Stay Positive: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Returning with their first album in nearly a decade, ‘Cool It Down’ is here to remind the world that no one does it quite like Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The essence of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, after all of these years, is still in the name. Three affirmative shouts of positivity that invoke joy and excitement, rallying enthusiasm and rousing punk spirit, it’s a giddy explosion of a phrase that begs for exclamation marks and fists pumped gleefully in the air. ‘Three affirmative shouts of positivity’ could also describe the trio of old friends who’ve been making music under the moniker for the past two decades. And if any year blessed with a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album is one to be thankful for, then in 2022, the return of Nick Zinner, Brian Chase and the magnificent shining beam of a frontwoman that is Karen O feels something like relief.
“I was talking to a friend who said that ‘The people who need you guys need you more than ever these days’,” nods Karen. “So coming back and feeling needed and knowing we needed it just as much, we were matching the audience’s joyful reunion. There was a palpable love and excitement in the air.”
If love can be measured in applause, then at this summer’s Primavera Sound in Barcelona (alongside a couple of warm-ups in LA, and London’s Brixton Academy), the trio were the entire festival’s sweethearts. Returning for an encore of hedonistic debut album classic ‘Date With The Night’ following a victorious hour’s set, the band received the festival equivalent of a standing ovation: a whooping, hollering, drawn-out tumult of love that left them looking visibly overwhelmed. “It was pretty spectacular,” Brian recalls. “Everything felt so new and fresh again - it was pure excitement on every level.”
But more than just excitement, there’s something about Yeah Yeah Yeahs these days that feels transcendent, even spiritual. It’s not that the trio have lost any of the creative, rebellious spark that first propelled them to fame at the turn of the century, but there’s something bigger at play too: a slice of pure, bright-eyed goodness, fighting against a world gone rotten. “For me, it’s just being 1000% in this moment with the audience and everyone on stage in this really blissful, united state of just pure presence,” says Nick. “I’m not thinking about whatever technical shit I have to do; everything becomes so locked in and rapturous, it’s really one of the greatest feelings.”
“In the beginning [of the band], I think a lot of what we were feeling was about pulling the rug out from under the audience a bit - being more provocative, trying to stir up a maelstrom of sorts; this psychic, sexual, self-destructive fugue,” Karen continues. “There was more of a commitment to chaos [before] and those things that move you when you’re really young, like sex and love and hate and pain. But these days, it feels like it’s transcending all those things. These days it feels more like a lift - I wanna lift ourselves and whoever’s out there higher and higher…”
If there’s undeniably a lot to be low about in the world right now, then ‘Cool It Down’ - Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ fifth album and their first since 2013’s ‘Mosquito’ - does nothing to shy away from this reality. Opening with the apocalyptic grandeur of Perfume Genius-featuring lead single ‘Spitting Off the Edge of the World’, it sets its stead out from the off as a record rooted in primal sensations, where catastrophic wildfires burn all around and life feels reactive and terrifying and perpetually uncertain.
Though there’s an escapist element to their shows and their presentation, the band, says Karen, have always stared life head-on. “I feel like we’re pretty confrontational. I think we do like to rouse our audiences and we want them to escape themselves as far as not being self conscious and trapped in the jail of your mind that you live in - we want people to break free of that. But I don’t think we shy away from emotions that people are sometimes scared of dealing with, like loss or losing control or sexual desire,” she begins.
Instead, on their latest, the trio somewhat Trojan horse their subjects, cloaking this imagery in sonic beauty and euphoria. ‘Spitting…’ might be about imminent environmental collapse, about “standing on the edge of a precipice, confronting what’s coming with anger and defiance”, but longtime collaborator Dave Sitek’s production is rich and lush, with orchestral strings elevating things towards the heavens. Recent single ‘Burning’ conjures up troubled, incendiary pictures but does so with shimmying, dancefloor drama, while playful highlight ‘Fleez’ writhes down in the dirt of civilization whilst nodding to ‘80s dance-punk heroes ESG.
