The Electrifying, Emotional Return of Yeah Yeah Yeahs
MONTREAL — The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were planning to cry.
Nothing dramatic about it, but the day before they returned to the stage of the Osheaga festival here in July, gearing up for the release of their first album of new music in almost a decade, the frontwoman Karen O, the guitarist Nick Zinner and the drummer Brian Chase knew the tears were going to flow.
“A tiny moment of being overwhelmed, and appreciative,” Zinner said of welling up onstage at a British arena in June. Karen O noted that she’d been weeping before shows to “hopefully get it out of my system — so I can make you cry.” She laughed, but it worked.
At Osheaga, in an outfit that made her look like a Viking crossed with Evel Knievel in a Nick Cave soundsuit, with tear-like electric blue streaks painted below her eyes, Karen O engaged the audience with a chant: “Love. And. Tenderness! Love. And. Tenderness!” By the time the band played “Maps,” its influential 2003 romancer, in the waning summer sunlight, I was a puddle.
Emotional release has always been the governing aesthetic of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the art-rock trio born in New York more than two decades ago, known for a sound and a performance style that crunches molten punk fury with clear-hearted lyrical vulnerability.
Over four studio albums — the last and highest-charting, “Mosquito,” was released in 2013 — Yeah Yeah Yeahs came to define the resurgent New York rock scene of the aughts. The group evolved from its lo-fi roots, bringing in acoustic strumming, club beats and electro-pop weirdness, earning Grammy nominations along the way. But when its major-label deal with Interscope ended after “Mosquito,” its members happily scattered to do their own stuff — to mature artistically and personally.
“So much has changed, radically, in our lives,” Karen O — short for Orzolek — said.
Karen O onstage at the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in July, where she led the crowd in a chant: “Love. And. Tenderness!”Credit…Mark Horton/Getty Images
But perhaps nobody expected their pause to last as long as it did — enough time for the band’s members to move cross-country, have children, start experimental record labels, be quoted on a Beyoncé album, blast out riffs for the flame-throwing guitar in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” lose an Oscar to the Disney juggernaut “Frozen,” endure a global pandemic and see rock albums, the spine of their own transformative, gut-grabbing sound, fall deeper out of favor as streaming became the dominant form of music consumption.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs have never cared much about industry trends, and the group was emphatically not ready to be a legacy act. But “when you hit your 40s as a rock musician,” Karen O said, it is a head-snap. “Who are we now? Let’s have the process reflect how much we’ve grown as people, the humility and the compassion. There’s no room for cynicism any more, after what we’ve been through.”
Now they are returning, at last and in full throttle, with “Cool It Down,” due Sept. 30 from the indie label Secretly Canadian. Its eight songs are characteristically spiky and grand, encompassing dance-floor rattle, synths and strings. Running just over a half-hour, it takes on big themes including environmental collapse, the burden for future generations and the primal longing for closeness after our global separation. But its anthems and ballads point toward hope, including the closing track, “Mars,” lo-fi poetry partly taken from a conversation with Karen O’s son. “Karen didn’t want to make a ‘rock band in a room’ record,” Zinner said. “For her, the unfamiliar is the most exciting terrain.”
During phone interviews, over a long preconcert lunch in Montreal and at a brief post-gig hang, where they toasted with Champagne in brown paper cups, the band discussed its trajectory, from carousing downtown cool kids to responsible adult rockers, aiming for a good night’s sleep to quell anxiety before a show. Their hope, after the last few turbulent years, is that their music might help others navigate an increasingly unstable world — because that’s what it’s done for them. “When I start making music — especially with Nick, because of the really strange chemistry we have — I have access to rising above the pessimism,” Karen O said.
Even as they knew their long hiatus raised the stakes for their return, it also bolstered their ambition. “We have this opportunity to really step up and go for it,” Chase said, with earnest resolve. He compared their momentum to a pinball machine with the shooter pulled back, ready to rip. “There’s a lot of energy behind it.”
The album arrives with what Karen O called “a mic drop” of a single, “Spitting Off the Edge of the World,” a deep-set apocalyptica featuring ethereal vocals from Perfume Genius, accompanied by the biggest music video the band has ever produced (and they once recorded one atop the Empire State Building).
“I wanted our first song to sound like the future, bold and fresh and powerful,” Karen O, 43, said. “We’re back,” she added with an expletive.
The road to the band’s return rested largely on her shoulders. In between albums and tours, she moved, fairly permanently, from New York to Los Angeles with her husband, Barnaby Clay, a filmmaker; their son, Django, was born in 2015. In 2014, she released a solo album of demos, bedroom recordings about romance. That same year, she was nominated for an Oscar for “The Moon Song,” from Spike Jonze’s film “Her.” (It lost to “Let It Go.”) A project with Danger Mouse, which yielded the album “Lux Prima,” and more film scoring followed.
But she wasn’t ready to come back to Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Zinner, 47, who splits his time between New York and (more often) Los Angeles, played in side projects like the hardcore act Head Wound City and worked as a producer and an exhibiting photographer, with multiple books. Chase, 44, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Erin, a dentist-turned-art history student, welcomed a son, Isaac, in 2016. A prolific artist deeply enmeshed in New York’s experimental jazz scene, Chase started the indie label Chaikin Records and worked on his solo project Drums and Drones, a meditation on percussion. As a rock musician, he drew inspiration from the spontaneity of jazz, he said, connecting “the band and the audience in a sacred kind of way.”
