Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Stayin’ Alive
Three years after they nearly imploded, Yeah Yeah Yeahs brave self-doubt, isolation, and possible decapitation at the hands of Mexican druglords to reinvent themselves and create a dance-rock gem.
On a wintry evening in late November, Karen O celebrated her 30th birthday by throwing herself a party in the city she had fled. Raised in the New Jersey suburbs, Karen spent her formative years in New York City, crafting her identity through cherished postadolescent rituals: going to college, dancing at clubs, drinking in bars, and starting bands with people she’d meet at clubs and bars. One of those chance encounters, with a Bard graduate named Nick Zinner, turned into the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who, in a New York minute, became poster children for the Great Gotham Rock Resurgence of the Early Aughts. (Whattup, Julian!?)
So, in 2004, when Karen suddenly packed up and moved to — of all freakin’ places — Los Angeles, she shocked her friends, family, and bandmates. “It was a pivotal moment in my life when I moved there,” she tells me six weeks after the birthday party, over dinner and wine in the East Village. “New York had everything for me. It was so difficult to break free of. But I was stunted. I was running in place. I felt I had to leave. Like, what’s that movie? Oh yeah,” she laughs. “Escape From New York.” And yet, commemorating this milestone date in her jilted hometown was a no-brainer. “For me, California is all about rest, relaxation, space. I feel really lucky to be living there. But I’ve been in L.A. almost five years and I still’ve only had, like, five friends.”
The party was held in a loft space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and the invitations featured images of the fashion-forward gray moon boots and pink hoverboard used by Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part II. KAREN O IS TURNING 30, the invite announced in purple Day-Glo, and SHE WANTS US ALL TO GO BACK TO THE FUTURE. The dress code fit both the occasion and its honoree: ’50S PROM, ’80S MOVIE…AND THE FUTURE! Karen — a downtown style icon whose onstage attire, designed exclusively by her BFF Christian Joy, mixes Ziggy Stardust future shock with home-sewn goofiness — wore a metallic-blue taffeta gown and oversize, white-framed sunglasses adorned with cardboard birthday candles. “There was no mistaking who the birthday girl was that night,” Karen says. “I looked like a brunette Barbie doll.”
Zinner sported a Fonzie leather jacket, and with goth-nest of black hair Brylcreemed into a pompadour, he might have beenauditioning for a high-school production of La Bamba. Karen’s boyfriend, British video and film director Barney Clay, who divides his time between New York, London, and Los Angeles, donned a letterman jacket (’50s) and glazed his hair and face Tin Man silver (um, futuristic ’80s?). A lifetime’s worth of loved ones and creatives jammed the room in varying degrees of ironic garb, guzzling (sponsored) alcohol, cheering Karen on as she whacked away at an aluminum-foil piñata, and digging into twin birthday cakes, one reading KO, the other 30.
Sweetest of all for Karen was the live karaoke band that assembled for the occasion, a dream team of pals from the NYC indie-rock scene: Zinner on guitar, the Blues Explosion’s Russell Simins on drums, the Walkmen’s Walter Martin on keyboards, and Sammy James Jr. from the Mooney Suzuki on bass. “I was such a huge fan of so many of those guys when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were coming up,” she tells me. “It was amazing to have them all playing this show.” For a group of black-clad artiste types who’ve earned their livelihoods playing noisy songs about the dark corners of life, their songbook for the evening couldn’t have been less pigfucky: hip-to-be-square frat rock straight out of a gymnasium dance. Jon Spencer sang the ’60s garage-rock nugget “96 Tears.” YYY drummer Brian Chase, friends with Karen since freshman year at Oberlin College (“I think we met at orientation,” he says), barreled through the surf standard “Wipe Out.” Clay’s cousin Tristan, who once led corrosive Williamsburg industrial band Flux Information Sciences, whooped through the toga-party classic “Woolly Bully.” Joy’s husband spelled out Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” Karen, no wallflower she, grabbed the mic for two songs: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and the ultimate birthday-princess anthem, “It’s My Party.”
