An Interview with Karen O
I have seen Karen O and her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, perform to sold-out crowds in New York City, Oslo, and Melbourne. And then I have seen her play to a half-full venue in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. No one likes the feeling of being stood up, staring out from the stage and wondering why your other half didn’t bother to show. But instead of making us aware of who wasn’t there, Karen O reminded us of what it feels like to be present. As a performer, she looks for the anomaly; she seeks out the dancer unhinged, the misshapen, the underused, and she pursues them. And that night, we the crowd were the anomaly.
There is the audience and then there are the cracks in the audience; the vulnerable fragments, the individuals that make up the whole. Karen performs for both. She gets into the spaces that are dangerous, bridging them and then splitting them apart again. She is an adhesive and an agitator when most performers are neither. Karen O understands that there are so few moments like these; ones that are spontaneous, alive, and visceral. She asks that the audience join her, and if you’re waiting for a polite invitation, then you’ve missed the point.
I talked to Karen by phone while she was at her home in Los Angeles. The formality of an interview can be awkward for two people who are used to relating to one another in a different, more casual context. It took a while for us to feel comfortable. Soon, however, it grew into a conversation about the vulnerabilities, the frustrations, and the caprices of music, but mostly about holding onto a sense of immense hope.
I. “IF I HAVE TO BE THE SLIMIEST, MOST MANIPULATIVE POLITICIAN ABOUT DUPING PEOPLE INTO STAYING IN THE PRESENT AND JUST EXPERIENCING US FOR WHAT WE ARE, THEN I’LL DO IT, MAN.”
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: How long have you been living in Los Angeles?
KAREN O: I moved out here in early February last year, right before the Grammys.
CB: Did you go to the Grammys? You did. You guys were nominated. Was that surreal for you?
KO: That was definitely surreal. For one thing, there was no talk whatsoever of even the possibility of us getting nominated. It wasn’t like, “It’s really in the bag, guys.” It didn’t occur to us at all. When we found out, I was still living in Closter, New Jersey, and I was having a really weird day. I went to the doctor and had my blood drawn. My blood was coming out really slow for some reason.
CB: They noted it was coming out slow?
KO: They went into the vein in my right arm, and it was coming out so slow that they decided to tap a vein on my left arm, which is pretty traumatic.
CB: stuff actually makes me pass out.
KO: Yeah, yeah. So they went to my left arm and it was still coming out slow. So they had to go back to my right arm. [Laughs.]
KO: That’s what set the tone for me. I got home and I was kind of out of it and dizzy and that’s when I got a call about the nomination. Because I’d been the victim of a few pranks recently, I seriously thought that someone had pulled one over on us. It just didn’t make any sense at all.
CB: Because of the large amount of media that’s been following you guys since the beginning, a person could think that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been around a long time. But really, you’ve only made one full-length record.
KO: Yeah, it does feel like that. It seems like everything is accelerated these days, especially when it comes to the shelf life of a band. In general, social trends seem to keep accelerating faster and faster. So even though we’ve been around since 2000, that’s nothing for most bands.
CB: Like compared with the Kaiser Chiefs or the Killers or some band that feels like they were born yesterday.
KO: And also compared with bands that have been around for eleven, twelve years. I feel like everything moves so fast these days that it sort of chips off, which is totally ridiculous.
CB:As a music listener, I find it really difficult to keep up.
KO: Yeah, me too. The disturbing thing to me is a trend that goes along with how accelerated this culture is moving. It’s this real distrust of the present moment. That’s what I feel most regretful about in terms of what’s happened with us. Our heyday—2002, 2003— something really special and something really electric and kind of cathartic was happening at that point in New York City. And half the time, I’d allow myself to feel that and be like, “Wow, this is incredible.” But half the time I was questioning it, and thinking: “Oh, is this derivative? Oh, is this the real thing?” I was just really self-conscious about it and didn’t allow myself to enjoy it for what it was. Also, in the back of my head I knew it wouldn’t last very long. I didn’t really know how much I’d miss it until it was over, which was like a year and a half ago. My biggest regret is that while I was doing it, I was only kind of halfway there. I was so self-conscious about that whole movement—people were calling it a movement—and about everything that had to do with something that actually felt real.
CB: In terms of the whole distrust of the present, what I find is that people are so busy trying to document and capture a moment, whether it’s racing home from the show to put it on the internet or taking photographs on their camera phones during the show, that the documentation comes at the expense of the moment itself. They miss out on just living it.
KO: I just went out to Tower Records and bought some records. How often do people go out and buy records anymore?
CB: They don’t. I totally forget that people don’t buy records anymore.
