Q&A: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs On The Making Of Mosquito And How Life In The Band Has Changed Over The Years
By now, everyone with a particular interest in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will have likely formed their own opinion to the band’s newly unleashed fourth album, Mosquito. Judging by early reviews, opinion on the record is interestingly mixed. The sound of a band treading water? A bold push in a new direction? A tepid attempt to get back to their roots? A beautiful, albeit, schizophrenic mess? Or is it, as our own Tom Breihan explains, a glorious batch of breathtaking “devastation material” that ranks among the band’s best work? (For my money, a little bit of all the above are true.) More than anything, the somewhat polarized reactions that the band continues to engender is a testament to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ compelling ability to simultaneously evolve and still play to their strengths. While so many of their contemporaries have either burned out or simply wilted from view, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have forged a decade-long career out of pursuing their own wily interests while still keeping their live attack razor sharp. And while Karen O might always bear the brunt of all the attention focused on the band (deservedly so, since she has arguably proven herself to be one of the most dynamic performers in rock), credit must also be given to her cohorts, Brian Chase and Nick Zinner, who continue to provide one of the most formidable backbones any band could ever hope for (a fact further evidenced by repeated listens to Mosquito tracks like “Under The Earth” and “Despair”). A few days before the new album’s release I had the chance to chat with both Zinner and Chase, separately, about how Mosquito came to be. Apparently this was supposed to be a really simple record that somehow ended up with gospel choirs, samples of subway noises, and a visit from Dr. Octagon … and no one is quite sure how that happened.
STEREOGUM: I read an interview with Karen a few weeks ago talking about the new record. Now that I’ve had the record for a few days, I can say that I’m fairly surprised. I guess I’d expected a much more minimal sounding record from the way she described it… but it doesn’t feel that way to me at all.
ZINNER: Yeah, it’s pretty contradictory that way. I know that was our original intent, to get more minimal, and there are songs that are super, super minimal, but at the same time there are choirs on some songs, and, like, five drum tracks on some songs.
STEREOGUM: It’s Blitz marked the 10-year anniversary of the band. After touring that record, was there a point where you questioned whether or not the band would ever make another album?
ZINNER: Oh absolutely, yeah. I mean to a certain extent I always kind of feel that way after we do a record, I’m like, “Well, that’ll probably be the last record.” And one thing I’ve learned with this band is to never take anything for granted, and what I’ve become especially aware of in the last five or six years is to appreciate every moment. So yeah, especially after 10 years, which is really such a definitive achievement for a rock band. It’s like, what the fuck, what do you do now? What’s next? Yeah, I don’t think any of us were sure what we were going to do.
STEREOGUM: There aren’t a lot of bands from the early 2000s that have managed to eke out a decade long career, so that really is a big achievement.
ZINNER: Yeah, there’s really only a few.
STEREOGUM: So when it comes time to make another record, I’m always curious how that ball starts rolling. Is there one person in the band who is the instigator of like, “maybe we should start doing something”? How does that process begin for you guys?
ZINNER: It’s definitely still a mystery. Usually there is some sort of push from Karen to get something rolling. But, in the case of this record there was so much swirling doubt and despair around us. After It’s Blitz and the touring and anniversary shows, we got a studio rehearsal space, just a little practice space in the city. It’s pretty much between where Karen and I live downtown, and something we’d never had before. So kind of through the end of 2010, and throughout 2011 we would just jam and fuck around and write, or start writing stuff but in a casual way and not putting pressure on ourselves to be like, “We need to make Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs.” We were just playing songs because we needed to. And we were both going through some tough experiences, and it was just a very therapeutic activity, so it felt really good to do. So during that time — like over a year’s worth of jamming — we ended up writing a lot of songs, we were recording a lot of things that turned into demos, and that’s sort of what this record became. I think that’s what I liked about it, I was just recording it really crudely with just a bunch of room mics so there was something kind of magical in those shitty sounds that we really liked.
