Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Yeah Yeah Yeahs seminal 2003 debut Fever To Tell was a clarion call, heralding the arrival of Karen O. In a New York post-punk revival scene that gave rise to The Strokes and Interpol, hers was the only band with a female leading its charge and wearing a dildo dress.
Karen O has never been one to shy away from discomfort, pain or ugly-ness; be it the post breakup self-evisceration, outbursts with band members for holding back on the unflinching honesty she demands or a Christian Joy outfit so stomach churning it made her cry, she would deal with it head on and often, it just wasn’t pretty. But it was truthful, empowering and not indifference.
Joy the New York designer synonymous with O (Born Karen Lee Orzolek) still makes her costumes today. She is notorious for the eyesore that was the toxic spew-green, pizza dress with dildos hanging off the shoulders but also created the rather fetching Nudie-suits O wore during her Elvis–in-Vegas phase. O loathed the sight of the audience sat on the floor while performers were onstage; she wanted everyone on their feet. She found a co-conspirator in Joy. Both provocateurs in their art, they literally push each other to extremes; O was once so repulsed by Joy’s design that they literally fought it out. In the end, the costume still had to be worn before the show could begin.
In recent years, O’s solo projects have shown a softer side: The soundtrack of Where The Wild Things Are, her 2014 lo-fi solo debut Crush Songs, and the Grammy nominated “Moon Song” all featured a stripped back, quietness to her vocals, worlds away from the fellatio-mic performing, olive-oil smearing, whirling dervish with the banshee shriek that made Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ formative New York shows, legendary. At the moment, she shrugs off calls for any new Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ record. In 2015, she told Rolling Stone she was concentrating on motherhood; she now has a 2-year-old son, with husband, British director, Barnaby Clay. But even without any new album, the 39-year-old is always up to represent.
“I didn’t choose to be a rock front woman, it was being at the right place at the right time. But now I am in this position, I’m established, in a time when it feels like it’s not so easy to be established anymore, I’m totally up for representing women,” O tells me as defiantly as her meek voice can muster, on a call from L.A. where she now resides. Her shyness offstage is well documented and she admits to having lots of social anxiety. “I’m like one of those performers –there’s a lot of us,” she once told an indie mag.
She has just returned from a small run of shows, reuniting with Nick Zinner (guitar/keyboards) and Brian Chase (drums), to support the Reissue. The Reissue includes a re-mastered vinyl, previously unreleased four-track demos, B-sides and rarities; plus a book of photos by Zinner, Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze, including 16-pages from Orzolek’s personal notebook. Add to that a USB stick of previously unseen videos and “There Is No Modern Romance,” a Patrick Daughters-
directed mini documentary of their 2003 Tour that Orzolek describes as the trio’s “near downfall.”
It took them a year to go through their archives and curate the hefty box set. It was a trip down memory lane but for all its nostalgic high points, she needed to also tread carefully.
“The sediment that had set at the bottom – it all got stirred up again,” O explains. “At times it was quite intense. 15 years is some time ago but it’s not like 30 years ago, enough time had passed but it was still recent enough for it to feel pretty raw.” The album was written during O’s relationship with Liars frontman Angus Andrew. In their “Maps” video, O famously revealed those tears she shed were real. Andrew had not turned up at the shoot and she was about to leave to go on tour. The pair would break up a year later.
The documentary captures in celluloid the rumors that abounded at the time of tension, tantrums and in-fighting. Orzolek is seen throwing a glass against the wall smashing it. Tempers flare between tour stops. She decamped from New York to Los Angeles after the tour, to get some space.
“Fever To Tell was such an explosive entry and conception into the world of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs,” she concedes. “So I found myself having a lot of feelings; some good and some bad. I was very unsure about the New York show, it was highly emotionally intense for me, I kept holding back tears. It was like opening the proverbial can of worms, it was all so fresh.“
It is exactly that ability Orzolek possesses to access those difficult moments and put them on show, undistilled, in all its rage and vulnerability that draws fans. And now, 15 years after those flushes, their live performances still do not disappoint.
