Another ancient interview with Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This one was their first ever cover story. Thought you might enjoy reading this as well.
Flushed by the (relative) success of the last Yeah Yeah Yeahs reprint – find it here – I thought I’d delve back further, to the legendary ninth issue of Careless Talk Costs Lives where we devoted 10 pages and the cover to an unknown Williamsburg band with just one EP to their credit. Just because we could. What follows is the final proof before it went through to layout.
Both of these reprints will implode and disappear forever from the Internet by midnight, this Monday.
YEAH YEAH YEAHS
Words: Everett True
Photography: Steve Gullick
“You know how in the 40s, Hollywood was lawless and glamorous and all that stuff… I feel that rock and roll is like that, for our generation. Hollywood was the dream-making business – music is more than that. You’ve got the songs, the memories, the moments that it creates. I’m 23 years old and I don’t know very much about anything but I do know about guitars and I know that our band reaches people. The world is confused and bleak, but doing something as innocent as playing a show can have a lasting effect. Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to express myself. Music is complete instinct application and cheap thrills. It’s the most relaxed and easy way to get through to people. It doesn’t take too much work to accomplish, honestly. I mean, people write songs in two minutes” – Karen O
Here’s what rock’n’roll should be about.
Excitement. Trouble. Coming home at three in the morning and sending out emails to your friends, accusing them of favouring the profit motif over scruples. Feeling like you can fuck with the world. Feeling like you can fuck the world. Sex. Glamour. Little bunny rabbits, their fur all painted purple and gold. Sex. Shiftiness. Not being able to trust anyone for fear they might case more mischief upon you more than you can upon them. Sex. Live music.
My first encounter with New York debutantes Yeah Yeah Yeahs – sex, as exploded in vicarious steamed-up two minutes of noise – ran something like this. Fuck you. No, fuck you. Fuck you, corporate asshole. Fucking fuck you stupid parochial washed-up white boy critic. Screw you too. I returned home, and told everyone I could how crap and media-hungry and full of the opposite of fun everyone associated with them was – and that went for the band triple, despite a live show that dripped excitement and boy sweat in equal proportions. Interview was off. Screw them. Wasn’t it Huggy Bear (the band) that said, “Irritation is one of the greatest weapons we have at our disposal”? Isn’t half of rock music simply a desire to join the coolest gang?
Steve Gullick was so incensed, he spent the entire five hour photo shoot the next day winding up their smart, deadpan manager Asif: nasty in the toilets, drunk in the venue, pressed up against him by the stage, forcing him to take photos of his own band. “He had my balls in a vice against the sharp metallic front,” Asif told me a week later. “Another few inches and I would’ve been a eunuch. So I punched him. What else could I do?”
He deserved it, I’m sure.
This isn’t going to come out anyway. Right, what motivates you?
Karen O: “Is there a pause button?”
“It’s like a guttural instinct to create and disseminate at the same time. It’s really impulsive. I’ve been making things my whole life and this is what I feel I do best. It feels right. Like when you go to a new city and you’re walking without really knowing where you’re going to, but then suddenly you’ll wind up at an old cathedral or something and you’re like ‘This is exactly what I need’ but you didn’t know it when you set out. So I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. It’s a natural instinct. Also, what’s great is the idea that we can just get up and have fun. It’s satisfying all the way round. The songs are really clever, creative and challenging but also allow for total release. It feels like the best way to spend my time” – Nick Zinner
Here’s why we’ve put Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the cover of the new Careless Talk.
We’re the coolest music magazine in the UK.
They’re the coolest band in America.
Sure, it’s shallow. If you’re looking for fucking world solutions from rock’n’roll – man, you’re misguided. Go join a march against Israeli aggression. Go hassle The Sun to reorganise their priorities: to stop picking on easy targets like dole cheats and instead hassle fat cats with their fancy accountants minimising tax payments and spiriting billions of pounds from the economy. Join the fucking Peace Corps. Sweet.
