This story originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Spin. In honor of the 10-year anniversary of It’s Blitz on March 9, we’re republishing it here.
If you’re looking for the punk-rock girl from New Jersey, you’ll find her in West Hollywood, sipping wine.
Karen O has changed quite a bit over the past year. Cutting into her veal at the upscale Italian restaurant Madeo, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer looks more understated than the bruised superhero she’s played on MTV. Her asymmetrical mullet has been shorn to a bowl cut—a softer, semiandrogynous look that makes you instantly nostalgic for kindergarten and early Beatles. She’s wearing a classic black hoodie and a bright, chunky necklace. To her far left is Adam Sandler at his table. Behind him is Ben Kingsley. Classical music is playing and napkins are creased on laps. You’d think a place like this would make any woman who’s ever spit her beer on purpose want to take the first Greyhound back to New York.
Well, you’d be wrong.
Ever since she moved to Los Angeles in early 2004, Karen O (full name Orzalek), 27, has been going through a process familiar to anyone who has ever started over in this city: self-reinvention. When she left the East Coast, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had released their debut full-length, Fever to Tell, a lo-fi shot of raw bravado that helped them rise from New York art band to a Grammy nomination and a hit single. And Karen’s scabby-kneed sexuality had become a will-to-power for kids raised too late for riot grrrl. Spewing drinks on her audience, tonguing microphones, and rocking sequined leotards in a way that could get you kicked off the U.S. figure-skating team, she’d turned herself into the face of fuck-you feminism at a time when virtually no female rock stars existed. But there were setbacks, as well—falling and nearly breaking her back in Australia, splitting with her boyfriend, filmmaker Spike Jonze. Playing out her personal drama onstage had also taken its toll.
“Living in New York in my early 20s, I had enough angst to go around,” she says, her distinctive voice almost drowned out by a nearby discussion of the upcoming Oscar race. “But then the well dried up because, on the road, it’s expected of me every night. I had to deal with all this free-floating anxiety. It was like 26 years of crap, this black cloud floating over my head. Then when I came out here, I chipped away at that cloud with a fucking toothpick, and I saw that the cloud had a face. I was staring at myself.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, who was Karen’s roommate in Brooklyn, New York, in 2001, echoes her thoughts: “When I was younger, music would always come from a place of frustration or depression. And when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs started, it was about opposing that idea. We wanted to write uplifting pop songs that could make us happier. But trying to keep true to that vision means shutting off a large part of yourself. And you can only hold down depression and frustration so long before they pop back up.”
Show Your Bones, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ dark and deeply personal second album, reflects that long look inward. Despite (or maybe because of) the turmoil, it’s an emotionally rich statement that also fleshes out their stark, in-the-red sound—an impressive feat at a time when many young bands spend their careers trying to replicate their first record. Where Fever to Tell had the gritty, immediate feel of a live performance, its follow-up is the group’s first to be written and recorded entirely in studios—one in L.A. and one in New York—and the results are more straightforward and accessible. Though the record’s first half boasts rock rave-ups like the single “Gold Lion,” the second half opts for more ballads (the “Hush Little Baby” sound-alike “Dudley,” the campfire-style brooder “The Sweets”), keyboard accents (“Fancy,” “Phenomena”), and stripped-down arrangements (the skeletal hand drums of “Warrior,” the acoustic guitar intro on “Turn Into”). But it’s the lyrics—which could be a montage of clues about Karen’s life—that really give the album a laid-bare feel: “What did you do to your back?” “Trouble at home, travel away.” “Men, they like me ’cause I’m a warrior.” She sings that last one as if she’s not so sure that’s what she wants to be.
“There’s always going to be a strong undercurrent of sexuality in anything I do, but I’m not going to play with it like I did before,” Karen explains. “Now I’m more interested in calling on a different source of power.
“Moving to L.A. was like moving to the desert, and the desert is a mirror,” she continues. “It’s brutal. You see a lot of things that you don’t like. So you’re forced to build confidence. And you get out of that knowing that you can do a million things. And you can do them on your own.”
He’s dead. No one knows who he is or what killed him. But his heart is not beating. This is clear because someone has scooped it out of the guy’s chest, sliced it in half, and left it sitting here exposed: superior vena cava, inferior vena cava, pulmonary artery, pulmonary vein, mitral valve, aortic valve, left ventricle, right ventricle. Which part stopped working first, Nick Zinner can’t say. But as the soft-spoken guitarist surveys all the cardiac checkpoints, he smiles kind of sadly. “There’s so many opportunities for something to go wrong.”
