Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Biography

By David Downs


            Faux art rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs emerged from the modern nouveau riche New York  in 2000, with an astonishing first show opening for the White Stripes. It was the first time the trio had played together live. Yeah Yeah Yeahs united noise-loving drummer Brian Chase, metal-trained  guitarist Nick Zinner and catty Karen Lee Orzolek or Karen O--an indie rock sex symbol thanks to her screeching voice and predatory posturing. The band's first EP "Yeah Yeah Yeahs" (2001 Shifty) careened across the internet alongside pictures of the band's theatrical live show, fueling demand for their second EP "Machine" (2002 Touch & Go). Yeah Yeah Yeahs then signed to Interscope and recorded their debut LP, Fever To Tell (2003 Interscope), achieving amazing sales, thanks to standout pop tracks "Maps," and "Y Control.” The record hit #55 on the Billboard 200, and their follow-up made it to number eleven. Show Your Bones (2006 Interscope) came from a much more studio-oriented space, but tracks like "Gold Lion" and "Phenomenon" satiated millions of fans' desire for the band's type of gladhand ferocity. The album was nominated for a 2007 Grammy Award for "Best Alternative Music album." 2007 saw the band release another EP "Is Is" (2007 Interscope) with another round of punishing tracks like "Down Boy," that helped it rise to #72 on the Billboard 200.


            Karen O was born in 1978 and grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, the daughter of a Polish father and a Korean mother. O attended Oberlin College, where she met drummer Brian Chase before transferring to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Chase was also born in 1978, and grew up on Long Island playing in punk bands. He attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music as a jazz drummer, specializing in abstract, improvisational music with a special love for noise.


            After Karen O transferred to New York University, she met Nick Zinner in a East Village dive bar, and they had a natural chemistry. Zinner was a prolific metalhead, raised on Testament, Slayer and Guns 'n' Roses - yet he proved to be the pop counterpoint to his bandmates' eclecticism. O demoed some of her folk songs for him and they formed Unitard, with Zinner on slide guitar, specializing in dark, depressing dirges. At one point, Karen O pushed Zinner in the direction of the trash punk groups of Oberlin, but Zinner thought rock was dead in New York. However, they came up with a name, logo and songs in a few hours anyway.


            Yeah Yeah Yeahs played their first show in 2000, opening for the White Stripes at the Mercury Lounge. However, The Yeahs' initial drummer dropped out, and Karen O suggested Chase. The newly formed band was baptized by fire that night, playing five songs with Chase on Meg White's drum kit. Yeah Yeah Yeahs' first rehearsal burst with new songs, and group started supporting The Strokes and The White Stripes.


            Word of the trio's live shows spread around the world virally. Chase's solid yet restrained drumming never missed a beat, Zinner's guitar work could tear a phonebook in half with its bare hands, yet both could only match the ferocity of Karon O. Dressed like a lecher's version of a schoolgirl on acid, Karen O projected confidence, hysteria and ferocity that middle class audiences instantly understood. In 2001, the group recorded a five-song EP, "Yeah Yeah Yeahs" (2001 Shifty) with Boss Hog's Jerry Teel, on their own Shifty label. The EP included "Bang" as well as another standout track, "Art Star."


            By 2002, Europe was in love with the Yeahs and the year included appearances at music industry festival South by Southwest, as well as shows with Girls Against Boys and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, in addition to their own UK tour. Amid this turbulent time, the group worked on its first full-length debut while playing dates with Sleater-Kinney, and Liars. Yeah Yeah Yeahs released the "Machine" EP (2002 Touch & Go), another collection of one-off tracks recorded during this period. Yeah Yeah Yeahs then signed to Interscope for their debut album, 2003's Fever to Tell.  Also notably at this time, Karen O started a relationship with Liars frontman Angus Andrew, and the album would be dominated by the emotions.


            Debut Yeah Yeah Yeahs LP  Fever To Tell (2003 Interscope) turned the art rockers into pop stars. It came out on April 29, 2003, hit #55 on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold. The album is incredibly sparse and taut. Zinner's guitar is enormous and terrifying on "No, No, No," and is exquisitely matched by Chase's tight drumming and Karen O's howl. However, it was the slower tempo songs that crossed over to the mainstream. "Maps" and its chorus of, they don't love you like I love you, refers to Karen O's boyfriend, Angus Andrew, and is incredibly sentimental. It exposed Karen O's insides the way her live show exposed her exterior, propped up by the momentum of Chase's drumming and Zinner's electrified, augmented guitars. Other standout tracks "Pin" and "Y Control" exhibit more of Zinner's guitar work, expertly parsing the line between arty chord progression and towering inferno of fuzz.


            Karen O moved to Los Angeles in 2004, after having broken up with Liars frontman Angus Andrew, and starting a relationship with director Spike Jonze. O said she sought the anonymity of LA and the confidence of surviving in an alien land. 2004 also saw the release of Tell Me What Rockers To Swallow (2004 Interscope) a DVD compilation of thirty-one songs performed live. In July, 2004, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, opened for Devo in Central Park, but individual projects took precedence in 2005. O sang in "Hello Tomorrow," for producer Squeak E Clean as part of a Nike project. Zinner recorded with side project Head Wound City and published a book of photographs, I Hope You Are All Happy Now.


            Chase states Yeah Yeah Yeahs' second full-length album proved very different from its debut, largely because they had the time to work solely on the project, as opposed to essentially documenting their road creations on past records. Promotional track "Gold Lion" came out as a seven-inch, 12-inch and CD, and presaged a more measured, mainstream effort. Show Your Bones (2006 Interscope) leads off with "Gold Lion," featuring drums, acoustic guitar, and a straight-forward vocal from Karen O, but it all slowly gives way to chaos as the three-minute song gets progressively louder and more dissonant. On this release we find three road-tested, professional musicians clearly in control, alternating between the acoustic classicism of "Way Out" and atonal, oddly structured noise of "Fancy."  The album climbed to #11 on the Billboard 200 and the band added Imaad Wasif to handle the extra layers and flourishes come tour time.


            The Yeah Yeah Yeahs spent the rest of 2006 touring, and summer 2007 came with another, extremely strong EP, "Is Is" (2007 Interscope), featuring recorded versions of older songs from the post-Fever to Tell period. Produced by Nick Launay, all of the songs on the five song EP are loud and bold, with "10 X 10" being among the strongest thanks to Zimmer's guitar riffs. The songs come from the most turbulent and emotionally unstable period in the band's history. As of June 2008, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have stated that they are working on a third full-length album from a barn in the Northeast and a ranch in the Southwest .


            The Yeah Yeah Yeahs also maintain numerous side projects, among them Zinner has published three books of photography, and plays with metal band Head Wound City and has performed with Bright Eyes among many others. Karen O is a fashion icon, thanks to her partnership with designer Christian Joy, and Shane plays drums with The Seconds.


            Yeah Yeah Yeahs plugged in at their first live show, opening for the White Stripes in 2000. The unlikely trio of an indie jazz drummer, a punk-metal guitarist, provocative sex kitten of a singer hit a cultural nerve. Their two EPs, two LPs and third EP indicate the band plans on sticking around. In 2009 the band released It's Blitz, followed by Mosquito in April 2013.



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