That’s not the only reason they’re there, of course. One song on their debut Wichita EP sounds precisely like White Stripes with Meg on vocals (“Our Time”), another is like Brian Molko with a bee up his ass (“Miles Away”). Leaving the weaker tracks aside, the five-track EP boasts a riot of sinuous, supple, sexy noise – all staccato rhythms and indecipherable yelping – topped with a worrying dose of naughtiness. Live, they’re FUCKING ACE: movement and passion and beer spittle in everyone’s eyes. In Brighton, girl fans dance like I’ve never seen girl fans dance before.
We love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ tight li’l New York asses.
I’ll make it simple – I don’t give a fuck whether you tell me the truth or not.
Karen O: “That’s more complicated.”
I interviewed Blondie two years ago and I sat down with them and asked, “How many interviews have you done?” They were like “I don’t know – a hundred thousand.” So I said, “Look, just make the entire story up for me, from the start.” And they did. Damn, we had a time!
Asif: “Just tell him you were born in Jamaica.”
Don’t hit the pause button. I’m the fucking interviewer.
Karen O: “You’re like the violent interviewer. The Hannibal Lector of interviews. Did you see that scuffle?”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs number three – the devastating, mercurial, bratty Karen O (vocals), the scrawny Nick Zinner (guitars) and bespectacled Brian Chase (drums: a dead ringer for Chandler from Friends, but I don’t have the nerve to tell him to his face). When Karen and Nick come down to Brighton a few days after the CTCL interview to catch Ms O’s boyfriend’s band, the dirty stinkin’ Liars, they line up on the white leather coach in my living room, trainers removed, all meek and sipping tea like smart li’l children. Butter wouldn’t melt. Karen’s voice is shot, absolutely gone, a salacious drool of a husk.
“I just got in an argument with my boy,” she announces, struggling with the zip of her jacket. “I turned up at the venue, and he was like ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ I told him we’d come to visit Everett True, the coolest man in England and then we fought.’
I suggest the band write a tour diary.
“We didn’t get up to anything on this tour,” Nick complains. Hold up. Weren’t you just telling me about last night in Limerick, in a seedy strip club where Karen set light to your sneakers as you sat there, feet up on a table?
“Yeah. I didn’t realise they’d burn so fast,” the singer laughs.
“I see things in the big picture. I reiterate things that I feel are universal. We all have things that get us off, things that get us down. It’s rare that people are on the same wavelength. Even my boyfriend and me have the same emotions, but at different times, and don’t see eye-to-eye occasionally. When we’re playing music to a roomful of packed people from everywhere – they are different individuals but we can bring them to the same space, the same ground. That’s rad because it’s about having everyone… and not just any ground, fun ground. It’s not any ground, it’s real special” – Karen O
Do you remember Scarce? Brilliant band. I interviewed their singer Chick about four times and none of the tapes came out. One time I interviewed him in a fountain in Amsterdam at three in the morning. It was a great interview and the only thing on the tape was Drew Barrymore saying my real name over and over again for like two minutes and then saying “asshole” at the end. I wrote that up but it didn’t go in the final article because my editor refused to believe it was real. It doesn’t matter – who cares if I made it up? It’s a good story. I’ve never met anybody before. This is like my first time out in three years.
Karen: “Maybe I should get a drink.”
Yeah – you should get a drink. Can you get me a coffee please?
Asif: “What is she? A waitress?”
This is only the beginning. We aren’t going to be running out of stories. Reneging on a promise to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs/Liars/McLusky triple headliner in London on the Sunday, I travel down to Camber Sands for All Tomorrow’s Parties and am greeted by a man with a four foot long orange beard who grabs me by the hand. “Who is this fucking weirdo?” I wonder to myself, quiet in case events turn violent. Twenty minutes later, I realise it’s Will “Bonny Prince Billy” Oldham. Hey, nice beard Will – his fans clearly think so too, females constantly going up to the surprisingly sociable star to run their fingers through it.
The Yeahs take revenge on my absence by phoning up my mobile the following night at three am. Karen O serenades and admonishes me with rhymes made up around my pen name. Am I living in the past here?
