in conversation

In Conversation: Karen O

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer will give in to her urges, so long as she’s onstage.

Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch
Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch
Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch

Listen for the splintering yowl and you’ll hear Karen O attempting an exorcism. Her shows with her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, in the early 2000s were crotch-grabbing, microphone-fellating, olive-oil-drizzling art-punk chaos, performed in outfits by costume designer and artist Christian Joy that looked like the next morning’s hangover. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were making dance music, the stuff of bruised knees and whiplashed necks, and Karen O threw herself around with abandon. If you felt she was working something out, she was. “I was going through some shit,” she says. “Times, like, a hundred.”

After a nine-year hiatus, Karen O and her bandmates, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase, return with Cool It Down, spurred by another sense of crisis. Their first LP, Fever to Tell from 2003, channeled the wreckage of post-9/11 New York; their latest contains the threat of environmental apocalypse. When Karen O began playing with the band, she was one of the lone girls among the boy bands. Youth was her armor. But the person who sits down in a restaurant booth for this conversation projects the other side of the too-sensitive artist, one frayed by too much attention and who describes herself as “a cautious, the-world’s-a-scary-place kind of person.” Her sentences swivel around; she pinches her skin for comfort. This is the part of her that needs to exist so she can let the other one loose onstage.

Fever to Tell was a very New York album, and there’s something about Cool It Down that feels very California. Both of the singles, “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” and “Burning,” channel an existential dread I associate with L.A. — that the world might fall apart at any moment.
You know Game of Thrones: Winter is coming, winter is coming. These days it feels like summer is coming, summer is coming. Before we got into the studio, it was one of the worst wildfire seasons in L.A. Blade Runner 2049. Red skies. Ash. You wake up one morning, the sky is pink. Sun is like an orb hanging low in it. I have to tell my son how we can’t go outside because of the air quality. It was apocalyptic. That really seeps into your psyche, especially after a year of total dystopia of the pandemic.

Writing this record wasn’t like, “I’m gonna write a record about everything falling apart.” But I really depend on art as this buoy for me to know I’m not alone in how crazy I feel when the world does seem like it’s crumbling around me. It feels okay when you feel more connected. When you feel disconnected is when it feels not okay. The reason I wanted to join a major label when we hadn’t even put out a full LP was because I was like, “Bro, if we got a shot to connect to more people, let’s take it.” Miraculously, against all odds — because “Maps” was like a third or fourth single on Fever to Tell — that just happened to connect. The label had already given up on the record. They’re like, “The reaction’s been so-so like for the first two songs.” The first song was “Date With the Night,” and second was “Pin.”

Why wouldn’t you start with “Maps” or “Y Control”? Just go for the bangers?
Oh, but you have no concept of it. You just have your ideas, and you don’t really know who to trust around you. So you make silly single decisions sometimes.

From what I remember, “Maps” was an early internet hit that eventually got radio play. Do you remember when it started to take off?
Nick would know the trajectory exactly. It’s quite blurry for me. The radio play is when I started processing that something was happening, because we were playing those radio Jingle Ball festivals all the sudden and people were flocking to see us because of “Maps.”

When you signed with Interscope for your first major record deal, what were the details that were important to you?
A three-record deal plus one option, really big advances, and getting our masters back was a really impressive deal for this little punk band from New York. It’s not like we showed a shit-ton of promise. It wasn’t an Adele situation. We’re a funny little punk band everybody was just wild about at the time. Asif Ahmed, our manager at the time, was a loose cannon and was able to score us a super-sweet deal and set the precedent after that. You get it off on the right foot and then you’re golden.

Is it because he was also new to this?
Yeah, he was drunk on our exaltation. Asif was this rogue wild man. Fucking legend. Totally exalted, totally irreverent. We were just going for it. It’s that blissful ignorance of youth. There’s no limit. Let’s ask for the world. And he was totally the right guy for that. He’s like, “I’m gonna get all this crazy shit for you guys.” We’re like, “Okay!”

