Bryget Chrisfield explores a favourite record which spelled the lift-off to cultural stardom for an important act. This month: Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell (2003).
On New Year’s Eve eve (30 December), 2009 at the Lorne edition of Falls Festival, Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs dedicated Maps, the band’s signature heartsick ‘ballad’, to the late Rowland S. Howard. Given that we were all blessed with the blissful ignorance that used to accompany attending rural festivals – before rubbish phone reception was addressed – this is how the Falls Lorne massive heard about the passing of the guitarist best known for his work with Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party (Howard had released his genius, second solo set Pop Crimes a mere two-and-a-half months before his death).
As we attempted to process this sad news, hoping our ears had deceived us, Karen O poured her grief into this song’s crestfallen chorus, “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you”. We sang along, shell-shocked, and when the luminous guitar freakout that closes out this song kicked in, we could’ve sworn it was the spirit of Howard wrenching out those chords through Nick Zinner’s phalanges. As well as trademark buzzsaw guitar tones that make it impossible to discern the nuts and bolts of their playing, this pair also shared an ability to produce reverb-drenched riffs that shimmer with melancholy beauty.
As Zinner’s “all-time favourite guitar player”, Howard had been secured as support act for some of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Falls sideshows that year, which he obviously had to cancel just a few weeks out. Zinner also appears briefly as a talking head in Richard Lowenstein’s must-see documentary, Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard.
During their Falls Lorne performance, Karen O sported a multicoloured geometric print poncho with neon accents that matched her fluoro pink eyeshadow and single fuchsia fingerless glove. Tiger-print leggings and black trainers completed the look, which would definitely have been classified a fashion Don’t if attempted by anyone else. In Karen O, designer Christian Joy (who also dresses Childish Gambino and Maggie Rogers) found a willing muse since these art-project creations helped the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer transform into her brazen, predatory onstage persona. Yeah Yeah Yeahs certainly look like such a disparate trio – Zinner resembling a long-lost member of The Banshees, and Chase, an accountant (don’t worry, he agrees).
Live photographers often capture Karen O mid-back bend, brightly painted lips ‘swallowing’ the entire head of her microphone. As a performer, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer leaves absolutely everything she’s got on that stage.
Karen O is one of only a few female voices in Lizzy Goodman’s ace book Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth And Rock And Roll In New York City 2001 – 2011, which covers Yeah Yeah Yeahs exploding outta Brooklyn just after The Strokes took over Manhattan – and then the world – alongside the other, typically all-male, definite-article bands of that time (The White Stripes were an exception). “Do I think being a girl had anything to do with our outsider status as a band?” Karen O pondered. “I think it had everything to do with it.”
But Karen O initially wanted to be a filmmaker, only picking up a guitar as a ‘project’ to pass time during the two-month winter school holiday period. “From the four [guitar] lessons I took when I was 18 years old, I’ve been able to write hundreds of songs,” she told Goodman. “You don’t need to know much to write a good song.”
After hearing some songs Karen O had written on acoustic guitar, Zinner said, “I immediately knew I would be making music and be somehow involved with her for a while. I felt it. Just, wooooosssshhh. Immediate connection. So we did this Unitard project.” Emerging from New York’s freak-folk scene, Unitard performed their first gig at an open-mic night.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first gig, with Brian Chase on drums, was at New York’s famed Mercury Lounge alongside The Candy Darlings, Kid Congo and The White Stripes. Karen O’s general badassery spruiked a girls-to-the-front mentality at their live shows, during which she would randomly snatch drinks from the hands of front-row punters – to scull or pour over herself/the crowd – with some regularity.
The band’s blistering self-titled EP is often mistakenly called MASTER due to the prominence of a gold chain necklace with letter charms spelling out that word in the photo that graces the cover – cue provocative S&M connotations. EP opener Bang!’s chorus lyrics – “As a f-ck, son, you suck” – are a hoot to screech along with on the dancefloor, but just be mindful of who you make eye contact with.
In order to prioritise recording Fever To Tell to their satisfaction, Yeah Yeah Yeahs cancelled their first European tour, which included a slot at Reading Festival. “I definitely felt like I was on the verge of a meltdown,” Karen O admitted to Goodman. “I knew that if we just continued the way we were going I was going to burn out much too quickly, and that what was more important than pleasing promoters and believing all this hype was to just get our record done.” Yeah Yeahs Yeahs were soon nicknamed the ‘No No Nos’ due to their reputation for cancelling shows and turning down media ops.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs financed their Dave Sitek-produced debut album themselves, recording at the low-budget Headgear Studio in Brooklyn. Unlike their previous two EPs, which were jam-packed with the thrashy punk material that made Yeah Yeah Yeahs such an appealing live proposition, Fever To Tell also included some heartfelt, emotional moments and went on to become the band’s most commercially successful release. But it wasn’t until Maps was released as a single that Fever To Tell’s sales spiked; the album achieved peak chart position almost a year after its initial release.
As raw, vulnerable and universally relatable as it gets, Maps charts the breakdown of Karen O’s relationship with Angus Andrew from Liars. “We wrote it in Nick’s room with the blue drum machine and a four-track recorder,” Karen O told Goodman. “I was really lovelorn at the time. ‘They don’t love you like I love you’ was straight from a love letter and I just plucked it out of there because I thought it had a good ring to it. Just a simple statement that really stuck with people. You know, I say ‘love letter’, but it was a f-cking email. Motherfcker. You know what? I’m going to rewrite history right here. I wrote it with a quill. It was a feather quill, written in blood. It might as well have been.”
Have you ever thought Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone borrows from Maps? Well spotted. Dr. Luke (who co-wrote this Clarkson hit with Max Martin) told Billboard that Since U Been Gone was basically their attempt to add a pop chorus to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ masterpiece, “because that indie song [Maps] was sort of on six, going to seven, going to eight, the chorus comes… and it goes back down to five.” Karen O told Rolling Stone that recognising segments of Maps within Clarkson’s song “was like getting bitten by a poisonous varmint.”
Maps also inspired a Beyoncė song: Yeah Yeah Yeahs are credited on Hold Up (from Bey’s Lemonade album), after one of the song’s cowriters, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, appropriated the “they don’t love you like I love you” hook.
In Goodman’s aforementioned oral history, Karen O explains how she can tell she’s onto something during songwriting sessions: “It’s totally unintellectual. I get, like, butterflies in my stomach or I get a wave of euphoria or I get the chills or I cry… If it’s not right I feel like I want to throw up or I want to pull out my hair.” And that’s the sign of a true artist.