Yeah Yeah Yeahs

The indie rock band comprised of Karen O, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase are one of the most loved rock bands of the last twenty years.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs photo by Mark Horton and Getty Images
Photo: Mark Horton/Getty Images

It’s hard to envisage Yeah Yeah Yeahs as anything other than the smart, trashy art-punk trailblazers who first exploded outta New York City around the turn of the millennium, yet their history could easily have been very different.

Instead of forging the vivid sonic template that rapidly earned them both credibility and commercial success, South Korean-born vocalist Karen Lee Orzolek (aka Karen O) and innovative guitarist Nick Zinner’s first musical venture was an acoustic duo called Unitard. Karen, however, had been impressed by the noisier avant-garde bands who often performed at her alma mater, Ohio’s Oberlin University, during the late 90s, so after some discussion about their musical direction, the duo went back to the drawing board.

Another former Oberlin student, drummer Brian Chase, became the third side of the band’s sonic triangle, and the newly-christened Yeah Yeah Yeahs re-emerged with a sound that respected the New York and Ohio art-punk scenes of the late 70s, but was also a fresh, exhilarating rock’n’roll fusion in its own right.

Suitably energised, the band wrote a slew of new tunes at their very first rehearsal, and their initial demo tape landed them choice NYC support slots with two of America’s most hotly tipped new bands, The Strokes and the Detroit-based White Stripes. These early Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows quickly cemented the band’s reputation, with the feisty, lipstick-smeared Karen O usually dressed in ostentatious, brightly coloured outfits and liberally flinging beer into the crowd.

Initially, the band went the DIY route. They recorded their self-titled 2001 debut EP (often erroneously referred to as “Master”, in reference to the necklace pictured on the record’s sleeve) with Boss Hogg’s Jerry Teel and released it through their own Shifty label. Featuring the oft-praised Velvet Underground-esque anthem ‘Our Time’, the EP was distributed by Dick Green’s Wichita label in Britain and reached No 1 on the UK indie chart.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs continued to rack up the column inches during 2002, touring in North America with Girls Against Boys, travelling to Europe with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and undertaking their own headlining UK tour prior to signing with highly respected Universal Music affiliate label Interscope.

The band’s celebrated Interscope debut LP, Fever To Tell, was issued in April 2003. Produced by TV On The Radio’s David Sitek and mixed by Alan Moulder (Ride; The Smashing Pumpkins), the album rose to No.13 on the UK charts and No.55 on America’s Billboard 200 and was greeted by a hailstorm of accolades, including the prestigious New York Times’ Best Album Of The Year award. Fever To Tell remains a riot of attitude and angular hooks, and while critics often isolate the atypically tender ‘Maps’ (which received heavy rotation on alternative radio) as the stand-out track, the strident, staccato ‘Pins’, the frenetic ‘Date With The Night’ and the plaintive ‘Modern Romance’, enhanced by sleigh bells and backwards guitars, all jockey for position among the record’s numerous highlights.

Including a concert filmed at San Francisco’s famous Fillmore Auditorium, interviews and all the group’s videos to date, the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs DVD, Tell Me What Rockers To Swallow, followed in 2004. Work on the band’s second album also began that same year, but, by the early part of 2005, all the songs they’d written were ditched, the consensus being that they mostly sounded too similar stylistically to Fever To Tell.

The band continued to work on new material during 2005 and, in March 2006, eventually unveiled their sophomore release, Show Your Bones.

In a contemporaneous interview with online magazine Drowned In Sound, Karen O jokingly suggested that the album was the result of “what happens when you put your finger in a light socket”, but, in reality, Show Your Bones was less of a shock to the system and more a refinement of Fever To Tell, with subtler textures taking precedence over Zinner’s choppy guitars. Two of the record’s key tracks were slower songs: the soaring ballad ‘Cheated Hearts’ and the enigmatic ‘Gold Lion’, which, framed by relatively delicate guitars, was something of a departure for the band.

‘Gold Lion’ was named after the two Gold Lion awards that Adidas’ ‘Hello Tomorrow’ commercial won at the 2005 Cannes Lions Advertising Festival. Karen O contributed vocals to the soundtrack which was composed by Sam ‘Squeak E Clean’ Spiegel, brother of Karen’s then-boyfriend and filmmaker Spike Jonze, who had directed the advert.

Show Your Bones again performed capably on the international stage. It also earned the band a Grammy nomination and charted highly, reaching No.11 on the Billboard 200 in the US and peaking at No.7 in the UK, where the NME later named it as their second-best LP of 2006. In support of its release, Yeah Yeah Yeahs toured Europe and America extensively throughout the same year, and curated the popular alternative All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival.

After taking some well-earned time out, the band reconvened to record their third LP, It’s Blitz!, at the Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas. Unlike their two previous outings, the group wrote most of the songs in the studio and many of the tracks incorporated drum loops, sinewy grooves and Tubeway Army-esque synths. Despite this more experimental approach, It’s Blitz! was still very much a pop LP and it spawned three terrific singles, the keening ‘Skeletons’, sensual ‘Heads Will Roll’ and the irresistible ‘Zero’.

Recorded over a period of several months during 2008, the album eventually surfaced in March 2009 and met with almost universally positive reviews, earning the band another Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album at the 2010 awards ceremony, and going on to be voted as the third best album of 2009 by the NME. It’s Blitz! also performed very capably in the marketplace, debuting at No.32 on America’s Billboard 200 (it eventually peaked at No.22) and climbing to No.9 in the UK charts.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs were again rumoured to be working on new material as early as 2011, but their fourth (and, to date, most recent) Interscope LP, Mosquito, eventually arrived in April 2013. The band launched the record in style, performing the album’s first single, ‘Sacrilege’, with the gospel choir Broadway Inspirational Voices on The Late Show With David Letterman, and later performed both ‘Sacrilege’ and the LP’s titular song on Jimmy Kimmel Live!.

Critically, Mosquito received mixed reviews, but it zoomed to No.5 on the Billboard 200, selling nearly 40,000 copies during its first week of release. It also chalked up the YYYs’ third consecutive Top 10 success in the UK, where it debuted at No.9. Visually, Karen O underwent something of a reinvention around the time of the LP’s release, appearing with bleached blonde hair for the first time. Mosquito, though, felt a little more familiar, with dirtier guitars reappearing in the mix, and Karen even suggesting to Pitchfork that “we wrote songs and recorded demos whenever we felt inspired… kind of like Fever To Tell and our first demo”.

Though it largely eschewed the polished electro sheen of its predecessor, Mosquito was nonetheless packed with a diverse range of sounds and moods and it continues to connect after repeated listens. The gospel elements of ‘Sacrilege’ work like a dream; ‘Slave’ seamlessly incorporates Studio One-esque dub textures; and the brilliant ‘Subway’ is a truly evocative sound collage propelled by Karen’s falsetto and an insistent, locomotive-like rhythm. The closing ‘Wedding Song’, meanwhile, even recreates some of the poignant intensity of ‘Maps’.

The band were busy in the wake of Mosquito’s release, curating the ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ Festival at London’s Alexandra Palace and playing the celebrated US Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in the spring and summer of 2013. Though Karen O has since released her first solo LP (2014’s highly personal Crush Songs), Yeah Yeah Yeahs remain very much a going concern. Indeed, as Karen admitted to the NME, in December 2014, they’re always liable to return whenever they “get that itch”.

Tim Peacock

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