As the years ticked on, Karen O, who operates mostly from instinct, was willing to wait for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs mood to strike. “Nick is a studio rat, and Brian will play music every day of his life eternally,” said Dave Sitek, their friend and frequent producer, who came up in the same New York scene, as a member of TV on the Radio. “When Karen says it’s time, it’s time.”
Zinner agreed: “We’re always ready when she’s ready.”
Even when she was, the lead-up to recording involved false starts, creative paralysis and a sake-fueled dark night of the soul between Zinner and Karen O. They first began thinking about songwriting again after short tours in 2017 and 2018, celebrating a reissue of “Fever to Tell” their 2003 breakout debut. As much as fans still loved it, playing just the back catalog “started feeling a little bit stale,” Karen O said.
Before they could really get rolling, though, the pandemic hit, and Zinner found himself struggling to create anything. “All of 2020 was a wash for me,” he said. “It was frightening — simultaneously numbing and scary.”
Karen O, meanwhile, was fueled by the sudden realization that her musical bedrock could crumble, if it wasn’t cultivated. She and Zinner, who formed the band after meeting at the scuzzy, now defunct East Village institution Mars Bar, usually began their collaborations with informal jam sessions. But they had butted heads in the studio before, to the point of hatred, Zinner once said.
This time, they got together at a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles to hash things out first. “How are we going to do this with the least amount of suffering and the most amount of joy? We got into the nitty-gritty of that with each other, with our defenses down,” Karen O said. “Lots of oxytocin, thanks to the Black Dragon sake. I had the worst hangover of my entire life.”
Because it was “a blackout night,” as Zinner ruefully put it, neither remembers the terms of their détente exactly. But the gist was that there would be no rules, and no pressure.
Last summer, they started making demos again, in Zinner’s basement studio, surrounded by toy keyboards and other musical trinkets. Chase, a onetime classmate of Karen O’s at Oberlin in Ohio, sent drum loops from across the country. New producers were invited in — a pre-pandemic session with Justin Raisen (Spoon, Charli XCX) became the basis for “Mars.” And Karen O rummaged through a vast Dropbox of musical ideas that Sitek made. One became “Spitting Off the Edge of the World.”
The snippet was just synth and drums — “a David Lynch kind of vibe,” Sitek said. “I knew it had some emotional potency, but I never could have imagined what they turned it into. Karen had a vision for it.”
Cody Critcheloe, a musician, multimedia artist and director known as Ssion, met the band in 2002, when he was 19, and has worked with them since, including on the “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” video, which — though it features fossil fuel explosions and Perfume Genius as a blank-eyed zombie — he directed as a love letter to the music that “defined my life.”
“It’s really rambunctious and punk rock and loud and nasty — there’s humor in it and all this sweet poetic softness,” he said.
When Chase arrived for a session at Sonic Ranch, a bucolic studio set among pecan orchards in Texas, the rest of the recording for “Cool It Down,” which the band paid for themselves, flowed quickly, even though it was the only time they were all together — a first for them. They were so excited, they barely slept while they were there. “We were ripe,” Karen O said.
Onstage, Karen O is still mesmerizing, geysering liquids and power-posing on monitors, but she has tamed, ever so slightly, her wild dervish style. “There is a bewitching goddess energy that very few people have — it’s like an aura that kind of takes over the crowd,” Critcheloe said. Chase wondered what would happen when her son saw a show and realized, “My mom’s a superhero.”
Speaking with the conviction of someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about her role as a frontwoman, Karen O noted that “disarming is another specialty of what I try to do with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.”
“I’m being absolutely ridiculous, quite overtly sexual, totally heart-on-my-sleeve,” she said. “I’m going to steamroll you, and you’re going to like it.”
Two decades in, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ influence as artists is becoming clearer. Mike Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, had always looked up to them. “Before I would go on tour, I would watch videos of them, and live shows, just to gas me up,” he said. “They’re just so [expletive] cool,” he added. In the music industry, “a lot of people are in your ear, talking to you and suggesting things. To just maintain a core warmth and kind of magic about what they do and how they approach things, it’s inspiring to me.”
Even as they serve as mentors for younger acts like the Linda Lindas — the all-female teen punk group who will open for them in the fall — Yeah Yeah Yeahs are looking to older artists, searching for longevity in context. Late last year, Karen O and Zinner went to see ESG, the much-sampled, ’80s South Bronx dance-funk band, in Los Angeles. “Our band would not exist at all, in probably any form, without ESG,” Zinner said. Karen O groused about the set’s midnight timing (she’s no night owl) but came away revived. “One of my favorite shows I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said.
The lasting sense of joy that night brought, especially in a dark time — that’s what Yeah Yeah Yeahs felt when they set foot in the studio again, and what they see as part of their mission now. “If I can access it,” Karen O said, “I know it exists inside of me, and I think it exists in everybody.”
“A lot of people just don’t know how to dial up that line in themselves,” she added. “That’s my job.”