KO: It’s nuts, right? And that kind freaks me out a little bit, too. I guess this is a huge, transitional technological period. I just bought four albums, three of which are oldies. Roy Orbison’s Love Songs, Lesley Gore’s Greatest Hits, and then Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, which is a classic. It’s stuff that has nothing to do with right now. I’ve kind of been feeling like, “Oh, yeah, there’s nothing going on right now, there’s nothing worth buying, there’s nothing exciting.” What’s so tragic about me feeling that is that I can’t go see Roy Orbison playing. I can’t go see Lesley Gore play anymore. Well, maybe I could.
CB: In Vegas.
KO: [Laughs] Yeah, in Vegas, or in some dinner theater. I feel like there’s nothing as powerful as experiencing a band in the present moment. It’s tragic how many people let these bands pass them by. After the fact they’re like: “Oh, yeah. Actually, that’s good. I like that album.” After the band’s broken up or they’re not playing that album anymore. It’s cheating yourself. To stay in the present is really the most powerful kind of experience. It really bums me out that it’s so hard to do that these days.
CB: People go on about, “Oh, back in the day, I wish I could have seen Minor Threat,” or “I wish I had seen Black Flag.” Well, you should go to shows now and enjoy them for what they are.
KO: Yeah, go to shows now! Exactly. If I have to be the slimiest, most manipulative politician about duping people into staying in the present and just experiencing us for what we are, then I’ll do it, man. I’ll do it. I’ll be completely amoral about it if I have to.
II. “A LOT OF THE TIME I KICK MYSELF FOR EVER WANTING TO TALK TO SOMEONE WHO I REALLY KIND OF ADORE.”
CB: When you’re performing, do you feel that you’re able to be present in it?
KO: Oh, completely, yeah, 100 percent present. To a point, it becomes kind of painful. 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 and out of that sort of detachment that you’re talking about. I think that’s why it takes so much out of me. And I think that’s why I resent it to some degree. I feel like I’m picking up the slack for a whole generation of nonbelievers.
CB: The nonparticipants.
KO: And trying to win over and convert every crowd, every time.
CB: Have you played to a crowd where you guys feel like you’re a movie up there?
KO: Oh, yeah.
CB: When that happens, do you just go inward and focus on you and Brian [Chase, on drums] and Nick [Zinner, guitar]? Or can you still look at the audience? Is there a wall that comes up?
KO: Sometimes. I don’t go into some automatic mode. I never really let myself get to that point; I’m always trying to stay there in the moment. So then it becomes an exercise in amusing myself. I can get really bratty, and really antagonistic. Not really towards the crowd, almost in spite of the crowd. I’ll just block them out a little bit, like that really fucked-up way of being angry at someone, when you pretend they’re not there, but only to make them be really bummed out and have no control anymore. I always have something going on with the crowd even if it’s not directly giving out love and being right there with them. I’m always there, trying to play off of them.
CB: I was looking at that book that Nick did [I Hope You Are All Happy Now], of all of his audience shots, which are amazing. From a distance, there is a sameness. But up close, the differentiation between people becomes apparent. There are times when I’m on stage and I’ll find myself just looking out at someone and thinking about their lives. Are you ever wondering: “Who is that person right there? Why are they glaring at me, or why are they laughing?” Are you able to have regular streams of thoughts while you play, or do you feel like you’re somewhere else?
KO: More than meditating on that random person in the crowd, I usually use them. There’s always one person who really doesn’t give a shit about how the rest of the crowd is acting, and it’s completely genuine. I’ll just zero in on them. I’ll go over to them and ask their name and then dedicate a song to them and it’ll make all the difference in the world to me as far as the performance goes. They’re not always in the front, really. They’re all the way in the back and they’re going crazy.
CB: Do you prefer to connect with your audience when you’re onstage? Or do you prefer offstage encounters, like after the show? Because you’re different offstage. Well, all of us are different onstage than we are offstage. Which interaction is more comfortable for you?
KO: For sure, I prefer the one while I’m performing. It’s like a tornado, or one of those things where we’re both in this same sort of zone. I think that’s more meaningful in some ways than meeting them outside of that experience. Nonetheless, I really enjoy talking to fans and hanging out with the fans. It’s just that—I’m sure you guys have this too—all the teenage fans, they don’t really know where the line is, or they don’t really care where the line is between being respectful and then just wanting a piece of you.
CB: There’s also that thing offstage, where suddenly you’re confronted with a person that you don’t know, but who thinks they know you pretty well, based on your lyrics or how you are onstage. I don’t know about you, but that’s uncomfortable for me. Do you ever feel like, “Oh my god, I’m not meeting their expectations right now of who they thought I was?”
KO: Oh yeah, completely. A big reason we feel that is we’ve been on the other side.
CB: We’ve been the fans.
