If there was any justice in the world, Toronto’s Spookey Ruben would’ve become a weirdo superstar in the mid-’90s, around the same time it was actually still possible for eccentric bands like Primus and Ween to sell millions of records and gain some mainstream recognition for their offbeat brilliance. Ruben came on the scene with a similarly brilliant debut album in 1995 called Modes of Transportation Vol. 1 that should’ve achieved Chocolate and Cheese-level notoriety. But the album came out on the crap-tastic TVT Records, a label that has screwed up the careers of everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Lil Jon over the years, and that was apparently no less kind to Ruben. For reasons we haven’t been able to discern, they decided to release his second album, Modes of Transportation Vol. 2, only in Japan, which had the not surprisingly effect of causing him to drop off most folks’ radar everywhere except Japan. Well-played, TVT.
Fortunately, Ruben has persisted, continuing to release new music through his own label, Hi-Hat Recordings. He even managed to get back the rights to all (or at least most) of his old TVT material, and has plans to do a 20th anniversary reissue of Modes Vol. 1 later this year, along with a new album called Modes III that he just successfully funded via Indiegogo.
Ruben got his start playing guitar in D.C. area punk and metal bands as a teenager, before moving to Toronto to go to film school. His hardcore roots occasionally surface in his solo stuff, especially when he lets rip on the occasional shred-tastic guitar solo, but mostly his music exists on a folk/pop/psych-rock axis somewhere between Ween and XTC. It’s catchy and polished, but always takes unexpected twists and turns, either with goofy lyrics, cartoon sound effects, unexpected stylistic shifts, or even just in the way Ruben’s melodies often cut against the grain of his chord progressions, making tunes that are at once bright and oddly dissonant, like Beach Boys songs heard from a passing train.
Last year, Ruben took time out from his solo work to front a power-pop band called AAA Battery. They did a song called “Jenna” that’s not really that weird, but the video is fun.
He’s also been putting that film school experience to good use with Spookey Ruben’s Dizzy Playground, a comedic short film series that has guest-starred folks like Ariel Pink and Feist. They’re all pretty hysterical, but our personal favorite is “Natural Born Grannies.”
We’ll leave you with two videos from Modes of Transportation Vol. 1. First up: his catchy, keytar-fueled ode to fast food, “Wendy McDonald.” Bet this is Zayde Buti’s favorite Spookey Ruben song. Don’t stop watching before the xylophone solo or you’ll miss out.
Next: The song and video that’s probably Ruben’s masterpiece, “These Days Are Old.” Remember, before you judge: Everybody in the mid-’90s had bad hair.
Many thanks to Sarah Dukakis at Hi-Hat for sharing Spookey with us.
When our friend Richard There played a few shows in the U.K. two years ago, one of the performers he was on the bill with was a British singer/songwriter named John Callaghan. I guess he turned John onto our website, because yesterday John wrote to us and shared a few of his delightfully eccentric videos, including his latest one, which we’ve embedded below.
“I’ve been described as ‘weird’ quite a bit,” Callaghan says in his email. “I certainly don’t take being weird as my starting point. I’ve always simply tried to be interesting and good because ‘being good is different enough.'” He calls his stuff “eccentronica,” which is our new favorite made-up word.
Callaghan’s songs, while certainly offbeat, also have an appealing retro-pop quality to them; in different arrangements, they could be Thomas Dolby or ’80s-era Bowie. And his videos are often quite ingenious. Here’s the backstory for how he created this one:
Whenever I’m in a large, empty and private space I always think I should record a music video. And I’ve been trying to overcome my inertia by producing more material, too. So when I had an art college studio to myself for an hour (after posing for a life drawing class) I used the costumes I’d brought to pose in and my tablet to record some footage to toy with.
To learn more about John Callaghan and hear more of his music, visit his website.
Sometimes we get so excited that people in Poland or Brazil or South Africa are reading our blog that we neglect the weirdness in our own backyard. Yep, Los Angeles is a city full of freaks, contrary to the image most of y’all probably have in your heads of tanned, wannabe actors rollerblading between juice bars and Pilates classes (we have those, too, but no one here cares about them). And in their own, adorable way, Bloody Death Skull are as freaky as they come.
Musically, BDS aren’t all that weird, at least not in a hit-you-over-the-head way. Their songs are shaggy and shambling and cutened up by head Skull Daiana Feuer’s jangling ukulele and guileless, girlish vocals. Lyrically they can get pretty dark, with songs about death and prostitutes and drowning Mormons in swimming pools, but the grim subject matter is always served up with a wink. (Actually, depending on your point of view, I guess a song about drowning Mormons in swimming pools could be right up there with Pharrell’s “Happy.”) They cover lots of old murder ballads and doo wop love songs, which makes sense, and Ying Yang Twins, which doesn’t, but somehow works anyway.
