With their arty yet sexy take on garage punk, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs quickly became one of the most acclaimed groups associated with the rock revival of the early 2000s, but they continued to surprise listeners for years to come. On their 2001 self-titled EP, Karen O, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase proved they had enough raw, raunchy charisma to turn heads, while their 2003 breakthrough debut album Fever to Tell revealed a completely different side to their music with the poignant hit single “Maps.” They added more polish and melody to 2006′s Show Your Bones, gave their music a mirror ball sheen with the dance influences of 2009′s It's Blitz!, and reinvigorated their rock roots with 2013′s Mosquito. Though nearly a decade separated that album and 2022′s alternately elated and reflective Cool It Down, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs still sound like one of alternative music’s most inventive and distinctive acts.
Born in Busan, South Korea, to a Korean mother and Polish father, Karen O spent most of her childhood in Englewood, New Jersey. While attending Ohio’s Oberlin College, she met drummer Brian Chase, who studied jazz at the school’s conservatory. When O transferred to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she met guitarist Nick Zinner, a photographer who also played with Challenge of the Future (formerly known as the Boba Fett Experience). The pair began making folky music as Unitard in 2000; soon after, they became the Yeah Yeah Yeahs after being inspired by Ohio’s legendary avant-punk scene. When the drummer they recruited initially bowed out, Chase joined the lineup.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs wrote a slew of songs at their first rehearsal and soon wound up supporting the Strokes and the White Stripes at local shows. In late 2001, they self-released their eponymous debut EP, which they recorded with Boss Hog’s Jerry Teel, on their own Shifty label. Early the next year the band stepped into the international spotlight, appearing at South by Southwest, touring the U.S. with Girls Against Boys and Europe with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and headlining their own U.K. tour. Wichita Recordings distributed the group’s EP in the U.K. and Touch & Go reissued it in the States. Yeah Yeah Yeahs earned strong reviews and topped the U.K. Indie Chart.
In between tours, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs spent 2002 putting the finishing touches on its full-length debut and playing American dates with Sleater-Kinney, Liars, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Despite interest from major labels, the band wanted to make and finance the album on their own terms, so they worked with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek as producer at Brooklyn’s Headgear Studio, then Zinner mixed the completed album with Alan Moulder in London. In November 2002, the band tided fans over with the Machine EP, which included songs recorded during the making of their debut album. Arriving in April 2003 on Interscope, Fever to Tell added cleaner sonics and more varied songwriting to the band’s arty garage-punk. The album continued the band’s critical acclaim and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. It also won the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a fair amount of commercial success: Fever to Tell reached 55 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart in the U.S. and number 13 on the U.K. Albums Chart. In 2004, the gorgeous ballad “Maps” became a hit, pushing the album to gold status in both the U.K. and the U.S.
Following the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ breakthrough, the group took some time to pursue individual projects.
O loaned her vocals to “Hello Tomorrow,” a collaboration with producer Squeak E. Clean that provided the soundtrack to a Nike shoe commercial directed by Spike Jonze and also worked with Har Mar Superstar and Peaches. Meanwhile, Zinner contributed to Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and toured with the band, recorded with the side project Head Wound City, and also had a book of photographs, I Hope You Are All Happy Now, published. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs reconvened in the studio in 2005 to record their second album with Clean as producer and contributors including Sitek, Moulder, Chris Coady, and Money Mark. Released in March 2006, Show Your Bones revealed a more mature, polished side to the band’s music. The album built on Fever to Tell’s success, peaking at number 11 in the U.S., number seven in the U.K. (where it was certified gold), and appearing on various charts around the world. Like its predecessor, Show Your Bones was nominated for the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy Award. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs spent the rest of the year touring the world in support of the album, and returned in summer 2007 with the Is Is EP, a collection of previously unreleased songs written in between the band’s two albums accompanied by a short film. Produced by Nick Launay, the EP reached number 72 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart.
The members of the trio remained busy individually, with Chase releasing an album with Seth Misterka, O covering Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” for the biopic I'm Not There and launching her side project Native Korean Rock, and Zinner contributing to Celebration’s The Modern Tribe and Scarlett Johansson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs reunited to make album three, they changed up their creative process. Working once more with Launay and Sitek, the band wrote songs in the studio, looping and chopping them like dance music. It's Blitz!, which took the band’s sound in a more streamlined, electronic direction, arrived in March 2009 and featured performances by Greg Kurstin, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, and the band’s live guitarist, Imaad Wasif. The album peaked at number 22 in the U.S. and was a top ten hit in the U.K. Following the album’s release, Slint and Tortoise guitarist David Pajo replaced Wasif. The band members’ other projects during this time included an Australian tour by the Chase/Misterka Duo and another album, The Shape of Sound. O collaborated with the Flaming Lips, David Lynch, and Trent Reznor, while Zinner published the photography collection Please Take Me Off the Guest List and appeared on albums by Sitek’s project Maximum Balloon, the Dum Dum Girls, James Iha, and Santigold. In May 2011, Zinner created 41 Strings, a performance celebrating the 41st Earth Day that featured an all-star list of performers.
By late 2011, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were working on their fourth album. Once again collaborating with Sitek and Launay, the band also brought James Murphy into the creative fold. The band opted for a grittier, harder-edged sound on April 2013′s Mosquito, which became their third top ten hit in the U.K. and, by reaching number five on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, their first top ten album in the U.S. Also in 2013, Zinner reunited with Challenge of the Future for a concert benefiting the family of a friend whose daughter had died, and also worked on Santigold’s “Shooting Arrows at the Sky,” which appeared on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. That year, Chase released the album Drum & Drones.
When the Mosquito tour ended, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took an extended hiatus. The band’s members were as busy as ever: O released her solo debut, Crush Songs, in September 2014 on Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records label. The album reached number 44 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and number eight on the Billboard Top Alternative Albums chart. She also appeared on We're All Young Together, the solo debut from the Walkmen’s Walter Martin, along with Zinner, who reunited with Head Wound City for 2016′s A New Wave of Violence and worked with Deap Vally and Santigold. The following October, the band reissued Fever to Tell on vinyl with B-sides and previously released demos and played a handful of shows; also in 2017, O appeared on Milano, a collaboration with composer Daniele Luppi and Parquet Courts. The next year, the band played London’s All Points Festival, while Chase released the album Drums & Drones II and Zinner toured with the Rentals and recorded with Amen Dunes. Zinner also appeared on O’s 2019 album Lux Prima, which featured the Grammy-nominated single “Woman.” The guitarist appeared on Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and Liam Gallagher’s C'mon You Know prior to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ fifth album, September 2022′s polished Cool It Down. Named for a song off the Velvet Underground ’s Loaded, the album reunited the band with Sitek and balanced introspective, atmospheric songs with radiantly uplifting ones. ~ Heather Phares