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.”