Maybe Zinner, 33, is really just talking about biology. But that statement could also explain a lot about this moment in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ career. And it might be the key to decoding Show Your Bones, which will likely be the band’s tipping point—either into the mainstream or into a reevaluation of their career. But for now, Zinner’s not thinking about that. He’d rather concentrate on the corpses.
We’re at New York’s South Street Seaport for “Bodies…The Exhibition,” a display of various polymer-preserved innards most people probably can’t name, much less believe came from inside a human being. Zinner peers into a glass showcase, his stiff-collared black jacket, SPF 75 skin tone, and Edward Scissorhands hair giving him a look that’s both sharp-edged and delicate. It’s a fitting combination for the man who anchors the band’s fiery dance-punk anthems, but who prefers to hang in the shadows. On the other side of the glass is a heart, a lumpy brownish-tan thing that resembles a miniature ham. Turns out, love songs are written about the ugliest organ. Which says something about the fate of most relationships.
“I’ve always been drawn to tragedy,” Zinner says. “When I was younger, I was thinking about becom-ing a war photographer, and what I learned from that is that the camera can lie. You can take a horrific moment and make it look heroic.”
Zinner has also turned the lens on his own band. His recent photography book, I Hope You Are All Happy Now, chronicles the crowds they’ve performed for, the hotel rooms they’ve slept in, the bruises they’ve gotten onstage, all with the optimism and regret the double-edged title suggests. With regard to fame, it seems to say, be careful what you wish for.
Flip through the images from 2002 to 2004 and you’ll notice that everything gets bigger: the venues, the crowds, the after-parties, the bar tabs, the stage wounds, the band’s reputation. After releasing two EPs, experiencing a major-label bidding war, and signing with Interscope, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released 2003’s Fever to Tell. Though critically acclaimed, it had sold only 124,000 copies by February 2004, when the band’s slow-burn ballad “Maps” was released as a single in the U.S. That same month, the band attended the Grammy Awards as surprise nominees for Best Alternative Music Album. They lost to the White Stripes, though in a smaller victory that Zinner calls “the most bizarre moment of my life,” Grammy committee member “Weird Al” Yankovic assured the band that he voted for them.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ manager, Asif Ahmed, believes the nomination made Interscope take notice. “That’s what propelled the push [for ‘Maps’],” he notes. “They were up against the White Stripes, so their profile raised exponentially, but in a credible way. Then when they would do tours, young girls and bizarre mod boys started wearing Karen’s haircut.”
With its heartfelt chorus (“They don’t love you like I love you”), “Maps” proved that Karen O exuded just as much strength when she exposed her vulnerability. That defenselessness felt earned, and the song’s video helped make it ubiquitous: The image of Karen, visibly upset, singing to a near-empty room, was suddenly all over MTV. Later that June, the band performed the song on the channel’s Movie Awards. The push had worked.
“She’s a rock star,” says Lisa Worden, music director for KROQ, LA.’s modem-rock radio station. “She’s like a second-generation PJ Harvey: She’s got that rebellious attitude, and there isn’t a lot of that on the air right now The other Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs show that kick-ass Karen O. But ‘Maps’ had this haunting, eerie sound. Suddenly there was this sweet Karen O, and that’s what really got to me.”
Fever to Tell eventually sold more than a half-million copies. But even before the single caught fire, Karen had begun to reconsider her persona. A key part of that evolution was the “NME Incident,” a moment that exemplifies a central problem for female icons who ooze sexuality: The same tools you use to break down the boys’ club can be used to prop it backup. In March 2003 the U.K. music magazine had already done two photo shoots with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, when a photographer presented his strategically angled view of a live show. And that became the mag’s cover shot: straight up Karen’s skirt.
“I think the NME thing was really painful,” says drummer Brian Chase, 28, over dinner at Dae Dong, a Korean restaurant in Manhattan. “The Fever to Tell Karen O was exhibitionistic. She felt her job was to make people feel less self-conscious about themselves, that letting go and expressing herself like that onstage would make people feel comforted. But after a while, I think she just felt exploited.”
