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Minimalism, excess in a sonic collision

New York's Yeah Yeah Yeahs are rising fast in the 'new rock' world.

May 01, 2003|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

New York City trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has a reputation for intense live shows, and vocalist Karen O. helped keep the legend alive when the band recently brought its stark fusion of punk and new wave to Hollywood. Wearing what looked like bright-green short pajamas, she writhed and howled, repeatedly stuffed the microphone into her mouth, and generally behaved like the most demented slumber-party guest ever.

The set was as dynamic and immediate as advertised, with O., 24, guitarist Nick Zinner, 28, and drummer Brian Chase, 25, demonstrating a confident mastery of minimalism. But offstage, they're still getting used to the idea of being in line as pop's Next Big Thing.

The band has embarked on its first headlining tour, supporting its full-length debut, "Fever To Tell," released Tuesday on Interscope Records.

Its story is an increasingly familiar one as the pop universe continues to explode with noisy, brightly colored "new rock" acts that jumble together the styles and sounds of punk, new wave and post-punk.

The raucous trio has lately appeared in publications from England's NME to Vanity Fair, wowed this year's South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and weathered a bidding war among labels both mighty and dinky.

Over lunch the day after the group's Hollywood gig, O. -- her surname is Orzolek -- is more subdued than her live persona but still flashes hints of a potential for mayhem.

The three musicians gleefully recall how YYY fans once got so involved in the music, they pushed aside the stage-front barricades cordoning off some videographers and photographers.

"We hate that," Zinner confides, meaning not so much the documentarians but the distance put between band and listeners.

Audience give-and-take is important to them. "Usually, for the first two songs or so, I'm a little bit self-conscious," says O. "But after that, I can't remember the rest of the set.... That's when I zone out and it takes on a life of its own. The first time we played live, that sort of persona and energy was all there."

Indeed, when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs formed three years ago, the whole point was to shake things up.

"It was kind of before everything really blew up in New York," recalls O. "We thought we could just sort of crush the whole, like, you know, too-cool attitude that just bored everyone to tears."

One influence was the south Bronx's commercially obscure but highly influential early-'80s electro-funk-rap group ESG. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs set out to do something vaguely similar, "dancey stuff that got people moving," she says. "It was just to sort of attack that whole self-conscious crowd, to get everyone ... lashing out and stuff again."

In fact, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have tried to lead as much in deed as by word.

The group has in many ways embraced the ethic of offstage rock excess, reveling in raucous backstage parties, trashing dressing rooms and running up monstrous bar tabs.

That attitude carries through musically in "Fever To Tell," which has a broad sonic vocabulary that evokes many things, including such New York-spawned acts as the Velvet Underground and noise-rockers the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

O. yelps and yowls over a stark, electro-tinged blend of guitar and percussion, embodying the primal-soul hunger of such artists as Siouxsie Sioux, Iggy Pop and Exene Cervenka on such sexually raw numbers as "Man" and "Black Tongue."

Just to be disorienting, however, "Y Control" has an icy, Blondie pop feel.

O. started playing guitar and writing songs as a freshman studying film at Oberlin College, where she met Chase, a jazz studies major. She transferred to NYU and met Zinner, a photographer, in New York.

Zinner and O. began collaborating on her more personal singer-songwriter material but soon created the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, recruiting Chase just before a concert they almost had to cancel for lack of a drummer.

"Because Nick and I had connected so well with something so personal, we thought we should give a shot at the other side of things," says O., laughing. "You know, the really nonpersonal, all-party, sex-and-violence type stuff."

After self-releasing a couple of EPs, the players struggled with the major-vs.-indie dilemma. "It seems so taboo for an underground band to go with majors," says O.

"Not many bands really succeed that way," she says. "But it's not as black and white as 'major labels, bad; indie labels, good.' Like, both are pretty bad, you know?" She laughs.

Yet even with label matters sorted out, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are hardly plotting world domination.

"We don't have that much of a game plan," O. says.

"I still feel like the audience is waiting for the band that's playing after us," adds Chase. "Even last night, it was like, just for a split second, 'They can't all be here for us!' "

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