From darkness, light
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs work out issues through their music, writes Tim Jonze
Karen Orzolek has a giddy, machine-gun rattle of a laugh that's cute and endearing. But if you're not careful she'll use it to dangerous effect. Such as when she's flustered by a question, or embarrassed about something, or just a little tongue-tied. Out it comes, The Laugh, and if you don't stay on your toes, the conversation will have already moved on towards safer territory. It's not what you expect from a woman who made a name for herself leaping across stages, shrieking provocative lyrics in costumes that could make Lady Gaga blush.
"The most outrageous of all was the pepperoni pizza dress," the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer known as Karen O says with a grin. "That was like a deconstructed prom dress. It was painted fluorescent, like if a baby puked up toxic vomit, with weird circles the colour of pepperoni all over the breastplate. Then it had these black-and-white-striped stuffed dildos coming off the shoulders. It was so gross but I did wear it - once!"
Thirteen years ago, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were a scratchy outfit living in New York's Lower East Side and dismissed as a "fashion band". But what those critics didn't see was that among the more riotous songs were startling moments of tender yearning, such as Maps (the video of which saw Karen O weeping real tears). That the band managed to get this delicate balance right was striking. That Karen O somehow managed to do it while dressed in, for example, a nun's habit and gas mask is even more impressive.
If being a Yeah Yeah Yeahs fan means steeling yourself for the odd surprise, it's still hard to fathom how most will react to the new album, Mosquito. It's Blitz!, the previous disc, was itself a departure, leaving the band's trademark scuzzy guitar sound for a sleeker, electronic palette. Mosquito, however, is far more outre. There are songs about alien invasions and premature burial, with many of the tracks swamped in the kind of spacey, echo-laden sounds more usually found in dub reggae. Elsewhere, there's a 24-piece gospel choir.
" Blitz was so clean and cold in a way," Karen O says. "It was precise and electronic. I personally wanted to do something a bit more quirky, a bit more sexual, a bit more visceral."
Despite the new record's celebratory vibe, it emerged from a dark place. Burned out from a mammoth tour, the band started thinking about making Mosquito at the start of 2010, a year guitarist Nick Zinner describes as "super-dark". While Zinner struggled to deal with an "epic break-up that seemed to last forever", Karen O was tangled up in her own despair. "I wouldn't wish that feeling on my worst enemy," she says today. "I felt stuck in a ditch that I couldn't climb out of. It was actual depression, for about six months."
Had she ever felt like that before? She shakes her head. "Normally I get more anxious than depressed - that's my kind of neurosis. I used to get panic attacks when I was in my early 20s, around the time we started the band, but this was a different thing." She shoots an awkward glance, unleashes The Laugh, and we move on.
Zinner and Karen O agree that focusing on the music helped the band overcome their lows. In 2011, she married video director Barnaby Clay (she's still newlywed enough to refer to him coyly as "Barney, my … you know, husband or whatever").
Back in 2006, Karen O's relationship with Zinner deteriorated to the extent that she nearly quit the band. Today she says there can still be moments of "badness" but any serious problems seem to be a thing of the past. Zinner thinks the key to the group's longevity is the members' freedom to indulge in side projects. Drummer Brian Chase, a jazz and classical buff, has immersed himself in the experimental Brooklyn music scene and has just completed a solo album, Drums and Drones. Zinner has composed and performed an orchestral piece, 41 Strings. As for Karen O, she has performed her own "psycho opera", Stop the Virgens, and written and performed the soundtrack to Spike Jonze's film Where the Wild Things Are, which was nominated for a Grammy award.
She wasn't entirely heartbroken that her soundtrack didn't win. "It stresses me out thinking about ever having to walk up there and say something in front of a bunch of people." This seems strange for a lead singer, not least one renowned for her uninhibited performances. "I know, I know!" she says. "But it's a different part of your brain. When I watch awards, I'm morbidly fascinated by what every single person does."
Karen O and Zinner may both be soft-spoken in person but their music and live shows are at times the polar opposite. Along with other New York bands such as The Strokes, they were part of a scene that helped put some of the sex and snarl back into a landscape dominated by the likes of Travis and Starsailor. Right now, the music scene feels like it's in a similar slump and Karen O is not the only one missing the old "sexuality and charisma".
There is a place in Karen O's heart, however, for one modern pop star: Psy, the South Korean pop rapper behind global smash Gangnam Style. "The first time I saw that video, I cried," she says. "I guess it's part of some weird repressed Korean nationalism [she is half Korean, half Polish] and maybe I associate it with my grandparents, who passed away recently. But a lot of my adult life I've been waiting for Seoul and Korea to be on the scene culturally, and when I saw that I just felt tickled. I was just happy!"
Before forming Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen O studied at Oberlin, the same liberal arts college in Ohio that Girls creator and star Lena Dunham attended. "There were a lot of arty kids there," the singer says. "It was weird. I was used to being the outsider at school, but then I went from that to being just one of many. For the first time I was surrounded by people a lot like me."
Did that inspire her to go crazier? "Probably, yes. It's so predictable, but I always want to go more extreme." She rattles off that machine-gun giggle one more time. It seems a fitting way to wrap things up: it's only right that Karen O should be having the last laugh.
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