Yeah Yeah Yeahs Interview

The rebirth of cool

Fronted by the charismatic, Karen O, Yeah Yeah Yeahs are back monopolising our stereo with their latest offering, ‘It’s Blitz’, the band’s third album.

The band were recently in the UK for a short tour playing Manchester and London. Read ClashMusic’s review of their Sheperds Bush show HERE.

Charging full steam ahead in a glitzy electronic direction, ‘It’s Blitz’ is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ most seductive album yet. Clash kissed the designer boots of Karen O and was granted an audience for the June issue of the magazine. Below you can enjoy the full transcript of our chat.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Zero’

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So, where do we start? ‘Show Your Bones’ was released back in 2006, what happened after that album and tour?

Karen O: Um… I guess in early 2007 we recorded our EP, ‘Is, Is’, and then we just did a handful of shows in the States supporting it. And then in December of that year we started writing this record, so… yeah. Um, and then we wrote it all during last year, like sort of on and off.

What starts the writing process? Do you go away for a while and have time just to do other stuff, and then get back together?

Karen O: Yes, more or less. You kind of have to decompress for a while, and it take a while to decompress from a recording cycle and a touring cycle. My God, I don’t even know how to clarify how long it takes, you know. Just after you kind of settle back into your real life, that’s when you start thinking about writing the next one, so…

Do you still all live in New York?

Karen O: I live in LA now.

Nick: I live in New York.

Brian: New York.

How’s it in New York? I haven’t been in a while.

Nick: (Quietly) Cold in winter, hot in summer.


Nick: It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer. It’s very cold and very hot.

What about music wise? Do you guys still go out much around New York, and get involved with the scene?

Nick: Brian does a little more than I have recently. It’s been really bad there for a few years, but it’s gotten really exciting again.
Any particular bands?

Brian: There is a singer that I like, her name is Judith Berkson.

Nick: I kind of like this band called BIG A little a.

Brian: There’s a club that I like called The Stone. It has a regular flow of exciting music.

What kind of music?

Brian: That mostly has experimental music, but all sorts.
What about LA, do you get out much?

Karen O: (Smiles) I hardly get out much, I just kind of lay around. It’s more like the house in the country, you know? Where don’t expect to really go partying. I mean there’s maybe a couple of bars every now and then that I’ll visit, to meet some friends. I know there is a club scene there and there’s a music scene there, and it’s, like, Village and… what is it, Mika…?

Nick: Mika Mika.

Karen O: Yeah Mika Mika… There’s a bunch of places, but I generally just keep to myself out there, you know?

Is that a good place to decompress, or do you go to your mum’s house?

Karen O: LA is where I go; they go to their mums’ houses, so… (laughs)

Nick: Yeah, my parents are just about an hour away, so I’ll go visit them…
A bit of home cooking to help?

Nick: (laughs) TV… Guilt-free TV…

Brian: Guilt-free TV?

Like America’s Next Top Model… it’s awful, but it’s the show I use…

Karen O: Oh really? Is that the Tyra Banks one?

Yeah, yeah. The Janice Dickenson one, I’ve heard, is quite good also…

Nick: Oh, that’s the one just started a month or two ago? That’s awful, that one…

Karen O: Is that a reality show? Who is she?

Nick: Um, I’m not sure, but…

But she has big lips…

Karen O: Oh…

Nick: Perou was on that one, right?

The photographer?

Nick: Yeah.
I love the shoot you did with Perou.

Karen O: Yeah, back in the day…

It was a while ago I imagine, but what was the atmosphere like, and the morale of the band like, when you got back together for ‘It’s Blitz!’?

Karen O: When we started the new record? (Gestures to Nick to answer)

Nick: It was pretty, ah… Comparably it was high spirits, up for anything. Um, I think we were all prepared to just fuck around until we found what was good and what we liked. Open minded and open hearted, it was good.

I think you can hear that in the record. What usually dictates who you work with after you write the music, when you decide to record?

Nick: You mean producers? It’s kind of like who you’re most comfortable with and who can bring out… ah, whose able to bring out things in us that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own. So it just depends.

Karen O: Yeah, I don’t really know of that many producers besides the ones we’ve really used.

Nick: We’ve never been in a situation where we’ve been like, ‘Oh I like this person’s work, let’s bring them in’. We always just use people who we know, who just helps us out and makes us not get stressed out that we are in a rock band.

