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.
YEAH YEAH YEAHS, THE
*7 p.m. Wednesday
*Metro, 3730 N. Clark St.
"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
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
"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'
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
"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.