What do you think about when you’re on stage?
Karen: “Let’s see. Let me take a few sips of this and I’ll get back to you.”
No, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’ll just print your gibberish and you’ll look stupid, that’s fine. I don’t know – tell me a story from your childhood.
Karen: “I’ll answer one of those questions in the next five minutes.”
Well, that’s nice. That’s OK. I’ve already got this feature worked out. The interview is completely irrelevant – except my transcriber is going to kill me for talking all this gibberish. I had a good question there… what was it? Do you like mischief?
What kind of mischief do you like?
Karen: “I like creating a racket in New York City and stuff. If it’s about four in the morning, I like dragging trash bags from the sidewalk into the middle of the road. I do that at just about every other block and watch the cars weaving in and out. Also, I like taking the boards outside of the restaurants, with the menus on, I like taking them about two blocks up and hiding them under the staircase or something.”
What about hotels?
Karen: “I haven’t found that much mischief in hotels yet.”
Switch room keys when you’re drunk. Drop shot glasses from the top floor down spiral staircases. But be warned. It is passé to throw TVs out the window – just leave them dangling by their leads.
Karen: “That’s a good one. Yeah, outside of restaurants and falafel shops in New York City, they usually have like two chairs to sit on while you eat your falafel – I like taking those chairs and walking a couple of blocks away with them.”
Asif: “What are you talking about now?”
Mischief. So give me a definition of punk.
Yes – any definition. I don’t care.
Karen: “It rhymes with a lot of things.”
That’s a good definition. I was hoping you’d say something like “mammoths.”
Asif: “You’re both insane.”
I moved to London because of The Slits.
More specifically, I moved to London because of a song on The Slits’ debut album, “Cut”, called “Shoplifting”. It sounded as though the four girl musicians were having such a great, great time – all the squeals and giggles of glee as they ran shrieking away from the besieged store. The bass looped, pounded, and panted in sympathy behind them, the guitar played all shrill discord and exclamation marks. The vocals were… dirty. “Ten quid for the lot/We paid FUCK ALL”, they boasted, out of breath. Never had I heard girls sound so natural and unafraid and mischievous, so comfortable with their own naughtiness. Never had I heard anyone, male or female, sound so free, so in love with the limitless possibilities of life.
Sure, I used to steal from shops – but to me, it was more of a necessity. I could never afford the vinyl I craved. The risk usually outweighed the thrill and adrenaline rush. I was, to put it frankly, a wuss. The Slits sounded like anything but, as they moved unchecked through their West London streets. “Is this what the big city is like?” I wondered. “A place where girls like The Slits run rampant on the underground and down dark alleyways, a place where punk gigs happen in dark, dub-heavy Ladbroke Grove clubs – playing music like that created by ‘Cut’ producer Dennis Bovell – not in a fucking Chelmsford community centre?” Listening to “Shoplifting” made me want in, so bad.
(Excerpt from a review of “Cut” by The Slits, taken from www.dominorecordco.com)
Most people get really serious on my arse. I interviewed The Spice Girls and they tried to prove how intelligent they were. They didn’t manage it very well. Posh Spice is the thickest person ever and she’s got terrible skin and horrible teeth. So what do you aim to do with your music? Why are you in a band? What are you doing? Why are you here?
Karen: “I like being in a band because I was a kid in a band… not in a band… I was a kid. When I was a kid, I’d go to see bands…”
You like being in a band because you weren’t in a band? Why don’t you go back to not being in a band again and you might like it even more. You know what I was doing last night? I was in the Mercury Rev dressing room, going up to them and yelling in their ears, “How do we like our thrills? Cheap!”
“How do we like our gratification? Instant!”
Karen: “Yeah, exactly, that’s what I’m saying.”
Hey, I’ve had an idea. Describe the other members before they turn up.
Karen: “Nick is the guitarist and he’s really good at what he does.”
What does he do?