“Music is one of those funny languages where you can be talking about something quite intense or serious or heavy, but the feeling of it is completely the opposite,” says Karen. “I made that discovery in 2020 when I did a cover of [Queen’s] ‘Under Pressure’ with Willie Nelson; I’ve heard that song hundreds of times but I don’t think I’d ever clocked what it was actually saying. But we did this very stripped down version, and I looked at the lyrics with a different sentiment, and it was like, ‘Wow’. They’re actually addressing some pretty weighty stuff but when you hear it you feel totally high and charged.
“I think that’s the beautiful contradiction of making music and why it’s been, for so many years, one of the main vehicles that can enact social change - because when you put it in that package, it’s so much more palatable for so many people that wouldn’t be able to digest it in any other way, so I was trying to access that,” she continues. “I don’t wanna hear heavy songs that make me feel really heavy, I wanna hear heavy songs that make me feel great. There’s a rich history of them; Bob Dylan has so many heavy songs that make you feel important by just listening to them. I can do this! I can change things! That’s one of those superpowers of music.”
On top of all this, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, reunited in their own little writing bubble for the first time in a long time, genuinely WERE feeling great. At the start of the ‘Cool It Down’ sessions in 2021, Nick and Karen began, as they always do, with a no-pressure jam session to ease themselves back in. A “family tradition” they’ve employed since the early days, Karen recalls this instalment as being one of “pure happiness”. “Of course the stuff we were writing about had some big and challenging feelings in it, but I think there’s the personal part of it where it feels like we’ve been a family for over 20 years now and we’re just so happy to get to do this again,” she smiles.
“Now with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, maybe because subconsciously we know that we have a fan base and it’s gonna make a lot of people happy to hear something too, it really starts to feel bigger than us when we start to make music. Yeah Yeah Yeahs is this established phenomenon, and we still can’t quite understand why it happened or what it is, but it takes on a life of its own quite quickly. We’re excited and we’re giddy to do it again, but it becomes bigger than us quite fast.”
Speaking from three corners of a Zoom window, with Karen and Nick beaming in from their respective homes in LA and Brian still residing in New York (wearing, as if to hammer the point home, a T-shirt emblazoned with the city’s name), the easy warmth of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs family dynamic is clear to see.
Karen (screen name, Karenoia; prone to an infectious giggle) flits between playfully teasing her bandmates and generously checking their opinions after giving her own; Nick is the cheeky-but-deadpan figure sitting bottom left, customary shock of black hair still giving him the aura of a displaced Tim Burton character; across the screen from him, Brian is more sporadic in his interjections, but each one comes delivered with bright, puppy-like enthusiasm.
For a trio who came to epitomise a certain type of untouchable cool, who’ve sat as New York’s ultimate art band - the wildcard, feral explosion next to The Strokes’ leather-clad insouciance - there’s always been something strangely wide-eyed about them too. Yes, Karen may have spent her early stage years deep-throating the microphone at every opportunity, but her glitter-soaked, rainbow stagewear is like a little kid’s dream of a pop star come to life. Where most bands - where most people - grow up and lose their sense of wonder, Yeah Yeah Yeahs never have.
“I think that’s kind of crucial, that state of innocence, because it’s something that everybody has inside of them no matter whether you’re my Dad who’s 80 or a teenager. There’s no real explanation as to why we’re so connected with that, but you watch Brian behind the drums and he’s like a Muppet - it’s almost like he should have ropes holding him down otherwise he’ll literally launch into the air and never come back because he’s flying. And Nick’s more of the stormy child, but you kind of look like a child Nick,” she chuckles, addressing the guitarist, “you haven’t aged. He’s the immortal of the band… So I don’t know why we have that quality so much about us, but it does seem like our essence is that.”
Take their series of DIY lockdown performances, recorded inside a cupboard in Karen’s house and posted to Instagram. Decorating the makeshift den with streamers and glitter curtains, filling it with balloons and wearing an outfit that may or may not have been all the items from a kid’s birthday party glued on to a wedding dress, Karen and a Zoomed-in Nick and Brian run through a beautiful, particularly pandemic-poignant version of ‘Maps’ to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary. It’s both mad and gorgeous, sweet and meaningful; a bright and brilliant exterior with a bloody beating heart underneath.