“The whole night was like living out my high-school prom fantasy,” she says, adding, perhaps unnecessarily, that when she went by Karen Orzolek, she was hardly the prom queen: “I was a complete outsider in high school. For a little while, in seventh and eighth grade, I played the game. I was, like, the class clown for the popular girls. But because I was half-Korean, I always felt set apart.”
Face to face, Karen is far prettier and less androgyne than photo spreads, or seeing her spit beer live, would lead you to believe. At dinner, she’s wearing black suit trousers and an oatmeal cable-knit sweater with fake-fur shoulders, chic and professional, the way an editor for French Vogue might dress for the office. With her wide-set cheekbones, long brunette bangs, comedienne’s nose, and slender build, she brings to mind a foxier Shelley Duvall. When I ask if turning 30 was a big deal, she cocks her head in amazement, incredulous at how dumb guys can be. “Of course it was! I’m 30! I’m ancient! But,” she promises, “I’m gonna be even weirder this year than I ever was before.”
For proof of her cri de coeur, there’s It’s Blitz, the upcoming Yeah Yeah Yeahs album and their first since 2006’s Show Your Bones. Written and recorded over the course of a year in a series of remote, genteel, off-the-grid locations, the record marks a decidedly drastic shift in musical direction for the trio. Gone, in large measure, is Nick Zinner’s spiky guitar roar, the bedrock of the band’s sound and nearly as crucial to their identity and success as Karen’s supersize, Mick Jagger–meets–Mary Katherine Gallagher live persona.
In place of the guitar are lots and lots of synthesizers (played by Nick, and occasionally Karen), guitars that have been made to sound like synthesizers (Nick), and throbbing, Lexus-sleek dance beats (courtesy Brian). “I remember Karen saying, ‘I think Nick shouldn’t just play guitar on this record,’ ” says Nick Launay, who shares production credits on It’s Blitz with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. “Nick’s reaction was similar to mine, which was, ‘Wow.’ ”
“Our producer was flabbergasted,” recalls Chase. “He was pleading, ‘Nick, you’re the best guitarist we have in rock’n’roll right now and here you are, playing all these synths!’ ”
For his part, Zinner seems remarkably nonplussed about leaving behind his calling card and learning on the fly an unfamiliar set of instruments, pedals, effects, and techniques. “When Karen orders, ‘No guitar for Nick!’ it makes you approach things in a different way,” he says without rancor, sipping from a mug of taro tea not far from his East Village apartment. “I’m still trying to teach myself how to play keyboards and piano.” He’s just returned from a New Year’s trip to Panama with his girlfriend, photographer Aliya Naumoff, where the adorably petite and pale couple traveled the country, searching out vegan restaurants, befriending cab drivers, and snapping hundreds upon hundreds of photos. (Zinner is an accomplished photographer, as well.) “I always want to do more things,” he says. “More sounds, more instruments, more everything.”
The band all agree that Is Is, their 2007 stopgap EP featuring new recordings of early material, closed the chapter on, in Karen’s words, the “raw, guitar-driven, heavy tom-beat, visceral side of ourselves. I had a craving on this record for a sound that left a little more space to work with.” I ask whom they think their new stuff sounds like. Chase and Launay proffer the pulsating ’70s disco collaborations between Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and R&B orgasmatron Donna Summer. Chase, conservatory trained and a prominent figure in New York’s free-jazz microculture, boasts of a new “coolness” on It’s Blitz, “in terms of temperament, not faddishness.” Karen, when pressed, cites the dance-floor despair of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Some may hear echoes of nouvelle knob-twiddling modernists like MGMT.
Sitek, also a producer on 2003’s Fever To Tell and Show Your Bones (and whose band is a unanimous YYY fave), likens their makeover to those of shape-shifters David Bowie and Radiohead. “I write off any band that makes the same record three times in a row,” he says. “These guys were totally up for challenging themselves.”
