flashback friday: o yeah
reread our june/july 2009 cover story with the yeah yeah yeahs!
photographed by kenneth cappello
In the woeful Greek myth about Icarus, a hubristic boy straps on a pair of wax wings adorned with fluffy, white feathers and ascends, alas, too close to the sun. In the willful video for Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero,” Karen O throws on a studded leather jacket emblazoned with her initials and defiantly proclaims, “Shake it, like a ladder to the sun.... Can you climb, climb, climb higher?” A soaring, pulsating song, it’s a cry of victory from the front woman of a band which once tempted fate after spiraling into discord, only to emerge unscathed.
Today, Karen stands majestically in the California sun with arms extended to full wingspan. She is waiting in the backyard of a small, cluttered, single-story Hollywood home (she lives a few miles away, in Silver Lake), the site of NYLON’s photo shoot. Her lips are stained a brilliant blood red, and her wide eyes adorned with the graceful plumage of eyelashes fashioned after a peacock. Poured into black-leather leggings and brandishing a pair of bullet-spiked biker gloves (made by her friend, Japanese stylist Masayo Kishi), she exudes a certain je ne sais badass while showing off a graphic, futuristic kimono designed by her unofficial style counselor, Christian Joy. “I used to be fairly shy,” she says. “But you know, I was a volcano ready to blow.” She lets loose a hearty guffaw.
Her New York City-based bandmates, in town to promote their synth-showered third album, It’s Blitz!, are hanging out nearby. Pint-sized with an abundant coif, guitarist Nick Zinner could be the love child of a teenage Sid Vicious and one of those cute sylvan creatures that fights the evil forces of Mordor. He gently pets a Chihuahua pup that’s jockeying for attention, as easygoing drummer Brian Chase—who, with his wire glasses, gentle disposition, and Supercut, could easily pass for a mathlete—quietly engages the photo crew in conversation. Both clad in black from head to toe, they look up and smile warmly at the appearance of their beaming singer, Chase even raising his eyebrows in approval.
Karen Lee Orzolek was born in South Korea to a Polish-American dad who owned a clothing- and jewelry-manufacturing company, and an Asian mom who was a fashion-trend consultant. (“She was, like, insanely stylish,” the proud daughter says. “To this day, her style is unbelievable.”) Despite this pedigree, Karen—raised in Englewood, New Jersey—insists her gutsy, idiosyncratic taste has been a long work in progress. She’s sitting outside at a café in Studio City a day after the photo shoot, barely recognizable in her demureness: on her face, a light dusting of blue eye shadow and a dab of pink lip gloss; on her person, yellow-and- brown animal-print Converse hi-tops, skinny black jeans, and a blue-striped, long-sleeved shirt. Smiley and giggly, nibbling on a salad and penne arrabbiata, she conjures up a parade of her wardrobe past.
“Oh, man, I went through quite a few styles,” she says. There was that perm-and-braces phase when she was 12. “The ugly face,” she groans. “No, believe me, it was ugly. I was breaking out with zits.” After that came her flirtation with a gangsta-rap look—“the hair pulled back and the hoop earrings.” (A brief pause while you summon a visual.) And in high school, she dabbled disastrously in both grunge and hippie aesthetics. “I was interested in style,” she says, laughing at these misadventures, “but not necessarily fashion labels.”
These days, the singer’s look could be described as free-spirited rocker grrrl–meets–intergalactic Captain Kirk temptress. Her main obsession now: the K.O. jacket from the video for “Zero,” It’s Blitz’s first single. (“It was something that [I told Christian Joy] I wanted. I was like, ‘It’s time,’” says Karen. “And there will never be a duplicate!”) She’s likewise smitten with ’70s funk-soul singer Betty Davis—the model and Miles Davis’s ex-wife, not the tempestuous actress—whom Karen recently discovered at the suggestion of her hair dresser, Seiji. “Betty Davis is like my soul sister! I saw that cover of [her 1974 album] They Say I’m Different, and it really struck a chord,”
she says. “Her outfit looks like something Christian Joy would make.” But her perennial girl-crush continues to be Grace Jones. “She’s, like, the outsider personified for a woman. She’s so provocative, so unconventional, so androgynous, so iconoclastic,” Karen says. She lowers her SoCal-inflected voice. “There’s no one else who is like her in the world.”
