Q&A: Karen O

The Yeah Yeah Yeah singer on crying at the club and cutting back on booze

Musician Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs performs at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California on April 19th, 2009. Credit: John Shearer/WireImage/Getty

The Yeah Yeah Years' third full-length, It's Blitz! finds the trio mov­ing from their squawky post-punk roots toward danceable synth rock and New Wave ballads. "I wanted to push the band to new places," says singer Karen O, who urged guitarist Nick Zinner to play synthesizers on the album. The new sound isn't the only way that O, who recently turned 30, is maturing — she's also cut back on her drinking and toned down her famously unhinged live performances. "I used to be really reckless," she says. "Now I try and keep it semireckless."

This album has an Eighties feel, but what did you really listen to back then?
"We Are the World," I remember that. The Chipmunks Do Coun­try [laughs]. Michael Jackson made a big impression on me. I was not hip whatsoever. I didn't get into rock until probably the ninth grade, when a friend start­ed going to Sonic Youth, Pavement and Jonathan Fire*Eater shows in Manhattan.

What specific music did you draw on/or this album?
Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Suicide, New Order were all references. I wanted to nail a song that had a hypnotic and ecstatic appeal — and could make people cry on the dance floor, too.

Has a song ever made you cry on the dance floor?
There was a moment with "Love Will Tear Us Apart" in a club in New York when I really teared up. It was a feeling of real emotional joy. Generally, I'm geared more toward tears of joy than anguish.

Your label head, Jimmy lovine, put Chris Cornell together with Timbaland. Did he try that with you guys?
Not Timbaland, no. People like that, though — it came up after our last record. Jimmy used to talk to me about the whole Blondie crossover thing. The thing is, if you work with a pro­ducer like Timbaland or some­one not in your genre, it feels like there's a purpose: "I want to make a hit with this person."

You don't drink as much as you used to. Does that make it harder to go insane onstage?
In the end, I don't need the booze to connect. It's just that I get nervous, and sometimes I feel that's the medicine that's going to make it happen. You can perform a lot better sober, too — you stay in tune more. Now I just take a gulp of some­thing before I go on.

You hurt yourself pretty badly onstage in Australia once. Did that change your performances?
I don't hang over the edge of the stage as much as I used to. It's fun to hurt yourself onstage — there's a nostalgic punk-rock appeal about it — but you don't want to end up in a hospital.

Do you consider yourself leader of the band?
No, I don't. As far as songwriting goes, it's an even split be­tween Nick and me. We're ex­tremely different, but we find this common ground. That "opposites attract" aspect of it makes it what it is in the end.

But you pushed Nick to play less guitar on the record — it's hard to imagine that he could push you to sing less.
That's true — he'd be a dead man. I don't know if that makes me the leader, really. The music comes from the dynamic be­tween us. Even if I'm kind of ... leading it [laughs].