The music industry couldn’t be more different now. What appeals to major labels more than anything today is a feather in the cap where they could lure in other exciting artists. Be like, “We have the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They don’t make much money, but they’re cool.” It’s a matter of survival for a lot of labels, and rock is not really a priority for them anymore. It actually felt like a fluke for our little crew of colleagues back in 2003 — it was such a flash in the pan as far as labels actually championing that and feeling like, “Wow, this could be the next Nirvana or something.”

Ahmed has said you were worried about “Gwenomics” — referring to Gwen Stefani’s post–No Doubt transformation into a solo pop artist — at Interscope after the release of Fever to Tell. I was hoping you could explain that to me.
I don’t remember saying “Gwenomics,” but maybe. It sounds like I could’ve come up with that term. I assume that it probably had to do with this female-led pop-slash-rock mold that maybe they were trying to slot me into. Interscope had these really big prestige acts that were sort of off the cuff but still made it huge. Jimmy Iovine was hoping I would be the next Gwen. But I wasn’t. In my own way, I carved out something for myself. But I didn’t deliver on the goods as far as that major-label expectation was concerned.

Did you feel they were trying to market you as a pop star?
Definitely not as a pop star. I would have lunch with Jimmy, and he’d talk about working with Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, and Stevie Nicks before he became who he was. I think he was thinking of me more within that niche, but there’s always hope that what happens with a Billie Eilish, who’s a very true-blue artist, that maybe people will go mental on it and it’ll be a huge thing.

Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch

Did you have those ambitions?
I had this quite naïve, useful fantasy. The reason you go to a major label is because it gives you a better shot at reaching the maximum number of people. But — similar to not understanding the reality of touring — I had a very detached, abstract notion of that role. Myself — and  probably a lot of the other front men that came up with me — buckled under the weight of commercialization and the demands that come with that. Because it just wasn’t really what we set out to do.

Is it weird to you that the bands who rode that wave of ’00s indie rock to become mainstream famous were Kings of Leon and the Killers, who weren’t even from New York?
Totally. That always seems to happen. There’s bands that are just better equipped to pick up where we kind of … I feel like we opened the gates. But by the time those bands hit the scene, there was a bit of road paved. There was tons of interest. They could take the ball and run with it. It’s just a different type of artist or person who has that in them.

What do you think that is?
I would love to sit down and have a conversation with some of the mainstream famous people because I’m sure it takes a hell of a lot. You have to be incredibly ambitious. You have to have an iron stomach. You have to not shy away from what the pitfalls of mainstream fame is, which is the loss of privacy, the haters, the backlash. And also be driven and hardworking. My idea of hardworking is pouring every ounce of my essence into a piece of music. That’s where I’m like, All right, I did my job. All that other stuff I can only manage in small doses.

When working on Kelly Clarkson’s album Breakaway, the producer Dr. Luke played “Maps” for Max Martin, and the latter apparently said, “Why don’t we do that but put a big chorus on it?” They then wrote “Since U Been Gone,” which has a similar structure and guitar breaks. At the time, Rolling Stone reported that you said hearing that song made you feel like you had been “bitten by a poisonous varmint.” Do you still feel that way?
He spelled it out pretty clearly. Some of us in the band probably reacted to that more strongly than myself. There’s been a huge shift — and this is something that’s been hard for some of us Gen X–ers to get our head around — of what used to be sacred. We came from a school of thought that was really into a scene. It felt local or like your best kept secret. There was such value and engagement in the bands you’re into — almost like a love affair you’d have with them — getting and listening to their record, record art, and going to the shows. It all sounds very old-fashioned. But then also you would have lots of respect for what everybody’s doing and you wouldn’t just lift something and claim it’s yours. You’d be ousted right away. You’d be exiled.

All that’s changed. The way people hear music, it can glaze over you before you really get to the heart of it. But also the access kids have these days to all the hidden gems that were very hard to uncover is amazing. Now it’s accessible, so their sphere of influence is much more fluid and bigger. There’s also less distinguishing between everything.

