This Year's Model
Music-business decision-makers realize that the pop bubble is apt to burst soon -- and most of them are touting post-indie rock as its probable successor.
Why? For one thing, underground rockers are in plentiful supply; throw a stick in most major cities, and you're likely to hit at least one of them. For another, there's already an infrastructure in place to develop and promote such performers via clubs, college radio stations, magazines, Web sites and more. And as an added bonus, music journalists, many of whom have spent the past several years pretending to give a damn about 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, actually like the stuff, thereby ensuring a geyser of publicity.
Granted, these factors don't guarantee a new rock revolution. Is This It?, the latest album by the Strokes (the trend's poster boys), has yet to hit platinum sales status despite the oceans of ink already spilled on its behalf, and neither the White Stripes nor the Hives, two acts also earmarked for greatness, are currently burning up the charts that matter most. But rather than waiting for these designated luminaries to achieve maximum brightness, the eager media is already turning its spotlight on other like-minded combos, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a promisingly raucous trio from New York City (home of the Strokes). And while Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner isn't complaining, he admits that the attention has its drawbacks.
"A lot of people come to our shows now expecting to hear the voice of God," he says. "But we're not, like, the greatest rock band in history -- or the greatest new rock hope. We're just a really good rock band. But if your expectations are that high, you're going to be disappointed."
Such baggage is unfair to pile on any group, but particularly one as new to the scene as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The combo, which is fronted by vocalist Karen O and also features drummer Brian Chase, has been around for only a couple years; its first live date took place in September 2000. Moreover, the players' recorded oeuvre consists primarily of a self-titled EP cut for Shifty Records (its five songs clock in at less than fourteen minutes) and a cut on Fields and Streams, a compilation issued by the Kill Rock Stars imprint.
This slender output hasn't prevented Zinner and company from being ballyhooed by publications small and large. In February, for instance, Rolling Stone chose the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as one of ten outfits in music's "next wave" of sonic celebrities. Then, in July, the mag graded its predictions from five months earlier, declaring that it missed the mark on Clinic, Starsailor, Felix da Housecat and, inexplicably, Andrew W.K. "I didn't understand that one at all," Zinner concedes. "I mean, he's on a beer commercial and everything." Rolling Stone gave itself props, however, for correctly anticipating the achievements of Norah Jones ("Debut album No. 20 in Billboard"), John Mayer ("Hit album [Room for Squares]"), Vanessa Carlton ("Be Not Nobody No. 32 on charts"), Freeway ("Hit single ['Line 'em Up']"), Hoobastank ("Album Hoobastank now gold") and, not coincidentally, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who were lauded for spurring a "Major-label bidding war" -- a contention that mystifies Zinner.
"That's not true, by the way," he says. "There's been no bidding war that I know of, and I think I would have noticed. It sounds so violent and lecherous -- like A&R guys fighting with ponytails.
"I don't know why Rolling Stone loves us so much," he adds. "I just think they unnecessarily jumped the gun. I wouldn't call us a success by their standards yet."
Maybe not, but Zinner is obviously moving in the right direction. He hails from the Boston area and credits his parents with providing the foundations for his musical pursuits: "My dad's a great piano player, and my mother played guitar. She had aspirations of being a folksinger in the '60s. They played a lot of Pete Seeger around the house -- that and, like, show tunes."
Meanwhile, he received a grounding in rock from his older sister, Meredith; she's an actress who's appeared in episodes of ER and Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, as well as what Zinner describes as "that awful Julia Roberts movie -- Erin Brockovich, right? She had kind of a big part. She was, like, this woman who had nine miscarriages or something." According to him, "It's that classic scenario of her introducing me to a lot of music I wouldn't have been listening to at the time. She was a Bowie fanatic, so I definitely heard him when I was really young. That shaped a lot. And from there I got into heavy metal. So I guess Diamond Dogs and, like, Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil were the two most influential records of my youth."
By the time he was fifteen, Zinner was able to play Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" on guitar from start to finish ("It's not too fast, so you think you're really good"), and subsequently graduated to writing and recording his own compositions. "They were, like, instrumental guitar wanks. I went through some of them a year ago, looking for little pieces I could take, and most of them are awful -- really bad. But there was some interesting stuff there, once I got through my goth/punk-rock stage."
Zinner drew on this background as a part-time member of Flux Information Sciences, a collective that's "still active in New York," he notes. "They do this aggressive, somewhat industrial thing, like Throbbing Gristle or early Swans." But most of his musical energy was poured into Challenge of the Future, a five-piece assembled in 1993 when he was a student at Bard College, in the New York state community of Annandale-on-Hudson. The comrades, who originally performed together under the Star Wars-geek moniker Boba Fett, moved to New York City in 1996 but broke up a year or two further down the line.
