[Part 1 of 2]
Lebron James. It’s one of the first nice summer days of the year, and I’m lucky enough to spend the afternoon stealing a few minutes from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the most enigmatic and intriguing frontwoman of the indie-rock moment, and all I can think of is Lebron James. But it’s not just because I’m anticipating the upcoming NBA season.
See, nobody would know the media hype that Karen O, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase have endured better than King James, the 18-year-old basketball phenom. Sure, the band put on legendary live shows and top-notch EPs, and the skeptics were as conspicuous as the die-hards. But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, without even a full-length to their name, were everywhere: magazine covers, television, you name it.
But while James has yet to answer his critics’ worries, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs dropped Fever to Tell, one of the year’s best rock records, and put nay-sayers to bed. In a surprisingly pleasant chitchat, a down-to-earth Karen O talks about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs explosion. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this girl didn’t know she was a rock star.
Prefix Magazine: Hey Karen, how’s it going?
Karen O: Good. I’m good.
PM: The day’s been pretty good so far?
Karen O: Yeah, it’s kinda just starting for me
PM: You just got up?
Karen O: No, no. I got up a couple hours ago
PM: Are you a morning person?
Karen O: I don’t know. Well, if you consider 11:30, twelve to be morning.
PM: Ok. You’re not a morning person then. How is it decided who gets interviewed for these things?
Karen O: It usually is decided for us by our publicists, depending on other requests. I probably get about twice as much as the boys.
PM: Along those same lines, obviously you get the most attention in the band. Does that ever cause any tension within the group?
Karen O: No, I don’t think so. I think maybe in the beginning it did because we were so damn egalitarian. With three of us, we’d split everything three ways. But then when the press and the media got a hold of it, all of sudden they were just like – "Karen!" Obviously, we weren’t blind to the fact that might happen with a girl, but then when it happened it wasn’t the easiest.
PM: How long did Fever to Tell take to record?
Karen O: Let’s see. We did it sort of on and off for maybe two-and-a-half weeks.
PM: Did you think it’d be pretty much in and out like that?
Karen O: Well, no. Actually it felt kind of long and drawn out to us. Because our other experience recording. We did the EP in two-and-a-half days at Funhouse, which was our first session recording ever. Then we went back to Funhouse to try to record the album before we had the right songs that we wanted to put on, and that only took like four or five days.
PM: So two-and-a-half felt drawn out. Interesting.
Karen O: It might have been even longer than that. I don’t know. It’s kind of a blur for me now.
PM: Regarding the album, there was obviously a lot of hype and press that came with it.
Karen O: Right.
PM: How did you feel about all the press and hype coming into making the album?
Karen O: We’re not a band that’s constantly on tour like 365 days a year. And so we rely on press a bit more than other bands to get the word out. The downside of that is that people can really be skeptical.
PM: I think a lot of people felt there was no way you guys could meet the hype since you’d only released two EPs at that point.
Karen O: Right, right.
PM: Did you ever feel like underdogs because of all the hype and press?
Karen O: Yeah. It’s strange. It’s a really exceptional position to be in due to the nature of how everything went and how young of a band we were. Our release date was about a week after the big White Stripes album came out. So we definitely feel like underdogs. It’s strange, too, because when the reviews started coming out, a good bulk of them were really positive. Still, it’s interesting to me because despite all the press we have, we still haven’t made a dent in the sales. (giggles)
PM: I think that’s often how it is with the critically acclaimed.
Karen O: I had a discussion about this with my manager the other day. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that we’re not on some crazy 365-day tour.
PM: Is that something you ever consider. Do you think about doing some crazy humongous tour?
Karen O: No. Not really. Because this last year and a half, when everything kind of exploded for us, it was all this big learning experience and getting a feel for our limitations as far as playing live shows. At this point, and this could just change any day, I’ve been a real purist, wanting to give 300 percent every show.
PM: I could see how it’d be tough to give it your all if you’re playing shows every night.
Karen O: There are so many bands that crumble. You can’t put on a great show everyday of the freakin’ year. That really bugs me to see a band you’re in love with and have them play a mediocre show, especially if they can do better. But, that’s a conflict for me now. I know what my limitations are.
PM: What are your feelings with how the album turned out? Is there anything you would have done differently looking back?
Karen O: No, not really. We’re really sensitive with having our labels, Interscope and Polydor, not shoving it in everyone’s faces. We didn’t want posters of us pasted all over cities. That would be like — ugh. That would just be miserable. We wanted to go mostly off of the press that we generated even before. We had a feeling. We kind of wanted to ease into the whole thing. We made such a major leap from being a five-song EP that we distributed ourselves most of the time, then finally gave it over to Touch and Go, an independent label, to like the big-time thing.
PM: It would’ve been too big of a jump?
Karen O: It would have been like throwing a baby in ice water. Probably would’ve traumatized us if there was a major push with the album. It still feels like it’s organic. It still seems like people catch on everyday and not because it’s been shoved down their throats, but how they’ve been catching on the whole time.
PM: One song on the album, "Maps," seems to deviate a great deal from the rest of the album. What pressed you to make that song?
Karen O: I think we wrote that a year ago or a little over a year ago. We had just started touring a lot. There was a lot of emotional unrest going on. The dirt was being kicked up and the water was getting really murky. It also had a lot to do with the fact that I just had fallen in love and settled down with someone, but I was constantly going away and coming back. All that caused the bleeding-heart song that kind of music that I kind of wrote out of the blue.
PM: I love that song and I think a lot of people do.
Karen O: Well, it’s authentic. It’s at least me and Nick’s favorite song on the album. Nick also really loves "Pin." Brian’s favorite is "Y Control."
PM: Do you worry about all the attention is given to the fashion style of the band? Do you think there’s too much of a focus on that and not the music?
Karen O: Yeah, of course. And that comes with being a female lead singer of a band. You’ll see that with tons of women in rock. It’s pretty unreal how many offers I turn down that are strictly fashion stuff. It sort of goes hand in hand with me. It sort of rounds out my persona better. But the press of course is going to focus on things like that since its exciting and it’s a very trend-centric kind of writing. But then every now and then we get Thurston Moore writing an amazing piece on our music having nothing to do with our clothes. That kind of balances out the hundreds and thousands of other reviews.
PM: Do you feel you or your bandmates changed a lot since the band first formed 3 years ago?
Karen O: Oh yeah. There’s definitely been a transformation. Not so much with me. I always take the approach that no one’s going to change me, I’m going to change them. I still stand by that. It’s just my life’s changed a lot. But personally I haven’t changed.
PM: Is Unitard (another project with Nick and Karen) still going on right now?
Karen O: Well, it’s hard to say. I’ve been doing a lot of solo stuff, but without Nick. That’s sort of how Unitard started anyway, with me doing stuff and then Nick came on and did stuff with me. I’m not sure if I’m calling it Unitard or anything like that, but I’m still writing sort of sweet, small kind of soft little love songs all the time.
PM: How would you compare playing Letterman or Conan? Which one did you like better?
Karen O:: It’s hard to say because Conan was our first TV experience ever and so it was really, really nerve racking. We were really, really, really nervous and freaked out the whole day. It was really exciting since I’ve been a big Conan O’ Brien fan since high school. It was sort of like popping our TV cherry. By the time we did Letterman we had already been in Europe and done some big TV shows there. So, we almost felt seasoned by the time we did Letterman. We felt much more comfortable on Letterman and probably had more fun. But the exposure from Letterman was probably like 100-fold more than we got on Conan.