Something happens when you put on a dress made of hot-glue and crushed tulle carnations that makes a black eye a little closer to a beauty mark...That’s all I can figure. These are the sort of misfit dresses that transform a girl like Karen O into the person who chucks and cheesegrates the vocals for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Because the Karen O I’m sitting across from wears turtlenecks and hooded sweatshirts and peers through a fringe of bangs talking about the Jacuzzi on her back porch in Jersey. This is not the sort of girl you’d punch in the face just to see what she’d do. The other Karen O, the one on stage, the one dressed in Christian Joy, turns a swig of beer and a handshake into something between a grope and a backhand. That one you might just deck.
The first time I saw Karen O it was the noisy, shredded gorgeous one. It was the one fronting a disheveled skeleton-crew of a band that stunned the audience in Brooklyn at a venue that could pass for a strip club where pasties pass for a shirt. I doubt one person in the scant crowd noticed there wasn’t a bass player. I actually doubt they noticed Brian Chase played drums and only glanced at guitarist Nick Zinner long enough to notice his likeness to a bobble-head Nick Cave. Then all eyes ricocheted back to Karen O and the one fist, one glove, half a dress, and her hand-on-hip sexy-punk tantrum. Her voice is squalid in the most erotic sense of the word. That night she finished the set and spent the remainder of the two opening bands wrestling a barstool to the ground and dancing on an otherwise empty floor. By the time the headliner came on she took over vocal duties on a 20-minute careening train wreck of “Gloria” after the singer of the Go! became too disinterested or disoriented to make it through the phonetic exchange. She opened up and closed down the show. It was magnificent.
No surprise I wasn’t the only one that picked up on it. One self-released five-song EP, which was never meant to be more than a demo, brought down the house. Every house. All the houses. Even the houses in Europe and stuff. The sweaty handed old magazine men and the pasty British weeklies were all up in their junk. 13-year-old girls showed up digging the rock & roll. Of the girls, Karen O says, “There’s a lot of people rocking the Karen O style. It’s such a rad thing because they really take it and make their own thing out of it. They use me as a vessel to find themselves or express themselves a little more outrageously. That’s really what I’m trying to do. To get away with it. If they take the hint to do that it’s really flattering. I don’t think they’re trying to be the spit image of me.” So the Yeah Yeah Yeahs rocked the minions, toured the world, posed for magazines and generally made a big clamorous diabolical mess. And behind all of it were five ridiculously good songs propping up the escapades. Then they released the Machine EP and there were three more. Eight songs on wax two and a half years in.
“Missy Elliot is a huge, huge inspiration to me. She's the only thing that speaks to me right now. It seems like there's more women stepped up to bat."
Curious then that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs signed to Interscope. Today. Right before coming here to eat dinner and tolerate 45 minutes of my questions before leaving for the airport to tour Europe for three weeks as a major label American band. They were originally wrangling for a joint deal between Interscope and Touch And Go (who released the two EPs), but made the decision to go with the big guns based on the strength of the album. Though there is something grotesque about nuzzling up with Fred Durst in the label shack, they seemed happy and who am I to deny them that? Nick Zinner says, “Ultimately it was just about having more people hear the record. But it’s like, Whoahhh [verbal expression of skinny-tie indie-rock rejection]. The negative effects of it for a lot of people are huge because everyone just wants us to be their favorite, secret band that no one has ever heard of.” Karen O agrees, dismissing the potential backlash: “We could care less, we just want more people to hear it. I don’t care if that sounds naive or whatever. We’ve been able to maintain the same attitude throughout all the hype we’ve gone through.” Zinner sums up their niche on the label roster, saying, “We’re like a gateway drug to good music.”
