FOREWORD: Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer, Karen O, is another well-reared Jersey girl from Bergen County (just outside NYC) with charming affability. But onstage, she becomes the perfect psycho slut from hell, dressed in trashy clothing and full of sexual energy.
When we spoke over the phone in ’03 to promote her trio’s highly anticipated Fever To Tell long-play debut, Karen O sounded like a spryly innocent valley girl. Meeting in person at Irving Plaza in May, she was gracious when I presented the following article to her prior to the show. I even met guitarist Nick Zinner’s mom at the balcony level.
Onstage, Karen O took charge immediately, spraying the crowd with mouth water, prancing the stage with unmistakable lascivious swagger, and belting out tunes with utter fervency. A few months later, heartbroken noir-ish lullaby , Maps, became a huge hit and secured the bands’ future. ‘06s Show Your Bones held up well and ‘09s It’s Blitz piled on the dancefloor friendly fodder. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Englewood, New Jersey-bred Karen O may be shy, demure, and coy off-stage, but given the requisite escapism fronting a salivating audience of rabid fans and the unkempt queen of the Brooklyn scene slips into drunkenly enraged carnality. Besides having a predilection for ripped fishnet stockings, ruffle-tiered skirts, and leather stiletto boots, the captivating Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist ransacks the primal punk savagery of the Slits Ari Up; the naïve adolescence of X Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene; the unbridled sexuality of the Plasmatics Wendy O. Williams; and the liberated indulgence of the Pretenders Chrissie Hynde.
Bluesier and sexier than early-‘80s minimalist South Bronx hip-hop funkateers ESG (and their rhythmically elemental house music contemporaries Liquid Liquid, Konk, and Delta 5), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are also way more confrontational. During one “margarita-fueled” South By Southwest Conference showcase, the otherwise reserved Karen O and her trash-fashion designer Christian Joy stole Brit band Clinic’s blue surgical masks on the way to accidentally knocking down ill-humored ass Hole, Courtney Love.
Perhaps controversial behavior seals the deal for Karen O to be considered a true punk exploiting the dichotomy between New York City’s mid-‘70s rap and art-rock communities with no fear, inhibitions, or stylistic boundaries. Never contrived or prepossessing, she teases audiences like a sexually enraged scruffy art school prankster in non-conformist prime, playing flophouse rag doll with wanton enthusiasm. Romantically linked to rangy Lairs frontman Angus Andrews, Karen O brings shrewd erotic neo-primitivism to post-millennial tension.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs contagious eponymous 5-song EP has become ‘01s most exemplary Brooklyn underground snapshot. Nick Zinner’s nifty knack for James Chance-inspired suits and obsession for Jon Spencer’s blues-frazzled speaker-shredding guitar prowess fit these twisted throwbacks perfectly. And drummer Brian Chase, who splits time in the Seconds, shifts speed on a dime.
Karen O cuts loose on “Art Star,” unloading implosive banshee wails around Zinner’s tick-tock rhythm guitar riffs. She cheekily hiccups “as a fuck, son, you suck!” over the choppy discoid scuttlebutt, “Bang,” then ambushes countercultural contradictions on the deconstructed blues dirge, “Our Time,” deriding jaded challengers with the tortured “I’m so glad we made it/ It’s the year to be hated.”
Released as a primer, ‘02s pale-toned “Machine” single pit crushing Industrial bleakness against Karen O’s desolate whine. But could the Yeah Yeah Yeahs highly anticipated full-length debut, Fever To Tell, top previous endeavors?
Following the extraterrestrial electro-bleat of the dominatrix whiplash, “Rich,” Karen O becomes a whirling dervish soaring out of control on the dyspeptic “Date With A Night,” colliding Boss Hog’s smirk with Lene Lovich’s quirk on the squelched screech “Man.” Zimmer’s frenetic chain-like licks anchor Karen O’s nasty fuck-offs on the emboldened “Black Tongue.” Even naughtier is the bombastic orgiastic froth of “Cold Light.” But the clincher has to be the heartfelt turnabout, “Maps,” a passionate ode combining the sensuality of her incidental foremothers, PJ Harvey and Chrissie Hynde.
Could you re-capture the primitive charm, sexual vigor, and naïve sense of discovery shown on the 2 EP’s and Fever To Tell on future projects?
