NYT Magazine sunday March 31, 2013
Get Yer Yeah Yeah Yeahs Out
styled by ANNA SU
KAREN O COSTUME by CHRISTIAN JOY
photographed by ROBERT MAXWELL for
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Nick Zinner, Karen O and Brian Bryant Chase.
sunglasses MERCURA NYC
By LIZZY GOODMAN
Published: March 29, 2013
The fall of 2000 felt like end times for rock ’n’ roll in New York City. On the radio it was all boy bands and Britney Spears, and there hadn’t been a vital rock scene since punk in the 1970s. But on a Sunday night at a tiny club in Lower Manhattan, something was happening. There were four acts on the bill at the Mercury Lounge; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the openers, and it was still light out when they took the stage. The band was elemental: guitar and drums, no bass. But the singer, who called herself Karen O, was otherworldly. She was dressed in a kind of “Clockwork Orange” burlesque, with cutout hearts as pasties. Before the show, she doused herself in olive oil. Onstage, she danced around like a lunatic, manically grinning and flinging droplets of oil from her hair into the crowd. The guitar player, Nick Zinner, had seen this side of her. But the drummer, Brian Chase, had practiced with the band only once, and this was their first gig. “The only thing to do,” Chase remembers thinking, “is just be like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
No one saw the show apart from a handful of friends and, according to Zinner, “a lone English guy.” But it quickly took on mythic proportions. (The headliner that night was the White Stripes, who ended up crashing at Karen O’s apartment over a Ukranian diner on Avenue A.) Within the year, it became clear that a scene was forming. The White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, along with bands like the Strokes and Interpol — the so-called Class of 2001 — would emerge as leaders of a global rock revival.
Karen O, whose real name is Orzolek, was the most intriguing face of this movement. Her stage antics — skipping around in leotards, ripped-up fishnets and sneakers, spewing beer, fellating the microphone — established her as the first postfeminist rock star, a descendant of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury who also happened to be a girl. But despite the heedless ambition they seemed to exhibit as a live band, they simply didn’t have the fortitude required to tour and record constantly. Instead, in 13 years they have put out just three albums and two EPs. The making of these records has been so fraught that they’ve finished each wondering if it would be their last. And yet, on April 16, the band will release its fourth album, “Mosquito,” to the kind of interest and acclaim few of their 2001 brethren still enjoy. “Being in the shadow a little bit preserved us,” Orzolek says. “Coming up in a real moment baptized us as special, there’s no question. But we’ve been allowed to evolve.”
I met the entire band for fries and grilled-cheese sandwiches at a diner in Brooklyn in late February. A cheery waiter arrived, and when he asked to take our order, the band reacted as if it had been cornered by a crazy person on the subway. For several beats, everyone stared at the menu and mumbled.
You’ve never met three more awkward rock stars. Chase is a consummate music nerd, a conservatory-trained jazz drummer who still plays in the city’s experimental scene. Zinner, who looks the part of a rock star, is a regular at bars and other bands’ shows but doesn’t say much. And Karen O is an exhibitionistic Boo Radley, a warped dervish onstage who disappears after the encore and is rarely seen out in real life. What they have in common is a hypersensitivity to the world that borders on pathological — a near parody of the artist’s temperament. It sounds like a miserable way to live. “There’s definitely been times where I thought I would trade any of my gifts just for a normal, happy life,” Karen O said. But it’s also their secret weapon. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ collective anxiety about, well, anything — themselves, one another, existence in general — boils over, it happens to make a really cool sound. As the band’s producer Dave Sitek puts it, “Discomfort is fuel for them.”
Zinner and Orzolek met in the summer of 2000 as regulars at Mars Bar, a notorious punk-rock dive off the Bowery. Orzolek had recently transferred from Oberlin to study film at New York University. The previous winter she spent two months learning to play guitar. It’s assumed that as the guitarist, Zinner writes all the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ music, but it’s a collective effort. “From the four lessons I took when I was 18, I’ve been able to write hundreds of songs,” Orzolek said. “You don’t need much.” Late one night, she played Zinner a few of her ideas. “I immediately knew I would be making music and somehow involved with her for a while,” he told me. Zinner graduated from Bard in the late ’90s and had already played in bands in New York for a few years, but he was turned off by the scene. “Everyone was so serious and cool and into heroin,” he said. Orzolek’s wildness seemed like an antidote to all that. “We were dark, but a lightness, a silliness was inside us,” Zinner said. “And Karen was an expert in bringing it out and embodying it. We really needed that. New York really needed that.”
