On the eve of the release of his band's second album, Show Your Bones, DiS meets up with Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner in a stupidly extravagant London hotel. We feel out of place, he looks out of place, I really fancy plaice for tea. But first...
Baker Street: the train, the Circle Line train, stops for a little longer than expected. I fumble about my backpack, on my lap for the ride, for the case to the CD playing in my stereo. I find it, Show Your Bones, and check the name of the track playing. Number six, ‘Cheated Hearts’, maybe the next single. Sounds a little like something else I can’t quite pick wholly from a memory stuffed with bands that sound a bit like other bands; certainly, it’s one of the most obviously pop efforts on Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ second album, a slightly sombre opening couple of minutes giving way to some screeching guitar work. Yeah, it reinforces something I’ve thought for a while, that Show Your Bones is Nick Zinner’s album, more so than vocalist Karen Orzolek and drummer Brian Chase. Just listen to the lead single, ‘Gold Lion’, and then tell me that the trio’s guitarist hasn’t ruled the compositional roost in the studio.
But, to my initial point: as I’m pulling the band’s new record out from its hiding place and into full view of those about me, so the guy next to me pulls from his plastic bag – he’s been sales shopping – the band’s debut Fever To Tell. Three years on, the record that brought the trio to widespread attention is still finding admirers anew. He looks at its front cover, flips it over, back again. Looks at what’s in my hand, puts his record away and returns to listening to whatever’s filling his white earphones. I do likewise, only my earphones aren’t quite as fancy. Track three, ‘Fancy’; sounds a bit like something I can’t quite identify from the line-up in my mind, the identity parade of influences and peers. Ah, who cares: it’s got a mighty riff in it. Mr Zinner, I salute you.
Rewind forty-or-so minutes: the aforementioned Zinner sits before me in a five-star London hotel (I don’t salute him). This isn’t the room he’s staying in – it’s a suite hired for interview purposes alone – but one gets the impression that even the cheapest rooms in this place are the very lap of luxury. The floor-to-ceiling windows to my right, his left, look out over Kensington Gardens: people walk dogs, throw sticks, go about their business. Four stories up, after a quick cigarette, Zinner does similarly. Once we’ve had an off-the-record chat about cameras, The Blood Brothers and how disorientating London’s geography can be if you spend most of your time studying Tube maps, anyway…
Okay, let’s talk about the record. ‘Gold Lion’ has done really well – it’s on the mainstream radio stations and tops the MTV2 chart – but when you were returning with it, was there any fear that maybe peoples’ tastes had changed? Were you worried at all that people wouldn’t care for Yeah Yeah Yeahs anymore?
Yeah, definitely. I mean it’s a risk you take, but at the same time we don’t think about those things because you can’t think about those things. It would be like poison if we tried to make something, or think in a way that would be relevant, or current. That’d be the kiss of death, so far as I’m concerned.
I guess you write and record in a kind of isolation, anyway, so you’re not really taking in, or filtering what’s fashionable today. And as a showcase for the album, how do you think the single fares?
Well, it’s weird. On one hand, it’s a good introduction to the sound of the record, but it doesn’t really sound like anything else on the record. I dunno… it’s certainly not a dance song.
It’s almost like a bridge between the two albums – it’s got the stomp-stomp factor from the first album, but when you listen closely there are all sorts of weird sounds in there. Plus, you’re using an acoustic guitar for it…
Yeah. And we chose it. I guess it was just like the most obvious choice. It seemed like a good, solid song, but it didn’t necessarily have this overwhelming aura of being a single or anything. It was one of the first songs we finished, and it’s one of the songs we know we can back up one hundred per cent.
There are eleven songs on Show Your Bones, twelve if you include the bonus track (‘De Ja Vu’). Just how many songs fell by the wayside? Did songs get started but were never finished?
Yeah, like, as far as just ideas go there are hundreds. There are four or five rough demos and also thirty half-finished things. While we were doing the record a lot of the songs went through many different writing stages, taking different forms. ‘Dudley’ went through a hundred different versions, and we didn’t have it nailed ‘til the very last day. A lot of the things were ongoing processes.
Were there things that you knew you couldn’t include because they didn’t fit in with the rest of the record, even if you were keen on them?
