The Men behind the Merrill

tUnE-yArDs isn’t just Merrill Garbus. She’ll roll into First Avenue Saturday with her crew of boy toys.

Sarah Harper

 

What: tUnE-yArDs, openers Howler and Pat Jordache

When: 6 p.m.Saturday

Where: First Avenue, 701 N. First Ave. , Minneapolis

Cost: $15

If you do an online image search of âÄútUnE-yArDs,âÄù pictures of a wild-child intellectual with swirls of paint on her face and feathers in her hair will stack your screen. The woman you see is Merrill Garbus, whose name has become synonymous with that of her musical project.

But sheâÄôs not entirely solo: Garbus has a cache of jazz musicians behind her who help create the unconventional sound sheâÄôs invented. TheyâÄôre in the picture, even if theyâÄôre rarely targets for photographers. The dudes who currently make up GarbusâÄô backing band, (It has fluctuated in size and membership), have been pals for a while.

Bassist Nate Brenner met Noah Bernstein and Matt Nelson in the jazz program at Oberlin College in Ohio. The trio made music and bonded on the basketball court and the softball field, playing for fun on the jazz programâÄôs teams.

After graduation, Brenner and Nelson continued to play together in various projects in Oakland, Calif. Brenner was sucked into the tUnE-yArDs vortex because he had met Garbus when they worked together at a summer camp. The other two boys were brought in to build the sonic platform upon which Garbus is free to do her intricate musical dance of ukulele-strumming and vocal looping.

âÄúI was friends with Nate and Merrill before we started touring, so itâÄôs been a really easy transition to life on the road, squished in a van together,âÄù said Nelson, who together with Bernstein handles the saxophone, horns and percussion.

Bernstein is regularly stationed in Portland, Ore., and Nelson lives in Brooklyn, so by the time they show up for band business, Garbus has already written their parts. Even though Garbus is the creative queen, the band members donâÄôt feel like theyâÄôre her mindless worker bees.

âÄúBeing a jazz musician, improvisation is what IâÄôm used to,âÄù said Nelson, who is originally from the San Francisco Bay area. âÄúFor a band like this, where thereâÄôs so much intricate stuff going on, I feel like IâÄôve got a good amount of freedom to play different stuff within the context of the songs.âÄù

âÄúItâÄôs all built on MerrillâÄôs structures,âÄù said Bernstein, who is originally from Vermont. To maintain the back-up vocal sounds heard on the recorded album, Bernstein and Nelson use their horns to harmonize with GarbusâÄô voice.

All three band members have creative projects outside of tUnE-yArDs, but theyâÄôre focused on the project. The dudes donâÄôt just provide musical support, theyâÄôre also there for Garbus in a more practical, logistic sense. In the DIY spirit, they act as their own roadies. Brenner, Bernstein and Nelson pack up the tUnE-yArDs truck, set up the equipment and take turns driving the tour van.

Given GarbusâÄô packed schedule of meetings, interviews and photo shoots, and oh yeah, writing music, the band rarely finds itself with time to just chill all together. But when their six-week tour left them in Iceland with five days and only one show to do, they finally had a chance to take a breath together. They played with Yoko Ono and saw Bjork perform.

âÄúOn the road, our favorite activity is eating whatever crazy food any city that weâÄôre in has to offer,âÄù said Nelson. âÄúWhen we were in Iceland a couple weeks ago, we ate some whale.âÄù

To save her band from falling into the pit of gas station sustenance on tour, Garbus is known to make runs to Whole Foods for healthy eats and vitamins, said Brenner.

Of course, Garbus gives her men much more than just the occasional hard boiled egg or supplemental pill.

 âÄúOn a more abstract, creative level, sheâÄôs taught me a lot,âÄù Brenner said.

Garbus, with her theater background, has taught Brenner the importance of unique presentation âÄî something he said jazz musicians usually donâÄôt care about. Brenner has also learned the importance of personal style and self-discovery in music from Garbus.

Surely tUnE-yArDs would still be tUnE-yArDs without the backing band, but GarbusâÄô performance is only enhanced by her surrounding pack of buds.

Nelson said, âÄúWe were all friends first, and that will always be there.âÄù