Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase vividly recalls the winter day earlier this year when a hot-from-the-manufacturing-plant CD of It's Blitz! — the third full-length from the bicoastal trio of Chase, singer Karen O, and guitarist Nick Zinner — arrived at his doorstep. He held it in his hands and he talked to it.
"I was like, 'All this blood, sweat, time, and energy for you. I labored and slaved and gave up so much of my life for you!'" Chase laughs over the phone from Los Angeles, where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing one of the first dates on a U.S. tour that will bring them to the Beaumont Club on Wednesday, June 3. "I still feel like it's very much in control of my life."
Chase and company's devotion to It's Blitz! paid off handsomely — the songs are remarkable and engaging, and few bands have been quite this successful in drastically overhauling their sonic attack while remaining true to their essential nature.
For the YYYs, that meant reconfiguring the band's raucous art-punk into dance-floor-friendly synth-pop and dreamy electronic balladry. Mostly gone is Zinner's shrapnel-scattering guitar, replaced mainly by synthesizers and six-strings either soft-blurred by an array of effects or delivered in clean, staccato, disco-funk form.
Still, Zinner brings grit and physicality to his electronic sequences in the propulsive "Zero" and the venomous, throbbing "Shame and Fortune," and he coaxes loveliness out of tension in "Hysteric" and the deceptively gentle "Little Shadow." Karen O, meanwhile, harnesses her raw, feral caterwaul, displaying more finesse and control as well as singing with more vulnerability than ever before. If anything, her restraint and focus create an even more powerful emotional punch.
It's Blitz! was a risk that certainly paid off artistically — critically, too, for the most part. But Chase says the band really had no choice but to try to break out of the arty, garage-rock comfort zone established by its first two albums, 2003's Fever to Tell and 2006's Show Your Bones. "That's been a huge credo of Karen's: this need for change and feeling like once it starts to feel too comfortable, then it's time to start searching for what's next," Chase says.
Not that the band didn't consider how the change would be received by fans.
"It was in the back of our minds for sure," Chase admits. "I think at first we were putting a lot of other people's expectations on our shoulders. It's kind of dangerous going down that path because once we base our own happiness on other people's expectations, that's almost a recipe for disaster. But what was nice about making It's Blitz! is that we kept ourselves away from a lot of it. We hadn't done any shows for a long time, and we were just kinda working and writing in the middle of nowhere."
Indeed, Karen O (who has lived in Los Angeles for the past five years) and Chase and Zinner (who still live in New York City) all decamped to the tiny, isolated Texas border town of Tornillo to craft the bulk of the album. With no concrete plans other than the desire for change, the sessions were long, difficult and draining.
"It definitely evolved as we were making it," Chase explains. "It was a step-by-step process."
It's been fairly well-documented that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs nearly split while making Show Your Bones, due to intense showdowns during the creative process. Some stubbornness and angst emerged this time, too, but again, the band found ways to navigate through it intact.
"We'd been through so many situations already that we've developed coping skills, but yeah, it's tricky," the drummer says. "You know, there's still a lot of ego attachments with creativity and working with people. That always seems to get in the way at points. I'm personally an idealist, in the sense that I feel like living and working in a good state leads to a good result. But then other people will say that tension and strife and frustration are a good source of inspiration."
Laughing, Chase clearly implicates Zinner as a charter member of the tension-and-strife school. "Even before we play, before we go onstage — I'd say for like at least a half-hour before — he's just pacing and grunting and fidgeting to the point where it makes the rest of us really kind of anxious. But it's necessary for him. He needs to work himself up, so as soon as he gets onstage, he lets it all out. I'm more of, like, trying to find a state of calm and stability and peace. And then Karen is right in the middle, right there between us."
But for all the tumult, the trio has managed to keep it together for nearly a decade. Chase knows the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a good thing going, and he's as curious as the rest of us as to where the band heads from here.
"I guess with us, we've always had a strong sense of keeping it going, of moving forward and embracing change, but at the same time not knowing what that change is. So it's almost like taking a blind step forward. It's scary and exciting. But knowing that the three of us share this special chemistry and that when we come together, it does have this amazing feeling, you know? The potential is always there to create some really good art."