‘De Ja Vu’ is like that. It didn’t fit in. We all think it’s a great song, but we were trying to make the sequence of the record be so that it would be one thing.
And is sequencing something you spent a lot of time on? There seems to be a deliberate slowing down of songs as it nears its end…
We spent months on the sequence, seriously. The only way we found that it truly worked was when it was fully sequenced, and that was the first time I could look at the record objectively and feel proud of it.
The video to ‘Gold Lion’ looked like something of an experience, too, what with all the fireworks shooting off about you…
(Laughs) There are no effects on there, and no post-production tricks. I busted up my hand a lot breaking guitars, though. There were like fifteen guitars that I smashed.
Doesn’t that make you feel bad as a guitarist? Or were they all crap?
They were all cheap and crap. I did feel a bit bad, thinking that maybe kids could’ve used them, but at the same time those guitars deserved to be punished. Most of them were from thrift stores. The video was shot in a mesa, somewhere between a plain and a desert. It was an hour outside of LA. We were originally meant to shoot over one night – it was fucking freezing. It was like – I’m not sure what it is in centigrade – but in Fahrenheit it was probably fifteen degrees. There was a fifty-miles-an-hour wind, so we couldn’t light any fires. We had to reschedule for another day, and ended up shooting ‘til nine in the morning.
And do you already know what your next single will be? We’re thinking about it, but we’re not positive. What do you think? If you had a choice between ‘Cheated Hearts’ or ‘Phenomena’…
I’d probably go for ‘Cheated Hearts’, although people are already talking about ‘Phenomena’ as the next single (it rather cheekily lifts a line or two from Grandmaster Flash’s ‘White Lines’). Anyway, the album: people have frequently mentioned the three-year gap, but you were all doing different things between the albums. Brian had The Seconds, for instance, and you’ve done Head Wound City and your photography exhibition at the Vice Gallery in London. How was that (the photos), anyway?
That was the first one I’ve done since the book (I Hope You Are All Happy Now, click here for link) came out, so it was very exciting. It was weird – I just picked a bunch that I liked from the book (to go on the walls). I didn’t want to emphasise the Yeah Yeah Yeahs aspect so much. It was hard, because I didn’t want it to be a Yeah Yeah Yeahs photo show, as that would exploit Brian and Karen.
Is that something you keep detached, your photography and the band?
Yeah, as much as possible. There was a photo of mine on the ‘Date With The Night’ single, but usually Karen’s much better at spearheading that.
Do you ever get offers from other bands, to do design work?
No. But I would, depending what it is. If it’s anything but taking photos of bands, then maybe I’d consider it, ‘cause taking photos of bands is really hard and boring.
So when you’re having your photo taken, can you sympathise with the photographer, who has to try to make you look a certain way, or that has to carry so much equipment to get a shot that, to someone like me, looks so simple?
I feel that I can see both sides, more so than a lot of people, but it doesn’t mean I like doing it.
Getting back to the Show Your Bones album, just how long did the process of making it take? Was it an ongoing, three-year process?
We toured the last one solidly. We were basically touring up until November 2004 – our last shows were here – then we took a couple of months off to get back to normality. I threw away all my mail. I guess we started writing in February or March last year, and we had writing sessions in LA (Orzolek relocated from New York to Los Angeles). Then I went on tour with Bright Eyes for two months, and went straight into the second half of our writing, which lasted ‘til July. In August we went to New York to record and mix it. That wasn’t finished until November or December.
That seems like a really long process, to me anyway. Did it feel noticeably longer, and more complicated, than the first album?
The first one, all the songs we’d already played live, so I knew exactly how things should sound, and exactly what I wanted. Basically, we just wanted to make a live record, but this time we put everything aside and tried to start from scratch. We had a few solid ideas, but we didn’t use any of them. Well, the riff for ‘Phenomena’ was something I’d written back in December, but apart from that it was all new.
Did you not get the chance to work on stuff while touring?
We did. We had, like, fifteen songs that we wrote over two years of touring, but we didn’t feel they fitted in with the record. It felt like we were revisiting rather than reinventing.
So will these see the light of day as EPs, perhaps?
Yeah, that’s what we want to do. Just do it old school, and record everything in two days.
I was reading about Radiohead the other day, and they’re apparently keen on releasing new material as and when it’s ready through the internet. Does that appeal to you?
