Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Interview with Nick Zinner
By alexander laurence
Singer Karen O, guitarist Nick Zinner, and drummer Brian Chase make up New York's favorite art punk trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Karen O met Chase at Oberlin College and met Zinner at NYU. Zinner and O formed the band in 2000 and recruited Chase when their original drummer bowed out. They lived in Williamsburg in a loft near Bedford Avenue. Karen O and Nick Zinner had a side project called Unitard.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs found their unique sexy sound and soon wound up supporting the Strokes and the White Stripes. In late 2001, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their first EP, on their own label. Early in 2002 the band appeared at South By Southwest, toured with Girls Against Boys, and with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Liars, and headlined their own U.K. tour.
The Machine EP held the interest of fans towards the end of the year. They appeared on the cover of many magazines before their album Fever To Tell came out in April 2003. This was their best recording yet. They did a short tour in that Spring before Brian Chase went off to tour with his other band The Seconds. Nick Zinner has been voted by Free Williamsburg as the coolest person in a band two years in a row. I got to talk to him at his hotel in Hollywood. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were supporting The White Stripes once again on their biggest tour yet.
AL: How is the tour with The White Stripes going so far?
Nick: It's okay. It's strange. We are playing to these huge crowds who are waiting for the White Stripes and waiting for you to finish for the most part. Some people are psyched. Some people came to see us and came to see our music. For the most part they want to hear the hit.
AL: Do you think that you play better to a crowd in smaller venues like Henry Fonda or Irving Plaza? The shows I went to at those places, people went wild.
Nick: Yeah. Those places are more our speed. At those places we can have confidence and strength to really rock out. We can feel the appreciation of people who have come out just to see us. It's really nice. It's a good challenge at the same time to play to people who are staring at you and waiting for you to finish.
AL: Does it happen that you feel some antagonism from the crowd at the beginning of the show, but by the end, you have won them over?
Nick: Sometimes. There was one memorable show we did with Bjork in Boston. It was obvious that the majority of the crowd had never even heard of us. At the beginning of the show, everyone was seated with his or her hands folded. By the end of the show everyone was standing and the place was full. People were clapping and rocking out. It was amazing. Like last night, after the second song, someone was screaming out "No no no." It hurts but it's okay. It's all good.
AL: What is an average day like for you, Nick Zinner, when you are on tour, and when you are not?
Nick: When I am on tour, I try to wake up as late as possible. Maybe I wake up at one or two o'clock in the afternoon. Sometimes I do an interview then or talk on the phone. Have breakfast. I do a soundcheck at four or five o'clock. Then I have a few hours to kill. I walk around and usually go shopping and explore the city we're in. I come back and watch the opening bands and then play. After the show, it like R. Kelly says: "After the show, it's the after party."
AL: Do collect a lot of vinyl?
Nick: Yeah. I try to. It's hard when you are traveling to keep the records you get with you on the whole tour. I go record shopping as much as possible.
AL: On your free days you can go to other shows. I saw you at the Mogwai show a few days ago.
Nick: Yeah. That was great. I am such a music fanatic that I try to see and hear as much music as I can. That is what I usually do with my free time. It was really great to see Mogwai because one of my favorite bands, Isis, was opening up for them. It was phenomenal to see them together. It was very powerful.
AL: Have you played with Isis yet?
Nick: No. I would love to play with Isis. I would also be terrified. They are so great. We did play some shows with Mogwai this past summer. We did a bunch of those fun festivals together in Europe.
AL: Last year you played a Halloween show at Irving Plaza. That gave the band an opportunity to dress up. Are there any plans for a Halloween show this year?
Nick: No, not this year. We will just be getting back from our Australian tour. We will dress up and go to a party in New York. Actually on Halloween this year I am going to do a secret scary show. I will be a guest with Bright Eyes.
AL: Do you still live in Williamsburg?
Nick: No. I moved to Manhattan six months ago. I am trying that out.
AL: I used to see you a lot hanging out by the mall, by the café and Earwax Records.
Nick: Right. I used to live around the corner from there. I used to live in a huge warehouse on Metropolitan Avenue with fifteen roommates. It was an illegal office space, so I was tired of feeling the threat of being booted out. There was a place on Bedford Avenue a few years ago where they put a lock on the whole building the day before Christmas. They had two hours to get everything out before they chained it up. It was so disgraceful.
AL: What do you think of the hipster factor of the present day Williamsburg neighborhood? Do you think it's silly?
Nick: yeah, it's becoming a parody of itself. I am not seeing too much advancement. It's just turning in on itself and feeding off itself. I felt like a cliché in my own neighborhood. Do you know what I mean?
AL: Yeah. How does the band write songs? Do you start out with lyrics or a guitar riff?
Nick: Usually one or the other. Recently I just went to Karen's house in New Jersey. We will isolate ourselves. I will bring out some musical ideas that I have been working on. She will bring out some lyrics or some four track stuff that she has been doing. It will start out as some drum loops and some music. We just take it from there. It's usually very instantaneous: either it does work or doesn't work. If it doesn't work, then we just move on. If it does work, we can get the basic structure of a song down. Then we will bring it to Brian Chase. We try that out a few times. Brian will firm up the edges and add his own parts.
AL: Is Unitard still a working band?
Nick: We haven't been able to work on it. Both Karen and I are still writing songs in that vein. I actually want to make a record when we have some time off in January.
AL: Have you played any shows as Unitard?
Nick: Not really. We did do an accidental Unitard show about five months ago. A friend of ours was organizing a benefit show for lymphoma research at The Roxy. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were going to play at that show. A week before that show, we found out that Brian was going to tour in Europe with his other band, The Seconds. Karen and I got back to basics and played a mix of Unitard songs and Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs. It was fun and nice.
