Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Taking Their Glorious Freak Rock Global

'A goth, a nerd and a slut' walk into a bar . . . and come out with an art-rock classic

Brian Chase, Karen O and Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Riviera Theater, Chicago Illinois.
Paul Natkin/WireImage
Brian Chase, Karen O and Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Riviera Theater in Chicago Illinois .
By |

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs do not scare easily. The New York art-punk rockers are gobbling some post-rehearsal sushi at Manhattan's Nobu 57, and they're visibly quaking. In a few days, they play their first hometown gig in more than a year. They're sitting on one of 2006's most hotly awaited albums, the sexy, dark, insanely great Show Your Bones. They're ready for anything.

Except Kelly Clarkson. She scares them.

"Dude, she so freaks me out," says Karen O, the New York doll who sings lead for the Yeahs. Karen O's a tough customer, the firecracker who conquered the world in ripped fishnets, smeared lipstick and black leather gloves, not to mention the Corona she uses to start beer-sloshing fights with the crowd. But she got the fear when she heard Clarkson's smash "Since U Been Gone," which features the guitar break from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" – not a sample, just a precise replica. Says Karen O, "It was like getting bitten by a poisonous varmint." I try to argue that the Yeahs should be honored to share Clarkson's mall cred, but they're not sure. "Ah, well," Karen O says. "If it wasn't her, it just would've been Ashlee Simpson."

Only a few years ago, the Yeahs were bashing their sex-and-death guitar noise in dingy New York bars. They didn't exactly have a conventional sound – Nick Zinner's mutant guitar fuzz, Brian Chase's thundering drums, Karen O's soulful moans and orgasmic squeals. But the world couldn't resist, and the heart-shredding ballad "Maps" made them stars. Show Your Bones is emotionally messy, like everything else the band does, but it's gloriously confident. Their different styles mesh – Chase, 28, likes to talk about the new songs in terms of avant-garde composers like John Cage, while Karen O, 27, is more likely to just say "rad."

The 100 Best Songs of the Aughts: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Maps"

Karen O is one of rock's most intense singers, coming on so badass you'd swear the devil sold his soul to her. Offstage, Karen Orzolek is a different person from Karen O, shy and soft-spoken, but with the same uninhibited giggle. She has a tendency to talk about Karen O in the third person, as if she is a beloved but shady friend who brings out her protective side. "I've gotten a little alienated from some aspects of the Karen O persona," she says. "I put myself into Karen O so I could explore all these different parts of me – all that sexuality, all that angst. But doing that, I exorcised some parts of myself."

You can tell from listening to Show Your Bones that she's resisting the temptation to turn the Karen O character into a cartoon. But it's not easy. "I feel like I used to go out there every night with all this faux confidence," she says. "That got me where I am now, which is real confidence. But that means I can't go back. I changed a lot, and not everything came with me."

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs combine three very different strains of New York rock cool: the party girl, the sullen vampire, the cerebral indie aesthete. As Zinner, 33, recalls, "Our friends from the Locust played with us in Detroit, and they busted this kid defacing our poster. He wrote on our faces 'goth,' 'nerd,' 'slut.' Our friends were offended, but we thought it was funny."

Zinner and Karen O first met six years ago at the Mars Bar on Second Avenue, one of the scuzziest watering holes in the East Village. She played him some folky songs she'd been writing, and they formed a duo called Unitard, with Zinner on slide guitar. "It was all dirge-y goth acoustic slit-your-wrists kind of stuff," Zinner says fondly. "Then Karen said, 'Hey, let's have a rock & roll band!' And I was like, 'Really? Pffff. Naaaah. A rock & roll band? That's so played out!" There was, at the time, almost no New York rock & roll scene, no albums from the Strokes or Interpol, no reason to think it was anything other than played out to be a New York band. They tried it anyway. They came up with a name, a logo and a batch of songs, all in a couple of hours. Their first effort, "Bang," was anything but dirge-y slit-your-wrists stuff – it was a brazen sex anthem, with Karen O screaming the chorus: "As a fuck, son, you suck!" They liked it.

Photos: Karen O's Crazy Onstage Looks

One night in the fall of 2000 they scored a gig opening for the White Stripes. The Yeahs' drummer had dropped out, so Karen O suggested a guy she knew from college. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs played only five songs that night, with Chase borrowing Meg White's drum kit, but none of them would ever be the same. "The music just took over," Chase says. "It was like I blacked out, and then somebody told me I just played a show."

The Yeahs' high-energy live sets became the stuff of legend, thanks to Karen O's outrageous charisma. She prowled the stage in trashy miniskirts and ripped T-shirts, with bangs in her eyes, dancing and jumping and getting the crowd into it. A crude EP barely showed how intense the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs were. People went crazy for it anyway. Word started to spread globally, especially when people saw pictures of Karen O. ("One picture," she corrects. "The one where you could see up my dress.") Fever to Tell sold modestly at first, but the "Maps" video started to circulate around the Internet, forcing the radio to play it. People were starved for a band like this, and "Maps" became a hit, quite the feat for an arty little noise outfit with no bass player and a brassy female singer. "There's a lot of loooove in that song," Karen O says. "But there's a lot of fear, too. I exposed myself so much with that song, I kind of shocked myself."

