Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Billboard Cover Story
Four albums in, "Mosquito" heralds a return to form for art-rock provocateurs the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.
On Jan. 22, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took the stage at Sydney's Metro Theatre, where, nearly a decade earlier to the day, the rock trio's feral frontwoman almost died. Back in 2003, Karen O—drunk on the energy of the crowd (among other things)—fell headfirst off that very stage, thwacking a guardrail on her way down. The monitor that she'd been clinging to toppled with her, collapsing onto her head. Living up to her bedlamite reputation, Karen O finished "Rich," the song she'd been singing, and followed it up with "Maps," the elegiac ode to forfeited love that reached No. 9 on Billboard's Alternative chart and turned the New York–based band's debut album, Fever to Tell, into a certifiable hit. (The video for "Maps" has since been viewed more than 15 million times on the group's official YouTube channel.)
YYYs + BILLBOARD
"Where has all the charisma and the sexuality and the gnarl gone? This album is about bringing that back into the fray" - Karen O
"I felt like I'd been hit by a truck," says Karen O, who was rushed to the hospital in a stretcher when she eventually lumbered back to her dressing room. "It was a pivotal moment for me. My insanity onstage had been escalating and the more I hurt myself, the more the crowd enjoyed it. I was like Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler.' After that, I basically had to clean up and figure out a way to entertain without that grotesque spectacle of recklessness."
Karen O has put aside her preshow ritual binges in favor of the occasional jigger of tequila or whisky, and she admits that her nerves were at an all-time high when she "returned to the scene of the crime" this year. "On the dawn of the new record, it felt like a pretty big accomplishment that I was able to do the show and actually walk out of there on my own two feet," the 34-year-old New Jersey native says.
From a table on the second floor of Congee Village, a garish Chinese restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Karen O and her bandmates—guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase—are ladling through a bowl of allegedly meat-free congee. "My vegetarian radar is on high-suspicion mode," says Chase, also 34, who has known Karen O since the mid-'90s when they were both students at Oberlin College in Ohio. (Zinner and Karen O met at a dive bar in New York's East Village, where she moved after transferring to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.)
Despite their fleeting preoccupation with the rice gruel, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are in a reflective mood. The night before, Karen O and Chase spent the evening at Union Pool, a dank concert venue in Brooklyn, where Zinner reunited with Challenge of the Future, the rock band he formed with friends from Bard College. The reunion show was a fund-raiser to start a college trust for the daughter of one of their late friends. "I've been thinking about the past a lot lately," Zinner says.
The band's shared nostalgia permeates Mosquito (out April 16), the group's fourth and possibly final album on Interscope Records. (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' contract with the label expires following Mosquito's release, which Zinner says is both exciting and scary.) Instead of capitalizing on the synth-soaked, disco-drenched achievement of the act's last offering, 2009's It's Blitz!, the band members have returned to the grit and snarling animus that first endeared them to a devoted legion of heaving fans.
"I miss the bands that were around when we first started out," says Karen O, whose reserve is hard to reconcile with the writhing, screaming maniac into whom she transforms onstage. Karen Orzolek, the daughter of a Korean mother and Polish father, is self-effacing, mannered and calm. Karen O, whose naturally onyx hair has been bleached Deborah Harry blonde, should be fitted for a straitjacket. "When we came up, there was the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Make-Up. Where has all the charisma and the sexuality and the gnarl gone? This album is about bringing that back into the fray."
No one was happier than Christian Joy, who has been outfitting Karen O in her avant-crafty designs since the band's inception, when her muse decided to dial her onstage antics down to 10. "It was annoying in the beginning," Joy says. Her costumes would, by the end of a show, be soaked in the beer that Karen O routinely poured over herself and torn and bloodstained by the shards of glass she'd roll around in. "Eventually I took the Yoko Ono approach that art should change. Those clothes are going to look so much cooler hanging in a museum with beer on them."
For Mosquito, Karen O wanted a more refined look. The lobster claws and rainbow-colored, hand-shaped headdresses have been replaced by, of all things, suits. "With Karen, it goes beyond, like, ‘I'm gonna shoot fire from my tits,'" says Joy, who adds that, unlike Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj, "It's not about looking crazy for the sake of looking crazy -- even though I know Karen looks nuts most of the time." Karen O swears that her more streamlined aesthetic signals female strength rather than deference to the Man. "When I put them on, I feel like a half-Korean, half-Polish-American pimp," she says. "It's like sailing right past self-empowerment and going to the next level. I feel like Elvis when he got to Vegas and started wearing jumpsuits -- minus the drugs and stuff."
For his part, Zinner says that his after-dark adventures have tamed considerably in the past few years. "But weren't you out until 4 a.m. last night?" Karen O chides. "Exactly," says Zinner, whose puckish smile makes him look much younger than his 38 years. Despite Mosquito's fatalistic track listing -- songs include "Buried Alive" and "Despair" -- Karen O insists the album isn't preoccupied by death. "The vibe is definitely up, but it wouldn't be a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album if there wasn't some sort of confrontation or aggression," she says. Zinner adds, "It's about expelling those angry feelings."
Nowhere were those angry feelings more glaring than on the band's second album, Show Your Bones—which, despite having been a nightmare to make, entered the Billboard 200 at No. 11 and sold 56,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "That was a really hard time," Chase says of recording what was nearly the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' last album. Internal strife and the sophomore curse nearly caused Karen O, on more than one occasion, to quit.
"It crossed my mind a lot of times," she says of abdicating the throne as rock's most conflicted queen. "But I felt like I had to finish the record, even though it was really difficult and we were going through intense hardship. Nick and I were on really bad terms. We were forced to support the record, and we had to be around each other a lot -- at the shows, on the bus." The long, confined hours in each other's company actually helped purge their demons. "It was like alchemy. And now we're still here to talk about it."
If Show Your Bones portended the death of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, then Mosquito heralds the resurrection of their electric sting. Their rekindled solidarity was fostered, at least according to Chase --who has said, "It's important for us to do other things to stay healthy musically" -- by their time spent apart.