Karen: “He makes a very big sound, very dynamic. And Brian’s the drummer and he’s really good at what he does as well.”
And what’s that? Cook chicken?
Karen: “Brian’s really good… our band is extremely efficient. We usually practice only once before a gig. If we have new songs, which is usually pretty often…”
You have a lot of new songs?
Karen: “Not recently because we’ve been pretty busy, but whenever we make a new song, we’ll practice that. It’ll take us five minutes to half-an-hour to get a new song done. We’re just the most efficient band in the world, I’d say.”
These songs… they are songs, right?
Why… did you choose your sound? Did you go to a catalogue of music and go “no, no, no – this one!”
K: “For sure, you know, totally for sure. There’s music that we really like, the music we go and see live. We’re very much a live band, which is great that everyone likes our record so much because we have it on both accounts. But the best music to see live has a lot of cocky attitude, the strutting, the dancing – all that stuff is in our show. That’s why the music’s like that.”
Where does this urge to destroy come from?
Karen: “It’s not destroying so much as stirring things up.”
Why do you want to stir things up?
Karen: “Because things get really boring.”
What were you doing before this?
Karen: “I was in film school.”
What were you doing in film school?
Karen: “I was making films.”
“Cut” yielded one astonishing single, “Typical Girls”. Its subject matter was, of course, about anything but. Typical girls wore white stilettos and short skirts with no stockings in the height of winter, and drank Babycham in cheesy disco clubs in Romford called the Pink Flamingo, hanging on the arms of only the most obnoxious brutes. Typical girls populated Sham 69 songs, or played the part of the brassy, bossy blonde in 70s English sitcoms – they weren’t sassy and fun and boasting about leaving “smells” the way The Slits wanted – but perhaps they were. I had no way of judging.
The Slits introduced me to female gangs, a concept hitherto confined to Russ Meyer tittie-fests and cheap 50s sexploitation flicks. The Slits introduced me to the concept of sex with all its attendant glorious smells and tumbles and squeals of jealousy and open-air liaisons. The Slits taught me the concept of freedom, showed me that life didn’t begin and end with the cradle-to-grave route of school-university-office-job-marriage-retirement, that there were illicit pleasures to be gained and wrongful pacts to be made, that life wasn’t as serious as I had imagined.
I never shoplifted when I moved up to London, though. I was too scared.
What first made you want to get up on stage and sing or whatever you call it?
Karen: “It’s really hard not to make an interview cheesy. All the answers are the same.”
Oh, I can make it cheesy. I told you – lie. Don’t ever give straight answers.
Never. Always lie. It’s the only way to do interviews.
Asif: “In America there’s a show called Star Search and, at a very early age, Karen’s parents forced her into a singing career. She was going on to this show at age eight. She managed to win the first prize. There was all this hype and hoopla about it. Then she got drug addiction, alcohol addiction, pregnancy – you know, this is all before she was 12. So Karen took a break and went to India on a spiritual quest to get her head together. Then I think there was a time in India when it clicked for her that singing was actually what she wanted to do, what she was meant to do, but there was all this anger and resentment towards her parents for forcing her to do this thing. So there were a lot of psychological issues she had to work out. But then she came back to New York and put an ad in The Village Voice, I answered it and that’s how it happened.”
You see – that’s a great… I’m Thomas by the way.
Brian: “I’m Brian, nice to meet you. My name’s not Brian.”
Karen: “That’s Brian, he’s the drummer.”
Don’t make fun of me, I’m only a journalist… oh, do make fun of me then.
Nick: “Are you going to make fun of us?”
Sorry to reprint my reappraisal of The Slits’ debut album earlier, but what the hell. It’s a good piece of writing and it seems incredibly relevant to why I love Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Like, when I first heard their EP I was like, “YES! At last! My music has come round again! I’ve only had to wait, like, 24 years for this.” Corporate critics talk of how music goes in seven year cycles – punk, grunge, techno, hip-hop, the sound comes round whenever a new generation is old enough to make an impression. Bollocks.