Karen’s reckless physicality came with other risks: You can only break bottles and wrap microphone chords around your neck so many times before that mock violence slips into something real. In October 2003, during a performance at the Sydney Metro in Australia, Karen danced too close to the edge of the stage and fell headfirst into the photo pit, severely injuring her back. As an EMT assisted her, Zinner snapped a picture. It marks the emotional climax of I Hope You Are All Happy Now: Karen, her legs twisted, her eyes closed, the medic holding a towel to her head.
“I think it was sometimes hard for Karen to look at some of my photos,” Zinner admits. “Those photos showed her everything she’d been through, and they showed her that it wasn’t enough. She felt like she had to do something even bigger and more extreme the next time around. And that scared her.”
Everyone agreed that something had to change. “I wanted to let Karen have as much space as possible,” Zinner says. Four months after the accident, she moved from the New York area to LA. During the summer, when “Maps” was soundtracking make-out sessions across America, the band took a break from touring. According to Zinner, a “pretty dark period” followed.
Exactly what happened, he doesn’t say. But he won’t dispute the following: Two records were made, and two band members aren’t feeling the way they used to about each other. When the latter subject is broached, Zinner stares at the museum floor.
Are he and Karen still close friends?
Is he sad about that?
Will they be playing together five years from now?
“I don’t know. I don’t want to think about the future right now.”
Does he think the band will be together a year from now?
“I hope so. But honestly? I don’t know.”
In September 2004, in the midst of this dark period and eight months before the band started preproduction on Show Your Bones, Karen began work on a solo project. She chose as producer the inexperienced Sam Spiegel, a.k.a. Squeak E. Clean, mostly because he’s Spike Jonze’s younger brother. (You might recognize the name Squeak E. Clean from “Hello Tomorrow,” the dreamlike Karen O lullaby that appeared in Jonze’s adidas commercial last year.) The only thing Karen knew was that she didn’t want the record to sound like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And she had one hard rule: “I didn’t want Nick to play guitar. I know how limiting guitar can be, and with Nick, it’s as much his ball and chain as his samurai sword.” Zinner said he did eventually contribute to the album.
Though in the past Karen had refused to even appear in photos that didn’t include Zinner and Chase, Spiegel suspected that she was eager to leave the band dynamic behind for a while. “Karen wasn’t very confident when we first started,” he says, “but by the end she was playing instruments [guitar, piano] and following her instincts. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a compromise for Karen. Her whole thing with this [record] was, ‘I want to do my thing. I’m going to be the one making the decisions.
While both Zinner and Chase have pursued side projects of their own (Zinner played with Bright Eyes and formed noise-punk band Head Wound City; Chase Is a member of Brooklyn band Seconds), Karen felt transformed. “It was a huge revelation for me: she says. “I suddenly knew that all the suffering and conflict and frustration I’d been through with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was not necessary to make art. Most artists just can’t let go of the idea that you have to be sad to create something beautiful. Well, the word is out: You don’t.”
Which is easy to say when you’re working on your own record. But things aren’t so simple with two other people involved. Karen, still thrilled about her solo project (the album is tentatively due for a 2007 release), asked Spiegel to coproduce Show Your Bones with the band and allow them to write the album in his home studio. TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, who coproduced Fever to Tell, later contributed additional production at Stay Gold Studios in Brooklyn. But unlike Sitek, Spiegel wasn’t an old friend of the band’s.
Zinner resisted working at Spiegel’s place. “I didn’t want to write and record in a studio, but Karen was set on it,” he says. “I never understood why bands would spend six or seven months writing a record in the studio. I thought that was the most extreme form of musical gluttony. I just wanted to do demos on a four-track in somebody’s apartment. Being in the studio felt like a loss of control. And that was terrifying.”
Zinner and Spiegel had very different visions for the record, as did Chase. “I definitely butted heads with the producer,” says Chase. “I think Sam wanted to make a more computer-oriented, L.A. DJ-culture record—you know, funky, weird keyboard sounds, process-ing the vocals so that there’s a bunch of delay. But Nick and I didn’t want that. I mean, were still a gritty rock band from New York.”
Spiegel has a different perspective. “I wanted Show Your Bones to have a timeless feeling to it,” he says. You can’t place it anywhere. You can’t say it sounds like downtown New York 2005 dance-punk hipster music. I think Nick wanted to do a record that was like walking around on Ludlow Street at four in the morning, and your friends are drunk and jumping on some car.”