Karen O: It’s funny because Dave [Sitek] produced (debut album) ‘Fever To Tell’, but he could be a completely different person for all you know as far as his production style [has developed]. Now he just feels like a different producer, and Nick [Launay] even felt a little bit like a different producer for the record, versus the EP. Even though we’ve used both of them before, they both [were] kind of like chameleons. It did feel like they adapted to the vision of where we were going, and it just felt like a whole new experience, an entirely new experience that didn’t feel like we were using these guys again.
So how organic was this seemingly quite dramatic shift in style? I’ve been reading things that give the impression that it’s a sudden change, but has it felt like this is where you’ve been going for a while?

Karen O: Yeah, it kind of does. I mean, I kind of feel that we’ve been trying to write a dance song that we love, that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs love, since the first EP, but we’ve never succeeded (laughs). So, we weren’t expecting to write one for this album, or go in that direction – it kind of just happened. I think everything you hear on this record has basically been what’s been happening and evolving over the last nine years. I think what’s jarring about it is the production style, but it’s still very much a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record.

You have been together for almost a decade now. That’s quite an achievement…

Nick: It’s crazy, but in band years it’s like, what? Nine times as long?

Karen O: Yeah, yeah it is. You age like five years every two years. So it’s definitely very long for a band.

So how do you keep challenging yourself as a band after all this time?

Nick: It gets harder each time, but it’s essential at the same time. I mean, not always – sometimes things come really quickly and ideas just appear and songs are written in 20 minutes and that’s the same, but on the other side sometimes things just take forever to be realised.

Brian: It took a lot of just doing it, and just starting to play together. We did an initial session in December and a little one across January and February, and for those times it was just us finding each other again, you know, like coming back together to be a band and to write and record – just the process of three individuals finding each other again, and then trying and discover what this new music will be. The important part was just to do it, to get there together and play, and do it repeatedly. And that’s one of the reasons why we worked in an area where we lived and worked, and that’s all we did. We got out of the cities and went to remote locations, and just by being with each other for days and days and playing constantly and listening to what we did. We found the meeting point and then went off to develop these songs.

What’s this I hear about you purchasing a new synth from eBay, and it being something of a ‘fourth member’?

Nick: No, it’s just another tool, a toy, something to mess around with, an idea generator.

Do you frequent eBay much?

Nick:Ah… I go through fazes. Drunk eBaying is the worst.

Karen O: What’s that?

Nick: Drunk eBaying… My apartment is just littered with weird, stupid amounts of guitar effects that just make noise, weird keyboards and toy instruments and stuff like that. Like you know, they’re all things that someday might have a purpose for some song or something.

Karen O: I think high eBaying is even worse than drunk eBaying in some ways, you know? I remember Dave purchasing these microphones that they used to record whales with, like down under the sea…

Brian: Like leads under the sea…

Karen O: Yeah, and they’re like really expensive, and it’s like, ‘Well, when are you going to be doing that, Dave?’ and it’s like, ‘I don’t know, but…’ (laughs)

Brian: ‘I’m doing it right now!’ (laughs)

So if I could maybe just go through a bit of the record itself, starting with the first track and first single ‘Zero’: do you remember the first piece of leather you bought?

Karen O: (Laughs) Let me think about that. I have this sort of um… It was probably the early ‘90s, this round bomber jacket, you know that I wore with my calvary jeans with patches all over it; like, really dorky. I think it was supposed to be what fighter pilots wear when they’re off duty or something, for 12 year olds (laughs). That was my first piece of leather – pretty dorky! It wasn’t the Michael Jackson jacket. When I was seven or eight [I knew] this kind of short and kind of squatty blonde kid with freckles, and he had the red leather jacket with all the zippers on it. And I was like, ‘Ohhhhh’, but I didn’t own one unfortunately.

How about you guys, when did you get your first leather jackets

Nick: I’ve tried to rock a leather jacket a bunch of times, it just never works out on me…

Karen O: It did at my birthday party…

Nick: That’s true, except at your birthday party! I dressed up as a greaser – it was great. It’s weird because I’ve stopped buying new leather now because I’m a vegan. How about you Brian, you got leather pants?

