In a cramped rehearsal space in Oakland’s Temescal district, Merrill Garbus sits cross-legged on the floor, tuning her ukulele. To her left, a cluster of nine effects pedals blinks red and green. To her right, a drum is stacked with unconventional sonic accessories: a measuring cup, a thermos, a cooking pot’s lid. It’s 1:30 on a Monday afternoon in early April, and Garbus is taking a break from scoring “The Cook,” one of four Buster Keaton short films she and her Oakland-based band tUnE-yArDs will play alongside later this month as part of the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival.
“The great thing about hometown shows is that you feel like people are on your side and you don’t have a lot to prove,” Garbus said. “It just becomes this moment of joy.”
Returning to the Bay Area is a victory lap of sorts for Garbus, whose choppy and loop-driven compositions have nudged her as close to rock stardom as is possible within the nebulous, genre-bombing world of indie music.
The Buster Keaton performance comes almost exactly one year after tUnE-yArDs released w h o k i l l, a lush and boisterous sophomore album that garnered acclaim from critics at The New Yorker, The New York Times and Spin Magazine, among others. Since April of 2011, Garbus and her band have appeared twice on national television; performed at venues across Europe and the United States; had songs featured in a Blackberry advertisement and on the show “Weeds;” and collaborated three times with Yoko Ono. In 2012, they’ll perform at Coachella, Lollapalooza and the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival – three of the largest concert events in the country.
Despite the fanfare, Garbus, 32, does not resemble your prototypical art-rock diva. She eschews eye-catching garb for mute tones. She drives a beat-up 2000 Chevy Prism. She still gets very uncomfortable when people recognize her on the street of her adopted home, Oakland, where she landed after years of bouncing around the Northeast.
“For a while, I was seeing [Oakland] from the outside,” she said. “I still feel like that, But I also feel like it’s becoming more mine – especially as I make friends who really have been here for a long time and have a greater knowledge of what it’s like to be here long-term.”
Garbus, who grew up in New Canaan, Conn., had an unconventional rise to pop music prominence. After a “really withdrawn” childhood in which she sang and acted only intermittently, she enrolled at Smith College. There, she joined the theater program and cultivated her vocal skills by singing in an a cappella group called The Noteables (her throaty tenor is unmistakably prominent in a few tracks on “Make No Mistake,” the group’s 2001 release). She also joined The SIKOS, Smith’s improv comedy troupe. Though Garbus had a strong desire to be onstage, she had no clear career path.
“I had no intention of majoring in theater or going to New York and being a Broadway star or anything,” she said. “I didn’t know where the theater stuff was going to take me. “
It eventually led her to Vermont, where she began working for the Sandglass Theatre, a puppetry performance troupe. With Sandglass, Garbus co-wrote and helped score several shows – including one titled “The Ark in the Tree” about a hippo who lived in a bathtub at the top of a tree. Along with Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass, the Sandglass’ founders, she traveled to Germany, France, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland to perform a play about Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish literary critic. All the while, she developed a close relationship with her two co-performers. In turn, they welcomed her as a surrogate daughter.
“Every time someone had a birthday in the family, she and our youngest daughter would develop a dance,” Ines Zeller Bass recalled. “It was a birthday dance. It would be performed in our house somewhere.”
After about three years with Sandglass, Garbus left the company and began what she calls her “gypsy phase” – a period marked by mounting debt, numerous relocations and a bout with severe depression.
“I left in search of something else,” she said. “I would not say that I was suicidal, but that’s only because I really couldn’t fathom killing myself. I was that hopeless about my life.”