The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are taking a vote. Not on the cover for their forthcoming album or on which city will open their European tour. No, the vote is to determine whether they’ll allow me to interview them.
The members of the garage-rock trio – guitarist Nick Zinner, singer Karen O, and drummer Brian Chase – are tired of reading about themselves in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and even YM. They’re exhausted with the “Page Six” references (Karen O seen with Moby!) and the music-industry attention (major-label CEOs from Warner Bros.’ Tom Whalley to Elektra’s Sylvia Rhone are regulars at their gigs).
Like a lot of other rock bands on their way up (think Nirvana and, more recently, the White Stripes), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are very uncomfortable about their impending fame. This might seem spoiled, but consider this: They’ve been together less than two years and have recorded a grand total of five songs (all available on a self-titled EP).
e?#Llts of the vote come via a cell-phone call from Zinner. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been making themselves unavailable as of late – they canceled an appearance at the Reading Festival in England – so I prepare for the worst. “We talked about the interview,” Zinner says, “and we decided to do it.” I’m instructed to meet the band at Tucasa, a rehearsal space in Alphabet City.
But when I arrive, as agreed upon, at 6th Street and Avenue B, the band is nowhere in sight. Confused, I dial Zinner’s cell. Wasn’t I supposed to come to rehearsal? “I never said that,” Zinner says. “Rehearsal is our sacred space.” There is unintelligible muttering among band mates. “You can come for the last fifteen minutes.”
Even through the studio wall, which is covered with posters advertising salsa acts, it’s clear why the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are becoming local legends. Karen O’s voice sounds its slurred-sexy best over the band’s bluesy, Stonesy power.
When I open the door, the spell is broken. Karen, in a tan Gremlins T-shirt and a black hooded sweatshirt, brushes her bangs over her eyes and backs into a corner. Chase, in black jeans and T-shirt, stares blankly ahead. Zinner, also all in black, manages an uncomfortable smile. “We wrote this last night,” he mutters, and the band halfheartedly plays a dirgey number. “That’s it,” Zinner announces after a couple of bars, packing his guitar into a case decorated with three Y’s made out of yellow tape.
At Kate’s, the mood lightens. The band members talk about their seemingly random trip to the brink of stardom. “I,” Karen proclaims dramatically, “was a sad and sappy singer-songwriter.” Everyone laughs. Brian (a classmate of Karen’s at Oberlin) talks about getting into avant jazz while Nick (at Bard) got into New York No Wave. I mention that the current New York scene seems very collegiate. Brian laughs. “We’re certainly not from the streets,” he says. “It’s more like, ‘We’re moving to Williamsburg after college.’ “
Nick and Karen met when she transferred to NYU to study film. “It was one night at Mars Bar,” Nick begins. “No, it was that bar on Avenue B!” says Karen. “What bar on Avenue B?” Nick replies. “Lakeside Lounge,” says Karen. “We were too drunk, anyway,” Nick says.
When the two met, Zinner was dissatisfied with his band, the Boba Fett Experience, comprising four fellow male Bard graduates. “It was more like psychotherapy than a band,” Zinner says. Karen was unhappy, too; she wanted to channel her energies into a band that reflected her current tastes (she admits to once “having a love affair with the Grateful Dead”), which included New York’s then–band of the moment Jonathan Fire*Eater and garage revivalists Pussy Galore.
With Karen’s Oberlin pal Brian Chase, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were born in late 2000. In the spring of 2001, they recorded their EP with producer (and former Boss Hog guitarist) Jerry Teel. The music shares a rawness with neo-garage bands like the Liars, but the lyrics possess a dark, self-mocking sense of humor (“It’s our time to be hated,” Karen declares on one song) and an unexpected pop sensibility. Even on the thrashiest song, “Art Star,” Karen balances her howls with almost Ronettes-like do-do-do-dos. “That’s been our M.O. since the beginning,” Karen explains. “It’s putting those hooks in places you wouldn’t expect, pairing very discordant and very catchy stuff.”
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ live show – in which Karen strikes cartoonish rock-star poses and drowns herself in can after can of cheap beer – drives a stake into the heart of shy, retiring indie-rock bands everywhere. Karen’s showmanship – equal parts Pat Benatar and Chrissie Hynde – is what seduces the A&R reps. “They should be huge,” says Teel. “But then again, a lot of bands should be huge and don’t get there. It’s a question of whether this change in music we’re seeing really happens.”
The change Teel is referring to is the so-far tentative embrace of bands like the Hives and the Vines by radio and MTV. The recession-battered, teen-pop-weary majors seem to be betting that it will continue. “The bidding over the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has become so intense that only labels with deep pockets can afford to stay in the game,” says Tom Sarig, vice-president of A&R at MCA Records. “They’re at the point where guys like Jimmy Iovine are flying them out for a meeting.”
“They’ve really been dangling carrots,” Karen says, “and those carrots are pretty tempting … ” She takes a breath. “But we’ve decided that it would be extravagant to go with a major for our first album.” Nick interrupts: “We’re very confident as a band, but being on a major label would cut into our development process.”
They’re having fun playing hard-to-get. “One label paid for a two-bedroom suite at South by Southwest,” Nick says, referring to the industry-packed annual Austin, Texas–based music conference. “And when we were in London, an entire group of A&R guys paid our bar tab, which came to £1,600.” Karen giggles at the memory. “And it was all martinis! We were totally wasted.”
One night, they even went to dinner with legendary music mogul Seymour Stein. “We were thinking, We wish there were people like Seymour Stein in the music business today, and then we got the call to meet him,” Karen says. “But unfortunately, when you meet with the real Seymour Stein, he falls asleep at the table.”
“It all sounds very glamorous, but it’s not,” Nick says. “It’s very overwhelming.”
Karen stops eating and stares directly at me: “The media is evil. It’s a meat grinder. I mean, I went to the 24 Hour Party People after-party, and the New York Post said I was in the D.J. booth with Moby! Totally untrue. Then I keep hearing these unbelievable rumors about me.”
The rumors have grown so rampant, she explains, that they’ve had to resort to putting announcements like KAREN O IS NOT IN THE HOSPITAL on their Website. Karen almost looks as though she’s going to cry. Welcome to rock-stardom.
About a week later, in a dingy Williamsburg parking lot, an enormous crowd has assembled for a strong bill of the New York scene’s lesser-known bands. Admission is $10 – free if you can climb a tree, which many are doing. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs take the stage, the sound system goes kaput – Karen has to sing into a pair of microphones. Yet she brings that still-untitled song, played limply at rehearsal, roaring to life. “Well c’mmmon! Ah, c’moonnn!” Karen howls, sounding like a female version of Iggy Stooge on Fun House. It’s got wild, primal power – what rock can be. Fans spray Karen with shaken-up cans of Budweiser. She shakes off the suds and rolls her big, moony eyes faux-sarcastically.
“Yeah, that show was pretty rad,” Karen says later. “I’ve always felt really comfortable onstage. It’s where I should be.”