Their live shows delight in the unexpected. They plays shows at strip clubs and former zoo animal enclosures. They dress up in elaborate costumes with inscrutable themes. When I saw them opening for Bob Log III, the theme was “things you might encounter in the forest,” which in Bloody Death Skull’s world includes alien princesses, soldiers in gas masks and a woman in a head-to-toe burqa representing “darkness.”
They have four core members—besides Feuer, there’s Donna Suppipat, Beth McSelf and Gerard Olson—but their live incarnation can have as many as 10 people onstage, many of them sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by xylophones and toy pianos and various things to bang on. The effect is both childlike and somehow psychedelic—by which I mean, they kinda look and sound like a bunch of people on heavy doses of psychedelics. Like, “Mind if I sit? ‘Cause my legs seem to have stopped working” doses.
(For the record: I’m pretty sure no one in the band is actually high. When they were done with their Bob Log III opening set, they all stood up and left the stage in a very orderly fashion, fastidiously picking up their giant collection of instruments as they went. But they sure do a convincing job of seeming out of their gourds during their set—except Feuer, who presides over the chaos with the wry charm and patience of a den mother for a particularly low-functioning Girl Scout troop.)
I’ve done as much as I can to explain the weirdness and adorableness of Bloody Death Skull without showing you some videos, so here they are. First up: a sweet desert murder lullaby called “Psycho,” starring a ravenous tiger/panda. I believe the technical term for such a hybrid creature is “tiganda.”
Next, here’s a little taste of their live show. They did not have the tap dancer when I saw them, but they did have a Theremin. They like to mix it up.
And finally, the video that is quite possibly their masterpiece (at least so far): “Girls Like You,” which uses stop-motion Barbies to tell a heartwarming tale about prostitutes and the non-prostitutes who love them.
When he’s not playing bass in tUnE-yArDs, Nate Brenner is one-third of an even weirder band called Beep! They’re just about to release their latest album, Too Physical, and it’s a wonderland/wasteland (wasterland?) of keyboard squiggles, funhouse vocals and mysterious rhythms. Here’s the video for opening track, “Alien Mating Call,” which wants to know if there’s somewhere we can get down. (Answer: Why, yes, there is! At the Hammer Museum right here in L.A., which is hosting a Too Physical release party on Aug. 7th.)
You can pre-order Too Physical from Beep!’s label, Data Garden. It’s due out Aug. 5th.
It’ll probably never happen. but I really hope that someday, Leslie & The LYs open for tUnE-yArDs. Even though their music is very different, their stage shows share the same sense of childlike wonder and DIY inventiveness. And they both have great backup dancers. And look good in gold lamé.
It’s not just the music that’s different, of course. Where Leslie Hall is all tongue-in-cheek irreverence, Merrill Garbus is an earnest performer who inspires a kind of rapt attention in her fans that I haven’t seen at a show in months. There were hardly any outstretched cell phones (which is why I didn’t take many pictures—I didn’t want to be the only asshole with a camera) and often, when she was building a loop with her percussion and vocals, you could hear a pin drop in the packed Fonda Theatre in Hollywood. “You guys are so quiet,” she noted at one point. “It’s so awesome to play for such a respectful audience.”
She focused her set on material from Nikki Nack, the latest tUnE-yArDs album, which is growing on me even though I still think it’s not as good as 2011’s brilliant w h o k i l l. Nikki Nack is both noisier and sparser than its predecessor, made up almost entirely of layered vocals and percussion and Nate Brenner’s fluid basslines. Live, many of the tracks seemed clearly designed to get the crowd moving, and most of them did. But nothing in the show got a bigger cheer than Garbus’ ukulele, which she broke out for two w h o k i l l tracks (it never appears on Nikki Nack): “Bizness” and an absolutely show-stopping version of “Powa,” tUnE-yArDs’ version of a lighters-up power ballad (except this crowd was, of course, far too respectful to hold up lighters, real or virtual).
Still, I came away from this show with new-found appreciation for several Nikki Nack songs, particularly “Wait for a Minute,” which showcases Garbus’ underutilized gift for melody, and “Time of Dark,” whose soaring, Afrobeat-tinged chorus has a Peter Gabriel-like sense of grandeur and mystery. She also did a great encore version of “Rocking Chair,” bringing out Amelia Meath from opening act Sylvan Esso to provide haunting harmonies while Garbus and her backup singers stomped and shouted like a chain gang in an Alan Lomax field recording.
