Oiled and Topless!

When Best Alternative Album nominees the Yeah Yeah Yeahs strolled the green (courtesy of Heineken) carpet on their way into the Grammys last month, their arrival was overshadowed by the grand entrance of multinominee Beyonc Knowles. Not that the New York-based trio were that bothered over their lack of paparazzi action, especially considering they had spent the better part of the afternoon sipping champagne in the limo. They didn't even stick around after the White Stripes collected the coveted Best Alternative trophy.

“We only stayed until the second commercial, I think, before we bounced,” says singer Karen O. “Because we were pretty wasted, and it was pretty scary and a little bit whack. It's not our cup of tea, I guess.”

Probably not since Sonic Youth emerged from the indie underground has a band whose coolness outstretches their record sales by a wide margin so successfully infiltrated the ranks of the music world's beautiful people. And the kicker is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have accomplished this feat in a fraction of the time it took Sonic Youth to get from Confusion Is Sex to Goo. Back in 2000, Nick Zinner, a classically trained guitarist and veteran rock musician, met fellow NYU film student Karen Ohm at the Lakeside Lounge in NYC; the two decided to collaborate after Zinner determined that Karen O—as she prefers it—was “crazy enough” to be in a band with him.

“I guess I can get really antagonistic when I get a few drinks in me,” Karen explains. “I sort of test whoever is around to see who takes themselves too seriously, and Nick passed the test.”

After trying out a short succession of drummers, Karen recruited Brian Chase, whom she had met while attending Oberlin College. Chase learned the songs in one afternoon, just in time to play the band's first gig, opening for the White Stripes. The first of five bands on the bill, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played to an audience of perhaps 25 people and left a lasting impression by immediately setting up a contrast between themselves and the innocent routine of faux siblings Jack and Meg. With Karen oiled down and topless, save for a pair of pasties, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were decidedly not innocent. The buzz spread quickly.

“There were people in the audience who didn't think we were from America,” says Karen. ” I guess there was something unusual about our performance.”

In 2001, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their self-titled EP, which established the band's formula of catchy pop hooks contrasted with abrasive punk noise. Critical raves and extensive tours followed, culminating with a blitzkrieg of South By Southwest in 2002, from which tales of mass consumption of record industry-supplied booze, demolished dressing rooms and a shoving match with Courtney Love emerged.

“When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hit SXSW, we hit pretty hard,” admits Karen. “We almost feel like we shouldn't go back because we did the damage that we needed to do.”

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs eventually inked with Interscope, and early last year, they released arty rock album Fever to Tell. The songs on Fever tweak familiar styles and themes, turning Zeppelin-esque cock rock on its ear in the Page/Bonham-heavy “Man” and giving New Wave romantic pathos a sublime tribute in “Y Control.”

“I get song ideas not so much from musical artists, but more from directors,” explains Karen. “John Hughes is a big one because the Yeah Yeah Yeahs try to capture the teen experience. When I hear 'Y Control,' I sort of picture a moment like the end of Pretty In Pink.”

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs supported their debut with a yearlong tour, during which Karen became the focus of media attention because of her onstage antics and distinct fashion sensibility (scores of teenage Karen O look-alikes routinely attend gigs). She was also occasionally featured on the cover of rock magazines without Zinner and Chase, which the singer wasn't terribly happy with.

“That's one of those fucked-up realities you have to deal with if you're fronting a band,” says Karen. “They'll say, 'We only do one person from the band,' and then they'll put all five of the Strokes on the cover, and we'll be kind of bummed out about that.”


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