Yeah Yeah Yeahs

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Rock group

In a time when strong female rock singers were truly lacking in the music industry, New York's the Yeah Yeah Yeahs burst onto the scene with the daring, artistic and truly powerful Karen O front and center, kicking, screaming and singing her way into the limelight. Joined by innovative guitarist Nicolas Zinner and classically trained jazz drummer Brain Chase, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs produced guttural blues-influenced garage rock that also shone with hooks a-plenty and true emotion, garnering the band mass critical and audience praise with only two albums to their name.

Before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would encapsulate her persona, Karen O came into the world as Karen Orzolek, born November 22, 1978, in South Korea to Chris and Munja Orzolek. Her Polish-American father and Korean mother decided to move the family to the greener pastures of New Jersey, where Karen developed an interest in music and fashion early on, attending local punk shows at VFW halls. Orzolek told Themusicedge.com that early in life she was "really excited by bands like Faith No More, bands that were eccentric and more removed from the typical sound. I was really into pop music but intrigued by these other bands along the fringes."

Soon, Karen left New Jersey to attend school at Oberlin College, where she met future Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase. After a she discovered a newfound interest in film, Karen decided to move out to New York and attend New York University, where she met photography student Nick Zinner. As Zinner told Kitty Magic, "Karen and I first met at the Mars bar, a noxious downtown dive that we hate to love. Our mutual friend Helen introduced us. The first time we actually hung out was when she and the aforementioned Helen came to see me play drums for my other favorite NY band besides The Liars, Flux Information Sciences. Tristan, the singer, was wearing a furry wolf mask, and we all afterwards frolicked in his van, careening about, listening to the New Jersey heavy metal radio station."

In the year 2000, the friendship between the two would morph into that of a musical collaboration as well, as Zinner and Orzolek began crafting songs under the moniker Unitard. Karen told Themusicedge.com that, "Neutral Milk Hotel is one of the biggest influences as far as singer song writer stuff goes for me. I was really into that when I was about seventeen and I would sing along to them and his voice was really inspiring sound for me. Neil Young, in that singer songwriter style, story teller-raw and sincere, cut right through style is inspiring to me." As a result, the songs that Zinner and Orzolek began working on were more in the experiment folk vein, recorded crudely on a four track with no intent on performing any of the material in a live setting.

Orzolek, however, was feeling the urge to do something a bit more rock oriented, and later that year decided her and Zinner should form a rock band instead. Zinner and Orzolek began crafting a bass-less blues-garage attack, similar to Royal Trux, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Sonic Youth, with Orzolek's melodic squeal front-and-center. Booking a show opening up for then-up-and-coming Detroit garage-rock duo the White Stripes at Manhattan's Mercury Lounge, Orzolek invited her former Oberlin classmate Chase (who had since relocated to New York) to play drums with her and Zinner. Chase accepted, and soon the band—now named the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—were more or less legitimized. Orzolek explained her feelings about the first gig to Trupunk.com, saying, "As soon as I hit the stage after a good amount of tequila, something else took over. All of a sudden there was a party on stage."

Following the Yeah Yeah Yeah's first performance, Orzolek started to develop the onstage persona that she started to call Karen O. While Orzolek was a somewhat shy film student with an interest in creating quiet folk songs in her bedroom, "Karen O" was an almost obnoxious caricature of the "rock star," covered in sweat and beer, with loud colored outfits (courtesy of O's friend/fashion designer Christian Joy), ripped tights, and smeared lipstick playing a large part in her visual expressions. Instead of hiding behind her hair and standing still like other female singer/songwriters, Karen O rolled around on stage, spilled beer on the audience, and sang with an emotive and often-times wild voice that fell somewhere between Wendy O. Williams and PJ Harvey. Backed by Zinner's grimy guitar skronk and Chase's flamboyant drumming, the band developed a reputation as having a live show to be reckoned with.

In 2001, after more gigs supporting the likes of the White Stripes and the Strokes, the band cut a self-titled 5 song EP with Boss Hog's Jerry Teel, and released it on their own Shifty label. The band's reputation for amazing live shows caught the attention of Girls Against Boys, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the White Stripes, who all took the band out on tours of the US and Europe. Soon, independent giant Touch and Go re-released the band's debut EP in the states, and come 2002, the band was again rocking audiences everywhere, alongside the likes of Sleater-Kinney, the Liars (a fellow NYC art-punk band that featured Angus Andrew, Karen O's then-boyfriend), and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

For the Record …

Members include Brian Chase, drums; Karen O (born Karen Orzolek), vocals; Nicolas Zinner, guitar.

Zinner and Orzolek began playing music together, 2000; Chase joined soon after; played shows with the White Stripes and the Strokes, 2001; released several EPs, 2001–02; signed to Interscope Records and released debut Fever To Tell, 2003; released Show Your Bones, 2006.

Addresses: Record company—Interscope, website: http://www.interscope.com. Booking—Ground Control Touring, [email protected] Website—Yeah Yeah Yeahs Official Website: http://www.yeahyeahyeahs.com.

With the release of their EP Machine in November of 2002 on Touch and Go, the hype engine behind the band started to generate at an alarming rate. Grouped in with other experimental, art, and dance inspired groups like the Rapture, Liars, and Radio 4, the band soon found the likes of NME, Rolling Stone and SPIN magazines knocking on their door, ready and willing to do features on the eclectic threesome, before they even released a full-length album. Karen O told Citypaper.net, "We knew that most people hadn't heard any actual music. I think we were, like, you know, as curious to hear an album as anybody."