That’s a good idea. I think that’s something we could have benefited from, or even just doing one or two shows to try songs out before recording, but we decided to completely isolate ourselves from everything until it was all done, even the label.
They must have heard something prior to receiving the finished album, though?
They heard the very last week of recording… I think we gave them three rough mixes of three songs, for an hour, and then took the CD back. Then they didn’t hear anything ‘til it was finished. We’re lucky that we can do that, and that we’ve not got the company bringing in producers and rewriting songs and asking us to bring back the chorus.
Here, we embark upon a tangent of sorts, discussing Liars’ relationship with Mute, and how amazing they can be live. It, obviously, leads to All Tomorrow’s Parties: Yeah Yeah Yeahs are curators for a day of the first weekend in May, and have booked Liars, among other amazing acts, to perform.
How did the ATP thing come together?
They asked us if we’d be interested, and how can you be in a band and say no to something like that? It actually took a really long time to figure out whom we wanted, and a lot of our bigger choices couldn’t do it or didn’t want to do it. We couldn’t get The Cramps, as they’re not touring. So, we decided to bring all our friends together. And aside from them – Liars, TV On The Radio, Blood Brothers – being our friends, they also put on great performances.
What’s ridiculous, really, is that any one of those bands could easily curate a day themselves, such is their level of recognition…
Yeah, absolutely. We have to leave on the Sunday, though, but I don’t know that many people that he (Devandra Banhart) has selected. They’re all beardos…
Ha ha, yeah, exactly. Man, I wish we were playing the second weekend, too.
You should. Just show up and play in the pub. Okay, you toured the last album for pretty much two years: come those last shows, what was the feeling? Relief, or a little sadness?
No man, it was tremendous… wait, can I smoke? (He opens a window and lights another cigarette.) We felt so relieved. There’s a point where – and I think any band will tell you this – you can only play the same songs so many times before you start to feel like a parody of yourself, and at that point we were too close to that feeling. If a crowd is into it then you get through it, but I was really happy. I haven’t had more than two or three weeks in New York for four years, so…
But you’re about to start that all over again. Did you learn any lessons from your past touring experiences? Are there things you’re going to do differently?
We’re going to have more breaks and be more selective. We’re going to try to not open for other bands, and try to not tour for more than three weeks at a time. The details like that – when you have days off, and where. We need to concentrate on the little details to make things run smoother.
I suppose that because this is a profession for you now – it’s is your job, proper – you’ve got to think sensibly and treat it as a job, taking the proper time off where and when…
Well, I try not to think of the word ‘profession’, but it is what I do now…
I guess press commitments start up again, too, but last time around you must have been asked the same few questions thousands of times. Do you have stock answers at all?
I try not to – I never want to feel like a puppet – but it’s really hard not to, sometimes.
And seeing as it’s a profession for you now, does it feel like any of the initial magic is lost?
I would say that I feel that some of the innocence has been lost, but magic just happens. Hopefully that will come with playing live, still.
Orzolek is making no little noise from the next room, obviously done with the phone interview that prevented her from sitting in on our interview. The PR motions to me to wrap things up – it’s the last interview of the day, and to be fair to Zinner he looks all but talked out. I do what every respectable journalist should: I get ridiculous.
These are questions submitted by readers, so expect them to be ridiculous. Should there be an eighth day of the week, in order to get more from the workforce, and what would it be called?
Funday. The workweek should definitely be split up.
Does a flower scream when it’s pulled from the ground
Um… y’know, I actually once lived with a Danish girl who could talk to plants, and I saw something in effect. She had these plants in the corner of her room that were dying, and she told me that the plants told her that they were really unhappy and that they wanted to be moved. She moved them, and they sprang up.
Wait… were they in a dark corner or something?
No no no! I didn’t have to say, “Take the plants out of the closet!”
Okay. If the world was made of sweets, what would cars be?
Probably, um, liquorice.
Okay, last one. Should I get a side parting again? This isn’t from me, by the way…
A side parting. Like this…
Oh, a hairstyle? Um, yeah, go for the comb over, definitely.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ second album, Show Your Bones, is out now through Polydor. The band plays All Tomorrow’s Parties, Camber Sands, on the weekend of May 12-14.