When quirky conceptualist Merrill Garbus -- under the name tUnE-yArDs -- performed her percussive new single "Water Fountain" on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," she was flanked by zany props like a googly-eyed tree stump and a huge vampire-fanged sofa reminiscent of Chairy from "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."
She can't stifle her visual flair, says the musician, who headlines two shows at The Fillmore this weekend. For nearly five pre-band years, the drama major was a professional puppeteer at Vermont's renowned Sandglass Theater, signing on as sound engineer but eventually choreographing her own show, "The Fat Kid Opera."
"Puppetry set me up for how I deal with being onstage, because it wasn't about being showy or obnoxious. Everything was in service of breathing life into this inanimate object," says Garbus, who currently resides near Lake Merritt in Oakland, where she moved from Montreal in 2009 to live with her boyfriend and bandmate Nate Brenner.
The move coincided with "BiRd-BrAiNs," their first release as tUnE-yArDs. Their new third album, "Nikki Nack," includes "Why Do We Dine on the Tots?," a "Struwwelpeter"-grim spoken-word spinoff of "Fat Kid."
Fans have taken to the recording. With "Nikki Nack," Garbus says, "I made this weird album that I didn't think many people would listen to, but sure enough, we're selling records and people keep coming to shows. It just feels like I'm getting away with something!"
Working at Sandglass -- which hand-sculpted 3-foot-tall figurines that required a team of three to operate -- was no joke, and good preparation for future artistic endeavors.
"I really trained with them, because puppetry is not as easy as some might think," she says. "The first puppet show that I got hired for was based on the writings of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, a holocaust-oriented presentation in a palette of grays. It was, umm, definitely for adults."
Garbus' "Fat Kid" production, more of a "Punch and Judy" affair, starred a chubby protagonist named Fatilda who was constantly being pursued by a butcher. "Which was just my other hand, covered in a bloody rubber glove," she laughs. "At the end, Fatilda sticks the butcher into a meat grinder and papier-mâché sausages come out. But I looked into the crowd once, and there were mothers with hands over their children's eyes, just horrified."
IF YOU GO
Where: Fillmore. 1805 Geary Blvd., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Contact: (415) 346-6000, www.livenation.com