Of all the records to emerge from the New York City music scene of the early 2000s, none was more giddily exciting than Fever to Tell, the full-length debut from Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Released on April 29th, 2003, the album – produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and mixed by Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, U2) – beautifully captured the Brooklyn trio’s intoxicating art-punk squall, which harkened back to the halcyon days of Max’s Kansas City while also gleefully carving out a sonic persona all its own.
“On two previous EPs, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have already been through their self-conscious, obvious-influence phase and their arty-misstep phase,” wrote Jon Pareles in his Rolling Stone review of Fever to Tell. “Now they just rock out, stripping New Wave and metal and rockabilly down to primal thrust and blare.”
While frontwoman Karen O provided the band with their immediate audiovisual focal point, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase were equally important to the Yeahs’ bracing musical attack, which could turn on a dime from noise-punk grind to Velvets-y drone or swaggering Led Zep thrust. Fever to Tell tracks like “Rich,” “Black Tongue,” “Date With the Night” and “Y Control” effectively replicated the frantic fun of the band’s live sets – but there was also room on the album for melody and emotion, as anyone who fell under the soulful spell of “Maps” could readily attest.
The album’s engaging mixture of spiky riffs, sweaty rhythms and unhinged energy ultimately added up to what remains the most commercially successful release of the band’s career; though it didn’t climb any higher than Number 55 on the Billboard 200, Fever to Tell ultimately sold more than 500,000 copies in the U.S. alone, and more than a million copies worldwide. It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album (losing out to the White Stripes’ Elephant), and in 2013, it came in at number 59 on Rolling Stone‘s list 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time.
Here are 10 things you may not know about Fever to Tell.
1.The band asked Dave Sitek to co-produce the album simply because they “didn’t know anyone else.”
Though TV on the Radio co-founder Dave Sitek would go on to become a highly sought-after producer and remix engineer, he was virtually unknown outside of the Brooklyn scene in 2002, when he agreed to co-produce what would become Fever to Tell. Sitek had previously worked with Karen O and Nick Zinner at a Brooklyn clothing store, and had served as driver and road manager on the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs tour. “Then they said I should record their new record,” Sitek told Spin in 2007. “I said, ‘I dunno, you guys have a lot of momentum. I might screw it up.'”
“I can’t even remember how he ended up producing our record, it just kind of happened,” Karen O told author Lizzy Goodman in an interview for her 2017 oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011. “I remember him giving me a few burned CDs of stuff that he had worked on. I guess he was just a buddy, and we felt immediately like we were family with him. And we didn’t know anyone else. That was probably one of the biggest reasons we worked with him, because we didn’t know anyone else. Then, of course, he ended up being really fucking masterful.”
2. The band turned down a lucrative, high-profile slot at England’s Reading Festival in order to concentrate on making the record.
Already a heavily hyped cult act in the U.K., Yeah Yeah Yeahs were offered $15,000 to play England’s prestigious Reading Festival in August 2002, but ultimately decided to cancel the gig (along with an already-scheduled European tour) in order to finish the album without distractions or interruptions.
“We felt a lot of pressure,” Nick Zinner recalled in Meet Me in the Bathroom. “I think Karen felt most of the pressure. Things were going super, super fast recording this thing. We’d done all the rough basic tracks in like a day or two days and meanwhile we were supposed to play the Reading Festival in two weeks. Karen totally put the brakes on and canceled that shit. She was like, ‘This whole thing is spiraling out of control and we need to get a solid foundation first.'”
“I definitely felt like I was on the verge of a meltdown,” Karen O told Goodman. “I knew that if we just continued the way we were going I was going to burn out much too quickly, and that what was more important than pleasing promoters and believing all this hype was to just get our record done.”
3. Despite overtures from several major labels, the band insisted on financing the album themselves.
Thanks to their acclaimed first EP and formidable reputation as a live act, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were being hotly pursued by various major labels before they even began recording Fever to Tell. “When we were in London, an entire group of A&R guys paid our bar tab, which came to £1,600,” Karen told New York magazine in September 2002. “And it was all martinis! We were totally wasted.”