“It always feels different because we’re always four years older from the last time we did it,” she explains. “In your 20s it’s like not a big deal. Once you get further along, in your 30s it is a big deal because now two of us are new parents in the band. Both Brian and I have children aged two or under. One of my concerns is how the fuck am I going to manifest my 22 year old energy?” she laughs. “When you’re writing your first record there is no long view like in 20 years how reasonable is it to play this in your Forties? It’s so like angsty and gnarly. It really needs a nuclear-
“I was surprised, 80 percent of Fever To Tell make up the songs for the recent shows, and it was those songs that I wanted to perform the most.” She wonders: “Maybe it’s the energy, the anticipation of it. There’s this reciprocal energy between the audience and us for those particular songs that make them like, the best play. But that’s just four shows, not 40!” Yeah Yeah Yeahs rise in the turn of the new millennium was concomitant to the post-punk revival of early aught New York, spearheaded by The Strokes: The same fecund groundswell that also fed bands like Interpol, The National and LCD Soundsystem. It echoed the city’s seventies heyday of Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground.
Thanks to Mayor Giuliani, drugs that you could once buy on street corners were quickly being eradicated but you could still buy them at bodegas. Struggling artists, musicians and others of the creative underclass could afford to live communally in cheap loft spaces. But the charts were filled with Mickey Mouse alumni Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. Game changers Nirvana had lost their figurehead and grunge was over, in its place were Limp Bizkit, Savage Garden and Coldplay. The stage was poised for a rock n’ roll takeover.
Out of that prolific, vibrant scene, O was that rare female leading the charge. Armed with her art-school sensibilities, she took fetishized female sexuality out of the bedroom and hurled it without inhibitions straight into the public consciousness singing, “As a fuck son, you suck.” She became a bellwether for spirited young women everywhere, hell bent on copying her fishnet-punk rock style, if nothing else. Today, we discuss striking that balance between motherhood and freelance work.
It’s comforting to know O like every mother raising a toddler, counts the minutes to bedtime. “You’re like on another planet. I have to learn how to balance family and work in a way that I never had to do before. I have to stop at 5 O’clock so I can go hang out with my kid and put him to sleep. And after he sleeps I just want to veg out,” she laughs. “I think it’s healthier in a lot of ways.”
She seems content to embrace that domesticity, but she retorts, “It’s ok. I’m bumbling along.” Instead of nursing hangovers, they cope with catching bugs from their kids. “Before these shows my son got me sick with this terrible mini-flu cold thing. Then Brian’s son had the stomach flu and by the third show, he got it. He was in bad shape – it’s our new reality.”
After a decade of seeing her spew beer on stage with smeared make-up, we were all taken by surprise when she appeared demure, in a diaphanous gown for her Crush Songs tour. The album’s lo-fi songs were hushed, demo-like recordings, done between 2006 and 2010 as she went through break-ups, crushes and new loves.
“That’s where it all started,” she insists. “I was writing love songs – these sort of sweet, innocent, tortured love songs and I played it for Nick. And he asked: ‘can I help you play something on it?’ And I was like ‘yeah, sure!” and he started playing the slide guitar. We called our band Unitard. Then we thought ‘let’s now play on the other end of the spectrum’ and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs happened!”
In their pursuit of authenticity, they’ve always wandered into divergent sonic terrains. Peel off the shrieking and shock stage antics, and at the core remains the New Jersey girl who loves Connie Francis and counts the maudlin “Tell Laura I Love Her” by Ray Peterson as one of her favorites.
“It’s the melodrama of it – the subtler realms of love where everything’s at stake. The pain and melodrama, I don’t know especially for a young girl, it’s like crack, I love it so much. Could be something in my heritage of Korean and Polish, where I have that really soft-spot for melodrama?”
O’s personal life is less tumultuous than the early days of Fever To Tell. Unfortunately, the current political climate is just as onerous as it was in the Bush White House, post 9/11.
She weighs in: “It is interesting to me. When we started putting the reissue together it was still undetermined who was going to be President? Now that it is Trump – here we are, back in the dark ages. When we were doing Fever To Tell, as a 23 year old, I had no perspective on any of this. I was just caught up in my own world; it’s the soundtrack of everything going on inside of me, everything outside, and all around me. We couldn’t make that same record. It was a diamond in the rough.
“But I’m glad that young people are re-discovering it. A lot of my records were about coping with really difficult times in the world and in my own personal life. A lot of that is in there; accessing these feelings that can be difficult to access outside of music. I am happy for the reissue to put the spotlight on issues.”
O was at the Women’s March in L.A. last January to protest the White House policies and its pussy-grabbing President. In a year where ‘feminist’ was the most searched word on the internet, there has been such an egregious assault on women’s rights. “We need to do everything in our power to inspire and support each other through this,” she says emphatically, “Us women, we’re the fighters.”
Photographer: Lloyd Galbraith
Writer: Celine Theo