Socially, the adolescent Karen was admittedly less awesome than her current inspirations. Back then, she generally kept to herself—a loner with a select group of friends. “If we were playing spin the bottle, all the boys would be pretty bummed to kiss the halfie,” she says, referencing her interracial background. “But as you grow up, you start to realize what an asset it is to have that as a part of you. It shapes you.” At the behest of a high-school drama teacher, she channeled her bubbling angst into sketch comedy, where she picked up a sense of physicality. It’s visible to this day in her thrilling, uninhibited live performances in which she pogos, spits, laughs, performs Iggy Pop backbends, does the heavy-metal fist, recreates a few Bruce Lee moves, and when she fancies wearing a cape, channels George Hamilton’s whack Dracula in Love at First Bite. Emboldened, Karen penned and directed her Great American Play. “It was a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family and their car ride to some sort of theme park.” She pauses. “Now that I think of it, I was basically ripping off National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
The genealogy of Karen O as we know her—i.e., an art- rock banshee—began when she started hanging with an indie crowd. “My friend in high school introduced me to a lot of bands that were really influential to me, like Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Jonathan Fire*Eater.” When not hanging out at the local Friendly’s or, as she proudly exclaims, “THE MALLLLL!” they’d occasionally check out a show at influential club Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, and sometimes venture east over the Hudson River into Manhattan. “I was terrified of the city until I was like 14 or 15,” she says. “But then every so often we’d go to Washington Square Park hoping to catch a glimpse of cute NYU boys.” A few years later, she’d actually end up attending NYU, but not before a pivotal one-year stint at Oberlin College in Ohio.
The liberal-arts school lies about an hour west of Cllevelland— the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll—and boasts a fertiille musiic scene born of its respected conservatory. (Liz Phaiir iis an allum..) “Thatt really opened the floodgates for me,” says Karen. Well, sort of. She never joined any bands, but did take up the guitar and met future bandmate Chase. “We met on a bus trip to Cleveland. Like a field trip,” says Chase, who has just arrived at the café with Zinner. Adds Karen: “There was immediately a point of bonding [over the fact that] we were stuck in the non-coed floor of the dorms.” Chase was a star pretty much out of the gate. “Brian was such an amazing drummer that all the senior bands got wind of how good this kid was,” she says. “They were trying to get him in their bands from day one.”
But Karen wanted to be a filmmaker. So after a year at Oberlin, she transferred to NYU’s film school. “I started doing home movies because of my older brother,” she says. (The elder Orzolek sibling is currently getting his MBA at Cornell.) She still makes film shorts, and you can see evidence of her handiwork in the campy, zombie-apocalypse clip for Tiny Masters of Today’s “Hologram World,” which she co-directed with her current boyfriend, filmmaker Barney Clay. Still, after graduating from the university, she timidly indulged her interest in music, writing mainly acoustic love songs, and started to come out of her shell. “My weekly thing for a couple of years was this mod party called Shout at Bar 13 in New York City. My career started out as the wrath of Karen O on the dance floor. That was kind of my coming-out party because, until then, I was a bit reserved,” Karen says, cracking up. “Me and a pack of friends would just drink a lot of alcohol and be doing knee slides across the floor, dancing like our lives depended on it.”
Around the same time, she met Zinner at Mars Bar, an East Village dive. “He’s hardly ever changed. I mean, if you saw a picture of him 10 years ago...he’s one of those elfin dudes who never ages!” she says. “He’s more of a family member now, but at the time I thought he was a hot, stylish dude.” Did you two ever date? “Not really, no,” she says. “No, no. no.” Says the soft-spoken Zinner, who has a tendency to stifle his frequent eruption of smiles, “I don’t remember the first time we met, because I was really drunk.” He leans over to Karen’s plate and takes a bite of her pasta.