Come April of 2003, however, everybody, even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs them selves, got to hear what it seemed the whole industry was buzzing about. After a major label bidding war, the band selected Interscope records as the lucky label to release their full-length debut. The band holed up in the studio with producer Dave Sitek (who doubled as a member of arty space-rockers TV on the Radio), and emerged with the 11-track album they called Fever to Tell. Chock full of blues-damaged riffs, primal drumming and Karen O's now distinctive holler, Fever to Tell seemed to live up to it's preconceived hype, as positive reviews popped up all over the internet and in magazines everywhere. In a review at Popmatters.com, Adrien Begrand said, "The band shows that they're not only ready to transcend all the hype that's been building up; they've already started … it's near impossible not to like an album like this one." Kevin Dolak at Prefixmag.com said, "By the end of the first track, and eventually by the end of this record, you'll have some restored faith in these young, hip magazine cover stars/musicians." Across the pond, Nick Reynolds of the BBC said, "This is a great party record."

It seemed, however, that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' version of rock n' roll, however, didn't seem to start the kind of fire amongst the mainstream set as Interscope had hoped. So, the label took a chance and released a single for the song "Maps," one of Fever to Tell's more heartfelt and emotional tracks—a stark contrast to most of the rollicking bombast heard on the album. Though the song somewhat went astray from the band's reckless identity, the plan worked. Soon, "Maps" was getting national radio airplay and the band's unabashedly emotional video (which depicts a crying Karen O) was an MTV favorite. The song was a hit, and the band saw them selves go from playing small clubs to theatres in the matter of months.

Touring, however, proved to be point of discretion between the members of the band, and after the hype for Fever to Tell died down, the band seemed to go their separate ways. Zinner took time putting together a book of photographs he had taken on the road called I Hope You're All Happy Now (a first, Slept in Beds, came out in 2003) and playing in the grindcore band Head Wound City, alongside members of the Blood Brothers and the Locust. Chase busied himself playing drums for his sideband the Seconds (who released Y in 2001 and Kratitude in 2006, both on 5 Rue Christine) and with various jazz ensembles around New York. In 2004, Karen O left New Jersey (where she was living with boyfriend Andrew), and wound up in Silverlake, Los Angeles, California's hipster art and music district. While there, her vocals on the song "Hello Tomorrow" (produced by Squeak E. Clean) wound up in a Nike commercial directed by filmmaker Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, videos for Pavement, Bjork and the Beastie Boys). The two were eventually romantically linked.

Despite other interests, however, Karen O convinced Zinner and Chase to come out to Los Angeles and hole up in the studio with Squeak E. Clean to write and record their next album. Titled Show Your Bones, Interscope released the album in March of 2006. Written mostly in the studio, Karen O. said told MTV, "We were able to get into a different place, and we were able to start at a different level. I mean, it's kind of useless to be afraid of what's already happened. The writing process was pretty different. The first song we wrote was 'Gold Lion.' Brian jammed out on drums for an hour, and the melody just kind of popped in. The whole thing was a lot more 'studio' than anything we've done." On the strength of "Gold Lion," the Pixies-esque lead single from the album, Show Your Bones picked up where "Maps" left off, and then some. The album debuted at number 11 on the Billboard charts. Showing more diversity and a slightly poppier edge than Fever to Tell, Show Your Bones again got the critics talking. Rolling Stone's David Fricke gave the album four stars, calling it a "textural triumph." The NME proclaimed Show Your Bones was "gutsy, bruised, womb-warm, simultaneously tender and defiant, and just about as sprawling as you can get in under 40 minutes. Brilliant, in short."

Selected discography

Yeah Yeah Yeahs (EP), Shifty, 2001.
Machine (EP), Touch & Go, 2002.
Fever to Tell, Interscope, 2003.
Show Your Bones, Interscope, 2006.

Sources

Periodicals

City Paper (Philadelphia, PA), April 3, 2003.

Entertainment Weekly, May 2, 2003; April 14, 2006.

Interview, May 2002; April 2006.

People, June 2, 2003.

Online

"Fever to Tell," BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/rockandalt/reviews/yeah_fever.shtml (June 11, 2006).

"Glorious Noise," Popmatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/y/yeahyeahyeahs-fever.shtml (June 15, 2006).

"Interview: Yeah Yeah Yeahs," Truepunk.com, http://www.truepunk.com/interviews/yeahyeahyeahs/index.cfm (June 2, 2006).

MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/ (June 19, 2006).

"Review: Fever to Tell," Prefixmag.com, http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/Y/Yeah-Yeah-Yeahs/Fever-To-Tell/234

"Show Your Bones," Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/reviews/album/9486067/review/9512915/show_your_bones (June 11, 2006).

"Yeah Yeah Yeahs," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 20, 2006).

"Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Karen O," Themusicedge.com, http://www.themusicedge.com/moxie/news/girlsrock/yeah-yeah-yeahs-karen-o.shtml (July 1, 2006).

"Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Show Your Bones," NME, http://www.nme.com/reviews/yeah-yeah-yeahs/7887 (June 12, 2006).