"Some of the music was good," Zinner allows, a bit reluctantly. "But for me, the band was really an education in psychotherapy. It was very much an art-rock band, where ideas would be thrown about for hours and hours and hours and days and weeks, and nothing ever ended up with that sort of organic feeling. Once the music was finished, it was so far away from the time the inspiration first hit. Whereas the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is all about trusting your gut, and not overthinking anything, and doing what feels right -- loving that, celebrating that."
As Challenge of the Future was winding down, Zinner's collaboration with Karen O was heating up. "Karen and I had a bunch of friends in common, so we became friends -- drinking buddies. She was going to NYU film school at the time, and one day she played me some of these Cat Power-esque ballads she'd been working on. They were really beautiful, so we started working on them together -- and we still work on that project. But two months or so later, Karen called up and said, 'Let's form a rock band!' So we did."
Finding the right lineup took some trying. Several drummers and keyboard players moved through the band before Karen thought of Chase, whom she'd met while attending Ohio's Oberlin College. One practice later, he was made a full-fledged Yeah Yeah Yeahs member -- and shortly thereafter, the trio determined that they were ready to play live. The inaugural gig "was with a band called the White Stripes, whom I'd never heard of at the time," Zinner recalls. "We were pretty nervous, but it was a good show. We played a fifteen-minute set: all five songs we had at the time."
Of those five ditties, three of them wound up on Yeah Yeah Yeahs, cut in 2001. The disc's production quality is brittle and primitive, as befits material that gives roots, rockabilly and punk the PJ Harvey/Jon Spencer Blues Explosion treatment. Against an aural wall of brutal twang and trash-can rhythms, Karen O belts out feverish come-ons that split the difference between obsessive and ironic. "Bang," the opening track, pivots on the phrase "the bigger, the better"; "Mystery Girl" tells the tale of a girl from "cell- block C" who's "a primal institution"; "Art Star" begins with the quirky couplet "I've been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation/I've been screwing on the tracks of abandoned train stations"; "Miles Away" juxtaposes excitable shrieks and inspired guitar-string abuse; and "Our Time" emerges as a declaration of purpose, thanks to lines like "It's the year to be hated/So glad that we made it."
This last comment proved prescient. Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a stylistic amalgam that will be familiar to anyone with even a glancing knowledge of recent New York alterna-rock, but it's also canny and catchy -- and it arrived at precisely the right time to capture the press's fancy.
"We're not doing anything different from what people have been doing for the past ten years," Zinner says. "But the Strokes definitely opened up so many doors. In terms of being from the same town and having some mutual acquaintances, that definitely made more people curious about us." This buzz was more widely disseminated after "Greil Marcus wrote about us in his weekly column about five or six months after we started playing out. And all of a sudden, we were getting hits on our Web site [www.yeahyeahyeahs.com] from everywhere. We went from having five visitors a day to 200 or 300. And from there, it accelerated at this ridiculous rate. We really still can't keep up with it."
Before long, Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows were attracting a strikingly large number of music insiders -- so many, in fact, that Zinner learned how to identify them at a glance. He says record-company executives "look like they all use a lot of skin products. Most of them are in their early to mid-thirties. They dress down, and usually stand there with their arms crossed." Critics "cross their arms, too," he acknowledges. "And you usually see them talking to the A&R people. Either that, or they're half watching the stage and half looking behind them to see who else might have just come in."
This level of scrutiny is capable of making just about anyone self-conscious. But Zinner says he and his partners haven't allowed the circus atmosphere that surrounds them to slow down their efforts to complete the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' first proper album. "We actually went to record what we thought would be the record in, I guess, early March. But we ended up scrapping all that, which was good, because after we went on tour for two months, we were playing the songs a lot better, and we had a bunch of new songs we wanted to record. We actually recorded seventeen songs, but there'll probably end up being eleven or twelve on the record. They're emotional, but not emo, which is a word I avoid like the plague -- along with most of the bands that claim to represent it.
"The whole thing's pretty schizophrenic right now," he continues. "We're going in a lot of different directions at once, within the whole concept and framework of the record. Some of the stuff is straightahead and definitely upbeat, but we have some ballads and dancey stuff and some things that are kind of orchestral; we used a drum machine and put some keyboard loops on some songs. And the lyrics -- well, there are love songs and there are no-love songs, and there are other things that may or may not pertain to Karen's life." As for sexual content, Zinner laughs while confirming that "there's a lot of it. We try and try, but we just can't get rid of it."
Right now, Zinner doesn't know what company will be bringing this material to the public. Some major labels have expressed interest in the group, he confesses, "but we're still deciding what route we want to go on."
If pop music's death turns out to have been greatly exaggerated, this decision may be made for them. But Zinner doesn't seem worried about that prospect.
"We definitely didn't think any of this would happen," he says. "It took us totally by surprise. But we're more interested in putting on a really good show and making people happy than in proving the hype is right."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.