Brian: Oh… um… yeah, I have this amazing pair of leather pants that I only wear at home. We both have leather pants and wake up in the morning and just put on our leather pants, and that’s it. A cup of coffee staring out the window, no shirt and leather pants.
So ‘Zero’ and ‘Skeletons’ were the first two songs you wrote for the record – how much did they dictate the rest of the mood for the album?

Karen O: I think they were pretty influential for the direction, because initially when they were written, I remember ‘Skeletons’ flicking a bit of a switch in my head regarding the possibilities of where we could go. And ‘Zero’ felt just like just another Yeah Yeah Yeahs kind of ‘ah!’ song, you know? I wasn’t thinking so much about the synth or guitar when it came to that one, but with ‘Skeletons’ I did because atmospherically it was just so… like, there was a quality about it that was really kind of moving and… I don’t know. I know that electronic music has been out there for a while, but it’s never really appealed to me for whatever reason, but then when I heard the landscape of ’Skeletons’, it really kind of flicked a switch and I thought: ‘Wow, what if we use more of that?’ Spatially, and how is that going to change the sound of things? So I guess they were influential, yes.
You can defiantly hear the spatial quality in the record, but then my favourite song is ‘Shame and Fortune’, because it’s so edgy…

Karen O: Like a Suicide kind of vibe to it….

Yeah, I think that’s the key song that connects ‘It’s Blitz!’ with the sound of your first EP, which is really everything to me. Lyrically, ‘Dull Life’ intrigues me – what is that about?

Karen O: That was pretty much like flying by the seat of my pants. We wrote that in 2007, at a time where we were about to tour behind our EP, and we just felt like writing a new song and the lyric just kind of came. I don’t really know what it’s about or why I came up with it. (laughs)
But in a song, say like ‘Runaway’, I kind of feel a real personal tie with the lyrics, would I be right in saying that?

Karen O: Yeah, probably.

So how has Karen the lyricist changed, and developed?

Karen O: Um, I think I’ve just really got one kind of goal, where I want to push myself, and that’s simplicity – to try and strip things down as simply as possible, to just cut straight to the point without being so literal that it’s just really hard for the listener to try and interpret things for themselves. So if you write simple lyrics, as long as they kind of contrast with the music they are coupled with, then there’s a whole world of meaning in there. So it’s tricky, because you don’t want to write simple lyrics without any meaning, or recognising exactly what the song sounds like, or what the music sounds like. You want to contradict, so there’s a lot more space for feeling, emotions and interpretations. But simpler, I was just trying to get a lot simpler.

And ‘Hysteric’, that’s the obvious love song. What do you think musically and lyrically makes a good love song?

Karen O: (Giggles) Oh, these can do it…

Nick: Oh! Well, you’ve got to have some good with the bad, some of the pain with the joy, and a little bit of the having and the not having. I like that, the pleasure and the heartbreak, for me, the most effective love songs always going to have the both sides to it.

What have you achieved on ‘It’s Blitz!’ that you couldn’t have achieved previously?

Karen O: We don’t really have the perspective to really answer that question, you know? I’d say we’re all really too close to it still to have perspective to know. I think in maybe a couple of years from now it will be easier to tell what we achieved on this record, and what we couldn’t have before. I think it’s really hard having any perspective on that question.

So it’s been nine years – what motivated and inspired the YYYs when you started, and is that the same thing that inspires you now?

Brian: No… I mean yes and no. When we started it was just something to do, and something we wanted to do for fun. Those sentiments are definitely still there, but everything changes so much.

Karen O: I think essentially it’s the same. Because I think the reason we started the band was because we wanted to have fun and fuck around, and we were watching all these other bands and we were like: ‘If they can do it, we can do it!’ I think one of the big sentiments that has not changed whatsoever is that we want to make a raucous, noisy, emotionally cathartic [sound]. We were living in New York at a time when people stood there with their arms crossed in the audience, and just felt really indifferent or ambivalent about music. You wanted to just smack them, you know? Break a beer bottle over their head, to wake ‘em up and make them feel something, and that’s still what we want to do now. We want to shake the unshakable, to stir things up, and that’s a lot of the spirit of ‘Zero’; it’s like” ‘Come on man! Come on! Just feel something, escape, whatever, whatever the emotion is just feel it!’.

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The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are currently on tour in the US but will return to these shores for a number of festival shows including T in the Park, Oxegen, Leeds and Reading.

Visit the Yeah Yeah Yeahs home on the internet HERE

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