KAREN O: I don’t know. We’re never quite sure what song is gonna come out of us next. That’s the one preserved innocent thing we have left after all the hype and attention that sucks it away. We’re not even at a millionth of the songs we’re capable of writing. Fortunately, we’ve met a lot of people and been to a lot of places as a result of the attention. But we haven’t had enough time to concentrate on songs. So it’s hard to gage what’s gonna come out of us next. It’s hard to anticipate. We could go in a lot of different directions but it’s not necessarily prepared. That’s the way we’ve been doing it. I guess it’s spunky.
Fever To Tell has a more ass-shaking danceable appeal.
KAREN O: From the beginning we were always more psyched on danceable stuff. One of the major influences on my voice that I could claim as an influence is ESG. That’s what I listened to when we got started. Their singer is so cool – so much attitude and sex. It made me feel good listening to and dancing to. One of our initial aims was to have a dancey tip.
The stomping “Tick” is fabulous. It reminds me of Bow Wow Wow’s orgasmic “Sexy Eiffel Towers.” How’d you learn to stretch your voice so many ways?
KAREN O: I don’t know. I guess when we started the band. The voice thing I’m really objective about – detached from. It’s more of an instrument for me and it was incredibly durable for awhile. But the last couple weeks, it’s been weaker than usual. I think I have to preserve it a little and take care of it. I usually do nothing. (laughter)
The voyeuristic “Black Tongue” captures some of the sexual anxiety Chrissie Hynde projected on the Pretenders ’79 debut.
KAREN O: When I go out, I expect to have a wild high time. I’m expecting the best and most genuinely pure experience. That’s hard to come by. The frustration to achieve that might give us a great aggressive, sexual, irreverent spirit that’s going on. It’s like you’re grabbing something that’s a bit out of reach.
Does the rage come from being a latchkey kid with too much freedom and not enough attention?
KAREN O: I guess so. It’s weird though, because I’m already in my own world anyway. I feed off of it. It’s a quest to feel more life. Nothing is more offensive to me than middle-of-the-road or mediocre. I think that’s what the 18th century dandy’s were doing and what (lauded 19th century Russian novelist) Dostoyevski, The Notes From the Underground guy, was doing. It’s wanting to feel more and the frustration of not being able to achieve it.
Do you go clubbing much?
KAREN O: Not much anymore. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m semi-celebrity status. So when I go out people come up to me and it’s a little strange for me to be in those situations.
If you’re anointed the next big pop culture icon, how will you avoid making concessions?
KAREN O: Everything is a contradiction with this band and my persona. We’re three very serious people in a very un-serious tongue-in-cheek band. That runs into a lot of conflicts when everyone starts taking it too serious. Because then the un-serious part gets drowned a bit and then everything gets confused. As a persona, I started off by making a parody of myself before anyone else could. It’s a little dishonest and manipulative, but really genuine in the fact that I don’t like bullshit. I’m trying to be an honest performer with honest intentions. So you see there’s a lot of contradictions. You gotta understand the disdain from the underground towards major labels and MTV. A lot of bands I know wouldn’t touch a major label with a 3,000-foot pole.
Since Nick’s into photography and you studied film at NYU, have the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made any videos?
KAREN O: Not yet. Actually, a friend of mine from film school is doing a video for “Maps.” He has a good vision for it. The kind of filmmaking I was into – I don’t know if it translates – maybe as amusement. It’s really ridiculous and way out there and I don’t think it would get aired.
Why’d you choose to initially attend small Ohio college, Oberlin, after high school?
KAREN O: I wasn’t a very good student in 9th or 10th grade, so I didn’t think I’d do so well. That skewed my vision of where I’d get into. So I only applied to four colleges, but got into all of them. Oberlin was the more challenging of the four. Bryan went there and was in five bands at one time. He’s such a good drummer. Never in a million years did I think I’d play with him. He’s like the major leagues.
What do you drink to calm down prior to hitting the stage?
KAREN O: It used to be tequila, but now it’s a bottle of champagne.
Have you prepared new songs for the upcoming tour?
KAREN O: We have a couple, but we haven’t had the headspace or time to be writing, which is the most disappointing thing about getting attention. I’m constantly writing songs even if it’s not for Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I was a big folkie Grateful Dead fan for a stretch. But now I’m in an environment where people are constantly making music ‘cause we have a studio downstairs in the basement. The Liars are recording a new album as we speak. It’s amazing. Their drummer and bassist (from the first album) are gone, so it’s a three-piece. They’re constantly changing their sound.