Back in 2000, when Karen Lee Orzolek became Karen O, forming the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase, she put the riot-grrrl ethos and semi-ironic, turn-of-the-millennium chic through an atom smasher. She flailed around New York stages in her designer buddy Christian Joy’s outlandish costumes (one glove, a cape, and some seriously distressed stockings, for example), spitting beer and announcing herself as a rock star in a scene that wasn’t comfortable with the concept. “In the beginning, it was so visceral and so reactive,” O says, unpacking her thoughts rapidly, as if a buzzer were about to sound. “It was very much influenced by who I was in my early twenties, living in the city—lots of angst, lots of drive and excitement.”
O is 30 now and living in L.A., but don’t make any rash conclusions: The band’s just-released third album, It’s Blitz!, might be relatively angst-free, but there’s no shortage of excitement—albeit of a lusher variety. For one thing, there are synthesizers. Those legendarily chunky guitar riffs Zinner ground out on earlier discs? Now softened by effects. And ghosts of seventies disco and hip-hop drum machines haunt the entire album. “It just happened that two of the first songs both had that keyboard pulse,” says O of the first single, the irresistible “Zero” and the ballad “Skeletons.” “The keyboard played a big role in creating an atmosphere. It felt like maybe we’re ready to go in a different direction, more synthesized or electronic.”
Chase describes it as a “new cool detachment.” But let’s just say it: Despite the detours into atmospheric balladry, this is a dance album. To some fans—the ones drawn to the band because, like the also bass-free White Stripes, their emergence promised a rock resurgence in deafening guitars—that might sound a little too cool. Their self-titled first EP, in 2001, and 2003’s Fever to Tell trafficked in raw: Shouty, guitar-driven, and entirely one-of-a-kind, they were that rare band that maintained their indie patina even with a mainstream single (the transcendent “Maps”). When they dared to dabble with texture and instrumentation, to facilitate a bit of introspection on 2006’s Show Your Bones, there was backlash. If Karen O came out of the gate a rock star, the thinking seemed to go, why should the band need to tweak their sound, for fame or any other reason?
O & Co. were therefore nervous about how the new album would go over. “We were concerned what their hard-core fans would say,” says the band’s lead producer, Nick Launay. “The new direction was a very, very brave decision—a strong and confident decision not to want to repeat themselves … And Karen was definitely the main person who was adamant that we had to change direction.”
It was O who suggested that Zinner play keyboards and downplay the guitars, highlighting her voice and lyrics more than ever—lyrics that emphasize the sex that she hinted at, and sometimes caricatured, in the band’s early days, as well as the unclouded sentiment she cultivated beginning with “Maps.” With her remarkable voice—forever revving between a coo and a yelp, alternately smoldering and sighing—she doesn’t so much sing as sculpt emotion. And with It’s Blitz!, she’s intimate and confessional in a way she’s never been, or at least hasn’t been with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Last summer, O performed some solo work under the name Native Korean Rock (her mother is Korean—she was born in South Korea—and her father is Polish). “Oh, my dirty little secret! It’s out!” says O, who has another side project composing the songs for ex-boyfriend Spike Jonze’s film Where the Wild Things Are. “The [Native Korean Rock songs] are quiet, scratchy little bedroom demos. I used to send them to lovers and friends, and maybe family. They are intensely personal and private emotional expressions. I felt really strongly that it would be a shame not to share them with a few more people,” she says of the small-scale performances. “Those songs did open me up to be able to do ‘Skeletons’ for this record. My singing on it is much closer to [Native Korean Rock] than anything I’ve sung on a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record before.”
Though It’s Blitz! was heavily produced, O’s vocals are, if anything, more natural. “A lot are from a second or third take, and a lot are from the first take, when she’d just written a lyric,” Launay says as explanation, noting how extraordinary that is.
The reengineering of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sound feels effortless, as, it seems, did the recording sessions—at least in comparison with those for Show Your Bones, which were riven with tension between O and Zinner. Sophomore-album breakup rumors are a hoary rock tradition, a point Zinner bemoans. “It’s like my biggest nightmare,” he says. “But the unfortunate reality is that clichés are all sort of inevitable.” Another hoary tradition: “Escaping the city and going into the Southwest to record your third record,” says Zinner with a laugh. It’s Blitz! was recorded mostly at two remote locations: in the Texas border town of Tornillo and in rural Massachusetts. “The remove was a good thing,” he adds.
The trio, currently rehearsing for an international tour, has traditionally straddled shameless (if tongue-in-cheek) entertainment (those explosive live shows) and stubborn unpredictability (the musical hopscotching). “We’ve always been bipolar,” says Zinner, who, like Chase, continues to live in New York. “We kind of go between a logical exchange of caring more than anything and also of not giving a fuck. Somewhere in there is the balance, I guess, of what we do.” But O is feeling a little less bipolar than back in the day. “The thirties thing, everyone says it’s about really being more comfortable with yourself and embracing you and taking more pleasure in that, instead of being self-conscious and painfully self-aware,” she says. “That sounds really good to me … My relationship with music has changed a lot since we started. Back then, it felt like, This is something I do. Now it feels like something I am.”