Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O Has Big Plans for the Group's Biggest Show

Categories: Feature

Dan Martensen

"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.

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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.

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