Merrill Garbus — all wide eyes, blond-streaked hair, purple roll-away luggage, and fierce appetite — is digging into stuffed cabbage at a Ukrainian coffee shop in New York City’s East Village. She’s in town to audition drummers for her expanded touring band and to preview her third LP, Nikki Nack, due May 6th. You’d expect the woman behind the 2011 chop-shop avant-pop gem w h o k i l l — which rivaled Drake and Adele on numerous year-end best-of lists — to be waxing enthusiastic about playing drum-loop patterns on bags of rice. And she is. Yet she’s also shouting out Katy Perry, Cyndi Lauper and the King of Pop.
“‘Man Child,’ has this part of it that goes, ‘don’t beat it, don’t beat up on my body,'” she says, referencing a new song while nabbing a broccoli spear from her companion’s plate. “Kind of a heavy lyric, but definitely there’s a bit of Michael Jackson — I almost called it ‘Beat It’ just to be provocative.”
Garbus does provocative well. w h o k i l l opened by juxtaposing bits of the Pledge of Allegiance with lines about “living a lie” (“My Country”), later declaring “my man likes me from behind/tell the truth I never mind” (“Powa”). Nikki Nack’s first single, “Water Fountain,” sounds like the Dixie Cups’ cryptic mid-Sixties bubblegum Mardi Gras chant “Iko Iko” updated for an end-stage-capitalism yard party, invoking drought, “a blood-soaked dollar,” and giddily sexy “head”/”bed” rhymes.
The song’s ideas came in part a cultural exchange trip to Haiti that Garbus took with members of Rara Tou Limen, an Oakland-based drumming and dance group she began studying with after a two-year tour on w h o k i l l. (She wrote about the experience on the musicians’ website Talkhouse: “I am not a dancer so much, but these days I will dance harder than I ever have in my whole life. I will also cry some more. Several times, quietly.”) The experience — and the signature rhythms — shaped Nikki Nack. “That’s a through line in all of my music — where the syncopation comes from. In ‘Water Fountain’ it’s the 3/2 against the 2/3. It’s just cool rhythmic games, essentially.”
Garbus’ visionary playfulness has brought her together with kindred experimental spirits. She worked with Questlove, Jim James and others on the recent Fela Kuti tribute Red Hot + Fela, and has performed with Yoko Ono, appearing on the Plastic Ono Band’s recent Take Me to the Land of Hell. “Some talent is simply undeniable,” says superfan Sean Lennon of Garbus and her bass-playing collaborator Nate Brenner. “[They] have a sound that is so powerful and so uniquely their own thing — they invented it, they own it and there’s just no one on earth who could intelligently deny their merits. I love them, and hope to be like them when I grow up.”
For Nikki Nack, Garbus worked with outside producers, something she’d previously refused to do on principle (“I wanted to do everything myself, because I feel there aren’t enough women producers out there.”) M.I.A. associate John Hill magnified beats on “Water Fountain,” while Malay, co-producer of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, worked on the “Hey Life” and “Wait a Minute,” tracks that bring out a surprisingly elegant side of Garbus as singer.
That, in part, is what she’s aiming for. “I really want to draw people in, get them hooked on the songs and make them dance, yet introduce stuff — textures and recording techniques — that you wouldn’t find in a glossy pop song, necessarily.”