Though all four personalities found their way into Show Your Bones, Karen still looms largest. On “Gold Lion” she confesses, “It was the height I grew / The weight, the shell was crushing you.” And “Cheated Hearts” climaxes with her repeating the mantra “I think that I’m bigger than the sound.” Her voice gets louder and louder each time until it’s competing with the guitars.
Chase notes that the music on Show Your Bones reveals a lot about how the band members were getting along. “I think we’ve learned to be as functional a band as possible, but there are times when that completely breaks down, and you can hear those breakdowns all over this record.”
“We all thought we could change the other ones’ mind,” says Karen. “But you know, you can’t change people’s minds. If you could, then no one would ever fall out of love with you. I can’t control how other people react to things. So all I can care about is myself. My job isn’t to make other people feel better. My job is to make sure what we’re doing sounds like what the Yeah Yeah Yeahs should sound like. I do that better than anyone in the band. All the rest—writing the songs and composing the melodies—that’s important, but my job is more important than that. And this time, it nearly killed me. Ws pretty amazing how fragile the dynamic is between the three of us, and when you add another person, well…”
Yet she doesn’t see Spiegel as the problem. “Basically, Nick didn’t want to change. He wanted to keep that same New York sound,” she says. “I was fighting so hard for that change. It’s hard to be Nick’s friend, because I’ve changed. And you know how? Like this.”
She puts up her arm, pulls back her sleeve, and flexes, right there in the middle of the restaurant.
“I’ve gotten stronger.”
It’s so quiet in the van that you can hear the motor running.
Two days have passed since my dinner with Karen. Zinner and Chase have flown out to L.A. to prepare for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ upcoming tour. But last night they practiced without their singer.
The guys are in the van when we pick up Karen from her Echo Park home. Since rabbits have been a playful obsession of the band (frequently appearing in their artwork), we’re on our way to the Bunny Museum—the Pasadena home of husband and wife Steve Lubanski and Candee Frazee, who have been cited by Guinness World Records for acquiring 8,437 rabbit-themed collectibles. (Frazee wasn’t sure she wanted to be visited by a band whose merch includes a bunny pin with LET’S FUCK printed on it, but she didn’t want to exclude anyone from the world of rabbits.)
Our visit to the museum is brief. We check out stuffed bunnies, ceramic bunnies, nationality-themed bunnies, holiday bunnies, figurines of other animals dressed as bunnies, figurines of bunnies dressed as other animals, trees that have been manicured into bunny shapes, live bunnies, freeze-dried bunnies, and “The Garden of Broken Dreams”: a backyard planting ground where damaged bunny collectibles have been laid to rest. Zinner snaps a few photos.
Then our host offers to take one. Chase sits between Zinner and Karen. He looks like a prom chaperone whose job is to make sure no two kids get too close. Only Karen’s and Zinner’s expressions suggest there’s no danger of that. Karen gives Chase bunny ears. The camera flashes.
Later, we stop by a Japanese restaurant for lunch. After being seated, the band members sit qui-etly as the chef begins to prepare our food on the table’s hibachi grill. Finally, I ask Karen, “So, is it fair to say that you and Nick still aren’t getting along?”
“I think that’s obvious,” says Karen.
Do they want to be friends again? “We can’t tell you the answer to that,” she says. “because we don’t even know what to tell ourselves.”
We eat in silence, which is only broken by the chef asking for the band’s autograph. Someone eventually calls for the check. We pay quickly and head to the van. No one says much on the ride home. But there’s mariachi music playing softly on the radio. So we sit and listen and stare out the window.
How many more van rides like this the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will have, it’s hard to say. Karen has also talked recently about planning other projects, including making a film. But the group’s longtime friend, designer Christian Joy, says, “We’re like a family: Asif, myself, Nick, Brian, and Karen. We all love each other. There would never be a moment when anyone would say, ‘Screw you,’ and leave.”
The Show Your Bones tour will start soon, but what Zinner said earlier sounds right at this moment: They don’t want to think about the future. The sun is going down over the Hollywood Hills, and there are Spanish guitars coming from the speakers. If the day has to end, maybe this is how the band should spend it. Quietly. Not quite together. But together just the same.