One day in July of 2002, I woke up early and caught the first Chinatown bus from Baltimore to New York. At the time, I was working as a furniture salesman at a run-down ripoff discount store in East Baltimore, a job that I only managed to hold for another month or two. I’d worked Friday. I had to work Sunday. But today was Saturday, and I needed to get up to New York. Rock ‘n’ roll things were happening in New York.
That day, the Village Voice, the weekly newspaper that would hire me a few years later, was holding its second Siren Festival, a free outdoor indie rock shindig on the blacktop in between the rides at Coney Island. Siren had started the year before, with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Guided By Voices and Superchunk, and I’d missed it. I would not miss what was coming next. By 2002, most of the bands who’d played the year before seemed like relics of a lost ’90s. A new generation was coming up. Sleater-Kinney were headlining Siren, and big established bands like the Shins and Modest Mouse were playing, too. But the bands I wanted to see the most were the ones who were still on the loft-space/dive-bar circuit and who seemed poised to take over: Liars, Les Savy Fav, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Rye Coalition. And the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing. I had to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
A few months earlier, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had played their first show in Baltimore. I hadn’t been there; I was still in college at the time. The YYYs didn’t headline that show. Instead, those spots went to the relatively established noise-rock bands Arab On Radar and Milemarker. League Of Death, whose members would go on to form Double Dagger, also played that show, and they hated the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. A little while later, when I interviewed Double Dagger for my late, beloved local alt-weekly, Nolen Strals explained why he couldn’t stand them: “Her whole thing, like, ‘Oh, look at me, I’m so crazy because I’m spilling beer on myself and I have a ripped Versace T-shirt!’ Who gives a fuck? That is so forced!” And Karen O’s whole thing was forced. It was an invented persona. That was exactly what I loved about it. Through the miracle of rock ‘n’ roll, Karen O had turned herself into a superhero.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs started up in 2000. Karen Orzolek, who’d transferred from Oberlin to NYU, had met Nick Zinner at the Mars Bar in New York. They’d tried to form an acoustic punk band, but it hadn’t taken, so they fired up something else. After a few early drummers didn’t work out, they brought in Brian Chase, a conservatory-trained noise-rock guy who’d been friends with Karen at Oberlin. The band’s first show was opening for the White Stripes at the Mercury Lounge. Within a year, they’d recruited Boss Hog guitarist Jerry Teel to record a five-song, 13-minute debut EP, which came out 20 years ago today. The band initially put out the self-titled EP on their own Shifty label before the doomed Midwestern indie Touch & Go picked it up for national distribution. The British music press flipped its shit for that self-titled EP, and those of us who bought import copies of NME started to get excited before we even heard it. It sounded so cool.
It was so cool. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs lived up to all that frenetic overseas press hype. I forget where I found my CD copy of that EP, but I’d been looking for it for months, keeping eyes peeled for that cover with the “master” chain over Karen O’s neck. The hunt was part of the fun. By the time I got ahold of it, I had my own ideas about how this new band would sound, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP sounded almost exactly like what I’d been hoping for. Maybe that’s a problem. Maybe that was me buying into hype. But now, 20 years later, that shit still goes hard.
There are three near-perfect anthems on that EP. “Bang,” the opener, is a truly nasty little piece of sideways spike-funk. Nick Zinner plays guitar like he’s in the Fall but he’s trying to sound like the Cramps. Brian Chase plays drums like he knows how syncopation works. Karen O chants withering put-downs with dizzy glee: “As a fuck, son, you sucked!” A couple of tracks later, “Art Star” gets silly with the satire. Karen portrays a decadent jet-setter with nothing to say: “I’ve been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation/ I’ve been screwing on the tracks of abandoned train stations.” Then the chorus suddenly lurches into blastbeat hardcore before becoming a playground taunt. Finally, there’s “Our Time,” a growling, gurgling nonsensical come-up anthem: “It’s the year to be hated/ So glad that we made it.” (The other two songs, “Mystery Girl” and “Miles Away,” are merely very good.)
For a very brief window of time, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were part of the underground rock ecosystem that was still left over from the ’90s. Everyone knew it wouldn’t last. The hype was too loud. They were too fun, too photogenic, and too laser-targeted at the breathless climate of that era’s music press. By the time I saw them at Siren, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had toured with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Albert Hammond, Jr. had worn their pin when the Strokes played on SNL. At Coney Island that afternoon, they were stars. Karen O whooped and gurgled and careened across a festival stage that was already too small for her. Nick Zinner seemed to have entire volumes of rock history built into his very springy haircut. The YYYs made a brutally hot blacktop feel like a grimy loft party and like a gleaming arena. They were destined for bigger things.
Bigger things would happen soon. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs only released one more EP, 2002’s relatively slight and forgotten Machine, on Touch And Go. The Interscope deal was coming. “Maps” was coming. Soon enough, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had made good on the promise of that EP, releasing a couple of major-label albums that stand as some of the best examples of that whole little wave. They had actual hits. They headlined festivals that weren’t just free afternoon shows in Coney Island. They got bigger and better. They left a legacy. But I never felt the same emotional attachment to those later records that I felt to that EP. When five songs are enough to get on you a Chinatown bus twice in the same day, you know those five songs are special.