Less is more


April 25, 2003


With a handful of notable exceptions (chief among them Sonic Youth), New York City's rock scene has been dead since the punk explosion of the mid-'70s, when influential bands such as the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and the Patti Smith Group burst out of a small club on the bowery called C.B.G.B.

As with so many things in Manhattan, the problem can be traced to real estate: It's difficult to be a garage band in a city where garage space rents for $800 a month. Just try running a club in the Big Apple, or finding someplace to rehearse.

"There are no garage bands here--it's all, like, apartment bands," Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner says, laughing during a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn.

New York rock has been coming on strong in the last few years, however, with a burgeoning scene in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Longwave, Hot Hot Heat (which relocated from Canada), Radio 4 and the Strokes winning international acclaim for angular, energizing sounds that recall New York's last rock heyday without unduly mimicking it.








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"Love 'em or hate 'em, the Strokes were the first band in a while to bring attention to New York bands," Zinner says. "They were the first band that people took seriously from New York in a long time. Even if a lot of the interest was questionable, it still opened a floodgate. Even at the beginning of last year, it was unthinkable for a New York band to headline [local clubs such as] Brownie's or the Mercury Lounge. It just didn't happen."

The Williamsburg scene and the so-called "New Wave of New Wave" have changed all of that.

"The funny thing is that most of the people in Brooklyn right now have probably moved here in the past two or three years, so it actually is like a so-called American demographic all put into, like, a three-mile-square radius," Zinner says. "It all started with these underground parties in loft spaces or warehouse spaces, which is where all these bands would play together and people would stay and watch them and rock out. The fact that that could happen in New York City in 2001 and 2002 when it was happening for the past 20 years in every small town in America--well, it was long overdue.

"I definitely feel like we have one foot in all of that, but the other foot is definitely much broader and more international."

Indeed, while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' propulsive garage/noise rock echoes New York influences from Patti Smith to Pussy Galore, its closest point of comparison is to English alternative-rocker Polly Jean Harvey, whose vocal style and onstage intensity were clearly an inspiration to Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O.

Meanwhile, it was Englishman Alan Moulder who gave the band's new album, "Fever to Tell," its potent sonic wallop. "We were definitely fans of those My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain records that he produced or mixed, and even those Smashing Pumpkins records," Zinner says. "I was a Pumpkins fan, even though it was really uncool to admit it for a while.

"We had met Alan when we were in London last summer, because his wife is friends with out manager. I guess he actually offered to mix the record then, but we thought that we would try it ourselves. So we did this sort of trial-and-error rough mixing thing for five months and then thought, 'F--- that' and scratched everything and did it over with Alan."

Arriving on the heels of two widely hailed EPs, "Fever to Tell" was worth the wait. It's a gripping disc full of raw, angry garage rock delivered with a passion that cannot be denied. The trio is even more powerful onstage, as Zinner churns out waves of feedback and fuzz-drenched noise, drummer Brian Chase bashes away with a primitive fury, and Karen O wails like an aggrieved succubus. ("She is sex on a stick!" one New York critic enthusiastically proclaimed.)

"I love to see Karen get wound up and really get going," Zinner says, laughing again. "It's funny, because it's like a total split personality--offstage, she's really fragile. That's why she hates touring; it takes its toll on her. But onstage, it's a different story."

The band members came together in 2000 after meeting at different colleges (Karen O bonded with Chase at Oberlin in Ohio and then transferred to NYU, where she met Zinner). They released their first recordings on their own label, Wichita (Chicago's Touch & Go reissued the first self-titled EP and "Machine"), before signing to Interscope for their debut album.

Through it all, they've remained devoted to a spartan sound, with no bass, no added instruments and no overdubs.

"It just sort of dictated itself," Zinner says of the group's lineup. "Our aspirations were really short-sighted in the beginning; we just wanted to play at New York clubs, really. Everyone was in a band, and Karen was like, 'It would be fun to get onstage and rock out in front of our friends!'

"The first time we got together to write songs, we just recorded stuff on a four-track with a drum machine, and it sounded great as just guitar, voice and drums. That was full enough, so we never really saw any need for something else. And as a guitar player, it was more challenging for me to do it this way. It's almost more freeing: I believe in freedom through limitation. It forces us to be more inventive and playful."

Sometimes, as in the case of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, less is definitely more.