That speaks to how the line from “Maps” — “They don’t love you like I love you” — could get into Beyoncé’s “Hold Up.”
Yeah, our buddy Ezra. It’s interesting how those things echo into pop culture. It’s satisfying for me in the sense that I don’t have to be a pop star, but some of the things the band has created have made their way into the pop sensibility. It feels very undercover. There’ve been moments in our career where maybe we’d think, Oh, why can’t I do that myself? Why can’t we make that song that breaks in that way? But miraculously and inexplicably to us, it finds its way anyway. Like if you make something good, then it’ll resonate in ways you maybe don’t expect. I don’t know how anyone makes a hit song. I know there are robots making hit songs now.

Julian Casablancas has said he believes capitalism sucks the quality from music. Do you feel like money ever got in the way of the music that you wanted to do?
What Julian says does resonate with me. I’m trying to disentangle the very beginnings of my artistic expression’s being so wrapped up in becoming a fairly on-the-radar, commercially successful band so quickly. You’re raised in a system where there’s already this expectation of delivering records and what you do with them. And that’s on whatever level you are, but there’s that funny expectation of this bigger audience and trying to maintain relevance. I wonder how much even subconsciously that affects my ability to be pure in my artistic expression. If the very beginnings of your expression has that sort of feedback, can I just exist as an artist without that feedback? What would I make without any expectation of that feedback? Sometimes it’s hard to get to that place. But I think it’s possible.

What was the pressure like working on the second album Show Your Bones?
The sophomore record is a bitch. It’s so hard. You do the first one free of any attention, really. It’s mostly fantasy and fun and flexing in endless possibility. The second record is the identity-crisis record. Then you’re like, Oh my god. We have to do this now, and everybody got invited into this very private and personal process. What you think people want for that second record is probably just the sequel to your first. But sometimes that blows up in your face, because if it’s not as good as the first, then they’re gonna be like, Ehh. They just did a lame sequel.

But we really changed. We abandoned the sound of the first record and did something outside our comfort zone. It was painful to push ourselves, and we did get backlash from fans and critics. But it set us up in a much healthier way. In the sense that people were starting to get a sense that maybe every record they’re going to make is not going to sound like that first record. They’re an artist who changes it up.

Was there a moment when you felt like the New York scene you came up in had passed?
Even by 2006 it felt like it was done. The heyday really felt like it was from late 2001 to 2004. What happened in New York after that was not too dissimilar to what happened in Seattle after grunge became a worldwide phenomenon. People didn’t have that naïvété in New York anymore of being like, We’re a New York band because it’s cool to be a New York band. Now we have a chance of making it big. That really can spoil the fun.

It’s been nine years since your last album, Mosquito. I’m curious how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs came back together. Or if you had sort of—
If we dispersed?

Yeah. Gone to your own corners.
We definitely went to our own corners. So much life has happened between our records. In 2014 alone, I put out Crush Songs, did the Oscars with “The Moon Song,” and got pregnant. Then I had a child. Come 2019, I started to feel like, Man, it’s time for some new material. I started feeling like we needed an infusion. Nick and I started talking about making new music in a very noncommittal way. A single. Maybe two songs for the fans. We also had a heart-to-heart about how we’d approach songwriting this many years later and trying to put aside some of the baggage. We were really bonding. And then a month later it was the pandemic. Usually the reason why we’re not touring is, I don’t wanna tour. This was not my choice, and that was a first for me.

I like high-octane experiences, but I don’t push myself towards them. Yeah Yeah Yeahs is what gets me out of the house, because I’m actually a pretty introverted person. I saw so many places I would never in a million years have gone on my own. During the pandemic, I started having feverish dreams of traveling to places we had been over the past 20 years. I was processing a deeper value of how much the band cracked open my life. After that whole year of feeling like it might never happen again, I can’t take anything for granted. So when we reconvened, it was just profound and emotional, because the stakes had never been so high as far as just getting to make music again. We’re family.

