It’s day four of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first West Coast tour, and two-thirds of the arty blues-punk trio is sitting in a tour bus a block away from San Francisco’s legendary rock ’n’ roll venue, the Fillmore West. In six hours they’ll open the sold-out Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show, but for now the boys in the band — mop-topped singer Karen O is officially MIA at the moment — are lying low and trying to shake exhaustion and a stomach bug before sound check.
“It’s so ridiculous, I know,” Nick Zinner says, laughing self-consciously as he gestures around himself with an unlit cigarette. The rail-thin guitarist, who also sports an impressive, Morrissey-size do, is referring to the rather fancy home-away-from-home that they’ve rented for the nearly three-week jaunt. “We wanted to travel not in style, but in comfort. On past tours, we got sick in long van rides. But we paid for this bus ourselves — actually, we’ve gone into debt for it.”
“In our defense, we’re sharing it with the Liars [the PiL-poppin’ New Yawkers, also an opener on the tour],” drummer Brian Chase hastens to add. “It’s a shared expense.”
It’s not difficult to guess why the impossibly polite Zinner and Chase feel the need to justify such extravagance. While the Yeahs and the Liars are riding in the lap of relative luxury the very first time they perform this side of the Rockies, the Blues Explosion (who have a good 10 years of experience on and probably 40 times the record sales of the Brooklyn-based upstarts) are traveling in a pair of decidedly uncomfortable, cramped vans.
It’s a strange reversal of the typical, headliner-opener touring arrangement, but one that conveniently signals a changing of the vanguard in New York’s rock scene. What with the Blues Explosion losing their relevance and hipster cachet as a pack of new acts in the city gain attention, it makes sense that the Yeahs — the band at the forefront of that pack — are more willing to splurge with money they don’t have (yet). After all, they’re currently embroiled in a label bidding war that could potentially make them bigger than the Blues Explosion ever were.
Formed in New York City two years ago, the Yeahs have been one of the Big Apple’s most buzzed-about bands since they first took the stage, opening for the White Stripes in fall 2000. No wonder: Infamously outta control from start to finish, the band’s live shows have gained them a legion of followers and rightfully made them the toast of the town for the past year. It’s Karen O, however, a sorta eccentric, extroverted version of Cat Power with onstage antics that’d give Courtney Love pause, who’s the real star of the show, spitting on the stage, dousing the crowd (and herself) in champagne and beer while working her voice box like a banshee on showstoppers such as “Bang,” “Our Time” and “Why Control.”
Despite the immediate attention the Yeahs received in New York, it wasn’t until the late-2001 release of their self-titled EP that they gained any attention outside of their hometown. A herky-jerky punk ruckus of cat-in-heat shrieks and blues-bruised bombast, the five-song disc ably introduces the world to the trio’s skeletal geetar-and-drum brilliance. “Bang” is the obvious standout, with O channeling Dry-era PJ Harvey as she taunts, “As a fuck, son, you suck!” while the stop-and-start scorcher “Art Star” alternates between guttural outbursts and sugar-sweet doo-doo-doos.
When the EP hit shelves, the Yeahs became insta-sensations in the rock underground.
“At first, all the fanzines and Web sites were doing stuff and that felt good,” says Chase. “Then Rolling Stone and mass media came. At first, I thought it was a compliment and thought it was really cool. Now I’m developing a negative attitude toward it. I don’t trust their intentions and don’t find them to be as sincere as the fanzines out there. They tend to misrepresent us and look for the more sensational aspects of our band rather than anything that’s actually true to reality, like they focus on the fact that Karen can be wild on stage. Like, ‘This band is oversexed!’ which isn’t the focus of this band.”
Unconcerned, O shrugs off the attention placed on her stage presence. “I don’t find it annoying. It’s usually more amusing and comical,” she says on her cell phone from Tempe, Ariz., a week after the San Francisco gig. “It is my persona that comes out when I hit the stage, so it doesn’t really bother me that people write about it. It becomes a common misconception, though, that I’m gonna be all crazy and drunken and such a maniac as soon as I step off the stage.”
Still, as with countless other New York City bands currently on the tips of everyone’s tongues — notably the Strokes, Interpol, Radio 4, the Liars and the Rapture — all the press has resulted in a deluge of folks who are ready, waiting and willing to hate the band before they’ve even seen the Yeahs perform.
“The hype just raises people’s expectations to a ridiculous level,” says Zinner. “The only negative aspect of it that really bothers us is people going to check us out and see if we’re actually worth the praises. Rooms full of people with their arms crossed — like, ‘Alright, prove it!’ — are not fun.”
New boots and contracts
Audiences may still be demanding proof, but labels are already convinced.
Chicago indie Touch and Go, known for releasing records by Blonde Redhead and the Black Heart Procession, among others, reissued the self-titled EP earlier this year. Early next month, they’ll release the Yeahs’ three-song single “Machine.”
It remains undecided, however, who’ll release the long-awaited LP. And with rumors that everyone from Elektra and Interscope to a sea of indies are aggressively pursuing the band, the Yeahs certainly have a lot of offers to mull over. Ever diplomatic and, yes, press savvy, the trio is tight-lipped about which side of the industry’s major-indie divide they plan to play.
“We’re still figuring that out,” O says simply.
“Major labels are still scary to us,” concedes Zinner.
Based on new material in the band’s live set such as “Black Tongue” and the searing “Why Control,” whichever label ends up releasing the album has one helluva hot release on its hands. Recorded this past July and August, the still-untitled album, due in early 2003, will include “11 to 13 of 17 songs recorded” and sees the band expanding their sound so they don’t simply rehash the EP.
“We have a new breed of songs with a drum machine, which kinda adds that melody, keyboard-sounding noise and stuff,” O says excitedly. “The new addition to our roster of songs is the romance anthem. It’s weird because we’re bouncing back and forth between really aggressive dance songs to really low-key, romantic tortured anthems. It’s gonna be a little more sinister and dancey. Definitely darker.”
So with a new album in the can, a label decision to make and an intensifying media spotlight around the corner, are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ready to brave a new wave of press heralding them as the band that’ll (and, yes, this does sound tired) save our rock ’n’ roll souls?
“People are always saying really lofty, lofty things about us,” O says, giggling self-consciously over all the attention. “Like, they’re always making us out to be more important than we are — but yeah, we’re excited. It’ll be fun.”
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs will perform Thursday, Oct. 24 at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward, Detroit. For information call 313-833-9700.Jimmy Draper rocks the boat for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org