Face to face with Pharrell Williams
Multi Man — On bikes, skateboarding and everything in between.
Written by: Richard Cunynghame
For the first twenty minutes of HUCK’s interview with Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O, she is cheerful and talkative, albeit a little nervous. Then guitarist Nick Zinner arrives and she suddenly changes. Her conversation becomes more hedged and hesitant. Every comment she makes is directed to her diminutive bandmate for approval, which is rarely forthcoming. Zinner meanwhile says little, and what he does say is barely audible. Drummer Brian Chase sits between them, utterly silent, while the room buzzes with low-level tension.
Fortunately, this in-band tension continues to drive the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to make records that are passionate, powerful and unpredictable. New album It’s Blitz! finds the band pursuing a synth-led, quasi-disco sound, apparently at Karen O’s insistence. The result is an album as different from its intense predecessor Show Your Bones as that record was from trashy rock‘n’roll debut Fever To Tell.
The band’s surge to prominence in the first part of this decade, and the crisis of confidence that followed, clearly damaged friendships within the band – it’s no secret that they almost split up during the troubled recording of ‘Show Your Bones’. Yet it’s equally clear that they’ve since evolved a new modus operandi which allows them to produce great records without necessarily being able to sit comfortably in a room together or live in the same city: Karen long since relocated to LA, while her bandmates remain in New York.
Perhaps that formula gives Karen the final say on musical direction, or perhaps the band is more of a democracy than it looks. Either way, Karen remains a style icon and frontwoman extraordinaire, Nick a guitar player of stunning inventiveness, and Brian a drummer capable of fusing jazz virtuosity and punk energy in a manner hitherto unimaginable. For all this we must be thankful.
HUCK: What is the reason for the long gaps between records?
Karen O: The gaps probably have to do with just pacing ourselves. ‘Are we ready? Yeah, we’re ready now.’ But I think the problem is that once we do start we can get caught up in a vicious cycle of self-doubt and then euphoria.
Did the new record have a troubled gestation?
Karen O: No, this one was really different because I personally felt the only way we could write a record is if we really had a different attitude about it – a feel-good attitude. It was really different from last time, that way, which is great because writing studio records is so difficult. Especially today when you have the option of putting maybe 500 tracks on something and taking them away, ‘Chinese Democracy’-style.
So, the interpersonal dynamic has improved, has it?
Karen O: Yeah yeah yeah… I have the job of always shoving everyone out of their comfort zone, including myself. Nobody likes that person! When someone’s really trying to provoke you into really going somewhere new…
Do you feel like you’ve grown in confidence and taken control?
Karen O: I feel like, earlier, that wasn’t necessary because we were just starting off and every song we made we were highly satisfied with – we could do no wrong, in the beginning. It was after people started taking us seriously when we really had the identity crisis – that’s when this role had to be born… Out of my own need, my lack of patience with doing the same thing, or lack of attention span for doing the same thing, I really always wanted to push it somewhere new. Because the thing is, you can’t do the same thing twice. Even if you tried. If you were a genius you couldn’t do the same thing twice, so why be a second version of the first thing that you did? It seems just so inferior to going somewhere else.
Why the move west?
Karen O: I was grieving the dissipation of the [New York] scene. That was so exciting when it came up and when it started going away I felt almost a sense of grief, and I wanted to just get out and move onto the next thing. I just felt almost too nostalgic for when everything really happened, because it was like a flash – the shelf life for those kinds of things these days is super short. So it was hard for me to stick around and watch that specific scene die off.
Brian: Everybody wanted to play music and they were very passionate about it, but then for it to become a huge international success out of something so innocent was very jarring. And that scene can’t really sustain itself in that environment necessarily so it needed time for it to crash.
What was the cause of the identity crisis during the Show Your Bones era?
Karen O: More than anything it was just being taken seriously – that spun us out. Honestly, it was the last thing we were expecting. We were so innocent it was ridiculous. We were passing out flyers and getting really psyched that 200 people were showing up to our shows, and just had no aspirations. I didn’t know what touring meant or anything like that… It’s definitely a lot to take in, especially in your turbulent twenties.
You played your first sober gig during the ‘Show Your Bones’ tour. What’s the current policy?