What did you talk about during your heart-to-heart with Nick?
It was just learning to have faith and trust each other in the process. That was unconscious in the beginning, but you can lose sight of it. The older you get and the longer you have relationships with people, you have to be more conscious about communicating because otherwise everybody’s just rolling on automatic mode. When things go awry, it’s more chaotic. Speaking those things out loud and coming to those understandings consciously helps us feel what’s already there.

What was at the core of the tension before?
We agitate each other in just the right way. All that friction makes the diamond. The way I agitate Nick is I perpetually push him out of his comfort zone. And he doesn’t like that. Just being like, “You’re a fucking god at this sound you’re making. Now do another one.” He’s like, “What the fuck? I’m a god at this; why would you not want me to do this?” And I’m like, “Because I want to start doing other things. I want you to go to the unknown with me where what you’re gonna do is either a total failure or a total success. Abandon the certainty and the comfort, and go into that dark place with me.”

And what he does for me is like: “Knock, knock, knock. Can we do the Yeah Yeah Yeahs again now?” He draws me back. He doesn’t let me just fly off on my own thing. He’s the heart and soul of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Whenever you hear a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record, you have Nick to thank, really. ‘Cause he’s at the core keeping the band together.

In Lizzy Goodman’s book Meet Me in the Bathroom, there’s a story about how you approached Debbie Harry for advice on how to navigate being a “girl in a boy’s world,” and she told you to “just enjoy it while it lasts.” Your response was a bit ambivalent.
Yeah, it was at the Cooler. I think we were seeing James Chance. I feel bad about that because I was wasted. I tapped her on the shoulder. She’s probably just trying to enjoy herself, and then this young sloppy girl comes up to her. She’s a badass, but it wasn’t very helpful advice at the time. But maybe that’s something I would say ten years from now.

What were you looking for with that question?
I was totally isolated, and there wasn’t anyone I could relate to. There was no guidebook. There were no mentors I could get feedback from. I was stuck in my own head. And the men around me — which was, like, everyone — couldn’t relate even if they tried. It was a lonely place to be, and I knew intrinsically that my experience of it was different. I needed some validation that it was okay that it was different. We feel differently, we process things differently, we create differently.

I’m a competitive person, and I felt extremely competitive, especially in those early days with all the boy bands. I really felt like I had something to prove. But the competition between other women, it feels more like mistrust. Maybe it’s something we have internalized since the moment we’re born in white Christian America. Maybe it’s a mistrust of the divine feminine. The good thing about getting older is being able to start questioning who benefits from me feeling this way. I’m kept more isolated when I could be banding together in a community of women and be raising each other up.

In 2005, Kim Deal and I did a musical project called Stop the Virgens. It was my first experience working with a woman, and it was a game changer for me. It was deeply artistically affirming. She was a really egoless, very intuitive musician — so not bothered about “her part.” Like just very much in the flow of what the overarching vision for the record was. It felt like maybe this is the difference between how a woman thinks of things versus how a man thinks of things.

Do you mentor other women artists?
No one’s really taken me up on my offer yet. Maybe my invitation has been too soft. I’m a pretty awkward person, so maybe I have to lean in a little bit more and be like, “You’re meeting me here. We’re gonna have lasagna. It’s gonna be delicious. We’re gonna go deep.”

When did you most feel the gender difference?
In 2002, we were supposed to be recording Fever to Tell, but the ravenous desire for us to be out there doing shows was extremely high. We were touring Europe. The reaction was fanatical, and the intensity was really taking a toll on me.

The reaction from the audience?
Yeah. I do, like, stage antics, and there are people grabbing at me. There was one moment where I was out lying on a monitor backwards — this led to me falling off the stage down the line — and this girl grabbed my hair and just stuck her tongue down my throat. It was wild. For me, it was still in the spirit of punk rock, so I was going with it to a certain degree. But it was wearing me out. I was struggling and also getting further and further away from being able to finish this record. So I threw the gauntlet down. It was really hard, because they were like, “Let’s get this straight: You wanna cancel the rest of the shows so you can finish this record? Do you know the kind of damage that’s gonna do to your reputation with promoters and fans? It’s not done.” And I was like, Yeah, maybe you dudes don’t do that kind of shit, because you have that sense of duty, and there is this feeling of like road dogs, brothers in arms. You grind through. And unless you’re in a fucking hospital bed, you’re doing that show. That self-sacrifice didn’t make sense to me.

