Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Apr 01, 2006 Photography by Autumn DeWilde Spring 2006 - The Raconteurs
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Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut full-length Fever to Tell sounded like a high school yearbook. It's a loud but uncertain art-punk screed, full of black humor and wicked riffs but with little ambition. Singer Karen O's squeals and moans and beer-slinging are sex-crazed without being especially sexy. It's aggressive and commanding but only hides the band's insecurities about what they really have to say. It's a portrait of young artists caught in the middle of growing up.

Their new album, Show Your Bones, documents the startling musical and emotional perspective the band gained in the last three years since Fever. The trio's public roles as fashion icons, feminist rabble-rousers, and tabloid fodder forced their songs to dig deeper and demand more from their audience if they were to survive as a band. The new tracks have space and acoustic textures,  the rhythms don't explode so much as march forward, and Karen O doesn't feign orgasm on her choruses. They didn't lose their piss-and-vinegar abandon so much as focus it into deeply-layered statements of purpose. In a word, they got older.

"This is definitely representative of the present moment and where I've landed since the last record," says Karen O (short for Orzolek). "I think that for me, it would be really insincere if I was continuing to make songs like some of our crazier songs from the EP and Fever to Tell.  I feel like if I was running around as aggressive and antagonistic and confrontational and angsty, I don't think anyone would really buy it. I feel less angst right now; it's turned into something else."

She has good reasons for her band's second album to sound hopeful. Though Yeah Yeah Yeahs built a reputation as tequila-soaked hedonists who lit cigarettes with their art school diplomas, a funny thing happened after they released Fever to Tell. The album's ballad, a pleading, writhing guitar lament called "Maps," became something of a teenage makeout anthem. Its stark video, rumored to have caught Karen O crying real tears, slowly became a sleeper MTV hit, and helped turn the band from underground critical favorites into a bonafide hit for Interscope. The logical next move for the label would be to rush them into the studio for a "Maps Redux," but the band felt no pressure to capitalize on their good timing.

"I've gotten the question a few times already, of 'Is there another 'Maps' on this record?' But we never heard it from Interscope," says the singer. "We had a pretty amazing team who buffered us from the label where we didn't really hear anything from them. We kind of delivered it to them completely finished, and they didn't hear a peep of it until then."

Just as "Maps" dispelled the stereotype of the band as a one-trick provocateur, Show Your Bones will do the same for those who pegged the band as too-cool-for-school ironists or underachieving hipsters. Unlike Fever, which simply collected the songs the band could play live at the time, Bones was written largely in-studio with plenty of time to experiment. The first single, "Gold Lion," builds around a skeletal drumbeat, a tightly-wound acoustic guitar strum and a head-scratching but evocative refrain ("Gold lion gonna tell me where the light is") that crescendos with guitarist Nick Zinner's ambulance-siren lead line. "Phenomenon" is a cocky come-on that imagines Black Sabbath breeding with disco instead of trying to kill it. It's a kick in the teeth that haunts as much as it hurts, and perfectly sums up the band's new interest in taking themselves seriously.

"There was a lot of personal growth and artistic growth in all of us individually from the time since the last album," says Karen O. "We wanted  to try something completely different than what we had done before because it wouldn't make sense for us to make the same thing twice , or revisit what we were doing in our early twenties,  because now we're in our late twenties."

If there is a new "Maps" on Show Your Bones, it's "Cheated Hearts," a bittersweet late-night driving song about saving wedding rings for rainy days. The big hook of "I'm taking, taking, taking it off" looks like a classic Karen O seduction on paper, but here it's less about sex than exposing herself like never before on record. Even when the song suddenly changes key and kicks into a barn-burning punk lick, it's an honest and exhilarating flash of hope and playfulness.

"I've always been sort of holding myself back in a lot of different ways," says Karen O. "I feel that something got released or liberated, which sounds strange because it seems like some of our early stuff seems pretty off the leash. But I think it was just a focus and a seriousness about making music."

But this doesn't mean that the band entirely lost its sense of humor. Because they kept the details of Show Your Bones so tightly under wraps while recording, fans and press were ready to believe just about any news the group's camp would give them, including one widely-spread rumor that the entire record would be a concept album retelling the life story of Karen O's cat, Coco Beware.

"That was all Sam Spiegel (Show Your Bones' producer)," says Karen O. "He was born on Halloween and he's all about tricks and pranks and just fucking with people. That was just from one interview he did, just completely deadpan, lying out his teeth on TV and it just got circulated everywhere. But I guess that means that people were at least hungry to know what we were up to."