No one has created this taut, adventurous, riotous female-fronted No Wave punk since ’78, not really. Riot Grrrl promised, but never delivered after Huggy Bear imploded (the other bands, as great as some may have been, were far too one-dimensional). The White Stripes are great, but they’re from a tradition of classic boy music (now’t wrong with that, I just like to have some choices). This is MY music: music as played by ESG, Slits, Delta 5 and all the punkettes of my dreams.
Don’t blink or you may miss them.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t going to be around forever.
Describe Karen. She’s already described you magnificently.
Nick: “Big, smelly. She’s hairy. She speaks in tongues when she sleeps.”
Brian: “Her nose is always running.”
Nick: “She’s got a terrible drug habit.”
Brian: “It’s a pain in the ass to deal with.”
Nick: “Herpes, crabs, gonorrhoea.”
Brian: “Yeah, she’s a slut too.”
Well, that’s New York right? All the chicks in New York are sluts.
Nick: “All you have to do is whistle and they’re there.”
Brian: “Everyone’s for sale and everyone’s high. In New York, everyone’s a slut.”
“You ain’t no baby no more/Baby/You ain’t no bigger than before/Baby… So take a swallow as I spit/Baby” – “Bang”
Why did you start playing the guitar?
You can say “honestly” and lie, I don’t care. I understand the pressing need to bare your soul to some person you’ll never meet again.
Nick: “I played violin as a kid. I was a little prodigy. And then I became disillusioned with my teachers.”
Brian: “My mother had an acoustic guitar, she’s an old hippy. I started playing it, just my favourite records, it was very natural for me, at the age of seven.”
Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter, the illusion is enough. Rock’n’roll is all about illusion. Right – tell me a story.
Nick: “OK… give me three things, three random things.”
Alright – an awning, a watch, and a lump of flesh.
Nick: “OK, one day a lump of flesh was walking down the street and it slithered over a watch and, because it was three o’clock, the lump of flesh flew up into the air. It wanted to go up as far as it could go but it hit an awning so it couldn’t go that far. It’s a story about the human condition.”
You’re very small, aren’t you?
Nick: “I am.”
I like that.
Brian: “Do you feel safe with him?”
Only because he’s smaller than me.
Brian: “Do you feel safe with Karen?”
No – I’ve already spoken to her. Not with the stories I’ve heard. What do you aim to do on stage? Give me a definition of punk.
Nick: “A punk is somebody who takes it up the ass.”
“She was a primal institution/She was a danger to herself… Mystery girl, mystery girl/Keep on faking your mystery world” – Mystery Girl
Tell me about the mischief, I want to hear about the mischief.
Nick: “The mischief? That’s Karen’s…”
Brian: “Tell him about last night.”
Tell me about South By Southwest, and trashing Clinic’s dressing room.
Nick: “Karen and Chris and Joy, who design all of Karen’s outfits, took over this room, both physically and psychically, to the point where there was this line of terrified men standing outside, all motioning not to enter this room… Karen should tell the story.”
K: “Basically, we trashed that room. We got bored because we were in there for hours. Clinic’s room was next door. It had like a table with all their equipment on it. I peeped in to see if they were hanging out in there and no one was. That really pissed me off. So I motioned to my girls like, ‘Girls, come on – Clinic’s not in here.’ So we ran into the room and the next thing I know my friend is tearing records off the wall and breaking them on her knee. So I start to do it. Then I spy the Clinic masks and there’s, like, three boxes of them. We grabbed them and walked into the hall, stuffing them under our shirts so no one sees us, into the room we’d already trashed, stuffing them under sofa cushions. That’s when we were asked to leave.”
Nick: “Then you walked out into the hallway wearing the masks…”
Karen: “Oh yeah. We were asking for it, we wanted a reason to leave because we were so bored. I pushed Courtney Love into the food table… I don’t think I did that. But that’s what everyone claims.”
Nick: “She was later heard complaining, ‘One of those bitches from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs threw me down’. And they were like, ‘Who? Which one?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know because they were all wearing masks’.”