KO: Yeah. And a lot of the time I kick myself for ever wanting to talk to someone who I really kind of adore. I mean, what do I expect is going to happen? That we’re going to become best pals, and they’re going to blow my mind, and they’re going to tell me something that changes my life? No. They’re not very interested in talking to me at all.
CB: I agree. At this point, there are certain people that I would never want to meet, certain famous musicians or writers that I admire. I just know if the experience went badly that it might affect the way I listen to their music. Is your persona just an onstage persona, or does it also act as a screen in order to protect yourself?
KO: More than anything else, I think it’s an onstage persona. It’s not that it’s unreal, that side of me. It’s close to something more raw and angry and sexual and kind of bare. It’s an extreme presentation of that.
III. “WE WERE RELYING MORE ON OUR EMOTIONS AND WHAT WAS GOING ON INSIDE. THE INNER TURMOIL RATHER THAN THE OUTER TURMOIL.”
CB: What’s the process in which you put the lyrics and melody over the songs? When Nick brings in a song, is it complete, or do your vocals and melody force the song to change?
KO: Our songwriting has definitely changed. It’s definitely gone through certain transitions and evolutions since we started. It’s been harder, lately, to come together with material to try to match up. That’s something we had an easier time doing before. Now it works better, when we’re just sitting there for the first time and improvising and messing around a little bit. My favorite way to write a song is to start with a drumbeat or a bass line. This is more of a recent thing, too.
CB: Do you feel more self-critical at this point? Or that you’re editing yourself more than you would have before?
KO: Definitely. We spent so much time on the road and not writing music that it’s really important for Nick and me to be getting along and feel comfortable with each other as friends before we can make music and not be as critical. It’s crazy, Nick and I become strangers after a while, when it’s just touring and doing these things that have nothing to do with creating. And the only way we can work and write together is to reestablish our friendship. Then I think we’ll be able to write together.
CB: Your band was so closely tied to the New York scene and now you live in L.A. Do you think it’s a physical landscape that defines your band, or is it an internal landscape within the three of you? Now that you’re geographically removed from your band mates [Chase and Zinner, who both live in New York], does that feel any different?
KO: Yeah. When we were all living in New York and we started the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I was twenty-one. I was at the peak of being completely absorbed in the New York night scene and the New York music and social scene, although there wasn’t much of a music scene at that point. But the whole hedonistic side of me was kind of trumping everything else. We were feeding off that manic street energy. It really did feel much dirtier and more antagonistic. And as the years have gone by, I think we’re more removed from just being there. So we had to rely on other things that were more inside of us. I think that’s when the second half of our Fever to Tell album started happening, like “Y Control” and “Maps” and this whole other side of us was starting to get nurtured. We were relying more on our emotions and what was going on inside. The inner turmoil rather than the outer turmoil. What feels the most different for me, as far as what’s going to affect the way that we write, is my age, turning twenty-six. It feels like an old twenty-six.
CB: Did you feel a kinship with the New York music community? And if you did, is it difficult to be outside of that? Or is part of getting older not necessarily needing the same kinds of support that you did? Support might come from different places now.
KO: Right. It wasn’t like the late seventies, when everyone would eat dinner in the same restaurant. But we did definitely have kinships with certain bands, with Liars and a bunch of Brooklyn bands, and also with a bunch of clubs and club owners and just people on the scene. And that scene doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of people have migrated to Berlin, or to L.A., and some to San Francisco. Part of maturing as an artist is becoming less reliant on a music scene. That’s not necessarily a better thing than relying on it; it’s just a different thing. I think that we’re just kind of doing our own thing now.
CB: You went to school at Oberlin, right? And Brian did, too?
CB: I’m assuming at a place like Oberlin there was an ongoing political and ideological discussion that often ends up being at odds with one’s ambition. Coming from that and going to New York, which is full of ambition and opportunities, did you feel like there were certain beliefs that you held onto from Oberlin that you were turning away from? Was there pressure not to go the way of Interscope, or did you feel comfortable with your decision?
KO: That kind of “fuck the system” point of view definitely influenced Brian and me. Especially Brian, because he’s coming from even more avant-garde influences than I am. But for me personally, my main fear was going toward the system and losing artistic control. It’s not that I didn’t care about all the other things that go along with not selling out. But it was not in my best interest to limit our audience. I felt like being on an indie label; it was kind of inevitable, which has been disproved by—
KO: Yeah, Interpol. And Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes. What became apparent to me wasn’t really as black-and-white as it has been made out to be. “Major label bad, indie label good,” you know? [Laughs]
CB: Right, of course not.