My other favorite part of the show was on a more personal note: It turns out Garbus’
boyfriend father Bill has the same birthday as me. She had the crowd sing “Happy Birthday” to him so she could record the whole thing on her phone and send him the video the next day. Us June 6th babies sure do get around!
Merrill Garbus releases her third tUnE-yArDs album, Nikki Nack, on May 6th, but you can hear the whole thing now over on NPR.com. Does having your album streamed on NPR automatically make you less weird? Probably, but Merrill had weirdness to spare, so we’ll give her a pass.
Nikki Nack is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from tUnE-yArDs: lots of school-yard chant vocals, simple but syncopated beats and basslines, sparse instrumentation that sounds like it was recorded inside a mason jar. It’s a bit cleaner and more percussive than 2011’s w h o k i l l, and occasionally even sounds like Garbus’ take on modern, high-octane pop-R&B, like on the epic “Real Thing.” But it’s still one of more idiosyncratic things you’ll hear get any mainstream media attention this year.
You can pre-order Nikki Nack for a mere $10 from Amazon.com. Now let’s play this post out with tUnE-yArDs’ Pee-wee’s Playhouse-inspired video for “Water Fountain,” shall we?
It’s been a rough week here at Weird Band HQ, what with the passing of one of our idols, GWAR’s Dave Brockie. But let’s end the week on an up note, shall we? Courtesy of Merrill Garbus and her brilliantly quirky musical alter ego, tUnE-yArDs.
Garbus is gearing up for the release of her third album, Nikki Nack, which is due out May 6th on 4AD Records. She teased us earlier this month with an album “mega-mix,” but now she’s finally giving us a full track to chew on. It’s called “Water Fountain” and it makes us want to jump rope in the spray of a busted fire hydrant.
tUnE-yArDs also announced a bunch more tour dates, which is good news for us, because her first gig here at L.A. sold out in about five seconds. We should have better luck scoring tickets to her second L.A. show at the much larger Fonda Theater, so we can post a review and some crappy Instagram photos for your delectation. Full dates after the clip.
tUnE-yArDs 2014 tour dates:
4/23 Denver, CO – Pepsi Center*
4/26 Kansas City, MO – Starlight Theatre*
4/27 St. Louis, MO – Chaifetz Arena*
4/29 Columbus, OH – Schottenstein Center*
5/1 Nashville, TN – Bridgestone Arena*
5/2 Atlanta, GA – Aarons Amphitheatre at Lakewood*
5/5 Los Angeles, CA – Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever
5/7 Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade
5/12 London, England – Village Underground
5/14 Berlin, Germany – Berghain
5/15 Hamburg, Germany – Nochtspeicher
5/16 Brussels, Belgium – Les Nuits–Cirque Royal
5/18 Amsterdam, Netherlands – Bitterzoet
5/19 Paris, France – Cafe de La Danse
5/23 Bend, OR – Les Schwab Ampitheater†
5/25 George, WA – Sasquatch Festival
5/26 Boise, ID – Knitting Factory Concert House
5/27 Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
5/3 Dallas, TX – Granada Theater
6/1 Houston, TX – Free Press Summerfest
6/3 Phoenix, AZ – The Crescent Ballroom
6/5 Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda Theatre
6/6 San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
6/13 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
6/15 Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
6/16 Boston, MA – Royale Boston
6/18 Montreal, Quebec – La Tulipe
6/19 Toronto, Ontario – NXNE, Massey Hall
6/21 Dover, DE – Firefly Festival
6/22 New York, NY – Webster Hall
6/23 New York, NY – Webster Hall
6/26 Brighton, England – Concorde 2
6/30 Manchester, England – Gorilla
7/1 Leeds, England – Cockpit
7/2 Bristol, England – Trinity
7/17 Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
7/19 Chicago, IL – Pitchfork Music Festival
7/20 Louisville, KY – Forecastle Festival
9/3 London, England – Brixton Electric
*opening for Arcade Fire
†opening for The National
It’s been three years since we heard any new music from tUnE-yArDs, the hard-to-type-but-fun-to-listen-to musical project of Merrill Garbus. After conquering the indie rock world and landing on pretty much every critic’s “Best of 2011” list, Garbus went to Haiti to study Haitian drumming and dance and hand out some free food and clothing to earthquake victims. Then she came home to make a “wild mess” of a new record called Nikki Nack, which is now scheduled for release on May 6th (May 5th, if you live anywhere except the U.S.) on 4AD Records.
No tracks from Nikki Nack are out yet, but last week, Garbus released a “megamix” of the whole album, which you can check out below. She’s also announced a handful of North American and European tour dates, including an already-sold-out stop here in L.A. that we’re going to try to get into anyway. We’ve actually still never been to a tUnE-yArDs show and we really need to fill the Merrill Garbus-sized void in our lives pronto.
