The music begins with a wild, sad cry. A drumbeat fades in, and over it Merrill Garbus sings—quickly, longingly, just below a shout: “My, this place has really changed its ways. / Luckily there’s only really rich folks living here. / Remember what he used to do to me. / Remember, oh, the way it used to be.” Nate Brenner’s smeary electric bass reinforces a chaotic drum pattern, and despite the bleakness of the lyrics, the layers of rhythm inspire a compulsion to dance. This song is “Left Behind,” released by the Garbus-led Oakland, California, outfit tUnE-yArDs on their latest album, Nikki Nack. Together with Brenner, her romantic partner, and a shifting group of collaborators, Garbus makes unbridled, beat-driven pop informed by international musical traditions, especially those of Africa and Haiti. When I met Garbus in a café in San Francisco to talk about “Left Behind,” she brought her iPad so we could listen to an early demo of the song.
—Ian S. Port
tUnE-yArDs, “Left Behind”
THE BELIEVER: The original demo you played me sounds much more like early tUnE-yArDs: you hear the layers building up one after another. Was the break from that intentional, or just a by-product of how you made the album?
MERRILL GARBUS: I think it was intentional, but, honestly, this is where Nate has been increasingly important in the songwriting process. What he was helping me to do was see what we had done before, and then do the opposite. I picked this song [to talk about] because this is the song that nearly broke me. I would play it for people at the record label, and they were like, “That’s the only one that I don’t understand.” And I’d be like, What are you talking about? This is the meaning of my songwriting; this is the pinnacle of what I’m trying to do.
BLVR: How did it nearly break you?
MG: It was the song that represented how little sense these songs made to other people, and that I was going to do it anyway, because it felt right, or wrong. It felt wrong in the right way to me. That risk is always uncomfortable. Even when you’re like, Well, screw everybody else, I’m just going to do what I want to, there’s always a little piece that’s like, Fuck, I’m not going to be part of the club anymore.
BLVR: So why the emphasis here on doing the complete opposite, almost for its own sake?
MG: One fear is getting boxed into “chick with looping pedal and ukulele.” It seems so—who’s going to box you into that? That’s not a box; that’s a wide-open world of exploration! But I was just burned-out. I felt like I’d pushed the looping pedal as far as I could in terms of writing with it. And if I don’t continue to challenge myself and get better as a musician, then I’m screwed. I’m thirty-five now. I’m not old, but I am in that phase of my life where I still want to be exploring new things.
BLVR: Is that what this song is about? The fear of getting left behind, of not changing?
MG: The “been left behind,” I don’t know where that’s coming from. I like pregnant phrases like that, where it doesn’t have to mean one thing. I’m sure some days it will evoke that for me, like: Shit, people are sick of us, and I’m going to be old, and this isn’t going to be relevant anymore. Based on the other lyrics, what it made me think of is: I was about to go to Haiti at that point, and I was thinking a lot about cruise-ship culture, and also, seeing it happen in the Bay Area, gentrification. Neighborhoods being left behind and communities being left behind. I can’t analyze my own lyrics, but they come from different perspectives. A neighborhood changing has so many different contexts for everybody involved.
BLVR: How did the song start? What was the first incarnation?
MG: I tried to do the exact opposite of what I had done before, so no looping pedal, no ukulele. That one started with me playing acoustic drums in a pattern that I hoped would never repeat, instead of always repeating, like the looping pedal. And then it became clear that that was frickin’ impossible to work with and to learn, as someone who doesn’t sight-read music, nor transcribe my own music very well yet.
BLVR: I sat there listening to it, trying to catch where it repeated, and I had a hard time.
MG: Me too. [Laughs] I think it finally started to work to just layer upon the ever-changing rhythm: boom-boomdat, boom-boom-dat, a very basic dance rhythm. Those two work like puzzle pieces together. Then the chorus: [sings] “Been left behind”—that part was a very weird, like, OK, let’s just insert this other scrap that I came up with walking one day, which I kind of envisioned to be like Emmylou Harris country-style three-part harmony.
BLVR: You started out with an acoustic drum. It sounds like a drum machine or electronic drums on the recording.
MG: I had the privilege of getting an iPad, of being able to afford an iPad, in the middle of the last tour. When I got that intersecting beat thing, that happened on the iPad. It’s similar to a looping pedal, but it’s kind of the opposite of my usual way of making very human, flawed beats. I wanted a machine to do it for a while.
BLVR: The details in the verse lyrics: where did those come from? You don’t seem like a “Micky D milkshake and a cigarette” kind of person.
MG: [Laughs] No, but walking past McDonald’s every day to our studio in downtown Oakland, that’s where that came from. There’s so many characters around downtown Oakland. I saw this man—it was Sunday, he was dressed to the nines: a zoot suit, matching hat, the shoes, and I think he did have a [McDonald’s] milkshake. And a cigarillo, one of those tiny cigars.
BLVR: I don’t quite see how the holiday part, the chorus, fits into the other part of the song. My first thought was maybe it’s like a gentrifier’s holiday? How does it work for you?
MG: I don’t know. It just does. The rest of the song is so dark, and then you have, like, a completely inappropriate party in the middle of a dark song. I was thinking about the cruise ship-thing, too: the whole sense that you pull up to a port on a tropical island and you see exactly nothing of the actual culture of the island. The stereotype of Caribbean culture is a big, huge, crazy party all the time. I don’t know what “get it” means. It’s a party song. It doesn’t matter to me if people get it, but I know what I’m singing.
BLVR: So there isn’t necessarily a message to decipher in the song. There isn’t a through line for us to find.
MG: That’s what I prefer in art. I see how, especially for song lyrics, that can be frustrating sometimes for a listener. But at the same time, if it doesn’t fit those A-B-C-D [categories] of songwriting, then maybe it will hit nerves instead, and it will be more of an itch that you can’t scratch. Like, I don’t know why I get this lyric, but it can be my anthem today.