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."
Nevertheless, YYY have delivered an astounding sophomore album that expands their sound beyond filtering pop melodies through artsy noise. But having sold three-quarters of a million copies of their Interscope debut Fever To Tell, there was a certain pressure on the band to replicate the success they had already enjoyed.
Characteristically, the trio took an unusual route to the new album. Well-meaning label folk were trying to give them directions to the smoothly paved highway to hits "When we started thinking about it, the people at our label were suggesting this producer and that studio" but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are more comfortable on musical back roads.
They instead chose to work with a friend, Squeak E. Clean, whose resume includes some instrumental hip-hop joints and commercial scores, production credits on three tracks from Fatlip's 2005 album The Loneliest Punk, and a DJ gig at last year's MuchMusic Video Awards, but not a single rock record. The fact that he had a studio space set up in his living room particularly appealed to the band. "It provided a secluded, non-music industry space for us to just experiment and try things and not be on a studio clock," Zinner says. "It was a way for us to shut out the world."
Seclusion was particularly important to the band. Despite the fact that they had 15 new songs written and road-tested, they chose instead to start from scratch, writing and recording in the studio as inspiration struck. "Before, it was going into the studio and busting it out, because they were all songs we were playing," Zinner explains. "This time it was all writing in the studio. It's completely different; it's difficult to say if it's easier or harder because sometimes things just come, and then there are weeks where nothing comes and it's intensely frustrating. Some of the best things come out of madness though."
If one thing was consistent through their early career, it's that YYYs like to bring a racket, as Zinner's extensive collection of guitar pedals can attest. But the key to unlocking the creativity required for Show Your Bones turned out to be a little unexpected: an acoustic guitar. "It was like a new tool we discovered, even though it's this classic, overused element," he says. "I don't really know how to play it; I only know four or five chords, so it was challenging. It was new to us in this context and was something to experiment with. For us it felt kind of fresh." The spontaneous composition and creation of Show Your Bones, for Zinner, is reflected in the final product. "You could almost say it's a document of a process in trying to find something exciting for us."
Yeah Yeah Yeahs have by no means abandoned the signatures found on Fever To Tell; they're sprinkled throughout Show Your Bones, from the Liquid Liquid borrowing (and LL Cool J referencing) "Phenomena," to the rollicking go-getter "Mysteries," but the lighter tones of songs like "The Sweets" and "Turn Into" make for the strongest third of the record. To make a live transition easier, the band have recruited Vancouver guitarist Imaad Wasif (formerly of Alaska!, Lowercase and the New Folk Explosion); he'll double as an opening act for some of the tour promoting his own self-titled solo record out on Kill Rock Stars this month.
The release of "Maps" is the pivotal moment in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs six-year history. After signing with Interscope, their debut full-length, Fever To Tell, dropped in April 2003. It was a perfect snapshot of the band's strengths: Karen O's unrestrained and volatile squeak-scream vocals, Zinner's sonic blast of bottom-string riffage, and drummer Brian Chase's flawless accentuated time-keeping. It was widely acclaimed amongst those who would have acclaimed it had it come from an indie label. By the end of 2003, it found a nice home on year-end best of lists by those same critics. But by the standards applied by a label like Interscope, it hadn't done the kind of barnstorming business they expected.
It was almost a year after the album originally dropped before "Maps" took off as a single and found a happy, high rotation home on music video stations. When the song (which Karen wrote for then-boyfriend Angus Andrew of Liars) took off, the band wasted no time in taking full advantage; they stole the show at the MTV Movie Awards in 2004 with a rose-petal drenched performance. Perhaps the most telling sign of its cultural grip was the slew of "Maps" covers by a hipster's who's who, from electro pop purveyor Ada to rockers Ted Leo, the White Stripes and the Arcade Fire.
It wasn't just musically that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were proving influential: Karen O's striking individuality which falls somewhere between the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Blondie's Debbie Harry and Siouxise Sioux spawned a slew of stylish Karen O "clones." Hugh Hefner offered her a place in the pages of Playboy she declined, having found her way onto plenty of glossy magazine covers as an emerging style icon. (Her extravagant, signature outfits are personally designed by best friend Christian Joy.)
Instead of creating a rift within the band, Zinner and Brian Chase are perfectly happy to step back as Karen has stepped up. "I certainly couldn't see myself going onstage without something to hide behind," Zinner says. "Karen's just amazing at it. Opposites attract."
Circumstances brought these opposites together in the late '90s, when Korean-born Karen moved from the New Jersey suburbs to a liberal arts school in Ohio where she met Brian Chase. Eventually, she moved back to attend New York University, where she met Zinner, a photography student. They both worked at clothing store Triple 5 Soul the store manager was David Sitek, guitarist in TV On the Radio and discovered some shared music interests (Blonde Redhead, Jon Spencer, Jonathan Fire*Eater). Together, O and Zinner formed a short-lived "suicidal" duo called Unitard, which featured Karen on acoustic and Zinner on slide guitar. When Chase came to New York, they formed another band, this one called Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
By no means was it their full-time obsession. Zinner works as a professional photographer "not even in my free time, more like all the time," he admits and released his first book collection last year, the stunning tour diary I Hope You Are All Happy Now. Overflowing with photos of his band-mates, fans, friends, hotel rooms and backstage shenanigans, it's a candid look through the eyes of a rocker. You can even spot him surveying the crowd during concerts in search of a photo op.
Brian Chase is a member of another noisy trio, the Seconds; he's pulled double duty behind the kit when they've opened for YYYs. On their recently released Krattitude (on 5RC), the band demonstrate forward movement to more complex, disjointed rhythms and free-form experimentation you wouldn't hear in YYYs. It's just one of the intertwining links that connect members, scenes and labels: 5RC, whose parent company is the Olympia, Washington-based indie Kill Rock Stars, released an early YYY track, "Modern Things," on the Field and Streams compilation. The Three.One.G label is the home to Head Wound City, a spazzy noise rock band that features Zinner as well as members of the Locust, the Blood Brothers and Some Girls; all three have toured with YYY. "I feel like the Head Wound City thing is pretty different because I don't really get a chance to play that kind of music with Yeah Yeah Yeahs," Zinner explains.
More than anything these side-projects are about broadening each member's creativity and prowess, while staying in touch with the community that feels like home to them. "It's not feeling a need for something we're not getting, we're filling free time with awesome people," Zinner explains. "Personally, I can't really sit still for more than a few days so I just love making things with inspiring people. We've been lucky enough to meet other incredible musicians."
Karen O has kept busy too. She's reportedly working on a solo album (not expected until next year), and has played on albums by Some Girls, joined Har Mar Superstar (along with Zinner) on his 2004 album, The Handler, and collaborated with Kool Keith on his porn homage album Deep Throat Vs. Lialeh, due soon.
Perhaps the best-known work Karen's done without her band was on last year's "Hello Tomorrow" single, recorded for an Adidas ad directed by her former love interest Spike Jonze. That song was also responsible for bringing YYYs together with Squeak E. Clean, who produced the song he's Jonze's brother.
From their first EP to Show Your Bones, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have gone from baby steps to marathons in only four years. They've got proven crossover potential, but still feel rooted in the community-oriented indie rock scene that spawned them. "Karen always said that we've got one foot in the mainstream and one foot in the underground. At the same time I feel like we're neither here nor there. We're just kind of doing our own little thing."