Tour dates after the megamix clip.
May 5th – Masonic Lodge @ Hollywood Forever, Los Angeles, CA
May 7th – Rough Trade, Brooklyn, NY
May 12th – Village Underground, London
May 14th – Berghain, Berlin
May 15th – Nochtspeicher, Hamburg
May 16th – Les Nuits-Cirque Royal, Brussels
May 18th – Bitterzoet, Amsterdam
May 19th – Café de La Danse, Paris
May 23rd – Les Schwab Ampitheater, Bend, OR (w/ The National)
May 23rd – 25th – Sasquatch Festival, George, WA
May 31st – June 1st – Free Press Summerfest, Houston, TX
June 18th – 22nd – NXNE, Massey Hall, Toronto, ON
June 19th – 22nd – Firefly Festival, Dover, DE
July 19th – Pitchfork Festival, Chicago, IL
So Merrill Garbus and her tUnE-yArDs project have a new music video, and just like “Bizness” before it, it’s awesome. It’s so awesome it actually kind of bummed us out a little. How come we never got to dance around in a video with beating disembodied hearts and bad-ass black warpaint when we were kids? All we did was play stickball and put pennies on the railroad tracks. Even if anyone had been around to videotape us and post it on YouTube, it would have looked colorless and sad compared to the riot of youthful energy that is the “My Country” clip.
Even if it might make you, too, feel a pang of regret for your wasted youth, we highly recommend feasting your eyes on the video below. And while you’re at it, check out the Kickstarter campaign Merrill started to support the SF Rock Project, the nonprofit music school attended by all the bad-ass kids featured in the clip. If the campaign meets its $10,000 goal, it’ll create a lending library of musical instruments for all those little future rock stars to practice on. Who knows? Maybe one of them will grow up to be the next tUnE-yArDs. Although come to think of it, the chances of the universe ever producing more than one Merrill Garbus are probably infinity to one.
Okay, so I know I made a big production on New Year’s Day about how we were gonna start having Weird Wednesdays as the day to unveil our Weird Band of the Week—and by the time 99% of you see this, it won’t be Wednesday anymore. Bear with us, okay? We’re still getting used to this whole operating on a regular schedule thing.
So anyway, our first weird band of 2012 is actually more of a solo project. Her name is Merrill Garbus and she operates under the name Tune-Yards…or, as she prefers to type it out, like a 14-year-old in an AOL chat room, tUnE-yArDs. Which right away should tell you that we’re dealing someone a little off-center here.
Fortunately, Merrill’s music is much less annoying than her use of capital letters. She recorded her first album, Bird-Brains (okay, fine, BiRd-BrAiNs) at home on a voice recorder, multi-tracking her vocals along with some very lo-fi percussion and the occasional guitar, bass, ukulele and hard-to-identify racket. Her music is at once abstract and somehow very pop, with lots of pretty layered vocals and the occasional soul shout—seriously, this woman can belt like Nina Simone, with a force that kind of catches you off-guard when it’s rising up out of all this primitive, home-tape murk. It doesn’t seem like that voice can possibly be coming out of this funny-looking, slightly androgynous hippie chick—but there it is, and she totally owns it. Merrill Garbus is fierce.
What’s even more amazing is that, thanks to getting signed to this uber-hip indie label 4AD Records and getting written up all the blogs that are way cooler than, say, us (i.e. Pitchfork, Drowned in Sound, Coke Machine Glow), Merrill Garbus and tUnE-yArDs have become sort of indie famous. The video for her song “Bizness,” off her second and far more polished album, Whokill (okay, fine, w h o k i l l), has racked up over
1.8 2.3 million views on YouTube. For something as peculiar as tUnE-yArDs to be seen and heard by that many people…well, it kind of renews our faith in the power of weirdness.
I was really hoping we could embed the video for “Real Live Flesh” off tUnE-yArDs’ first album, because it’s by far the weirdest thing Merrill Garbus has ever done—a sort of dykey, art-school send-up of video vixen come-hitherness with lots of face paint and awkward editing and even more awkward dancing all set to a song that’s like an R&B slow jam getting shaken around inside an empty coffee can. But embedding seems to have been disabled on that video, so we’ll have to settle for the video for “Bizness,” which is actually okay because if we can help get it to 2 million views, we’ll have done our part. [Update: Mission accomplished!] Also, if you haven’t already, you should go check out our first-ever Weirdify playlist, because the tUnE-yArDs track “You Yes You” is the first song in the mix and it will make you feel grateful to have been blessed with the power of hearing. No seriously, it’s that good.