It’s not weak to say, “I need a moment to recover and focus on what’s going to be the thing that lasts, which is this record. So I want to redirect the focus to finishing that.” And I felt like nobody was on my side. Nobody could understand. They thought I was totally crazy and selfish. They thought it was sacrilege. In hindsight, it was the right thing. No promoters punished us. We just got bigger and bigger. “No” is a more tantalizing word to a lot of people than “yes.” Having limitations on the access to you makes you all the more desirable. And we got to focus on our record and make it a fucking great record. That’s what’s gonna outlive us. I was strong as fuck to do that.

You were.
At the time, I felt like the biggest asshole. I felt like this was such a sign of weakness, that I just couldn’t hack it. And there wasn’t a single woman around me to be like, “Girl! I got your back.”

Did you feel like there was also a lack of understanding of just how deeply physical and emotional your performances were?
My friend Patrick Daughters had been documenting all this stuff with us, and we screened this little film during the anniversary shows. After Brian saw that put together, he was like, “I’m really sorry we couldn’t see you. We weren’t seeing where you were at the time, and how much you were going through.” They’ve come around.

In the past, you’ve described your performances as increasingly self-destructive. Do you see that as a necessary by-product of who you all were at the time?
I mean that’s why we don’t do that many shows. If anybody’s curious. It’s hard to sustain. There really was a spectacle of self-destruction happening, but it was therapy. The stage is a safe space for me. It’s the greatest gift in my life. It’s such a release. It’s like wild ecstasy onstage, something I can’t access hardly anywhere else. All of a sudden, anything I had repressed over my entire life just felt open, free, fun, confrontational, vulnerable. It was a sandbox. It’s childlike. You can throw a tantrum up there. You can be sexually inappropriate up there. You’re beyond any mundane experience. There’s not a whole lot of people that will allow themselves to go there in front of an audience. But it felt natural. I can’t explain why. It just did. And still does.

But if I overdo it, it obliterates me. It became something bigger, where I felt like I had very little control of what was happening onstage. I was injuring myself. I was drinking a lot while I was doing those shows. I was trying to numb parts of me because it was hard to process the immediate attention and fervor. It went from really lighthearted, playful, and celebratory to more angsty. It’s been many years of learning how to harness this thing that feels much bigger than me, that flows through me when I’m performing. I’ve figured it out, more or less.

Was alcohol a performance-enhancing drug at the time?
It helped me break through shyness. I always underestimate the adrenaline. That’s a drug in itself when you’re up there. It mostly got me through the hump of getting into that place where those aspects of me are unleashed. Now that I’m in my early 40s, I don’t want to feel that out of control. It’s really disconcerting. I like it to take a little bit of the edge off of having to go on, but the adrenaline does everything up there. And then the love from the crowd, that rapport. There’s subtleties to it. It’s like surfing — just trying to catch this wave, and there’s so much you can draw from it as a performer. You don’t need alcohol to feel totally set free.

Did the onstage performance and persona affect how you walked in the world offstage?
Definitely when it comes to my career. Not at all when it comes to being an awkward person trying to fumble through the world.

Did it help with boys?
Boys haven’t really been a problem for me. Maybe it’s a Scorpio aspect of who I am. I was boy-crazy at the time. I didn’t have a boyfriend all through high school. Part of me was like, “It’s a great way to meet some cute boys.” Maybe that’s not a very empowering reason from a female perspective.

Isn’t that why boys start bands?
Yeah, it wasn’t that different for me. You want to turn yourself into who everybody’s dreaming of.