The rock-star mystique is alive and well in the hands of Nick Zinner, not to mention his hair, which could comfortably house a family of bats. In a bar on the Bowery, he sips black coffee and watches the rats crawl across the floor. With his delicate cheekbones and pallid skin, he's like a Nick Cave song come to life – in fact, he's willing to argue over which Nick Cave album cover looks most like him. The last time the Yeah Yeah Yeahs went on the road, Zinner was the one who seemed to have the most fun: "I was the most classically decadent, I guess. I didn't have a girlfriend, so I was the one who wanted to keep things going after the show, with the traditional rock excesses." These days he has a cool artist girlfriend who looks uncannily like a female version of himself. But he still has a mysteriously decadent aura. "Master of illusion," he says modestly. "Implied decadence is better than the real thing."

Like Chase, Zinner grew up as a metalhead, shredding in his room along with Testament and Slayer records. He got thrown out of a Guns n' Roses show when security caught him taping it. "I would stay up all night and make these four-track tapes of myself on guitar," he says. "And then I'd play them back the next day and realize, 'Oh, wait, this is just me playing an exact copy of a Mick Mars solo.'" Of all the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, he's the most savvy about the pop world, the one who's set to DJ the after-party. He runs interference for his bandmates, who are both shyer. He's published three books of photography, jams with his metallic band Head Wound City and also performs with Bright Eyes. "I toured with Conor [Oberst] for a couple of months last year, and I saw the obsessive fans he gets – it made me really glad not to have anything like that. Although I did once meet a girl who gave me a jar of candy skeletons."

"A little space is good," Chase says, munching garlic tofu at a Thai diner in Brooklyn's Williamsburg. "Nick and I live in New York, but we don't see each other often. The things we do for fun are different. Like, a DJ set at the Tribeca Grand Hotel – that's not my idea of a good time." Chase's idea of a good time is noise. If you go to any basement show in Brooklyn where a free-form noise band is playing for six people, chances are Chase is either in the crowd or in the band. He's the heart-on-sleeve indie conscience of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the one with zero interest in mainstream success. He still drums with his longtime girlfriend Emily Manzo's band, the First Lady of Cuntry and the Cunts, along with experimental groups like the Seconds. He grew up on Long Island playing in "shitty, nasty punk bands" before going to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. "Most of the bands I play with are abstract, spazzy, improv shit," he says. "But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are emotion. Karen's practically a soul singer."

Zinner and Chase are as different as two bandmates can be, but they have one interesting tic in common – they both get their hackles up if they think anybody is talking shit about Karen O. They've both spent the past few years facing reporters, most of whom are trying to dish dirt on Karen O, and they know all the tricks by now. If you ask Chase what she was like in college – they were friends in the same freshman dorm – he hesitates and says he can't remember. It seems like a pretty unconvincing lie, but it's also a touching lie and a telling lie, one that seems to say a lot about what keeps these three volatile personalities together.

Karen O is definitely a sensitive soul – you don't have to scratch the surface much to see the high school hippie chick she used to be. Right now, she's flopping on a friend's couch in Chinatown, cuddling her cat Coco Beware. With her Dorothy Hamill haircut and an impressively ratty thrift-store sweater (the pattern shows an old man walking a Scottie), she could be any boho art student, albeit dangerously in love with her cat. She adopted Coco Beware last year while on retreat in Chile with a friend. They were in the desert, drinking the local tequila, and they noticed this mangy gray cat following them. They tried to ignore it, but the kitty wouldn't leave them alone. "She's indestructible," Karen boasts. She flips through an alarmingly high stack of cat photos, looking for her favorite: The desert landscape looks like the surface of the moon, except you can see two living creatures, alone in the wilderness, just Karen O and the cat that followed her home.

Karen O grew up in New Jersey, daughter of a Polish dad and a Korean mom. A couple of years ago, she moved out to L.A. and got a lot of flak for it, like the Beastie Boys did when they defected to the West Coast in the late Eighties. Karen O had broken up with Liars frontman Angus Andrew, the boyfriend she sang about in "Maps," and was dating director Spike Jonze. When she went to L.A., the city of New York seemed shocked to lose its first hometown rock star in years. It made Karen O sad, as too many things do. "I'm a New York gal," she says. "But there was something in me I had to go to L.A. to find. I was anonymous there, you know? Celebrity culture is so out of hand there – nobody cared I was in some band. Nobody knew me. I had one friend from New York I was living with, and I was seeing somebody who lived there, and I didn't know anybody else. I had no social life. It was totally new to me. It's hard to explain, but I got so much confidence out of that.

"I met this old woman in Chile, and she told me, 'The desert is a mirror. You come to the desert to face who you are.' I felt like L.A. was one big fuckin' desert."

Asked if she's ever thought about acting, she looks like she's been invited to eat Coco Beware for lunch. "Yuck, No. Why would you even ask that? Maybe I'd do something for one of my friends, but that's it, dude. People always send me scripts, and it's always the rock & roll movie, and that's the last thing I would ever wanna do. That's my fuckin' life!"

Suddenly, Karen O's cell phone goes off, and she launches into her contagious giggle, laughing so hard she almost falls off the couch. It's not the phone message – she's late for practice and the boys are pissed, so what else is new – but her ring tone is the Ramones' "Beat on the Brat." Busted. "See?" she says. "True-blue New York girl."

This story is from the April 20th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 998: April 20, 2006
x