Korean, 100% Rock Star
was bound to happen. New York City was in dire need
of a music scene revival when finally the Strokes arose
as the biggest hyped band of the year in 2001, turning
the heads of young indie fans who felt compelled to
give homage to forefathers such as the Velvet Underground,
the New York Dolls, the Stooges and Television. The
mod-headed band officially started the garage rock revival
alongside the White Stripes and The Hives, taking the
press and the music industry by storm with their vintage
rock 'n' roll spirit and minimalist cool. Somewhere
along the line, NYC's trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were
pushed into the mess for obvious reasons: their incendiary
live shows which placed them at the head of the underground
scene in and around the big city, incidental promotion
through the Strokes who admitted to U.K.'s NME (New
Musical Express) that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were their
favorite band of the moment and who drew attention to
the trio as one of the members were shown on TV wearing
a Yeah Yeah Yeahs' badge, and simply because they were
in the right place at the right time.
singer/song-writer Karen Orzoleck who goes by 'Karen
O' must be exhausted. Her band, comprised of drummer
Brian Chase whom she met at Oberlin college in Ohio,
and guitarist Nick Zinner whom she ran into at a local
bar while attending NYU, has been touring non-stop after
and even way before their debut album "Fever to
Tell" was released through Interscope this past
April. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs started in the summer of
2000, playing underground clubs just for the fun of
it but became serious once fans and the press started
swarming around them. The band is finally on a well-deserved
break and Karen is now back in her home in New Jersey
and takes a moment to reflect on the insanity of this
past year. "It was really really exciting like
when everything started blowing up. There was good music
everywhere and NYC seemed to be saturated with talented
young people doing really interesting things,"
Karen explains in her very Brooklyn vernacular consisting
of endless 'like's and 'ya know's. "We were really
happy to be apart of it. Now it's pretty much over and
done with over there. I think all of the excitement
that we came up with died down a bit and New York has
definitely settled back to where it was before the whole
band ran into some unexpected and inevitable issues
as they entered the high-pressure world of rock stardom
but the highlight of the past year is definitely the
release of their raw debut album, "Fever to Tell,"
Karen says. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing their angular,
raunchy blues-garage at fashionable bars and galleries
in 2000 without even an EP to their name. They released
a 5-track EP "Bang!" in 2001 on their own
Shifty imprint, which almost made it to the Top 30 U.K.
charts but wasn't long enough to be considered a full
single though NME still voted it No. 2 in their 2002
Singles of the Year list. The following year, they released
another EP titled "Machine" through Wichita
Records which Kerrang! Magazine considered 'Single of
the Week' and X-Ray prized as 'Single of the Month.'
The band was working on their full-length in between
touring with producer Alan Moulder (Ash, Smashing Pumpkins,
My Blood Valentine, Eurythmics) and was playing live
shows on almost no purchasable material except two EPs,
so the release of "Fever to Tell" was a huge
relief. "We almost felt reborn because it was one
of the very few goals that we had," the NYU film
school graduate says.
declares that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs started out as "innocent"
and "fun-loving" and had no intentions of
getting to where they are now, which is in every major
music magazine there is out there and touring the world.
In early 2002, the trio was the hottest band to have
performed at the annual South By Southwest Music Festival,
instigating mega interest from major labels. They were
famed as one of "Ten New Artists to Watch"
in Rollingstone, toured the U.K. with Jon Spencer Blues
Explosion in early 2002 (Karen affectionately refers
to them as "our uncles who brought us into this
whole mess") and headlined their own U.K. tour
after playing alongside Sleater Kinney and The Liars.
they signed with Interscope, a label that Karen believes
breeds fine "rock star personas." "It
was an excruciating decision for us because we weren't
at all comfortable with letting go of reigns basically
to a major corporation but we chose Interscope out of
all the majors because they seemed to be more risk-taking,"
Karen explains. "If you look at their roster they
have Marilyn Manson, Eminem, Gwen Stefani/No Doubt,
who are a bit more deviant." The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
didn't fear losing creative control with the more liberal-minded
Interscope but still take certain precautions to keep
from not only selling out but also preserving their
indie-at-heart individuality. Apparently, they chose
PlayStation over Motorola to advertise a song of theirs,
which proves that they call the shots and will sell
whatever to whomever they choose.
seems to be having the biggest problem fending off leeches,
especially the uber-cool citizens of the fashion world.
