Formed in: 2000, Brooklyn, New York
Key Albums: Fever to Tell (2003), Show Your Bones (2006), It's Blitz! (2009), Mosquito (2013)
• Complete Yeah Yeah Yeahs discography
Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a three-piece outfit who've grown from hipster, fashion-music beginnings into becoming one of the biggest, most credible bands in America. The band found initially acclaim as part of the heavily-hyped, Strokes-driven rock-revival that set in, in 2001, just as they were releasing their debut, self-titled EP.
"We definitely do have to thank The Strokes and White Stripes for opening so many doors for us," drummer Brian Chase confesses. "It’s ridiculous that we’re playing the music we’re playing, and it’s gotten all the attention that it’s gotten. If we came along only 2 years earlier or 2 years later, I’m sure we wouldn’t be in the same spot that we’re in now. So we really have to thank the garage-rock revival and all its hype for giving us the success that we’ve had."
The roots of the band go back to Chase and vocalist Karen O (real name: Karen Orzolek) becoming friends at Oberlin college in 1997. But, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were born in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, when Orzolek met guitarist Nick Zinner in a bar. Zinner was a veteran of noise and no-wave bands, and Orzolek a singer-songwriter, but they both wanted to start over.
"The first time we got together, it was just us and a drum-machine and a four-track recorder," Zinner recounts. "We knew that we wanted to play in a rockband, and we wanted to be incredibly direct, and really kind of sleazy and sexy and emboldened. We were definitely thinking of, like, the aesthetic of The Cramps, even though, like, neither of us owned more than one Cramps record at the time."
"I had no idea what it meant to be in a band," remembers Orzolek. "So I wanted this to be more than just a band. We had very specific ideas about what we wanted to be. We wanted to have an element of violence, an element of bliss, and an element of sexuality, that would all kind of fuse together and create a real goodtime good show that would knock people out of their self-consciousness."
The band's debut, self-titled EP was recorded by Boss Hog's Jerry Teel, and had a rough, rockin' sound. "It sounds like it was recorded in a trash-can, and that's exactly what we wanted," says Chase.
It was released in July, 2001, about six weeks before The Strokes' Is This It? made New York rock'n'roll the epitome of cool. From there, Yeah Yeah Yeahs rode a wave a hype up until the release of their debut album, 2003's Fever to Tell (produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio). The English music press was particularly sensationalist, which helped the LP debut at #13 in the UK charts, but wore on the band.
"[The hype was] presented in such a way that what we’re doing is being hyper-examined under this preposterous microscope of sensation and salvation, and that’s just wrong!" Zinner protests. "I mean, it’s rock music!"
"It pissed me off when people said we sound like The Strokes and White Stripes," Chase spits. "It was just the laziest assumption, like people weren't even listening."
March, 2006 found the release of Yeah Yeah Yeahs second record, Show Your Bones. Written in the studio, it was the archetypal Difficult Second Album. "There were a lot of points with that record where I felt like the band was going to come to an end,” states Orzolek.
“We wanted to keep the record sheltered from the outside world: we didn’t play any of the songs live before we recorded them; we didn’t invite any of our friends in and play the songs to them when we were in the studio," Zinner explains. "When you’re in an isolated situation, it’s very easy to lose perspective; to get so obsessed and sucked in by what you’re doing, that you can’t see outside of what’s right in front of you."
The resulting record alienated some of the band's initial fans, but took them to a far broader audience. "We were seen as this raw, edgy, more hedonistic, almost punk-rock band," Orzolek says, "so a lot of people were freaked out with the second record; with this cleaner sound, and more varied, complex songs."
In May 2006, Yeah Yeah Yeahs curated a day at an All Tomorrow's Parties festival, programming pals TV on the Radio, Liars, Celebration, the Blood Brothers, and Oneida. “That was a true highlight in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' history," Zinner beams.
DevelopmentsIn late 2006, home recordings of Orzolek's, KO At Home , were leaked onto the internet, from a CD once owned by Sitek, much to his indignance. Orzolek herself, though, the feeling was more of ambivalence.
"At first, it made me feel sick to my stomach," Orzolek says. "I felt paranoid, in some strange way, like people were everywhere, and my privacy was all gone, and nothing was left safe or sacred. It felt like if anyone does anything personal —writing a diary, or writing a song— it can’t, anymore, be something kept private. It’s strange when you do something personal, and somebody cracks that open, and spills it out. It was an odd feeling, but one that I had to get over pretty quick. Because it was completely out of my control, y'know?"
In 2007, Yeah Yeah Yeahs released the Is Is EP, a five-song collection of 'leftovers' from the Show Your Bones era that served as an end to that time. In 2009, the third YYY LP, It's Blitz!, ushered in a new direction. Polished to a commercially-accessible sheen, the album found Zinner largely leaving aside his guitar and playing synths, redrawing the boundaries of what a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record meant.
Whilst the album didn't have the same personal discordance as its predecessor, the band still worked as a dysfunctional unit; something Orzolek sees as inevitable.
"All of us, individually, have different expectations of ourselves, as individuals and as a band," says Orzolek. "When there’s conflict of expectations, there’s bound to be conflict. We know it’s not going to get any easier from hereon out. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. But, it never was really easy. There’s never an easy moment."
The conflict again was productive: It's Blitz debuted in the Top 10 in Australia (where the album went Gold) and the UK (where it went Silver), and at #22 in the US. Like its predecessors, the LP was nominated for a Best Alternative Album Grammy.
In 2013, Yeah Yeah Yeahs returned with their fourth album, Mosquito. It was a genuine curveball, committing to neither their garage-rock beginnings or their recent synth-pop forays, instead it was an album that occasionally bordered on ambience, with dub production techniques creating thick, hazy atmospheres.
"It has more moodier and tripped-out songs than you've ever heard from us," Orzolek told The Herald-Sun, in advance of the album's release. "You might catch some roots reggae and minimalist psychedelia influences in there."