Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have made their 'Bones'
When asked to name a musician who has inspired her, Karen O demurs. Instead, the charismatic singer of rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs picks a filmmaker: Todd Solondz. The auteur of weird Americana's '95 breakthrough film "Welcome to the Dollhouse" came out while the decidedly un-doll-like O was in high school.
"That movie was very influential to me," the 27-year-old says over the phone from Los Angeles, where she has lived for two years. "There's a lot of Jersey in me, and a lot of my sensibility is about playing around with these ideas, this more perverse darker humor thing, especially when it comes to sexuality. That's what he's been doing with his films. In a very not gender specific way, you wouldn't really know if the director was male or female. That was really important to me."
"Dollhouse" depicts the twisted psyche of suburbia through the eyes of a pubescent New Jersey girl called "wiener dog" by her classmates. It's easy to see why it struck a chord with O. Growing up in Bergen County, N.J., the woman born Karen Orzolek felt like a misfit.
"Even being biracial -- half Korean -- that always put me as an outsider," she says. "I went to a very sort of white high school. I was always interested in being creative as a way of expression."
That drive eventually brought O to Brooklyn, where she formed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase. At the start of this decade they were the most interesting of a slew of guitar-driven bands (the Strokes, the Rapture, Chase's other band, the Seconds) who put New York rock back on the map.
O's extra-extroverted persona made them something more than just another great garage-style band. She wore funky-chic outfits that were both risque and tomboyish and were made for her by her friend Christian Joy. She connected with the women in the audience with the sisterhood solidarity of a Kathleen Hanna, but by pouring beer on herself and frequently spitting, she also showed a touch of Courtney Love (or perhaps Iggy Pop). What she did not do was roll on the ground and push her navel to the sky, pole dance, shrink pathetically before the spotlight or have a breakdown on stage.
She did, and does, sing with a rich, throbbing, husky alto that, along with her dark bangs and propensity for eyeliner, marks her the Chrissie Hynde of her generation. On AOL's current "Top 20 Women Who Rock -- Right Now" list, she's No. 2. In Zinner and Chase, she found extraordinarily skilled players who can match her propensity for melody and flirtation with chaos. They broke way out of the indie-rock pack when the tumbling ballad "Maps" became the kind of hit love song for which most artists yearn. Small wonder many pundits voted the YYYs' debut, "Fever to Tell," the best album of '03.
Earlier this year, the band released its followup, "Show Your Bones," a collection of enigmatic, climatic anthems like "Way Out" and "Honeybear."
In high school, O changed musical interests with every change of grade. In junior high, it was hip-hop and R&B; by 10th grade, she was into grunge; junior year, she was a Deadhead; by the time she graduated, she was listening to alternative rock and Britpop, "the stuff I listen to now."
"Being more elusive and doing things on my own terms -- I wasn't compromising to any group or clique in high school -- allowed me to build character," says O. "It kind of landed me here."
That musical diversity and curiosity help raise the YYYs above the rest of the guitar-driven indie pack, just as Solondz's twisted humor and deep heart have made him an unlikely Hollywood hero. "I think I'm bigger than the sound," O sings repeatedly on the "Bones" track "Cheated Hearts," exclaiming the lyrics louder each time.
The frontwoman even got herself her own quirky filmmaker boyfriend, Spike Jonze, for a while. The YYYs are "something like a phenomena," as O also sings.
"We just got off the festival run in Europe, where we probably played to more people in the last two and a half weeks than we've played cumulatively all our career. I feel like that kind of exposure is really good for us. People shy away from us because they think we're art-rock/punk only. But there's a much more inclusive vibe we put out. We're not the hipster band. We're open arms to anyone who likes music."
Unfortunately, since it's still being led by the nose by that old Neanderthal, commercial radio, the American music industry does not have such an open-minded approach. With the garage rock fad mostly over, YYYs have found themselves struggling to get "Show Your Bones" heard.
"Women really have a hard time getting played on rock radio," O says. "What's really popular right now is emo. And that's not us. We have a better chance at pop than we do in rock."
Radio chauvinism has stifled female artists from Janis Joplin to Patti Smith to Hynde to PJ Harvey. Not surprisingly, after Solondz, O cites Harvey, the gothic blues queen of '90s alt-rock, as an influence: "I always felt like there was this very dark underbelly and perversity to her lyrics and her music that was working on a lot of different levels that I didn't see in anyone else's music. I really connected with that."
© 2006, The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.