Incidentally, she has become a fashion icon, sporting
torn prom dresses, neon green hot pants, tutus, tattered
leg warmers and anything that her friend and personal
designer Christian Joy makes for her. "Like everything
else with this band, it's all like experiments or case
studies. It's like seeing how much I can get away with,"
Karen slyly replies and goes on to talk about how fashion
magazines just want to hunt you down and make you conform
to whatever they see is fashionably righteous. Karen
has rejected Vogue's request for an interview about
her off-kilter style and furthermore, has rejected the
flattering yet irrelevant offer to pose nude for Playboy.
performance pretty much happens naturally and
organically on stage because growing up, I didn't
have much to reference to what made sense to me"
the singer does have a raw sex appeal, belting out hot
orgasmic screeches and singing blistering provocative
lyrics like "cold light/hot night/be my heater,
by my lover/ and we could do it to each other."
Not to mention her feverish and feral performance antics.
She's known to dance like a crotch-grabbing drunk and
stick both a beer bottle and a mic down her throat to
simulate pain to her stage-energy as she's violently
gurgling and spilling the alcohol that's only being
half-swallowed. She doesn't cite many influences although
the press insists that she's a female Iggy Pop in her
prime. "My performance pretty much happens naturally
and organically on stage because growing up, I didn't
have much to reference to what made sense to me,"
she states. "Touring's really exhausting in every
way, more so in my case because I'm really into giving
a good show and I'm completely uncompromising with that
to the point where I'd rather just not play a show at
all if I'm not all into it. But I've managed to stick
by and know what I'm capable of 'cause there is a lot
of external pressures."
ethnic background is not so obvious as her dynamic rock
persona, however. Karen, who was born in Korea, says
that her whole ethnic experience has been quite "strange."
Her mother is full Korean and her father is Caucasian
but they decided not to enforce the culture onto her
and her younger brother out of a desire for them to
fit in while they were growing up on the East Coast.
"My mom is definitely Asian looking but I didn't
even realize that she was Korean until I was 7 or 8.
I was sort of half-Caucasian to the world as I was growing
up," Karen recalls. "When I hit 7th or 8th
grade, you become really really self-conscious about
fitting in, and that's when I was sort of ashamed that
I was half Asian. I didn't realize how much of an asset
that is until I went to college and I had this real
desire to explore that side of me that I've been neglecting
for so long. Now it's like I'd rather much be half-breed
than all white. Now days I have a much easier time with
fashionable singer has visited her family in Korea several
times and has grown an affinity with the culture and
the community. She is well aware that there is an unfortunate
lack of underground scenes in her homeland, so she doesn't
want to take her status as a rock icon in vain. "That's
why it's important to me to sort of represent to Korean
Americans and the Korean community that I am a personality
who's part Korean. I'd be thrilled if I was younger
and there was someone who has a Korean heritage that's
standing against the grain. I definitely feel like there's
a sort of satisfaction out of touching people's lives
being of Korean heritage more than if I was just white."
indie goddess not only rips the stage apart and victimizes
beer bottles and mics in her glamorously sleazy outfits
but further pushes the envelope as a 'hapa' with a unique
ethnic experience who strives to appreciate her identity.
She mentions that the last time she visited Korea was
winter of 2001 and learned to cook Korean food from
her grandmother and giggles after pronouncing "harlmonee"
(Korean for grandmother) and proudly replies, "she's
the best teacher." The chic and raucous frontwoman
of 2002's most hyped band in the kitchen cooking Korean
food is surely a sight to see.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs are coming our way in September!
9/22 and 9/23- The Greek Theater, Los Angeles with the
July 18, 2003