STEREOGUM: It must be really nice to work that way, without any pressure, though I’m guessing there’s always a certain amount of pressure after you’ve achieved a certain amount of success. People are waiting for you to make another record and there will be those folks fervently wanting to know what you’re doing and wanting to hear it. How do you combat that?
ZINNER: I just sort of block it out, it’s just something I don’t really think about. This time I didn’t allow myself a chance to think about it pretty much until halfway through mixing the record. And then it was a total, “Oh my fucking god people are going to hear this!” We’re probably the worst critics on ourselves than anybody; we get extremely self-critical.
STEREOGUM: This record seems like a nice balance between all of the things you do well. Given the sheen of It’s Blitz, I’m guessing it would have been easy to make something really reactionary in the opposite direction. Mosquito doesn’t feel that way to me.
ZINNER: It actually is somewhat reactionary to the last one, because with the last one we were going for a very machine-like precision and accuracy in the grand spectrum of that record, so in some ways it is that, but in other ways you have to change things up.
STEREOGUM: In the grand scheme of your back catalog, was this a particularly difficult record to make?
ZINNER: I mean they’re all really difficult records to make. But compared to our second record — which was really, really difficult to make — I’d say we allowed ourselves to have more fun on this record and I guess one of the things that comes along with being a band for 10 years is you can kind of be like, “Fuck it, we’re going to do what we want, who gives a shit!” And that’s incredibly liberating.
STEREOGUM: That’s such an important thing to remind yourself of, too, to not be too precious about things. You’re making rock music. It shouldn’t be torture. What’s it going to be like playing these live? Some of them might be tricky.
ZINNER: There are maybe two or three songs where there’s no way we can play them live. But we have pretty much everything else figured out and adapted. Ever since the second record I’ve figured out a way that I can trigger loops and samples and things, but have it still feel live for us.
STEREOGUM: Does the idea of being on tour for the next year of your life or whatever sound good to you?
ZINNER: Well I love playing and traveling, but I don’t think we’re going to tour that crazily for this record. Karen doesn’t really like touring that much, so we’re not going as all-out this time … like the two-years-straight tours of our past. But we’re definitely playing a lot of shows.
STEREOGUM: I guess that’s one of the good things about being in a band this long, you can also afford the luxury of saying no sometimes. You can afford not to spend months in a van.
ZINNER: Yeah, we’re really, really, really lucky.
STEREOGUM: How was the process of making this record?
CHASE: Well, the process was very much that it took shape in the studio. So I guess there was kind of like that constant sense of discovery, you know, not really knowing what it was going to sound like until it started to present itself. We did a demo process for about a year, and then right before going into the studio to do the main recording tracks, we did an intensive writing session. But still, we went into the studio with a bunch of demos and then really let the songs evolve while they were being recorded. So I think there is that sense of freshness in there that defines a lot of the sound of the record for me.
STEREOGUM: Is that a different way then how you guys have worked in the past?
CHASE: It’s not too dissimilar from how we did it with It’s Blitz! But I guess also what makes the process of this record special was that we did it with two producers simultaneously, and the places where we did most of the recording was big enough that each producer could have his own studio. So that facilitated the song development process and that was kind of new for us. It was almost like the songs were continually undergoing these transformation processes pretty rapidly over the course of the weeks that we were in the studio.
STEREOGUM: You worked with Dave Sitek and Nick Launay. How does the division of labor shake out when you’re working with two producers — were you working with them at the same time? I’m always really fascinated with the dynamics of how producers work with bands.
CHASE: Well, it was definitely very particular to that time. And it kind of worked out where both of their personalities as producers are very different, and they both serve totally different roles. Dave kind of played the mad scientist role, where he was all about trying out crazy ideas and having the expectation that only a small percentage of them will end up being used, and Nick was more of the character that would kind of do more of the editing and work with us more individually, getting performances and kind of doing more of the organizing of the performances and tracks, and helping with the songs structurally. Whereas Dave was just like, “Let’s try this sound! Let’s try this part. Let’s run it through this kind of effect.” Really shaping, tone and character from that perspective. So they each were kind of serving different functions.
