifth album. The duo favored live instruments instead of electronics, jammed for hours, and drew inspiration from Beastie Boys Book and Questlove's Creative Quest. The results were March 2021's Sketchy., which built on the introspective feel of private life with a more energetic approach reminiscent of tUnE-yArDs' earlier albums. ~ Heather Phares