Orzolek said she remembered the moment when she discovered that lightness. “I was in fifth grade,” she told me over margaritas and chicken wings at a Cajun restaurant near her downtown apartment. “We had to do a lip-sync performance of ‘Wild Thing,’ and I was the lead singer. The girls wore poodle skirts, but I was the boy. I slicked my hair back and wore these sunglasses that were so dark I couldn’t see, which was great, ’cause I was pretty unaware of the audience. I got up and just went nuts. I went totally crazy. It really freaked out a lot of the teachers and the kids too, because I was goofy but pretty mild-mannered. It was like this thing came out.”
Orzolek was born in South Korea to a Korean mother and a Polish-American father, in 1978 — “year of the horse,” she said, which she claims explains her willfulness. Before she was 3, the family moved to the United States and settled in suburban New Jersey. She said she was never able to assimilate like her older brother, who identified as one of the Asian kids. “I didn’t speak Korean, so I couldn’t hang with the Koreans,” she told me. “And when I’d hang out with the whiteys, I was always self-conscious about being half-Korean.”
If being biracial made Orzolek feel like an outsider, it wasn’t until eighth grade, which she calls “a psychological blood bath” for girls, that she really confronted what it meant to be different. “I was hanging with some popular girls,” she said. “But sort of as their pet. I was the novelty, you know? And then it turned on me in a pretty dramatic way.” She declined to get into specifics, calling the experience brutal but also pivotal in that it forced her to identify as a weirdo, which led her straight to rock ’n’ roll. “This is giving me the chills right now,” she said, “because in ninth grade, a bunch of new kids came into our school . . . and the people I was immediately attracted to were outcasts.” It was from these outcasts that she learned about the bands you would think of as Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ forefathers: Sonic Youth, Pavement, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. But they also turned her on to artists like Neil Young and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, whose plaintive romanticism was more influential. “Weird bleeding hearts,” Orzolek calls them. “They were the ones who really made me think I could sing.”
The initial result of Orzolek’s collaboration with Zinner was a lo-fi acoustic duo called Unitard, which Zinner said he remembered as “very ‘Paris, Texas.’ ” It was a great outlet for Orzolek’s sentimental side but made no room for the alter ego she discovered when she was 10. Every Sunday night circa 2000, Orzolek and a friend, “a rockabilly Korean girl who watched only French new-wave films,” would go to Shout, a mod dance party held at Bar 13 off Union Square, so Orzolek could practice her persona. “I’d have, like, seven cosmopolitans and be doing knee slides on the dance floor,” she said. “It was like my coming out.”
She soon persuaded Zinner that they should form a real rock band. Late one night at his place in Williamsburg, they plugged in the drum machine, drank brass monkeys and wrote three of the five songs that would make up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut EP. In the time between the brass-monkey sessions and the release of the EP, the White Stripes put out their commercial breakthrough, “White Blood Cells,” and the Strokes went from being another crew of unwashed rockers rehearsing in Alphabet City to “the band that saved rock ’n’ roll, or whatever,” as Orzolek puts it. Raw guitar bands were en vogue. By the spring of 2002, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were on their way to Austin, Tex., to play South by Southwest, where “that one English guy had turned into 300 English guys,” Zinner said. They were officially the new It band.
And then it was on. In the spring of 2002, the band toured England for the first time. “The crowds were just fanatical — it was shocking,” Orzolek said. “The U.K. seemed like the canary in the cave, like we were seeing what might be if we broke in the U.S.” Overwhelmed, Orzolek quickly homed in on what would become the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ signature problem-solving technique: saying no. “Karen just put the brakes on,” Zinner said. “She was like, ‘This whole thing is spiraling out of control.’ ” The Yeah Yeah Yeahs turned down offers to play at huge British festivals later that summer, among other seemingly crucial missed opportunities. “The idea of canceling shows so early on is frightening for everybody,” she told me. “It’s so taboo, but I felt on the verge of a meltdown, and I knew that if we continued the way we were going, I was going to burn out pretty quickly.”
“I saw how intense it was for her,” Zinner said. “It’s a lead-singer thing. People focus on that. And she’s amazing, born to do it or whatever it is parents say.”
The “it” that she does, the outlandish, out-of-control persona she inhabits onstage, can seem to be as much a function of what she’s wearing as what she’s doing. This is the work of the designer Christian Joy, whom you might call the fourth member of the band. Joy and Orzolek met when Orzolek was still at N.Y.U. and Joy was working at Daryl K, a boutique in the East Village, where Orzolek often browsed. They share a similarly androgynous sex appeal as well as the desire to beat each other up. “I feel like we’re brothers,” Orzolek said. “We’ve gotten into so many physical fights where we’re literally just rolling around on the floor punching each other. The main thing I try to do is expose her butt to the world. And she’s basically trying to kill me.” It’s an unusual collaboration.
