Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner gives his band’s creative ambitions — and his personal eBay habit — credit for the creative shift the group made on its latest album.
Much of “It’s Blitz” finds the hip New York-formed trio trading its raw and jagged guitar attack for synthesizers and dance grooves, most prominently on the first single, “Zero,” and its planned follow-up, “Heads Will Roll.” Spin magazine calls it “a decidedly drastic shift in musical direction,” and Zinner, who added keyboards to his arsenal this time out, says the change happened “naturally and organically.”
And he was well prepared for it. “I’m kind of a chronic eBay buyer of toys and things,” explains Zinner, 34, “so I brought a couple of things I had bought on there to the studio. We started out writing the song ‘Skeletons,’ which is synth-based, and we wrote that in 15 minutes or something.
“I think there was something that was kind of exciting about that and felt new to us, and the fact that it could come so naturally informed the direction of the record and what would work or not. It felt like a fresh beginning.”
And truth be told, YYYs were in need of that as they rolled into “It’s Blitz.”
Formed in 2000 by Zinner, singer Karen O (né Orzolek) and her Oberlin College classmate drummer Brian Chase, YYYs were a quick hit in the same New York underground rock scene that spawned The Strokes and other bands. The trio’s first album, 2003’s “Fever To Tell,” spawned the modern rock radio hit “Maps”
But 2006’s “Show Your Bones” was, according to Zinner, “truly a nightmare to make.” O went through some public romantic breakups, including one with director Spike Jonze. The singer’s move to Los Angeles didn’t help, nor did substance abuse, ego and communications issues and the general pressure of following up a success.
“It was like every horror story from any band you’ve ever heard about,” Zinner recalls. “It wasn’t pretty. I don’t think it was any different from what any other band goes through. It was just our take on it.”
It was the tour to promote “Show Your Bones,” which was ranked on year-end best-of lists by Rolling Stone and Spin magazines, that helped put YYYs back on track.
“Just playing some of the best shows we’ve ever played and just kind of getting back to our own personal friendships, we were able to get past all that,” Zinner says. “After working with people for awhile, you learn how to be a better person and how to treat your bandmates better.”
So YYYs — who released a stop-gap EP, “It Is,” in 2007 — were in good shape when they started writing for “It’s Blitz” in the fall of 2007 at a rented house in Woodstock, N.Y. Zinner, Chase and producer Nick Launay were initially surprised by O’s resolve to shake up the sound and bring in the synthesizers and dance beats, but the group quickly found that direction to be fertile, creative territory.
“We took the better part of a year making it and writing it,” Zinner reports. “We would just do a lot of these jams and improv sessions and extract little bits that made us happy or made us excited ... just seeing what worked and what felt sort of fresh and exciting and just different for us, and challenging.”
A particular onus was on Zinner, of course, and while he claims to “not really understand” keyboards and synthesizers, he found that worked to his advantage.
“At this point, after playing guitar for a long time, sometimes I feel like I almost know the instrument too well,” he explains. “There’s always a danger of me sort of second guessing myself. It’s a lot more difficult to have the happy accident or just the freedom of approaching a new instrument.
“That was something I really got from playing keyboards. That made it really exciting for me, and I was able to use that as an inspiration for writing new songs.”
That said, Zinner is also quick to point out that “a lot of people have been focusing on the sort of electronic aspect of the record, which truly is only like half the (album).” He points to “Runaway,” which he calls “a very dramatic, symphonic song we’re all really proud of” as just one example of “the more organic sounds that occupy the rest of the record.” Nevertheless, the new sounds have lit a fire under “It’s Blitz” and YYYs, with the album — which was recorded at studios around the country — debuting at No. 22 on the Billboard 200 chart in March and “Zero” notching at No. 18 on the magazine’s Hot Modern Rock survey. But Zinner is circumspect about whether the band will stay on that particular path when it starts thinking about the fourth YYYs album.
“It’s impossible to predict right now,” he says. “We’re not good long-term planners. We kind of only look a year ahead at the most. So now, we’re just focusing on touring and trying to get to a lot of places where people want to see us.
“That’s the immediate kind of concern, and we’ll get to everything else in due time, like we usually do.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Grand Ole Party perform Wednesday (May 27) at Clutch Cargo’s, 65 E. Huron St., Pontiac. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $27 day of show. Call (248) 333-2362 or visit www.livenation.com.
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