“It couldn’t be more ABC-123 when it comes to a Clark Kent / Superman situation,” she explains of the importance of their aesthetic. “It couldn’t be more like I’m putting on a superhero costume. There’s only been a couple of very rare occasions when I’ve performed in jeans and a leather jacket and it’s felt really weird; it felt like my cover’s been blown, it did not make sense to me…”
You could argue that there’s an adjacent duality that runs throughout ‘Cool It Down’, too. Though there are tales of hunger and pains, of - on penultimate track ‘Different Today’ - a world that “goes spinnin’ out of control”, sonically the album contains some of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ most classically beautiful work to date, strings and dramatic flourishes dominating ‘Lovebomb’ and spoken-word closer ‘Mars’ ending the record like a dawn chorus .“The dictate we self-imposed early on was no rules, no stylistic limitations. And the second part was, ‘Does this give me goosebumps?’” explains Nick of their choices on LP5.
The results are sometimes grand and gorgeous, sometimes still itchy and playful, but most importantly, they just sound like that particular alchemy that is Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
If much has been made recently of the ‘00s indie nostalgia resurgence, then perhaps this band epitomises the real longing hidden behind it all. The trio began in an era devoid of social media, where the NYC scene eulogised in Meet Me In The Bathroom - the prolific period that birthed The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol and countless others - was tangible and real, based in sweaty gig venues and late night bars instead of online and apart.
Looking back at photos from the time, grainy Myspace pics taken on terrible early camera phones, there’s a sense of lawlessness and hedonism that feels lightyears away from the curated Instagram feeds of the more recent past: an environment ripe for nurturing creativity and encouraging the self-expression at Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ technicolour heart. “There wasn’t cancel culture back then; because of the way these things are being implemented, art feels more policed than ever,” suggests Karen. “There’s a purity of being in the moment and being a part of a scene, and it felt less fragmented and more insular and tangible [then]. It’s harder these days to have that link to a time and a place and a community.”
“I don’t know if we knew how good we had it at the time. We were in our early twenties, playing shows every night with these incredible bands who were our friends who sounded amazing and whose music was so original, but that was just regular life,” picks up Brian. “After 15, 20 years you can look back and contextualise it, but when you’re in it, it’s [just life]. It was incredibly freeing; I don’t know if people can imagine what that’s like now, to not have to post and to have that freedom.”
During the pandemic, Nick too found himself going back through the archives. Having documented the band’s journey from their earliest days, he spent months going through the photo boxes, “just cataloguing and re-examining it all, and seeing it from a new light. Looking back at our experience with the perspective…” “You were getting sentimental!” teases Karen. “Plus a sprinkling of sentiment!” the guitarist acquiesces with a smile. “It was one of those things where it’s like fuck man, you realise what a beautiful, incredible experience this is, and the appreciation that I gained for it was huge.”
One photo that struck him was taken backstage at a show in 2002, right at the start of the band - before ‘Fever To Tell’, before the countless other hits, when the trio had no idea of the whirlwind trip that was about to become their futures for two decades and counting. “It was of you Karen, [making this] smaller gesture that struck me in a different way, that somehow felt more precious. Maybe it’s an innocence or something,” he muses.
For many years now, the gestures have been necessarily bigger: ones that can command the largest stages across the world, that - coming back after several years away - still feel like that giddy punch of glee. But at their heart, though the world around them may have changed irreversibly since those first carefree days, Yeah Yeah Yeahs are still that same beacon of light in the darkness.
“To me, because it’s something I’ve done for 20 years, the band is such a big part of me down to every cell in my body that it feels so right when we’re all together and playing together,” smiles Nick. “When that’s happening, when we’re playing and just doing our thing, it’s great. I feel complete.”
‘Cool It Down’ is out now via Secretly Canadian.