Karen was a fan of Zinner’s then-band, Challenge of the Future, and asked him to play with her. He acquiesced, and Unitard, their folk duo, was born. Then it kind of died: Zinner, a disciple of metal, plugged in his guitar, and they recruited Chase fresh from college. And thus begat the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In September 2000, the trio played their first show, a 15-minute set (give or take), as the YYYs at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge, the first of four bands opening for the White Stripes, right before they blew up. “We had a great time, although we only had six songs,” says Karen. After all, they just formed the band for fun.
When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs revealed that It’s Blitz! would be a dance album, their announcement was met with skepticism and a bit of scorn. Their music could always inspire a few moves, but minimizing Chase’s intricate drumming and sticking Zinner on synths stank of some desperation to get out of a rut. Actually, points out Karen, “we [already] had an identity crisis.” She speaks of her much-publicized tension with Zinner during and after the recording of their sophomore LP, 2006’s Show Your Bones. Rumors abounded that Zinner wasn’t so keen on the choice of Squeak E. Clean—né N.A.S.A.’s Sam Spiegel, the brother of Spike Jonze who was Karen’s boyfriend at the time—as one of the album’s producers. (Zinner, who’s friendly with Mr. Clean doesn’t comment on that, but does give a shout-out to TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, who helped produce the band’s past two LPs.) “They say you work on your first record your whole life,” Karen says, of YYYs’ 2003 debut, Fever to Tell. For the follow-up, however, “there’s pressure to decide if you’re going in a different direction, or if you’re going to repeat what you’ve been doing.”
Zinner compares their dissidence to the drama of 2004’s Some Kind of Monster, the documentary that outed Metallica as rock’s least functional group. “I watched it probably like a year after Show Your Bones was made. And it really hit home. It was kind of embarrassing.” Says Chase: “With Show Your Bones, there was lots of resistance during the songwriting process. It was a lot of, ‘I wanna do this’ and, ‘No, it should be like that.’ We’ve never been a band to actually yell or bicker, but it was more like storming out of the studio and leaving the situation unresolved.” The unflappable drummer was caught in the middle. “I was just trying to keep it together.” Like a peacemaker? “I guess you could say that.”
“It’s kind of the closest we ever came to...” Karen cuts herself off to laugh at the absurdity of it now, “to going our own separate ways. That was probably the most intense growing pain I’ve ever had in my life.” If they had to distill that experience into one lesson learned, Zinner says, “I think it really just comes down to not taking song critiques personally.” Ironically, their wounds only healed after they were forced to embark on a grueling, make-or-break tour in support of Show Your Bones. “We crossed through,” says Zinner. “Those were some of our best shows.”
The band tested their mettle further by recording 2007’s angular, artfully disheveled Is Is EP. All went well, so later that year, they convened in New York for a bit, and then in Massachusetts and Texas, to work on their third full-length. No single album or artist inspired the sonic pace of It’s Blitz!, though Karen will cop to listening a lot to Sweden’s the Knife. Instead, we must look to Zinner’s shameless eBay habit. “I was
going crazy over the six months before we started writing,” he says. “I was getting keyboards and weird effects and things like that. At one point when we were writing, Karen was like, ‘I think you should not play the guitar for a couple of days and see what happens.’” Notes Chase, “After being in the studio for about six months, this new aesthetic started to emerge.”
The cover of the aptly named It’s Blitz! shows Karen crushing an egg in her fist. It is a potent metaphor for destruction and rebirth. Also, “it’s just a superbold image by Urs [Fischer], this crazy Swiss artist,”,” Zinner, himself a publliished photographerr,, notes admiringly. “We tried a lot with my hand. But Karen is just a much better hand model than me”.” That photo herallds the album’s rapid-fire roll call of provocative, deliberately executed experiments. The indefatigable anthem “Heads Will Roll,” features Karen demanding, “Off with your head/ Dance till you’re dead.” The cooing “Dragon Queen” finds a groove between funk and disco. In contrast, “Hysteric,” with its “You suddenly complete me” refrain, tries a little tenderness—much like the swelling lullabies “Little Shadow” and one of the first songs they wrote, “Skeletons.”
