Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The Love Cats
Last December, MTV.com ran a news story regarding the direction of the forthcoming Yeah Yeah Yeahs album. Their producer, Squeak E. Clean, revealed that the New York-based art rockers were constructing a concept album about a metaphysical journey undertaken by front-woman Karen O's cat, Coco, to be titled Coco Beware. The story was picked up around the world by music news sites, and lit up otherwise cynical blogs with heated discussion of this new direction.
It's telling that so many were taken in by it — after all, the title alone should have been a clue that Clean was having his practical joking way with the journalist. (At least to those who remember late '80s wrestler Koko B. Ware, whose signature finishing move was "the Ghostbuster.") Not because it pointed out the naiveté of those who unquestionably swallowed the tall tale, but for what it said about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The triple-affirming rockers emerged from the buzz-worthy New York rock scene early this century as one of the most visually and audibly engaging bands of recent years. With an artful approach to everything they do, from visual presentation to performances, the trio (which includes guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase) have carved their own swath through the contemporary music scene. While their loyalties remain with the indie-oriented crowd that spawned them, their career arc led them to a major label deal and worldwide fame.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs formed in 2000, in a transitional time for a rock music scene that had spent several years being buffeted by in-vogue electronica. "We were bored and restless and it just seemed like something fun to do," says guitarist Nick Zinner. "Maybe we could play a few clubs around the city — there was no gigantic dream to it." Within a year, the emergence of the Strokes swung the media spotlight in the direction of the five boroughs; when Detroit twosome the White Stripes dropped their third album, White Blood Cells, that same year music critics declared that we had a rock revival on our hands. Yeah Yeah Yeahs played one of their first high-profile gigs that year at Manhattan's Mercury Lounge, opening for the red-and-white Stripes. Suddenly, tastemakers, journalists and A&R people were tripping over themselves to tout the rowdy energy and three-way chemistry of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Beautiful and photogenic, Karen O (born Orzolek) became a quick and easy focal point for the band, not only for her striking looks, but her rambunctious performances. (On occasion, she sings songs with a microphone completely lodged in her mouth, and can drink a beer at the same time.) Like the indie rock brethren with whom they shared a sound, a scene and occasionally living quarters (Zinner shared a NYC apartment, pre-fame, with members of Metric and next door to the Stills), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs recorded an EP and put it out on their own label, Shifty. As positive word of mouth spread, it was picked up by taste-making label Touch & Go, furthering the reach of their explosively raw take on danceable art rock and blistering blues riffs backed by a funked-up rhythm section.
When scene-stealers the Strokes appeared on Saturday Night Live in January 2002, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. sported a Yeah Yeah Yeahs pin; within months, the buzz reached deafening levels. By the time 2,000 hipsters crammed into a Yeah Yeah Yeahs showcase at SXSW two months later, there simply weren't enough trailer hitches for everyone to hook themselves to their rising star. They were on the cover of NME, toured the world with heroes Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and tried to keep their heads about them.
"It was really weird," says soft-spoken guitarist Nick Zinner from his New York apartment. "It happened so quickly and we hadn't even made a full record yet. We just tried to go with it as much as we could without losing perspective and sanity.
"A lot of it felt undeserved," he continues. "Being friends with a lot of bands who had been touring in vans for years and years, still playing to the same 20 people, I guess there was a kind of guilt that came with it. At the same time it was just so bizarre, one of these things that you never expected to happen to you."
In an attempt to keep their heads clear, the band recorded a second EP, Machine, also released on Touch & Go, and spent more time taking meetings and glad-handing the long line of suitors who came knocking. While the underground predicted (and even hoped) that the band would eschew major label opportunities being thrust at them, they were simply waiting for the best offer, which came from Interscope, one that guaranteed complete artistic freedom in albums, artwork, videos and visual presentation — including releasing a concept album about a cat, should they so choose.
You shouldn't read too much into the fact that the first single from the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs record, Show Your Bones, is called "Gold Lion" — the cat theme just ain't there. The band did take some delight in how quickly the rumour of Coco's adventures took off. "It was the funniest thing to have someone show me on Pitchfork," Nick laughs. "The funny thing is that the story is kind of true: Karen and her friend did rescue this cat from Chile and brought her back, but I don't feel that Coco influenced the songwriting."
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