“We were all pretty freaked out by the vultures descending,” Zinner recalled in Meet Me in the Bathroom. “We were the ‘It’ band, or whatever, and there was so much crazy hype. It felt good but it also felt super weird. Weirdo label people were calling me at home and on my cell phone. It was like, ‘How did you get this number?'”
Despite – or because – of the constant attention, the band played hard-to-get, preferring to finance the album themselves and work with Sitek at low-budget Brooklyn studio Headgear. “It was really important for us to do it on our turf, on our terms,” Karen O told Spin in 2005. “We were all living together, and all the money we used to fund it came out of our pocket.”
4. Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth convinced the band to sign with a major.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs originally planned on releasing Fever to Tell in the spring of 2003 via Touch and Go, the Chicago-based indie label that had released the band’s Machine EP in November 2002. But the band changed their minds when Interscope Records came calling, offering a lucrative deal that allowed the band to keep full creative control.
“We wanted to be on a major label, to be mainstream,” Karen O told The New York Times in May 2003. “We want to be heard. I don’t worry about losing so-called indie cred. Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth told us to sign with a major. He has more credibility than anyone.”
“As far as music goes, you know we made this album before we signed to anything,” Brian Chase clarified in a 2003 interview with the blog Silent Uproar. “I think we ended up going [with] Interscope maybe 6 or 7 months after we finished recording the material, which is around the same time we still expected Touch and Go to put it out. So the music is still the same whether it is indie or major.”
5. Though often compared to Siouxsie Sioux, Debbie Harry and other famous frontwomen, Karen O claimed her singing was actually influenced by a couple of dudes.
With her uninhibited stage presence, sneering yelp and junk-shop fashion aesthetic, Karen O almost immediately established herself as the NYC scene’s most compelling lead singer. But while the press quickly compared her to such iconic frontwomen as Siouxsie Sioux, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith and PJ Harvey, she would later reveal that her two biggest early vocal influences were actually Neil Young and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum.
“A buddy of mine, he introduced me to Neil Young, who I have to say was extremely influential,” she told Lizzy Goodman. “He’s got that super-unconventional voice, but so much feeling, so much heart. His voice and Jeff Mangum’s from Neutral Milk Hotel, they were the two people who got me thinking I could be a singer. I wanted to sing my heart out like those guys.”
6. “Maps” was about Karen O’s relationship with Liars frontman Angus Andrew.
Landing at number seven on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Best Songs of the 2000s, the slow-burning “Maps” was the most nakedly vulnerable track on Fever to Tell. A heartfelt meditation on the frustrations of long-distance love, the song was inspired by Karen O’s relationship with Angus Andrew, frontman for like-minded Brooklyn art-punks Liars, which was becoming ever more difficult due to their respective bands’ increasing workloads.
“At the time it was really hectic with us touring and my [ex-] boyfriend being away with his band,” she told Spin in 2004. “The line ‘They don’t love you like I love you’ was like, ‘Why are you over there with them when you should be with me?’ It’s about missing someone.” Two years later, she told Rolling Stone that “There was a lot of looove in that song, but there’s lots of fear, too. I exposed myself so much with that song, I kind of shocked myself.”
7. The band didn’t want to release “Maps” as a single – but when they did, their album sales tripled.
Despite the song’s emotional resonance and obvious commercial potential, Interscope waited to put “Maps” out as a single until February 2004. (“Date With the Night” and “Pins” were released as singles first.) Whether it was because the song was too commercial or just too dissimilar to the other songs on the record, TV on the Radio drummer Jaleel Bunton swears that the Yeahs originally had no intention of releasing “Maps” as a single.
“I remember when that record came out, because Dave produced that record, and they played it for me,” Bunton told Lizzy Goodman. “That was the first song of theirs that I was like, ‘What are you doing? This is the single for the record.’ Dave said, ‘No, they don’t want to put it out.’ I’m like, ‘This is insane. I’m the dummy who likes the B sides, whatever, but this song is the song, it is the fucking song, there’s no doubt about it.’ And the record stalled until that song came out.”
