FOR ABOUT A YEAR when Karen O was in high school, she had a nightly confrontation with her mother. It was the mid-Nineties — ages before O became the goofball vixen who leads the New York punk trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — and she was simply Karen Orzolek, living with her parents in an upper-middle-class section of Bergen County, New Jersey, and going through what she calls her “hippie phase,” which involved listening to lots of Neil Young and wearing ripped jeans. Every night before bedtime, Mrs. Orzolek — a former fashion designer incensed by her daughter’s scruffiness — would come to Karen’s room, jolt the door open and declare, “You know, Karen, grunge is really out of style now.” To which Karen would reply, “I’m not grunge!”
At twenty-three, Karen O could wrap herself in a shower curtain and no one would object. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform, O generally wears some combination of the following: shredded fishnets and decimated evening gowns and sneakers with Sharpie doodles drawn all over them and artfully reconstructed T-shirts with big holes that are never so big they show her tits, and pants with unexplainable straps hanging off them. For O, fashion statements are more about the statement, the mind-fuck, than the fashion.
It’s the same way with her band’s sleazy yet cartoonish bare-bones blues squall — a racket made by just O, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase that says as much with what’s missing as with what’s included. “The first time I saw them, I was totally knocked out,” says Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, who have had the Yeahs open for them. “They were everything I’d hoped for from the rumors and gossip. They have a visceral energy, and Karen is the kind of frontperson who comes along once in a decade.”
The seismic-force pressure of worldwide media accolades during the past year easily could have crushed the band before it even released its first album. Instead, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are about to put out what odds favor to be the best punk-rock album of 2003, Fever to Tell. When they perform, the Yeahs flatten crowds with a blast of bratty sexual energy conveyed largely by O’s panting and squealing and lyrics such as “Be my heater, be my lover/And we can do it to each other/Like a sister and a brother.”
“We’re a pop band, that’s why we have hype,” says O, slurping putrid pink champagne while she gets ready for the Yeahs’ gig at the Black Cat, in Washington, D.C. “We’re playing for the popular vote. The masses? I say grab their attention while you can. Show them a thing or two about feeling a little sick or feeling really good in a way they don’t usually feel, and then just give it to them in lethal doses.”
The Yeahs were able to grab their share of attention in record time. Before the band even formed, it had a show booked: It was during the summer of 2000, opening for the White Stripes, who were still small potatoes at the time. O had met Zinner — a skeleton-thin Boston native with gravity-defying black curls who geeks out on avant-goth music such as Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and the Cramps — when she left Oberlin College to attend film school at New York University in 2000.
“First time I met Nick, I was really drunk, and I talked to him for, like, three seconds,” she says. “And then he jumped in a cab, and for some reason I wanted to cry. I felt like I was supposed to know him.” They started an acoustic duo called Unitard but decided to recruit Chase — an old Oberlin friend of O’s who is always playing in a few different bands at all times — in hopes of putting together a “provocative and hip and cool and sexy” rock band like the ones O used to go see in Manhattan when she was in high school: the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Blonde Redhead and Jonathan Fire*Eater.
“I get really snobby about boring shows,” she says. “That’s why we started this band in the first place. I wasted so much time seeing fucking boring shows!” She giggles her low, hiccoughing giggle — the one that sounds like it’s exploding out of her every time she does it. Before the first few Yeahs gigs, O would douse herself with olive oil so she’d look sweaty when she came onstage. (She stopped after learning the hard way that it stings really bad when oil drips in your eyes.) Nowadays, she sticks to pouring beer all over herself while she tries to drink and sing and shake her skinny booty at the same time.
“The adjectives people use to describe me pretty consistently are sexed-up, oversexed or slut,” O says, not at all proudly. Those descriptions, she says, underestimate her. “What I wanted to get out of my system with this band was sex and violence and perversion. I’m trying to experience things on a more intense, pure level. Like, ‘If you’re gonna have a good time, have a really good time.’ People focus on ‘She’s oversexed.’ But I’m not. I’m just this dynamic individual taking charge and being the life of the party.”
Every party has a pooper, and O admits she’s the one who’s least comfortable with the band’s workload. Touring, she says, is a man’s game, and she’s not sure she’s cut out for it. She has breakdowns sometimes and wants to quit. She misses her privacy and, even more so, her boyfriend, Angus Andrew (who sings in the New York punk band Liars). Yet the tension and misery she felt on tour last year yielded what she considers the “most genuine” Yeahs song so far: the ballad “Maps,” whose chorus, “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you,” is full of despair and joy at the same time. “Trying to cope with missing someone, there’s no comfort for that,” she says. “It’s like if someone dies — missing them is the only thing that holds you to them.”
This summer, the band will have some time off (except for Chase, who’s touring with a muscular yet brainy trio called the Seconds). When the Yeahs settled on Interscope Records last year, a deciding factor was the label’s willingness to let them keep their road time to a tolerable minimum. “We have no idea what will happen when the record comes out,” says O. “If it doesn’t work, at least we tried something that’s not boring. What I’m interested in is bringing a new flavor to the thirty-one flavors of Baskin-Robbins. They want pop, we give ’em pop — and noise and anger and love and sadness. Anything to fight indifference. ‘Cause that indifference? That’ll kill you.” Smiling is so last year: Chase, O, Zinner (from left). Plan ahead for the goth summer of ’03-buy eyeliner now! Been It’s not just for drinking anymore.