There’s something kind of fascinating about that, though, because you’re also wearing these wild creations that aren’t exactly about sex appeal.
So fucking crazy, right? Christian Joy made almost every costume of mine ‘til very, very recently. It just goes to show what the sexiest thing that exists is: Confidence, man. When I put on one of her unhinged, what-the-hell-is-this kind of costumes, I feel invincible. I feel sexy. I feel like a superstar when I put on her shit. I’ve always been in the school of thought of “Keep them guessing.” So be completely covered and just show a sliver of ankle. It will have them going [makes panting sounds] just guessing what the rest of you is. It’s so underestimated. You gotta leave something for the imagination. That’s where all the fantasy takes place.

It’s also a dare.
It’s totally like a dare. It’s a little dangerous. A lot of my persona, especially onstage, presents an element of danger where you’re not really sure. I’m not that put together up there. I’m unpredictable. I think that’s exciting.

Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch

You’ve done a number of collaborations throughout your career, but one that stuck out to me was “Pinky’s Dream” for David Lynch’s album Crazy Clown Time in 2011. My understanding is that he has a studio in his house. What was the process of recording that like?
“Pinky’s Dream” was the second time I went to his studio. The first time was because I was going to try and get a collection of directors to do each song for Stop the Virgens and make like a little film out of it. So I took a meeting with him where I played that for him in his studio; nothing ever really came of that. But we share an agent at CAA, who called me up and said, “David’s working on a record, and here’s a song I think you’d be a great fit for.” I showed up to David’s studio, which is like walking into a completely separate dimension that belongs to him. I was super-nervous because I was about to sing on a David Lynch song, so I asked him for a beer, and they were scrambling to find me one because they didn’t have any. It was just to take the edge off because it was like, Oh my God, this is intense. He escorted me to this little vocal booth and gave me these lyrics he had written on a piece of paper. Dean Hurley, his engineer and producer, started playing the song. I listened through it maybe once or twice. David’s just sitting out there smoking cigarettes. And I was like, Karen, this is not the time in your life to buckle. I can’t keep listening to this without doing anything. You have to fucking deliver on this right now.

So I just started singing. Like, fearlessly. I summoned something deep within me to be like, Whatever you do, just do it and do it well. This is your moment. So I’d start singing and then the talk-back mic would come on, and it’d be David. He’d say something all in this ’50s terminology like [does a David Lynch impression], “Hot fucking dog, Karen! Rootin’-tootin’ swell! It’s so beautiful you gotta keep going!” He’s so supportive and encouraging. Then I felt very confident and natural. After that experience was over, I sat with him. What he does is he dims the lights and there’s these incredible lights that he brings up that illuminate the speakers. He was playing the song that my vocals were just freshly on, blasting it and smoking cigarettes. I was like, Yeah, if I had a heart attack and died right now, I’d feel pretty fucking stoked.

I wanted to return to this feeling of angst that you felt like you would work out through performance. What were the things that you were working out and working through?
A lifetime of being a shy girl. And also a half-Asian, biracial girl that didn’t fit in. Very prudish and uncertain about my sexuality. Repressing aspects of myself as you do because it felt inappropriate. There weren’t many examples of positive role models in that sense. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and as someone who is extremely sensitive and has a vivid fantasy life, when it was time to unleash everything that’s been bottled up, it came out like a fucking tidal wave.

I credit this band with saving my life over and over again. In 2001, just as we were finding our place, I lost someone super-close to me, my age, in a traumatic way — to suicide. That was in February. Then 9/11 came seven months later. I was freshly out of college, a baby kid out in the big bad world, trying to hack it in New York City, just feeling in the center of pure chaos and not having the emotional maturity or guidance to to know how to navigate any of that. It’s not like we talked about that kind of stuff, you know? We just made music and met each other in bars and danced the night away, or played a show at 12 or one in the morning. We drowned our sorrows. We transcended all the feelings together. It was the salve we slapped on the wound. And then you see it reflected back in the audience. The agony and the ecstasy. And then you knew, Okay, we’re onto something here. Thank God for this. But it wasn’t easy. It nearly destroyed me.