Because Karen and Zinner are still interested and adept at writing sticky hooks and melodies, and because Karen has as much Cyndi Lauper in her as, say, PJ Harvey, It’s Blitz shouldn’t get confused with Kid A — lush, kinky new-wave dance tracks like “Zero” (the first single) and “Heads Will Roll” have more chance of catching on than anything they’ve released since their tearjerking breakup ballad “Maps.” “There’s no comparison to the feeling you get when you’re dancing like your life depends on it,” Karen says.During her undergraduate stint at NYU, she and her friends were habitués of a weekly soul-music party thrown at a nearby nightclub. “The dance floor would be pretty empty when we got there, and so I’d be out there doing slides on my knees,” she recalls brightly. “I think that’s where my persona was born — on Sunday nights at Bar 13.” (Another, less likely, inspiration: “I loved Grateful Dead shows,” she says. “Everyone danced their asses off.”) Ax nerds and noise junkies may hate on her for defanging their guitar hero, but after listening to any of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs discuss the past few years, you come to understand that blowing things up was the best, maybe only, way to keep things together.
“Show Your Bones was, obviously, a really painful record to make,” says Karen. The sudden ascendancy of “Maps,” compounded by her breakups with Angus Andrew of the band Liars and filmmaker Spike Jonze, led to all the usual quandaries faced by young, ambitious fringe-dwellers when confronted with mainstream success. “Sophomore records are historically really difficult. We were definitely going through an identity crisis.”
Was Show Your Bones one of those dreaded “examining our fame” albums? “Of course!” she exclaims. “We’re not immune to the rites of passage, for God’s sake!”
In September 2004, newly settled into the Silver Lake section of L.A., her bandmates back in New York, Karen started work on — rite of passage alert! — a solo project with Jonze’s younger brother, Sam Spiegel, a.k.a. Squeak E. Clean (now of N.A.S.A.), a producer and DJ with an alt-hip-hop bent. The record never transpired, but Karen brought Spiegel in to work on Show Your Bones. Nick and Brian chafed. “It felt like egos were getting in the way,” says Chase. “We weren’t sure what direction to take. We didn’t know exactly who we were or what waited on the other side.”
“With It’s Blitz,” says Zinner, “when Karen and I were working on some- thing, and one said, ‘I don’t like that,’ the other would say, ‘Oh well, let me try something else.’ With Show Your Bones, it was more like, ‘Fuck you!’ ”
Eventually coproduced by Spiegel and Dave Sitek, Show Your Bones sold half the number of copies as the gold-certified Fever to Tell and received a lukewarm critical response. “Sometimes I think I’m bigger than the sound,” Karen sang on “Cheated Hearts,” a line that Zinner and Chase had to hear as threat. Fans continued to flock to their spellbinding live shows, where her Dadaist getups were alone worth the ticket price. But even onstage, where she had always projected a preternatural swagger and self-confidence, Karen says she was off her game, the result of a change in preshow ritual.
“I was much more self-destructive about how much I drank during the first album,” she says. Performing exacted an enormous physical toll, so to salve the wounds from the night before and gird her for the coming bruises and gashes, she’d medicate in the dressing room before gigs, sometimes with tequila, sometimes champagne, sometimes whiskey. The boozing didn’t mesh so well with her West Coast tranquility quest, and so she decided to perform stone-cold sober for the first time at a 2006 gig in Toronto, where Yeah Yeah Yeahs had always enjoyed enthusiastic crowds. “I was sooo fucking paranoid that whole show,” she recounts. “I’d be standing somewhere onstage, and the thought would go through my head while I was singing, ‘If I stand here too long, someone’s gonna throw something at my head.’ If I heard someone laugh in the audience, I thought they were laughing at me.” Throughout the Show Your Bones tour, she says, “I couldn’t look the audience in the eye.”
The six-hour flights just to write a song, the tiresome in-studio bickering, the disappointing second-album sales, the threatened solo album, the tequila withdrawal — anyone who’s watched a Behind the Music episode knows what comes next. But sorry, deep-voiced narrator guy, the story didn’t end with a we-wish-our-preening-dickwad-singer-the-best-of-luck breakup. Rumors did fly, given air by a 2006 cover story in this magazine in which Karen and Zinner exuded all the warmth of an unhappily married couple in a Bergman film. But they persevered, touring relentlessly behind Show Your Bones, knocking out Is Is to buy time, and finding creative outlets in assorted side projects. (Most publicly, Karen performed in nautical couture with a group named Native Korean Rock & the Fishnets.)
