In 2001 Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Junior wore a pin badge of his favourite band while being interviewed on American TV. That band was the little heard New York noiseniks Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In the media feeding frenzy surrounding the release of ‘Is This It’, the badge took on a wider significance, catapulting the trio from the dirty backstreets of America’s cultural capital into the world’s spotlight. Five years later they are sitting in one of the most exclusive hotels in London, taking questions from the press before performing their latest single, ‘Gold Lion’, on Top of the Pops.
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon when Clash walk through the sparkling, gold-rimmed revolving doors of The Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington, to talk to two thirds of New York’s hippest band. Yeah Yeah Yeahs enigmatic frontwoman, Karen O, is about to touch down at Gatwick airport, but in a darkened corner of the plush hotel lobby, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase sit awaiting our questions. Nick’s tiny frame is dwarfed against the giant red velour chair as he sits nervously fidgeting, while Brian looks into the distance, absent-mindedly tapping out a paradiddle on his right thigh. Dressed almost exclusively in black and looking fashionably “just out of bed” the pair tell Clash that although it is 2.30 in the afternoon, they have only been up for an hour.
First off, it is time to dispel a few myths about the making of the trio’s thunderous second album, ‘Show Your Bones’. It is not a concept album about a cat that Karen O adopted in Chile. Sipping a take-away Starbucks coffee, in hushed bleary-eyed tones Nick confides: “Squeak E Clean, who co-produced the record, gave an interview for MTV or someone and just lied all the time. It was kind of genius on his part it got us a lot of publicity.” Although Brian does still insist that the press-grabbing myth is true to some extent, claiming if you listen to the album in reverse you will hear “miaow miaow miaow”.
The other accusation tossed back and forth over the last couple of months in the press, and innumerable online chat rooms, is that the album is Karen’s cathartic outpouring on her painful break-up with Angus Andrews, lead singer of electro-rockers Liars. Listening to the album, it is easy to see why. There are numerous references to personal strains and deteriorating relationships strung out over the album’s 42 minutes and 22 seconds. An example is catchy stomp-along track ‘Mysteries’, where Karen wails, banshee-like, “I don’t even know what it’s like not to go back to you,” before spitting into the microphone, “I don’t even know who I like less, you or me.” But Brian and Nick are tight-lipped when it comes to the break up. “I don’t know, you would have to ask Karen about that,” mumbles Brian. “But it happened a long time ago, way before this album came together.”
With both rumours swept under the carpet, it’s time to discuss the music on ‘Show Your Bones’, which should already be in your record collection, nestling somewhere between Brian Eno’s compilation of New York’s Eastern Village No Wave scene and Patti Smith’s classic album, ‘Horses’. It’s a more autumnal record than 2003’s ‘Fever To Tell’, but still maintains the vital edge of its predecessor. “It was a definite attempt not to make the same record again, that was clear from the beginning,” says Nick. “I wouldn’t say it’s mellower but I can see aspects of that in the record.” Brain agrees with his bandmate, nodding, “If you listen to our records consecutively, it seems like there is progression in a certain direction.”
The band’s origins lie deep in minimalist garage rock, closer to Steve Albini fronted noise-mongers Shellac than to any of their contemporaries that grace the front cover of the NME. Their first self-titled EP, popularly known as the ‘Bang EP’, which was recorded in just two days, is living proof of this. From the stripped down blues-punk of ‘Mystery Girl’, to Karen’s blood curdling screams on ‘Art Star’, the band have come a long way. But whilst shredded guitars have been replaced in part by acoustic strumalongs, ‘Show Your Bones’ is far from a polished pop record. “It was really all about the performance of the raw basic tracks and just getting that down when we were in the studio,” says Brian. “We wrote it from March to June, then we were actually in the studio for five to six weeks, learning one song at a time before recording it. When we had learnt to play them we recorded them a bunch of times. So it wasn’t so much about getting the songs in one or two takes, it was more about just playing it and playing it until the feeling was right.”
The album may be less aggressive than ‘Fever To Tell’, but each song still spits with the vitriol of live performance. And whilst Nick is quick to add that “it’s not a live album”, all the basic tracks were laid down live in the studio, and on first listen, there is the feeling of being front row at one of YYY’s explosive gigs. Brian says their change in recording style is, in part, a necessity resulting from Karen’s relocation to Los Angeles, to live with her current partner, independent film and music video director, Spike Jonze. “I think it put a lot of distance between us and the songs because we’d work on songs for a little bit in LA and then come back to New York or wherever, then three weeks would pass before we’d get together again,” says the drummer. “So it made the songs evolve over a really slow period of time. It wasn’t spontaneous, we’d have time to sit with the parts and think about them and change things around. It was sort of an endless process, the music happened over a long period of time not in a specific moment.”