Karen O: Now it’s just a happy medium between the two where I don’t, like, deny myself a drink, but I don’t get wasted any more, which is really good because at the end of a show I’d be really like, ‘Wow, that was great’ – but I’d just know that nine out of ten times it wasn’t great but I just thought it was…
Did the Karen O stage persona exist before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
Karen O: I remember when I was in, like, the fifth grade, I was a really shy kid and I went to a school where there were only like sixteen kids in my grade, and there’s a variety show type thing and I remember I put on these really dark sunglasses so I couldn’t see – they were like the darkest sunglasses I’ve ever worn, I couldn’t see anything, and I did The Beatles, I lip-synched to The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’, exactly. Jaws were dropping, because they couldn’t believe that that was the same person. Because I had no inhibitions and I really milked it for what it was worth. It blew the teachers’ minds, because I was a really quiet little kid… It’s been brewing for a while.
How did the new sound come about?
Brian: There was like a strong focus on the keyboard. We were fascinated with the sounds and wanted to explore those options, but it was also a really effective tool and device to get out of old habits. And that’s important too. To find yourself in a new context and a new setting, with different parameters, and with that there’s a whole new route to explore. I think that was a huge asset in focusing on keyboards.
Karen O: I always count you [Brian] as really supportive of just opening up more. You don’t have a resistance to change so much. I feel like you’re just down to go with the flow for the most part… You don’t really stir up too much drama or anything like that. The drama’s just between Nick and I. But it’s really – especially on this record – not that dramatic.
That was more the last one, I guess.
Karen O: Yeah! Right! I can’t play that down but that was pretty dramatic. But still probably less dramatic than most people make it out to be… It’s a good angle.
Will you wipe the slate clean again before you start the next record?
Nick: It’s possible… It probably won’t be synths on the next record.
When you bought a cheap keyboard on eBay, did you know it would change your life?
Nick: Yes. It as all part of my masterplan.
Karen O: I think subconsciously there’re goals or directions that we all feel, y’know? And it kind of happens naturally even though there’s definitely… what is it: the id and the ego, there’s this battle going on because I’m always more, like, once that change gets going I just want to run with it, y’know? But I think you [Nick] want to put the brakes on a bit more… Even though, definitely, it’s very much – y’know – in your… creatively, you feel it anyway. Strongly.
Nick: Yeah. I feel it impulsively and then… sometimes I may sort of stop and think about what I’m doing, and that’s when the danger of stepping back is – Karen’s great at encouraging… It’d be so boring if we all thought the same. If we all said, like, ‘Oh, we need to sound like this.’ ‘Yes, I agree.’ ‘I agree.’ So dull.
You’re not in any hurry to ‘mature’…
Brian: It feels like there’s a lot of temptation with the traditional path of what’s expected from a rock band… But it takes a little more sense of purpose and resolution to know what’s needed to stay on track, stay to the core.
Karen O: That’s where I have to say, if ever the gender thing came in a little bit, it’d be the fact that I have little to no allegiance to the conventional rock path because I never felt that this is a conventional rock band that we’re in, and so I’ve never been seduced by it whatsoever. If anything, the opposite. To much the opposite maybe!
Were you bothered when ‘It’s Blitz!’ leaked?
Karen O: I think that, yeah, we’re a little bit old-school. But I don’t really know how much difference it really makes in the end, because I just don’t know if less people get to hear the music because of that or more people do… There’s no way of telling. So you just don’t have record sales to quantify how much people are listening to your music, so it’s just more abstract, that’s all, which is hard to get used to and stuff, but not that hard.
Nick: I guess we’ll know when we go on tour and start playing shows, and just get a sense of how…
Karen O: What do you mean ‘go on tour’? I’m never going on tour again.
Karen O: Not long bursts. Just manageable bursts.
Do you find the performances draining?
Karen O: It’s probably the other twenty-three hours of the day that’s the most draining, between the travel and terrible sleep cycle and general malnutrition. Even as you get comfier, it’s still a constant battle to keep your body on track and therefore your mind. The shows are great. They’re really something to treasure, bring us places we’ve never been, and man, just the energy of them is so remarkable. I think that’s the highlight. The rest of it, not so much.