“New Jersey is so boring,” says the blonde whirlwind known as Karen O, hanging out at home in Manhattan. She’s reflecting on why she moved from the Garden State, where she grew up, to New York City a little over a decade ago. “To have something so close that you can touch it, something that’s sort of the epicenter of culture, excitement, and hedonism on your doorstep, it creates a tension and ambition,” she continues. “Maybe if I grew up somewhere else, I wouldn’t have had the tension of wanting to communicate or connect with something bigger than myself. It made living in Jersey all the more painful,” she laughs.
That tension has driven Karen O to push the boundaries of, as she says, excitement and hedonism, onstage with her Yeah Yeah Yeahs bandmates, drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zinner. Since forming in 2000, they’ve made case after case for being crowned New York’s Band. Even though they slugged out their early years playing their jagged anti-punk at long-gone venues like Sin-É, CBGB (“we played after a hair-metal band”), and even a junkyard Karen barely remembers, they’ve always mixed it up. They’d play Radio City as well as intimate venues like Union Pool as they ascended the charts, reaching No. 5 with their latest album, April’s dubby, dance-rock stinger Mosquito.
Through it all, even when Karen O moved to L.A. for a bit and then back to Jersey, the group has always showcased its relationship with New York, recording a live film for their 2007 EP Is Is at the Williamsburg outpost Glasslands and shooting the video for Mosquito‘s “Despair” atop the Empire State Building. Now they’re putting on what Karen O is promising to be one of their biggest shows ever, at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on September 19.
“We’re going to try to do some showstoppin’ stuff,” she says. “Maybe we’ll have some special guests and some crowd-pleasing moments where everything turns into confetti. It’s going to feel like a really wild party.” She laughs, then adds, “We have all of the resources that we can’t bring with us on the road here in New York. We’re going to pull out the stops.”
Those are strong words coming from a woman who routinely prowls the stage in her colorful Christian Joy–designed couture before she giddily explodes, pounding her fist to her chest, leaping across expansive stages, and generally indulging her every Dionysian whim. It’s a stark contrast to her casual offstage mien, where she stammers a little, searching for the right words when speaking, and laughs whimsically. “I’m probably one of the least recognized pseudo-rock stars out there,” she says with another laugh. “Even five minutes after I get offstage, people don’t recognize me.”
It’s in performing, she says, when she truly feels free. And that uninhibited nature is what makes her a great frontwoman. “There’s the Michael Jackson level of being a frontperson, which is the major level, and then, for me, there’s also the Lux Interior, Jon Spencer, David Bowie, and Darby Crash level,” she explains. “I feel that there should be a sexual energy in there. Those people that I just named were probably pretty repressed, shy, tortured individuals, but their performances exploded with a certain kind of sexual tension. When I go to a rock show, I want to have a crush on the frontperson and a desire to want to be the object of their desire in the audience.
“The other thing is vulnerability,” she continues. “I feel like, for me as a frontperson, one of the things that I’ve always been interested in since the very beginning is to be as vulnerable and raw up there as possible, and as goofy and dorky. I remember after we did a show with the Breeders in L.A. [in 2009], and Kim [Deal] came up to me afterward and said, ‘You’re the biggest dork I’ve ever seen onstage.'” She laughs. “And the thing is, it’s disarming. My whole process is to lose myself up there.”
That performance process sounds like one she took while making Mosquito. Songs like the single “Sacrilege” seem to jump out of the speakers, thanks to her whispered verses and yelped interjections, and the shimmering, lightly textured “Despair” gives the singer enough room to lose herself in ruminating on how “Despair/you’ve always been there/through my wasted years.” One of the most poignant cuts, though, is the group’s bittersweet love letter to the five boroughs, “Subway.”
“My husband sent me a list of the 100 best New York songs,” she says. “He was like, ‘Maybe you guys should write a New York song.’ I was like, ‘We’ve written one!'” she laughs, recalling “Yeah! New York,” the B-side to their 2003 single “Date with the Night.” “Then ‘Subway’ is kind of what came out of it. I think being on the subway is one of the most unique and original New York City experiences you can have.”
With the release of Mosquito, the group has found itself in an unexpected position. Ever since the release of their debut full-length, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have recorded for the major label Interscope, but now they’ve fulfilled their contract and are weighing their options. “It’s a brand-new era for us,” she says. “We’ll have more freedom than we’ve ever had before to see what’s out there and how that works for us.”
In the meantime, she says the band is focusing on its remaining tour dates for the year, including the Barclays show, which features the group’s longtime friend, indie-rock’s analog to the Naked Cowboy, the briefs-wearing, hard-partying r&b belter Har Mar Superstar, as its opener. “I love the record he just released, Bye Bye 17, because it’s like young Stevie Wonder,” Karen O says, explaining why the group drafted the Brooklyn-via-Minnesota extrovert for the show. “He’s a feel-good kind of guy. He’s a close friend, but we figured that he’s just really good at getting the audience pumped and ready to dance and ready to party. He primes the audience with his feel-good vibes, doing his shoulder stands and cracking jokes. And he’s got a fucking showstopping voice.”
When she pauses and reflects on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ trajectory, which included Har Mar opening for them in 2003, she’s still a little amazed at how it’s brought her to where she is. “When we started out, playing in a really shitty bar in New York City was a huge deal,” she says. “Before we started touring, I didn’t have much to go on, outside of that. So playing the Barclays Center, that’s probably the pinnacle, right? I have a good feeling about it. I don’t know why, but I never wanted to play Madison Square Garden or anything like that. But somehow Barclays seemed like the right fit.”
But part of being the right fit, at least for a New York band, also means ease of accessibility. So how will Karen get from Manhattan to Brooklyn for the gig? “I’m totally going to take the subway there,” she says with a laugh. “Without a doubt.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform at Barclays Center on September 19 with Har Mar Superstar