Love Note to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
When I attended Bard College in upstate New York during the late ’90s, there was a band called Boba Fett whose guitarist was Nick Zinner in his pre-Yeah Yeah Yeahs days. There was an all-pervading maniacal love for music at Bard. It was nearly ridiculous how voracious everyone was and I was no exception. I saw so much good music in the scruffy confines of the charmingly dilapidated Old Gym, where pretty much everything awesome that ever happened, happened. Bands that seemed too famous for the space (Le Tigre, Blonde Redhead, Yo La Tengo!) oftentimes played, feeling generous on their way to or from real concerts in New York City. In some ways, the concerts all blend into one when I think of them now, the famous bands alongside our friends. I remember the Boba Fett boys, and others like them, epitomized some archetypal Bard boy qualities; older than me, irreverent, cool as hell, handsome in a jagged featured, thin t-shirted way, listening to Spacemen 3 and Jonathan Fire-Eater, wearing scarves and so on. These boys’ crush-worthy mythologies preceded them. They were all seniors when I was a freshman and I only saw Boba Fett play once. At Old Gym concerts, people ran through windows, snuck vodka in their Snapple bottles and everything was perfect. When we graduated, we all moved to New York City. Somewhere along the way, Boba Fett became Challenge of the Future, for fear of being sued. And somewhere further along the way, the Challenge of the Future boys concentrated more on their respective side projects, including Lycaon Pictus and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
There was excitement and hype going on in New York City at the time I moved there, with bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes, The White Stripes and Liars getting attention. It was 2001 and I was going to concerts in secret basement rooms, waitressing, lying on my roof at night and falling in love. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in the city much longer and one night I came home late from work to a note that said, I’ll move to the woods with you and so we did. It’s those first months in the country, driving down the back dirt roads in my little red Toyota Tercel with a 5-disc CD player in the trunk, that I most associate with Yeah Yeah Yeahs first EP. My life had gone from very urban to very rural. I blasted “Art Star” as loud as I could and drove unreasonably long distances to get anywhere at all. The delirious sound of the album, messy but somehow also controlled, went well with the wilderness, being 23, living in an A-frame in the middle of nowhere and trying to decide whether or not to be a grown-up. I loved Karen O’s voice and swagger. YYYs contained everything, girly and hard, too-cool and unconcerned, stylish and rough. Listening to them was cathartic fun, music made exactly for my mix of sensibilities and contrasts. In the last song, with Karen O half crooning, half screeching, “It’s our time, our time…” I was out of my head with how much I felt that it really, really was.
Then in 2003, Fever to Tell, came out. I’d moved across the country to San Francisco and it was strange knowing I’d arrived in the place meant for me, but still feeling profoundly unmoored as I acclimated. I listened to “Date With The Night” and sang along feeling practically euphoric as I ran around my new city. To this day that song’s bratty wonderfulness is often stuck in my head. The plaintive “Maps” was a totally different mood altogether and no less mesmerizing. That juxtaposition made sense; I liked them not being all one way. Everything good I’d loved in their EP had strengthened and crystallized. Karen O continued to embody some combination of soft and edgy. Her cryptic fashion and theatrical, exuberant attitude were magnetic. She wasn’t the purely angsty girls of my teenage musical loves, but a shrieking, sexy woman whose voice could go sweet or scathing, who was posturing and intensely sincere simultaneously. Watching her dance is proof of her range and realness, her sultry, awkward, long limbed antics are riveting.
In March of 2006, when it seriously wouldn’t stop raining for one second, Show Your Bones, was released. I was going through a break-up and that album was the soundtrack to it. It wasn’t the typical break-up album by any measurement and for that I was irrationally grateful. Somehow, “Gold Lion” was gonna tell me where the light was, the video had sparks coming out of Brian Chase’s drum set and that was what I wanted. I walked around in the rain (seriously, it rained all month) listening to the album. YYYs were coming through town and I went to see them for the first and only time. It’s the only concert I’ve ever gone to by myself and I’m glad I did. I wore a weird black dress, red lipstick and danced until I thought my head might fall off, the night a combination of transcendent empty mindedness and giddy dance moves. “I think that I’m bigger than the sound,” Karen O sang with repetitive intensity on “Cheated Hearts.” She writhed and growled all over the stage. Nick Zinner looked cute, serious and tousled. I burst out into the night air afterward feeling particularly kinetic.
Is Is, another EP came out in 2007, as I was finishing graduate school. It was a rowdy, busy year and perfect for some YYYs accompaniment. And accompany me they did, to readings and parties, while I wrote stories. In my post-grad school life, a lot of interesting things happened: I had to start trying to be a writer for real, which was new, scary and good, my break-up was reversed and out came It’s Blitz! in 2009 (the video for “Zero” was shot in SF!). Familiar but still unexpected, this album found YYYs keeping some core essence while also evolving. Again, it all felt very relevant and personal as I listened and attempted the same. Some claimed It’s Blitz! was the YYYs trying to make a more mainstream album though it doesn’t really seem that way to me. Whether it’s true or not, being successful in that way doesn’t seem to concern them. Karen O told Carrie Brownstein in an interview for The Believer, “…there’s no detachment when I’m up there. I don’t allow myself the distance. I’m fully putting myself out there for the people and for the sake of trying to lure them into the experience.”
YYYs members do other things too. A couple years ago at Public Works, I saw Nick Zinner’s 1001 Photos (he studied photography at Bard). The tiny room was covered from floor to ceiling in photographs. They were rock-n-roll and travel photos, but, much like his band, they were also more complicated, chaotic, and compelling than just that. Brian Chase just put out an experimental solo album. Karen O has a side project, Native Korean Rock, and worked on an opera called Stop the Virgins, which I never saw but sounds amazing. Discussing the opera she said, “I feel like every five to seven years I really need to put myself in this position of discomfort and exploration, just to survive.” That clawing, sparkly angst is everywhere in YYYs music, and the desire for discomfort as exploration is both contagious and relatable.
YYYs’ newest, Mosquito, comes out Tuesday. It’s been over ten years since I first heard them and they continue to feel not just relevant, but essential. The two songs I’ve heard indicate that I will be continuing my love affair. With the usual levels of ferocity, inchoate sexiness, and general bad ass-ness, “Sacrilege” and “Mosquito” are recognizably YYYs, but with something new added, as there is each time. Their music has always punctuated my life at the exact right moment in the exact right way. Even how Karen O recently described being an artist seems right: “We’ve got a death grip on the adolescent way of feeling things,” she said, later explaining,”…having the mundane experience of living day to day, [but] experiencing things on this really kind of amped-up level.” There aren’t many other bands from ten years ago that I’m still listening to with such excitement, or that continue to so consistently thrill me with new work. They have a brashness, restraint, melancholy, and feverishness that I just can’t find anywhere else, a combination of adolescent and adult, like we all are. In each song and with each album, there’s different ratios of these things, a dynamic sense of struggle and change. Their inventiveness means no one else sounds similar and they encapsulate such variety of mood and sensation. Somehow they are collegiate rowdiness, windows breaking, wilderness back roads, torrential downpours, new cities, transitions, tumult, adventure, and whatever comes next.