Fever to grow

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are ever-evolving musically, and drummer Brian Chase is even dipping into cantorial fusion.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Talk about musical diversity. Drummer Brian Chase weaves effortlessly between the jittery, arty dance rock of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the cantorial Jewish fusion of The Sway Machinery, and he doesn't miss a beat. That's because the Jewish, Long Island-born Chase, one-third of one of the fastest rising bands in the US, lives to make music. "When I was kid, I would be playing Nirvana covers at night and the next day be part of a jazz recital. I was into many different worlds," he said from Los Angeles where The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were rehearsing for a world tour that will bring them to Ramat Gan Stadium on May 10 as a support act for Depeche Mode. In a couple years, however, the order may be reversed. Since forming in 2000, the band, consisting of Chase, animated lead singer Karen O and guitarist Nick Zinner, has been on an upward trajectory, releasing three acclaimed albums full of angular, sloppy attitude - 2003's Fever to Tell, 2006's Show Your Bones and the newly minted It's Blitz. According to Chase, the new album acknowledges the band's past while looking ahead. "This one has a much cooler demeanor than the previous records," he said in a polite but reticent manner not befitting the stereotype of the "wildman" rock and roll drummer. "Each record reflects the band at a different point in time. In our early 20s, we may have been a little wilder. Now we're feeling more comfortable with ourselves, we're feeling more content." Content, yes. Complacent, no. In songs like the disco beat "Heads Will Roll" and anthemic "Zero," the band makes use of a vintage ARP synthesizer, the kind used on classic tracks by bands like The Cars and Joy Division, and locks into a mythical place that can only be understood if you're up and moving. According to most reports, the YYYs' live shows are to die for, with Karen O's stage presence only matched by the musical telepathy between Chase and Zinner. "We've got a death grip on the adolescent way of feeling things," Karen O said recently. "That's something I'll never be able to shake in the music I write. It almost feels like a John Hughes '80s movie." It was O who brought the two musicians together after befriending Chase when both were students at Oberlin College in Ohio in the late 1990s. "At Oberlin, I was a jazz student at the school's music conservatory, but once I met Karen, my rock influence became more apparent," said Chase. Later, O transferred to NYU, where she and Zinner met and started an avant-punk acoustic duo. When they decided to go electric and pattern themselves after the grimy, punky bands she played in at Oberlin, she called Chase. Within a short time, the new band was on the road opening for bands like the Strokes and The White Stripes. A promising EP followed, which led to the band's 2003 debut… and the rest is history. "It still feels foreign in many ways, looking at the magnitude of our accomplishments and coping with success... When the new record was released in iTunes, it appeared in the list of the top five releases of the week," said Chase. "When I saw that with my own eyes, it was one of those moments - 'oh, something's happening here.' We're bigger than ourselves now. Every once in a while, there are moments like that." TO KEEP himself grounded amid the rock & roll carnival swirling around him, Chase, who grew up in a Reform Jewish household, looks to an unlikely source - cantorial music. Since 2007, he's been behind the kit for The Sway Machinery, a group of New York-based musical adventurists who are attempting to blur the line between rock and ritual. Originally the product of a collaboration between The Balkan Beatbox's Jeremiah Lockwood and Israeli percussionist Tomer Tzur, the group changed direction when Tzur moved back to Israel and Chase joined the group - along with a potent horn section. "I grew up hearing traditional Jewish music, and when I had the opportunity to play in a band with that sound and inflection but played in a more modern context, I jumped at it," said Chase. "I don't know if I would consider it to be klezmer music. It's inspired by more of a cantorial tradition, since Jeremiah comes from a family of cantors. What he's doing is fusing the cantorial tradition with a more modern aesthetic," he added, referring to the group's project, Hidden Melodies Revealed, a celebration of Rosh Hashana liturgy. Chase, who lives in Williamsburg, New York, said that despite not having much to do with organized Judaism, he's excited about making his first trip to Israel in May. "I had some Zionist background, but only recently I've sort of rediscovered the Torah, which has rekindled the spark and desire to come," he said, adding that the band would be here for three days, hopefully enabling him to travel to Jerusalem and other parts of the country. However, if some Israeli fans of the band have their way, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will be spending their free time performing. Perturbed at the prospect of having to pay upward of NIS 400 for Depeche Mode in order to see a shortened set by their favorite band, the fans have started an on-line petition requesting that the band perform an additional show while it's here. "I am a big fan of the band, and would love them to be able to play their own full-length show here, at a smaller venue and at a more reasonable price," said petitioner Jason Silberman, from Tel Aviv. "If they are already here, and there are enough people to fill up a venue like the Barby in Tel Aviv, or maybe a Jerusalem venue like Yellow Submarine or The Lab for a second show, then it's a nice opportunity." No word from Chase about whether that's a possibility. But the drummer sounded like a diplomat when asked about the pairing of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Depeche Mode. "I can't say I listened to Depeche Mode very much when I was growing up. But we're excited to be playing with them. They're a part of music history." It seems likely that people will someday be describing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs the same way.