STEREOGUM: How long did the actual recording take once you got together with them?
CHASE: The bulk of it was done in about three weeks. And then we did another week and a half with Nick Launay a few months later.
STEREOGUM: After touring so hard for It’s Blitz, was it important that everybody sort of go their separate ways for awhile and take a break? I mean, I’m always curious about that. At what point does it start to feel like, “All right it’s time for us to get back together and start doing this again.” Or how do the wheels sort of start turning again?
CHASE: I guess after being a band for this long, we’ve kind of come to find a natural cycle for what we do. And yeah, typically after a tour there is a rest period, to let those experiences and let that record sort of settle. We take a time out from the band and most activity with the band. And then we usually do our own stuff for a while and we start to feel the gradual call for the next cycle to start. And that call gets louder and louder to the point where somehow we’re back in it.
STEREOGUM: Are you surprised that the band has gone on for this long? Did you ever imagine that it would have the kind of life that it does now?
CHASE: Well, definitely going back to those early times we couldn’t foresee what was to come. And at the same time, it’s been really great for us to have the band as part of our lives for this amount of time, and for us to keep making it a part of our lives.
STEREOGUM: This record is so varied in terms of the sounds involved — from a choir on one song to having Dr. Octagon on another. How did those things happen? And how did you get Dr. Octagon involved?
CHASE: I don’t know actually, that’s a mystery to me. We were talking about having a guest rapper for that song. And then there were a few names getting tossed around, and I don’t remember who thought of Dr. Octagon, or specifically how that came about. There were discussions going around about possibilities. So I assume, maybe Nick or Karen thought about it. And then there was also someone else who helped out on that track too — Sam Spiegel who produced Show Your Bones and he’s been a friend of the band for years and he worked on that track, and I think he might have worked with Kool Keith previously.
STEREOGUM: Considering how long you’ve been in a band together, when it does come time for all three of you to be in a room and start working on songs, does the process get easier over time? I mean, do you sort of have a natural rhythm with how you operate with each other at this point?
CHASE: It’s definitely easier in the sense that we know each other well and we know how to deal with working with each other and we still don’t always see things the same way, and so now I think we’re better at accepting that and being able to still move forward in those instance. I think we’ve developed better skills at being with each other in tense or stressful times.
STEREOGUM: Well, I know in the time off from the band everybody is also busy doing other things. You released a lot of great music on your own. Now that the band is back in full swing, are you looking forward to spending the rest of this year on tour?
CHASE: Yeah! Totally, yeah. You know, the touring isn’t as extensive this time around as it has been. More in pieces than extended runs. So each show feels more precious. But especially since having done so many smaller shows, the energy around a YYY’s show is awesome, and to experience that is really great. So each one is very special.
STEREOGUM: How was your SXSW experience? I was not required to go this year — which I was grateful for — but I would have loved to see your show. I heard it was epic.
CHASE: The last time I was there was when we did it in 2002. So obviously, the festival itself has changed. But it was great to play. Well, I think a great part of it was to share a night with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, and they just totally blew us away. They were really great.
STEREOGUM: Is this sort of like a break time for you before things get really crazy?
CHASE: Yeah, we’ve been doing some press. And then we have a New York show coming up. And then I’ve been supporting a solo record that’s going to come out, so I’ve been kind of busy with that.
STEREOGUM: How has that been for you, the solo stuff? I mean, as great as the band is, it must be nice to have something else separate from that that’s just your own personal thing.
CHASE: Yeah, it’s cool to put out music that is kind of initially focused on another scene. It connects me to a different community, this world of composers and improvisational musicians.
STEREOGUM: You’re such an amazing musician, and such an amazingly technical player. Being able to do that — to work in this jazzy, improvisational way — I would imagine it’s kind of like flexing a muscle that you don’t always get to flex in the YYYs. It’s a super healthy thing to be able to do.
CHASE: Yeah, it’s cool. You know, you have to see music from lots of different viewpoints and feel out the ways that they connect. One thing feeds the other.
Mosquito is out now on Interscope.