The first outfit Joy ever made for Orzolek was a garish quinceañera dress dyed bile yellow and decorated with pepperoni-looking plastic disks and mini-phalluses. “It felt like a practical joke,” Orzolek told me. It was so ugly, it made her cry. And yet in all the years they have worked together, through countless examples of similarly extreme costumes, Karen O has never refused to appear in something Joy designed. “It’s a sadomasochistic thing that happens between us,” she said. “But that’s what appeals to me about the punk-rock stuff. A lot of her costumes were really impractical. . . . I’d always be fighting or struggling with it, which was kind of our thing; we were always fighting or struggling with each other.” In the early years especially, photographs of Orzolek looked like snapshots of an exorcism, her makeup smeared, her eyes rolled into the back of her head and her tongue protruding from the side of her mouth. Hideousness was the point. “It was the opposite of ‘Do I look pretty?’ ” she said. “It was something on a completely different planet from that.”
Despite the crucial missed opportunities and the hideousness, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs thrived. The success of their breakthrough single, “Maps,” an aching ballad at once shy and furious, catapulted them onto a seemingly endless global tour. Zinner and Chase took to the road pretty well, but Orzolek again found it depleting. She handled the pressure with tequila; a fall off a stage in Australia resulted in a concussion and briefly put her in a wheelchair. By 2004 the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were nominated for a Grammy and started collaborating with big-name directors like Spike Jonze, who became Orzolek’s boyfriend. (In 2011 she married a different video director, Barnaby Clay.) In an attempt to come down from the road and get some distance from the band, Orzolek moved to Los Angeles. “There was definitely a large period of time where we didn’t see one another or be that much in touch,” Orzolek said. She commuted to New York to do some work on the band’s second record, “Show Your Bones.” The distance hadn’t done much to temper the band’s combustibility. “Karen and I hated each other,” Zinner said. “We were like two thunderclouds rubbing up against each other.”
But once again, they survived. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were invited on “Saturday Night Live” and went back to the Grammys, and by the time they were making the third record, “It’s Blitz!” (2009), they had established a reliable blueprint for how to be in a band without killing one another. “There is always the option to go as fast and hard as you can, but we have managed to stretch out what we do in cycles,” Chase said. “It takes years to unfold, but the long period of time allows for a lot of evolution.” Getting out of New York seems to be crucial. “It’s Blitz!” and the new record were recorded at Sonic Ranch, a remote studio in West Texas situated on 2,300 acres surrounded by pecan orchards.
It also helps that each can pursue outside interests. Chase just put out a solo record, “Drums and Drones.” Zinner has published several books of photography and recently composed and directed a symphony for Earth Day, “41 Strings.” Orzolek wrote most of the soundtrack to “Where the Wild Things Are” (directed by her ex-boyfriend Spike Jonze) and last year staged an opera, “Stop the Virgens.” “None of us want to be in a rock band every day, 100 percent of the day,” Zinner said.
Still, the thousands of fans who were lined up to see the band’s return to South by Southwest in March were expecting 100 percent Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The last time the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were here, they were unsigned ingénues. Joy and Orzolek got in trouble for trashing their dressing room. This time, the scene backstage seemed less debauched. Zinner and a few friends sat quietly at picnic tables in a secluded area behind the venue. I asked Zinner how it felt to be back at the festival after all these years. “I hope we get signed,” he deadpanned.
But there was an undercurrent of anxiety. As Zinner was telling me about the new keyboard he spent most of the day tinkering with, I saw Orzolek’s blond bob pop out of a trailer a few yards away. Within moments, the band’s manager pulled me aside and asked me to leave. “It’s freaking Karen out that you are back here,” she said a little hysterically. “And it’s making Nick really uncomfortable, too.”
By showtime, though, there was no trace of anxiety or discomfort. Karen O galloped onto the stage, wearing a tinsel cape over a canary yellow pantsuit covered in grommets. Dave Sitek, the producer, has described her performing skill as a superpower, and that’s an understatement. She is mesmerizing. Midway through the set, Zinner began playing the wistful opening to “Maps,” and the girl behind me took her friend’s hand and placed it on her own heart, Pledge of Allegiance-style. “I. Love. This. Song,” she whimpered, eyes closed.
It took me back to something Orzolek said in Brooklyn, about how she never knew what to say when fans told her the Yeah Yeah Yeahs helped them endure tough times. “You were asking, ‘If it’s so hard, why do you keep doing it,’ ” she began. “For one thing, this band has gotten us all through a lot. Me specifically, the death of one of my best friends around the time we started.” Her chin quivered, and her eyes welled up with tears. This was not a performance. “I was 22. I was a baby. I was totally traumatized and devastated and lost, and if I didn’t have the Yeah Yeah Yeahs taking me around the world. . . . I’m no different than some of these fans. Next time a fan says that to me, I’m going to say, ‘Me, too, dude.’ ”