Rather than building the song around rhythm guitar and vocals, the kernel of the new songs tended to be a fragment or an idea, says Nick. “The starting point of our songs really changes. I mean on this record everything was written in the studio and it was always different what came first. Sometimes it would be a vocal melody, a guitar line and sometimes a drum beat. There are maybe two or three songs based on beats that Brian had written out beforehand. It just all depended on where the hammer would strike and what inspiration we felt, there was no real specific process this time.”
I’m not sure if we strictly regurgitate our influences. We are not really a band that tries to sound or write in a certain style - we just play what comes out.
The trio’s second album is a hard release to pigeonhole, with material varying wildly, from the razor-sharp riffing of the glam rock-tinged ‘Phenomenon’, to the solemnly pretty slowburner, ‘Warrior’. Nick says this is down to more than the music they were listening to, but relates to the state of mind they were in. “I’m not sure if we strictly regurgitate our influences. We are not really a band that tries to sound or write in a certain style - we just play what comes out,” he says. “We all listen to so many different things. I feel like collectively we all listen to far more non rock things.” A statement that can well be believed after hearing Brian’s ten-minute diatribe on the merits of Duke Ellington’s latter day, more experimental jazz structures.
But with such an array of musical influence shinning though the album’s rock surface, then next problem faced by YYYs is what material to release as the follow up to the infectious “ooh ohh-ing” of first single off the album, ‘Gold Lion’. “Sure there’s four or five tracks that we figure could be future singles, but we are not positive what the next one is going to be,” says Brian. However, whilst Clash can’t confirm anything, the pair nodded enthusiastically at the idea of the album’s pop centrepiece, ‘Cheated Hearts’, being a single in the very near future. The song starts with a gentle thud of a bass drum before Karen’s broken vocals and unusually jangley guitar from Nick pirouette over the top, building towards a chorus which will send shivers down the spine, the likes of which haven’t been felt since ‘Maps’ hit the airwaves more than two years ago. But the song’s most heart-wrenching moment comes as Karen gently laments, “Take these rings and stow them safe away, I’ll wear them on another rainy day.” Proving that while playing live she might be an animalistic diva, ripping up the stage like rag-doll possessed, she is at her most affecting when she has retired to lick her wounds and bear her heart on her sleeve.
It seems no coincidence that the song was written on the back of Nick touring with America’s favourite son of self-effacing strum, Conor Oberst, AKA Bright Eyes. “Yeah, I was playing lead guitar for his band,” enthuses Nick. “It was really, really fun it was like a rock vacation - it was awesome. I did a European tour with him last summer then a two month US tour.” Nick has also just released a book of photography, which he describes as a “collection of rock artefacts”. “Yeah, I mean, I was taking pictures and it was just a case of having a stack of photos that I liked and a really talented graphic designer friend of mine wanted to do a project together with them and it’s basically that,” shrugs the guitarist. “It’s photos from the past four years and some of them are photos of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but I don’t want it to be a band thing, It’s my thing, although there are pictures of Brian and Karen in there.”
The future looks bright for Nick, who has also been labelled “the finest guitarist alive” by Marilyn Manson, who said he wants to collaborate with him on new material. “I’d love to work with him,” nods Nick. “But I don’t know, I’ve only met the dude a couple of times. But I’d be interested in spending some quality time with him, as long as it’s not in the next year.” After a year of touring the new album, who knows what the future holds for YYYs, especially with the toll playing live can take on a band. “It gets hard because you are away a lot of the time, just moving around and the whole thing feels really monotonous and repetitive,” says Brian. “Everything is focused on the one thing, playing live, and there are no other elements to your life. You just have to find ways of making it work for yourself.”
Added shadows are also likely to be cast over the band’s future in light of an announcement they made to the press a few years ago, stating they would not be together in five years. “Did we say that five years ago?” laughs Nick. “I’d repeat the same quote today. If the band got to a level of self-parody then I don’t know, I think we’d have to leave it, but we’ll take one thing at a time.” For the moment though, no inter-band strife is bubbling to the surface and the pair are adamant that the band can live up to the hype being thrust on them from all quarters. “No, the hype doesn’t really worry us,” says Nick, shaking his head. “It’s always scary to have people judge you, but at the same time we are very proud of it, so hopefully other people will like it and if they don’t then there’s nothing we can do about it.”