Indeed, while Fever to Tell had sold only 124,000 copies before “Maps” was released as a single, the song received enough airplay on MTV and rock radio (it rose all the way to Number Nine on Billboard‘s Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart) to triple the U.S. sales of the album, helping Fever to Tell achieve its peak chart position (Number 55) almost a year after its initial release.
8. “Maps” influenced both Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Beyoncé’s “Hold Up.”
“‘They don’t love you like I love you’ was straight from a love letter,” Karen O told Lizzy Goodman about the writing of “Maps.” “I just plucked it out of there because I thought it had a good ring to it.” She wasn’t the only one who thought so – the song has since been covered by numerous artists, including the White Stripes, Arcade Fire and Macy Gray, and was an important influence on both Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Beyoncé’s “Hold Up”.
“That was a conscious move by Max and myself,” Lukasz Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, told Billboard in 2010, recalling how he and Max Martin wrote ‘Since U Been Gone.'” “We were listening to alternative and indie music and talking about some song [later revealed to be ‘Maps’]. I said, ‘Ah, I love this song,’ and Max was like, ‘If they would just write a damn pop chorus on it!’ It was driving him nuts, because that indie song was sort of on six, going to seven, going to eight, the chorus comes … and it goes back down to five. It drove him crazy. And when he said that, it was like, light bulb. ‘Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?’ It worked.”
In the case of the Beyoncé song, Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig (one of seven writers credited on the track) explained in a 2016 tweet that he wrote the “they don’t love you like I love you” hook for “Hold Up” based on an interpolation of “Maps,” and that he’d made sure that the Yeahs were credited accordingly on the Lemonade album. Karen O was presumably happier with this turn of events than she was about having a Kelly Clarkson track based on one of her songs; as she told Rolling Stone in 2007, hearing echoes of “Maps” in Clarkson’s song “was like getting bitten by a poisonous varmint.”
9. The band followed their most commercial video from Fever to Tell with their most controversial one.
Like the song itself, the Patrick Daughters–directed video for “Maps” – a straightforward clip with the band performing in a high-school gymnasium – presented Yeah Yeah Yeahs at their most appealing and accessible. But their next single, “Y Control,” was accompanied by a Spike Jonze–directed video that was anything but. Featuring a pack of gore-crazed youngsters getting up to some serious mayhem in a grimy basement (including biting the neck of a sleeping Karen O, and performing some sort of ritual with what appeared to be a dead dog), the humorously horrifying clip was disturbing enough that MTV and MTV2 felt compelled to blur out the more “offensive” images for broadcast, and append a disclaimer from Jonze.
Though some observers wondered if the clip was meant as some sort of self-sabotage, the Yeahs insisted that it was just a reflection of their sense of humor. “It’s meant to be disturbing and funny,” Zinner told Entertainment Weekly in October 2004. “We think [MTV’s deciding to play] ‘Maps’ was an extraordinary fluke. We don’t see ourselves in that world.”
10. Karen O suffered a frightening accident while on tour to support the album, which caused her to reconsider her manic approach to performance.
During the first few years of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ existence, Karen O cut an increasingly manic figure onstage, swallowing microphones and splashing her audiences (as well as herself) with beer, all while teetering on the edge of serious self-harm. But on October 9th, 2003, while performing at the Metro Theatre in Sydney, Australia, she went all the way over the edge – and after tumbling headfirst off the stage, she was conked on the noggin by a falling stage monitor.
“I felt like I’d been hit by a truck,” she told Billboard 10 years later, recalling how she left that gig on a stretcher, and how the accident made her reassess what she’d been doing onstage. “It was a pivotal moment for me,” she said. “My insanity onstage had been escalating and the more I hurt myself, the more the crowd enjoyed it. I was like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. After that, I basically had to clean up and figure out a way to entertain without that grotesque spectacle of recklessness.”