Could you tell me about your friend?
Peter? Oh man, it’s Peter’s day to shine. We were best friends. I met him freshman year at Oberlin College. He was from St. Louis, Missouri. He really felt like a creative soul mate for me. We wrote a lot of songs together in New York before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that were on a demo tape that’s lost forever. After I transferred from Oberlin to NYU Film, he shortly did the same thing. Brian from our band was also really close to him. He was in a band called Back to Junk with Peter at Oberlin. It was a very midwestern punk-sounding band. It was shortly after he graduated. We were both young and lost in New York City and clueless about what we were gonna do with our lives. It was a huge shock to lose him.

Do you remember when you first were aware of racial difference?
It was strange. I was 12 or something. I was doing this report on my mom’s life. I was sitting across from her, and I had this realization: She’s Korean! I was seeing her differently for the first time. My mom is incredibly beautiful. Really stunning. And she westernized herself when she came to the States with my dad. She became the most American version of what she could be without totally giving up her identity. That was a little confusing for me. She didn’t present as Korean. It sounds absurd, but I had accepted her so fully into my experience of being an American kid that it took a while to recognize her as a full Korean mom. I still don’t quite understand it.

How did that affect your sense of self when you realized your mom was Korean?
Interviewing her then gave me a completely different perspective on her and her life. And how much of a badass she was. She broke a lot of conventions and Korean hearts, deciding to marry this white guy and move to the States. Almost alienated herself from her family with that decision. It was a real struggle for her. She had to be really brave. That totally recontextualized her for me.

She was no longer just “Mother.”
She became a hero. I went through an awkward patch on my halfie journey, being self-conscious about not looking like the other white kids. There was a rather large Korean community in that part of Jersey, but it felt disconnected from my experience. I embraced it in college — my curiosity in not only my Korean heritage but Asian culture and art. Around that time, I started going to Korea almost every year. I was very close with my grandparents. There was a burgeoning youth culture there, which became what it is now.

When did you get your first bowl cut?
Three. It was a real China-doll bowl too. My brother had it too, so we had matching bowl cuts. I really went full bowl again for our second record. I experimented with many ’dos — like a little more asymmetrical with a little rat’s tail for a while. But I think what my hair wants to do is go into that bowl shape. I didn’t know anyone who could pull it off, because there were almost no Asian American front women. I have not been able to shake my love for the bowl. Everyone’s been telling me to watch PEN15, but mostly I’m just always staring at her hair. Like, Ooooh. Love that bowl. God, it’s a good look.

I’m very happy for Korean American kids now. But it makes me a little sad because when I was young, it was a complete desert. There was almost nothing on the map for me to embrace. Even in the indie-rock scene, there were some Japanese bands but almost nothing Korean. So I was patiently waiting. This last decade, where it just fucking exploded, I wish that would’ve happened ten years earlier. It would’ve filled me with so much joy if that had happened in my more formative years.

How is it doing shows with the Linda Lindas?
It’s just so cool, man. It’s been hard for me to process what it really means to me. I just think about 10-year-old Karen. The drummer from the Linda Lindas just turned 12. And if there was someone who looked like me doing incredible, crazy, cool shit, I would’ve felt better about being me.

I know people love to praise people who are ahead of their time. But I think people also forget that being the first is really fucking lonely.
It’s fucking lonely as fuck, dude. Christian Joy was my sister in arms. She really felt like the one woman who went through the ups and downs with me. She was also an unconventional artist, and she helped get me through a lot of it. But going into uncharted territory was also incredibly exciting. That’s the thing you always forget in the process: You think you want the safety and the security, but that’s got no thrill. The thrill is in discovery. It’s in finding out that your potential is way more than you would ever give yourself credit for. It’s a dare, as you say. Like, “I triple-dog dare you to drop some jaws tonight in that audience.”

It was just so exciting as a woman to feel like there were no rules for me because there were so few who came before. And then to break all the rules for the men around me. To set them free in the process. To be like, “Ey, you don’t need to do that. Let’s do this.” I loved that. What’s not to like about that?

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The Ecstasy of Karen O