Says Chase, modestly: “The big thing I learned from making this record was to have faith in a higher power. With Yeah Yeah Yeahs, there’s something like a force that happens. What we’re working for is an offering to this power that is greater than us.” And although, as a metal head, his arch nemesis should be the keyboard, Zinner has adopted a more practical philosophy. “Have you heard Judas Priest’s Turbo?” he retorts, name-checking the group’s controversial synth-guitar release from 1986. “So...there you go.”
Zinner is pissed off. The other day he and his two bandmates took a break from rehearsing in the Valley to check out Watchmen. “I thought Rorschach was amazing, but whoever was in charge of the soundtrack, I wanna call up him or her and be like, ‘Hey, you are a dick. Thanks for ruining the movie.’ Subliminal Tears for Fears songs don’t belong in a movie.” Such passion comes from Zinner’s interest in movie soundtracks. After scoring parts of the upcoming indie film White Lightnin’, he decided, “That’s my main ambition.” Well, after his day job, of course.
“I think one of the big reasons we’re still a band eight years later is because we give each other a lot of freedom to work on other projects,” he says. Over the past two years, the guitarist-keyboardist also found time to contribute to albums by Scarlett Johansson, N.A.S.A, and Nickel Eye, a solo outing by the Strokes’ Nikolai Fraiture. “People are like, ‘My god, you’re so busy.’ It’s sometimes not the case. Like, the thing with Nikolai literally took an hour.” Chase, too, kept himself busy with another band, the Sway Machinery.
Karen’s no slacker either. In the past two years, she’s assembled a Rushmore- worthy résumé of extracurricular activities: There’s her chilled-out Native Korean Rock band (she hopes to record their songs at some point in the future); her guest spot on the N.A.S.A. album, and her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” for the I’m Not There soundtrack. She was even on a judging panel for a Fulbright-mtvU fellowship, which sends students around the world to explore music’s role in different cultures. But her most anticipated side project is her work on the soundtrack for October’s Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze. “We wrote music that would be easy for kids to sing along with,” she says. A big influence was the Langley Schools Music Project’s Innocence & Despair, in which kids choirs cover pop and rock tracks, to ethereal effect. “The songs have that innocence and spirit with poppy hooks here and there. Simple, emotional, sweet stuff.” She hopes to make time in the YYYs’ schedule to perform a few songs live.
This, you realize, is the woman who once penned the lyric, “As a fuck, son, you sucked.” “I liked that aspect of my persona...to a point,” she says. “For one thing, I had to stop pouring beer on myself for practical reasons: It ruins your costumes. They would just reek.” Karen pauses. “Water—I swiitched to water.”.” Herr rreall tturrniing poinintt came at a 2003 show in Australia when she climbed a rig and slipped, bringing a 60-pound monitor down. It landed on top of her. “My wholle head wentt numb. II was walking around the stage, like, really delirious. Two minutes later, my head was almost twice its size, and the paramedics came.” (Ever the trooper, she finished “Maps” first.) “I realized I really needed to change things around. It was getting self-destructive.”
In fact, all the YYYs are quite clean in their habits. The guys are both vegetarian— though Karen pipes in, “I like BLTs!”—and their health-conscious rider literally includes nuts and berries. (They’ll be touring for the better part of this year into 2010.) Also, they’re totally serious about coconuts. “We specify young, drinking coconuts,” explains Chase. “The normal coconut is oval and hairy.” Says Karen: “These are white and cone-shaped on the top. They have a lot of water in them.” There’s a brief lull, until Zinner adds: “Fresh coconut.”
Clearly, they are on the same page again. Recently, with the benefit of a new vantage point and no hard feelings, Karen went back and listened to Show Your Bones. She was pleasantly surprised: “There’s definitely dark angst, like on ‘Way Out,’ but the amazing thing is there are songs that transcend that—‘Cheated Hearts,’ ‘Dudley,’ ‘Turn Into’—because there is this genuine joy that can’t get beaten down.” And now? “This is probably the most uplifting record we’ve ever made,” she says. “You know, it’s hard to say no to a dance party.”