New York City, NY

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Heads Will Roll (2009)

Geography

Like The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs came together through the connections made by their lead vocalist while studying. Karen O was attending a liberal arts college in Ohio when she met drummer Brian Chase, and came across guitarist Nick Zinner at the tasty sounding Mars Bar in East Village while a student at New York’s Tisch Academy of the Performing Arts.

Also like The Strokes, the Lower East Side’s Mercury Lounge played a significant role in their breakthrough, invited to support The White Stripes there in 2000 while just starting out. The ultra trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg was also an important location in these formative years – Yeah Yeah Yeahs are said to have been leaders in its underground music scene as they shared a loft in the area with fellow synthy rockers Metric, in keeping with the attic dwelling New York spirit of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger 70 years before them.

With this being our last stop in New York City, it is perhaps appropriate that we end with a group that is a beneficiary of the latest chapter of its urban development: the rapid pace of gentrification that has consumed and utterly transformed once no-go areas such as Williamsburg, and Harlem over on the other side of the East River. Contrast this with Harlem’s prohibition era racial division as explored in Track 5 and the destitution and urban blight of that gave rise to the birth of hip hop in Track 8, and one can see how dramatically the socio-economic landscape of the city has evolved.

Published January 2019

Affinity

Pre-US100 my affinity was less to the artist and more to the 2009 It’s Blitz! album from which it is taken. Alongside Heads Will Roll, I was excited by the way tracks like Zero and Dull Life married the rock sounds I had grown up on with the dancey electronic elements I was increasingly being exposed to through university peers at the time. Meanwhile Little Shadow and in particular Runaway caught me ‘right in the feels’, with the tender side of Karen O’s vocals as appealing to me as the kickass punk brand.

In this regard there is also a fanboyish appreciation of Karen O at play here – not just in that high school crush kind of a way* that inevitably befalls me when watching a woman of supreme talent and confidence own a stage, but also just a general love for her particular brand of versatility and batshit craziness.

Upon selection I had no real notion there were quite as many personal and professional linkages between Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their US100 predecessors, The Strokes, but happy coincidences and all that.

* – This crush was only heightened further upon learning that she allegedly possesses a ‘Klassic Krusty’ t-shirt, a Simpsons reference so obscure to suggest that we at least share a nerdish kinship.

Origin

Biographical details of Yeah Yeah Yeahs are, as far as US100 resources (Google) allow, relatively thin on the ground – no bad thing of course if one prefers to focus on the musical side of things. What is known is that Karen Orzolek was born to Korean-Polish parentage, grew up in New Jersey, and met bandmates Brian Chase and Nick Zinner while in education (as per ‘Geography’ tab).

After Orzolek and Zinner had experimented with an acoustic duo by the regrettable name of Unitard, Chase was brought on board in 2000 to to help deliver a ‘trashy, punky, grimy’ act that would shake up the banality of New York City’s rock scene at the time. It worked, and pretty quickly too – having developed a cult following in the trendy bars of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it wasn’t long before they were supporting The White Stripes and The Strokes, and in 2003 debut album Fever To Tell landed to widespread critical acclaim. The name, if you’re interested, simply comes from them hearing someone say ‘yeah yeah yeah’ nearby in a bar.

“At the Mercury Lounge I kind of unleashed Karen O for the first time … My plan was to douse myself in olive oil before I went onstage. I thought if the oil kind of seeped in it would be a little sexy but it just looked like I had humongous nipples.”

Karen O

While Zinner and Chase undoubtedly provide immense musical background, it was the sublime showwomanship of Karen O that commanded attention wherever they want. Aside from vocal talents, she became known for her eye catching apparel – often designed by friend and costume maker Christian Joy – and vivacious spontaneous on stage antics, described variously as being ‘unhinged’ and of a ‘microphone-blowjob-giving, beer-spitting’ nature. Karen, for what it’s worth, regrets the beer-spitting tag – “I only ever did twice,” she says; no comment is made on microphone-blowjob-giving.

“Julian Casablancas to Jack White wanted to fan out about the first time they saw Karen O perform. Even to her peers, she was something rare and special: the wildest, freest, dirtiest, most unencumbered rock star of her era.”

Elle, May 2017

Yeah Yeah Yeahs outstandingly grasped the nettle of the garage rock revival that The White Stripes, Strokes et al had helped to put on the mainstream map. Show Your Bones followed Fever To Tell in 2006 before 2009’s It’s Blitz! blitzed the critics’ review ratings, universally appreciated for the injection of electronica and dance into their existing punk/garage stylings.

Delivery

“The band has managed to mix the human and the electronic, the emotional and the artsy, the fashion-forward and the oddly retro.”