AL: Who came up with the idea of the bunny rabbit pins?
Nick: That was Karen's idea. First we had an idea for the band, then second came the name, then came the logo. Two weeks later we got around to writing some songs. Right after Karen and I recorded the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs on a four track, we tried to play with other people. We had friends play drums and guitar and keyboards. Nothing was really working. Our friend Dave offered us a show. Every drummer at the time was playing in five bands. The girl who was playing drums with us at the time couldn't do it. Brian came in three days before the show. He learned all the songs in a half an hour. It's all been good from there.
AL: Have the Seconds and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played shows together?
Nick: It's a little bit of a conflict of interest and a little hard for Brian. We have done a few. We did a show in Philly and maybe New York. It's great for Brian though because he loves to play. He has a lot more freedom in The Seconds. He has a bigger role in the songwriting and it's more rhythmically challenging. Sometimes I feel bad because our stuff is pretty much straight forward.
AL: There is no room for jazz drumming?
Nick: No! We don't play in 3/7ths time.
AL: Who is Christian Joy?
Nick: It is one of Karen's best friends. She designs clothes exclusively for Karen. I know that Christian wants to get her line of clothes out for mass consumption. Before every tour, Karen has Christian make four or five new outfits. That keeps her busy for a few weeks.
AL: Was it a weird time a year ago when you didn't have an album out yet and the band was on the cover of a few magazines? Magazines that would have someone like Coldplay or Radiohead on the cover had a band that had only and EP out at the time.
Nick: Yeah. Definitely. It was really freaky. That is not the best word to use. For us it was disorienting and we felt a little bit guilty. It did seem so unnecessary and rushed. There were a lot more bands that had been around for a lot longer who deserved more attention than us at the time. It was never our decision to be on the cover. We weren't pulling the strings. People lose sight of that. We didn't even know what label our record was coming out on. It was overtly theatrical.
AL: I saw Karen O on the cover of a magazine called Korean Times. It got to a point where Hugh Hefner wanted to put Karen on the cover of Playboy Magazine.
Nick: It helps us in a lot of ways too.
AL: Do you think that the indie music scene and young girls at first embraced Karen O as an icon? Then when you got more popular and signed to Interscope do you think there was sort of a backlash?
Nick: We have always got that. It is how it goes. At this point, unless you have a real strong solidified relationship with an independent label, it is ridiculous just to stay. That is just one school of thought. We have known several bands that have been screwed by independent labels. It's not really good versus evil.
AL: Are there any other bands that you like?
Nick: Well, I just brought the new Outkast record. It's really great. I am listening to Nick Cave right now.
AL: Are there any bands that you don't like and despise?
Nick: Yeah, there are many.
AL: Have you read any good books recently?
Nick: I try to. My attention span is getting really short when I am on tour. I am reading just short stories. I am reading After The Quake by Murakami. It's fantastic. We are going to Japan next week. That will give me some understanding of the chaos that I am going to be submerged in.
AL: Have you seen Lost in Translation yet?
Nick: That is my assignment for this Friday. I saw City of God that I thought was great. The cinematography was overly stylized, but also very beautiful and violent. But I haven't seen that many films recently. When I have some time to see a film I usually rent Dead Man again.
AL: What is the hardest thing about being in a band?
Nick: It's hard to say. It's hard to say without sounding like a total jackass.
AL: Let me rephrase the question. What do you most enjoy about being in a band: playing live, writing songs, or being in a studio recording?
Nick: I like recording the best. Next I like playing live. I like to have time to savor sounds and experiment. I like to let things grow aurally.
AL: Was the album Fever To Tell self-produced?
Nick: It was David Sitek and I. We were co-producers of the record. I grew up as a four-track kid. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom with a guitar and a drum machine and a keyboard. Once we started recording as a band, I started to take a more active hand in the process. I have always been interested in that.
AL: What was the stuff you did as a teenager like?
Nick: There was a lot of heavy metal back then. When I was fifteen years old I was really into Joe Satriani. Later I got more into film soundtracks.
AL: Do you have any other hobbies?
Nick: Photography. That is pretty much all I do. I used to do a lot of documentary photography. That is what I am doing now. I am keeping a visual diary of this whole experience of being in a band. It's all about my surroundings and people who I meet.
AL: Are you going to do a headlining tour in America soon?
Nick: Yeah. We are going to do one tour for a few weeks in November 2003. We will be playing on the east coast and the south.
AL: Do you have material for a new record?
Nick: We have five or six new songs. That alone is incredibly depressing to us. Before we did any tours we would have a new song for every show. Back then we would play every three weeks. We would make it a challenge to have a new song for every show. This past year we have written about ten songs. We all would have liked it to be seventy or eighty.
AL: How many songs do you have now?
Nick: About thirty-five or forty. We are playing only two or three new songs on this tour that haven't been recorded yet. We write our setlist ten minutes before the show. Sometimes we add and drop songs as we go. It's really interesting watching the White Stripes play every night. They start out with a setlist of the first five songs. Then it goes in whatever direction Jack wants to take it. It's very inspiring to watch.
AL: When you signed to Interscope did you buy a bunch of new guitars?
Nick: I went out and bought a TV/VCR combo unit. That was my big spending spree. I had been eyeing it for a while.
AL: Do you have any advice for people who want to start a band?
Nick: Yeah. They should play all the time and not be sending any demos out to record companies. They should be reading every issue of Guitar Magazine from 1984 till 1989. Learn all the tablatures.
AL: Did you see Rolling Stone Magazine's 100 greatest guitar players?
Nick: Yeah. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that I wasn't in there. There were a few people in there that I believe did not deserve to be. I guess that I haven't reached that level yet.