“I’m not a quitter,” she says. “I believe in following things through. If I had thrown in the towel after Show Your Bones, all I’d have left to show for that record would be the pain and misery that came from it, and that was unacceptable to me. I couldn’t have that be the final taste in my mouth. Giving up on those terms wasn’t an option.” The close quarters of the tour actually helped the onetime roommates resolve their drama, and in November 2007, after a few months of necessary “me time,” they rented a house in Woodstock, New York, and began writing It’s Blitz. “It’s not very exciting to hear, but we trust each other a lot more now than we ever have before,” says Karen.
They fostered this trust in isolated locales, like dysfunctional coworkers communing on a corporate retreat. “In New York and L.A., it’s impossible to find places to focus and write,” adds Zinner. “We had a really nice time in Woodstock, so we started looking for other residential-type studios.” The search for secluded, Camp David–like neutral turf led to Long View, a former dairy farm in rural Massachusetts, which offered little in the way of distractions. “There’s blizzards, white horses, wood fires, that whole thing,” says Zinner. “Feeding animals, building snowmen. I didn’t leave the barn once.”
Sonic Ranch studios, outside of El Paso, where the band holed up for two separate sessions, was even more surreal, a 1,700-acre spread on the U.S.- Mexico border where they would drive for miles and see nothing but pecan trees. “It was a magical place,” Zinner marvels. “It felt like the Wild West.”
“You could throw an effects pedal and hit Mexico,” says Launay. Zinner grew close to a domesticated raccoon named Geronimo; they all learned how to shoot a gun (not to worry, vegans, they were aiming at tin cans). On the rare occasions when they did leave the ranch, they’d browse the pawnshops of El Paso, or head across the Rio Grande to the border town of Júarez, Mexico, where they toasted Chase’s 30th birthday over dinner. “We tried to go a second time,” Zinner says, “but it was too dangerous.” War had erupted between rival drug cartels. “Decapitated heads were showing up on the highway every day. I heard later that the restaurant we ate at got burned to the ground.”
Urbanites seeking out the pastoral or exotic to tap back into some mythical creative wellspring is a cherished rock cliché (perfected, as so many were, by Bob Dylan, who put Woodstock on the map as a hideout from New York City). For the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the cliché totally worked. Unlike, say, Dylan and the Band’s The Basement Tapes, It’s Blitz bears no sonic trace of its backwoods settings; more tellingly, it’s also miles removed from the jittery blare of their first records. You could say it sounds like nowhere at all.
And yet despite that, and notwithstanding Karen’s westward expansion, this is still a New York band at heart. Zinner and Chase live in town (Chase in Williamsburg), and Zinner in particular reeks of downtown cool — his publicist calls him “the mayor of the East Village,” for his omnipresence at shows, exhibit openings, and other cultural happenings. And when he and Karen end up at a Second Avenue bar late one evening, tossing back cocktails with friends and admirers, including comedian David Cross, his actress girlfriend Amber Tamblyn, and Flight of the Conchords‘ Kristen Schaal, Zinner is clearly at home, holding court while Karen and Schaal huddle over an iPhone word game, pausing only to dart outside for the occasional smoke. Like every good New Yorker (and Madonna), he loves to complain about the city’s inexorable yuppification — “It’s gotten so boring now….It’s impossible to get shit done here….I think about moving out all the time….I can’t even find a practice space” — but it’s hard to picture him living anywhere else.
As for Karen, when she gets wind of the hour-2 a.m., practically dinnertime in New York City-she puts down the dirty martini she’s been nursing, makes her apologies to the table, and starts looking for her coat. When I’d asked earlier if she considered L.A. home yet, she shook her head. “No, no, no. It’s more a sanctuary than a home. You wake up, you get in your car, and you decide what your day is going to be. In New York, there are a million things that can happen to you between waking up and going to sleep. I used to believe that California was going to break off into the sea one day from an earthquake.” She bursts into a brash, unmistakably New Yawk laugh.”I’ve been completely repressing that thought lately.”