But back to the beginning: Nick Zinner met Karen O at the Marz Bar through a mutual friend. The Marz Bar sits next to a teaming squat off the Bowery and caters to a crowd that knows better than to complain if the soda water is flat, the tequila is Polish and the seats don’t have backs. It serves a fraying concave clientele that knows how to shut up. It’s almost a perfect place for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to have begun, next to the tinny jukebox of Tom Waits and Blondie under the signs that say, “no staring” and “no free ice—don’t even ask.” But the band they created was not one fueled by torn up tights and hoarse drunkenness. It was the “quiet band” and they called it Unitard. Nick Zinner speaks of the couple’s “crazy musical chemistry” and Karen O explains it was in the singer-songwriter vein. Let us all be thankful for the formative guidance of volume, stumbling and booze.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first show was opening for the White Stripes. It’s cute the way Karen O gets almost intelligibly angry just thinking about Jack White. To play the show Zinner and O needed to find a drummer, and in came Brian Chase. He and O were fellow college freshman outcasts bonded in their fieldtrip despair of mono-gender dormitories. And he played the drums, so Karen O called him when they needed some thing livelier than a drum machine, but just barely. Brian Chase is the Charlie Watts of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Except he probably doesn’t hate Karen O quite as much as Watts does Mick Jagger. There’s still the same sense that he can’t quite reconcile how he ended up being talked into the band and that a drum riser at a rock show is about the last place he’d like to be. He’s the aberration in the band, the straight man in glasses, and he makes it all the more perfect.
I can handle Chase being a little smirky and pseudo-serious, but I’m still having a hard time reconciling the non-outrageous, no-self-serve-beer-shower, not sliding under the table in a fit of giggles and provocations Karen O. This new Karen, the sober one with the turtleneck and the little silver necklace is rather adorable. And it’s almost impossible not to be completely taken with her. But it’s still sort of a bummer that the other Karen O only comes out at night, and only in Christian Joy. Whatever catalyst it takes to get it up there, the dresses, the drinks, the spotlight, the band, the whatever, her explanation is, “It didn’t make sense to me, people who are lead singers in flamboyant rock bands, but aren’t flamboyant.” In fulfilling her front-womanhood comes inspiration from at once the most likely and unlikely place. “Missy Elliott is a huge, huge inspiration to me. It’s the only thing that speaks to me right now,” says Karen O. “It seems like there’s more women stepping up to bat.” Some others she admires include Love Life’s bass clef troubadour Katrina Ford and Jennifer Herrera from Royal Trux (hopefully leading to a YYY comic book and not an ugly smack problem).
The best part is that you can tell it’s killing Nick Zinner that she’s not saying Yoko Ono, and there’s nothing he can do about it. Zinner is the sort of guitar player that’s mostly a photographer and the star at this celebrity art party. He’s taken pictures for all the hippest magazines (yes, this one and yes, that other one too) but he’s mostly concerned that the pictures he took of Ono didn’t elicit a response. He’s pretty sure she hates them. And that’s killing him, too. Zinner is excited to get to tour again to take more pictures and probably add about 45% more Fluxus to the proceedings. Zinner comes off as unabashedly arty and enthusiastic and so disarmingly cute that when he randomly yelps “Sleater-Kinney” halfway through dinner it seems as appropriate as the all black clothes and the star tattoo on his arm.
Which is to say each of the three members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are almost the opposite of what you’d expect them to be, and so much closer to what you’d hope them to be if you had to, say, carry on a conversation with them. It makes the spectacle onstage and the spectacle on wax all the more magical. They speak in polite near-whispers, claim to avoid going out to clubs, border on straight-up demure and as for the clothes that make the woman, Karen O puts it in perspective: “When Vogue gets interested in what I’m wearing it’s scary.” And beside the point. On their soon-to-be-released Interscope album Fever To Tell, the lead track “Rich” is the perfect track to counter any claims that they only had those eight songs in them. It’s raucous, sleazy, boisterous and like the Green Acres theme song, gone absolutely to hell. The album is a successive series of songs that remind you why the first EP blew your mind in the first place. There are even some quiet ones that Karen O might be able to pull off without one of her dresses.
Cult Records release Karen O's debut solo album Crush Songs on September 9th 2014.