If any other band tried to con the media with such exquisite bullshit, they'd sound like Spinal Tap. But part of the reason why fans would believe anything the band leaked to them is because the band has mastered the volatile rock charisma game. Stick a clear-eyed tabla-loving drummer (Brian Chase) behind a chopstick-skinny guitarist with an untamable haircut (Zinner) and a New Wave wildcat singer (Karen O) and they'll sell out a club on looks and their New York area code alone.

But everything about that first impression turns out to be wrong, or at least an invention that just happened to stick. Chase's side project The Seconds plays droney folk that shouldn't share a zip code with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, much less a member. Zinner conjured gloomy atmospherics as a sideman on Bright Eyes' tour supporting the Digital Ash in a Digital Urn album. Even Karen O admits that her trademark beer-dousing is pure schtick. When she gets off tour, she says, she'll "arrange flowers and buy doilies and shit for my house and watch The Simpsons box sets and have dinners and play charades and games like Boggle." But her reputation as rock's newest unhinged Debbie Harry will, for better or worse, always be a part of her identity, even if she doesn't identify with it anymore.

"I don't know what the new incarnation is going to be, but it's really kind of a persona and it really has a life of its own," says Karen O. "It just was there from the first show we ever played. There was probably like a gallon of margaritas involved, but nonetheless, that's what came out and that's what's been there ever since. It was completely automatic; boom, that was it."

Part of the problem with her history of liquored-up stage antics is that she knows that persona would seem completely false singing songs like "Cheated Hearts." Much like how "Maps" forced audiences to re-evaluate Yeah Yeah Yeahs as durable, inventive songwriters, Karen O has to figure out how to compose herself onstage to match her band's maturation. She has no idea what that will look like.

"It's so completely premature to even know what's going to happen as far as how I'm going to want to perform the new music and how I'm going to relate to the old music," says Karen O. "It's all in how we present ourselves live and we haven't done that yet, we haven't really played live for over a year. It's going to be hard to kick some old habits in how I present myself, but it's kind of a big question mark for me. If you'd have asked me that question even a month and a half ago, I'd be able to be a bit more lucid about it but right now, it's just right in my face and about to blow up, so I feel a bit cloudy about it."

To try and figure out her next move, Karen O left her bandmates and her adopted home of New York for Los Angeles, where she now lives. Like The Strokes or Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were quickly championed as a "New York" band, part of the big-city rock revival that was supposed to destroy cheeseball corporate metal like Linkin Park for good. In a way, they did that-"Maps" sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time and proved that an innovative, even arty pop band can still be gold. But with that came all the usual trappings of rock saviordom, including Karen O's high-profile boyfriend (director Spike Jonze) and their even higher profile breakup, as played out on the pages of Us Weekly.

"Yeah, I love that shit!" deadpans Karen O, when asked about the flurry of attention surrounding her and Jonze's relationship. "It's just bizarre, it's not really my style. It's not the world that I relate to at all. Even though I have a real detachment from my persona, when it gets really personal like that it feels pretty gross-that's the right word for it. It's just generally a bummer, but nothing I can really prevent or stop or do anything about."

Though that brief foray into the tabloids is over, and her young band is sitting on a killer second album that suggests a long career ahead of them, Karen O is still terrified by what's about to come for Yeah Yeah Yeahs. For all her boozy posturing and Christian Joy-designed stage outfits, her theatrics have become the public face of her artistic identity. Everything about the band is personal now-what used to be a release is now her obligation, especially after "Maps" made their indie detachment an impossibility. While she's mostly content with Show Your Bones, her work life as Karen O threatens to undermine her happiness as Karen Orzolek.

"It's difficult for me to really know how to enjoy myself most of the time," she says. "I feel a massive amount of responsibility; this has become more of a job to me than my art, you know? I definitely have learned that business and art colliding never seems to work out so great for you, the artist. It'd be really easy to get sucked into all these people doing that for you or doing that against you. It's just a point in your life where have to be as sharp as a fucking razor and really, really self-aware, and being self-aware is definitely kind of painful. But I think that's what makes you feel like you're growing up a bit...hopefully [you] aren't going to become a big asshole and not get hardened at the same time."

To combat these doubts, Karen O plans to take a good bit of time away from music after touring for Show Your Bones. She's finishing a few art project odds and ends, some even older than Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and is planning a to write and direct a film piece that she hopes will provide a different sort of creative outlet. Show Your Bones is just one document in a complicated life that may not really represent who Karen Orzolek, Nick Zinner, or Brian Chase really are. But for now, Yeah Yeah Yeahs are one of rock's most riveting acts, and though they may be anxious and dressed up in their wounded fashionista best, Show Your Bones is who they are now, and crowds are waiting to see what that looks like. 

 



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