KO: It just became clear from fellow bands that were signed to indie labels just how shitty indies can be, and how shitty, obviously, the majors can be. There’s shittiness all around. For us, if we could maneuver ourselves, we were in a great position. Not a position most bands are lucky enough to get. We really got to call our shots. We could have creative autonomy and have the first say in what they do.
CB: Plus, I just feel like the indie/sellout debate is so tired.
KO: Oh, yeah.
CB: But there’s always a new crop of people that have this “You Sold Out” mentality. I think it’s more complicated than that.
KO: It’s totally absurd. And it’s really upsetting. I could tell you, for fuck’s sake, Interscope has not changed the way that we make music.
IV.“ONE OF MY OBJECTIVES IS TO TOTALLY FUCK UP THAT PROTOCOL ON HOW TO RELEASE A RECORD.”
CB: Do you worry about whether your fans will stick with you through artistic experimentation or changes? Or have you reached the point where you shut them out and say, “OK, I hope that you trust us to do what we want and that you’ll like it”?
KO: I think it’s more that we just hope they’ll trust us. It’s hard to say. We have this really strange, contradictory self-image. We kind of feel like underdogs, despite coming out of New York and getting sort of clumped into that whole category of bands like the Strokes and Interpol and the White Stripes. And all of them, maybe even Interpol at this point, have far exceeded our popularity or sales or embracement by the mainstream. We definitely have put ourselves on the radar, but it took much longer for us to get on the radar. So we always feel like the weird band with the weird songs with a female lead that somehow made it. But also it’s unbelievable how many people have reached out to us despite how strange I think we are. Going into this next record, we’re not self-conscious. It’s more like we’re just very serious about maintaining the same sort of approach as far as not watering it down, keeping within our personalities and ourselves and keeping within what kind of music we’re into. And that’s always changing, so our sound might change. I’m sure some fans might be disappointed.We don’t have any idea what our next record will sound like, but we’re pretty sure we’re just going to start from scratch with it. And in that way, it might throw our fans off. But if they like us for what we do and who we are, I think they’ll be with us.
CB: Whenever you guys do make your new record, there’ll be so much speculation on message boards and in the media. People just spend so much time within the discourse that they forget: “Wait, we’re talking about a record here. Don’t we actually have to hear it to know what it’s about?” God, just go to the show.
KO: Right, right.
CB: We’re in a place where we just finished our record. I have to tune out the speculation and all that crap and just say,“ OK, I’m really proud of this thing we did.”
KO: I think everyone goes through that these days. It’s part of that culture of consumption. Where all they really want is that fast, immediately gratifying thing where they can chew it up and spit it back out. People are ravenous for that, so much that they’ll completely overlook all the subtleties. I think part of the problem is the protocol that goes into releasing a record. There’s just this drab protocol that even the kids are totally sick of.
CB: Yeah. There’s four months of just waiting.
KO: And then trying to build up some sort of buzz about it and then releasing it. It’s almost sort of anticlimactic because people take press so much more seriously than actual substance. The process has superseded the music.
CB: And because of the internet, everybody’s a critic. It’s like people listen to the records so then they can get on their blog and write their own review. It’s so reportorial, I feel like it’s less and less about one’s individual relationship to the music and more about being the first person to have an opinion about it. I wish you could record an album and the label would just immediately put it out there.
KO: That order from press buildup to releasing an album to touring—could there be anything more mindless and bland and soul-sucking?
CB: It takes you so far away from the music. It becomes abstract. You’re doing everything but performing it, doing everything except playing it. And you don’t even know what you’re talking about in the end.
KO: I think one of my objectives is to totally fuck up that protocol on how to release a record. Because I’m sick of it. I dread that ritual. I just think it needs to change. The process in which records are released needs to change. Once that changes, it will mix things up a bit, and people won’t be so conditioned into feeling the way they do, and being as detached as they are to albums and new music.
CB: I think detachment is brought on by the continuous dialogue and by these discussions; it’s above the music, but not in it.
KO: Exactly. And what’s so sad is we’re doing it to ourselves. That happens with records, and it also happens with shows. There’s the whole crossed-arms, “OK, prove something to me” audience. One of the last shows we played last year was in Mexico City. The kids came and we were the only band playing. We were playing at 9:30 p.m. and they opened the doors at 7:00 and kids came running in and it was a huge line. Two and a half hours before we even hit the stage, kids were whistling and yelling, and it was just nuts. When we went out there, it was the most amazing crowd we’ve ever played, the most receptive and loving and enthusiastic. Totally the most sincere crowd we’ve ever played to. I was like: “Damn, if I could play to a crowd like this every night, I’d do this every day of the year. It wouldn’t drain me. It wouldn’t sap me. I wouldn’t feel all these conflicts.” I couldn’t even believe it. It felt like another planet. Whatever I can do as an artist to try and move more toward that is what I want to do.