Mojo

My appreciation of tracks can often come down to a single split second vision they are able to spark in me for a place I’ve never been, and in the case of Heads Will Roll this happens to be an illegal rave taking place on an industrial estate in the outskirts of Prague somewhere. In general this chimes with the chaotic Alice in Wonderland meets nu-rave-on-steroids sound found across much of the album; Zero is an inspirational stratospheric record that has one metaphorically climbing that ladder to the sun lyrically referenced, while Runaway somehow manages to tick the boxes of both tender and earthquakingly epic.

Such sounds – which evolved from a more straightforward punk style in the early years – are complemented by the style of Karen O, seen to many as a fashion pioneer. Karen herself admits being driven artistically by a need to counter the male dominated environments she would generally find herself in, and in this regard it must be gratifying that her style and swagger serve as an inspiration to many a woman who does not want to conform to stereotype or norms. As per the words of friend and costume designer Christian Joy:

“[We] finally felt like we had someone onstage we could relate to, someone who did not give a fuck in the same way we did, and didn’t mind being dirty and unsexy, and was just being herself and was not a dude … Karen was our fearless leader. We would come out of the shows absolutely covered in bruises, dirty and drunk. We were totally arrogant fuckers, just like boys. It was the first time I felt like I had women like myself around.“

I wouldn’t want this to be exclusively a Karen gushfest however, so let’s add the fact that Marilyn Manson once called Nick Zinner ‘the world’s greatest guitarist’, and that I think Brian Chase is an awesome drummer. Cheers lads x

Legacy

Yeah Yeah Yeahs returned to New York’s Mercury Lounge to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of their seminal White Stripes support gig in September 2010. In the intervening period one might argue that they have had a more profound and influential legacy on the scene they’ve inhabited than fellow Mercury Loungers The Strokes, with today’s indie and alternative landscapes largely defined by experimental electronica rather than garage guitar – whether we’re talking Hot Chip, MGMT, Metronomy, Glass Animals, or Gorillaz. Yeah Yeah Yeahs maintain their connections with The Strokes however – Nick Zinner has worked with Strokes bassist Nikolai Fraiture’s Nickel Eye project, while Karen O is today signed as a solo artist to Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records label.

Karen released Crush Songs on Cult in 2014. It’s an intriguing record – designed to be ‘voyeuristically personal’, it is 15 tracks yet only 25 minutes long, with most numbers shorter than a minute and a half, often recorded alone in hotel rooms. The result is something that sounds a little like Björk singing from the bottom of a well. In March this year she will release a collaborative album with producer Danger Mouse, he of Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz’s Demon Days and Beatles/Jay-Z hybrid The Grey Album.

Karen O and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist, Nick Zinner, 2013

This wasn’t before Yeah Yeah Yeahs has released their follow up to It’s Blitz! – by 2013’s Mosquito, the band’s ‘sex and death’ quality had evolved from fantastical surrealism towards something a bit more alien and monsters, with a bit of gospel thrown into for good measure. Prior to this, Karen worked with her one time partner Spike Jonze on 2009 film Where The Wild Things Are, her uplifting kindergarten-music-class kind of a soundtrack perfectly complementing the heart-tugging fantasy drama. She has also lent her voice quite beautifully to an Adidas advert and a Tomb Raider game, showing that you can retain your cool and poise even whilst shilling for corporate interests*.

It’s also quite satisfying to report on the current whereabouts of a US100 artist without reference to drug addiction, criminal charges, or death – Karen O has been happily married to British film director Barnaby Clay since 2011, with their first son, Django, arriving in 2015, Karen proudly sharing his arrival on Instagram.

There has been no formal talk of Yeah Yeah Yeahs ceasing to be, but equally there has been little in the way of noise regarding new material. As well as Karen dividing her time between motherhood and solo work, Nick Zinner’s immediate future will see him occupied as the guitarist of The Rentals, an alternative rock group fronted by Weezer bassist Matt Sharp who pleasingly released a record last year called Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad. Before that Zinner was involved in Head Wound City, their grindcore stylings certainly an acquired taste, but no more acquired than the drone music of Brian Chase, as featured on Drums & Drones (2013) and Drums & Drones II (2018). If you don’t know either of these genres, then you’ll probably know within a minute or two whether it’s for you.

* – Just kidding Karen, no need to cancel that US100 interview

Learn more

Trivia
It is said that Courtney Love counts Karen O among her enemies: allegedly Karen once accidentally shoved Courtney into a bowl of potato salad at a Texas music festival.

Watch
Hello Tomorrow – Adidas advert (2005)
Where The Wild Things Are (2009)
I Shall Rise official video (2015)

Read
US100 interview: Lauren Bowden – The gentrification of New York City: a local perspective
“I Wanted To Get In There Like A Motherf**ker”: The Story of Karen O – Elle, May 2017

Listen
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Little Shadow (acoustic) (2009) Spotify / YouTube

US100 cover of choice
Passion Pit remix (2009) – Spotify / YouTube