All is quiet in a photo studio three storeys above a busy street in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. There’s the click and whirr of the camera shutter and the low hum of music in the background, but in the centre of the room is silence. On the floor, Karen O and Danger Mouse are laying down side by side, motionless under the camera’s lens, looking more like incredibly chic mannequins than two of the most acclaimed artists of their generations.
Back upright and back in their civvies (which are still very stylish, if less glitzy than their outfits for the shoot), that quietness remains. A makeshift booth has been built around a table at the back of the studio at the artists’ request – two giant hinges of cardboard propped up either side to shield us from everyone else clearing up behind them. It’s no surprise to find Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, favours privacy – he did, after all, start out performing in a mouse outfit in an effort to not let his shyness get the better of him.
But it’s still hard to align a timid Karen with the wild, electric bolt of energy who doused herself in olive oil in the name of punk performance back in the early noughties. That will forever be how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman is remembered, her larger-than-life stage presence emblazoned across the minds of all who witnessed her make her mark on the new rock revival.
Today, though, behind our cardboard curtains, she is bashful rather than in your face. She seems happy to follow Brian’s lead on which questions they answer and which they politely decline. When it’s her turn to talk, she looks to the side as she does so, her sentences perforated with dozens of “likes” and “you knows”, as if she’s not quite sure of what she’s saying.
When, after eight years of talking about working together, the duo finally got into the studio together, shyness was a hurdle they had to get over. It seems unfathomable that musicians with so much experience and success behind them would be self conscious about showing off their ideas, but, apparently, even icons of modern music are insecure sometimes.
“It was fine after a while,” Brian explains, noting that, although they had met several times before beginning work on ‘Lux Prima’, the resulting album from their sessions, they weren’t friends. Instead, they found camaraderie and competitiveness in how unaccomplished they considered themselves to be. “It was like, ‘You don’t think you can play? Check this out. Let me show you how much I can’t play.”
“That’s our best kept secret,” Karen adds with a grin. “Neither of us can play at all, but somehow we made this record.”
Regardless of their (frankly not very believable) insistences of being poorly skilled musicians, ‘Lux Prima’ is exactly what you’d expect from a pair of artists with multiple Grammy, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations and wins between them – beautiful, elegant, and yes, accomplished. It’s a record that has transformation at its core and represents a different side to its creators, a world away from the chaotic art-punk of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the acoustic fragility of Karen’s 2014 solo album ‘Crush Songs’, and another shift in Brian’s career that’s seen him go from mashing up Jay-Z and The Beatles on ‘The Grey Album’ to dominating the charts with the soulful pop of Gnarls Barkley, and producing for megastars like Adele, U2, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It reflects evolution in their personal lives, as well as their musical ones, too. In 2015, shortly before the pair eventually got together to see what they could produce, Karen went through what she calls “a serious rite of passage” – the birth of her boy, Django. “It was total ego destruction and such a humbling experience,” she says, leaning back in her chair and turning her gaze forward. “Things have shifted [in me].”
The new record is made up of the first songs she wrote after becoming a mother and they find her working through adjustments in her life, as well as in humanity in general. That it’s an album that feels like a celestial salve for the turbulence of change makes sense, especially when she exhibits a flash of assertion and declares: “Music is my fucking church. I don’t prescribe to any religion or whatever – music is what gets me through the ups and downs of life, both making it and listening to it.”
Brian, meanwhile, might not have gone through such big, milestone-marking and transformative moments over the last few years – or at least not that he wants to share! – but he’s aware that he’s changed as a person in that time.
“I’m less comfortable with anything but making music,” he explains, alluding to all the things that come with being a professional musician but don’t involve the music itself, like label politics, promotion, admin, and presumably, this interview.
Written and recorded in bursts over 2016 and 2017, ‘Lux Prima’ came to life in a time when America was going through a transformation of its own. Obama was on his way out and either the US’ first female President or a Twitter-happy disaster zone would replace him. ‘Woman’, a track driven by crunching ‘60s girl-group drums and a defiant chant of “I’m a woman/I’m a woman/Hey, hey, hey”, was penned after the latter happened; a “subconscious” response to the way Karen felt in the wake of that worst-case-scenario-become-reality.
“It literally came flooding out,” she recalls, fiddling with the paper straw in her cup, its tip stained the same dark purple as her lips. “At that moment in time, I felt protective of anyone who was going through an ordeal as a result of everything being so insane over here. And, also, I felt a lot like a very competent woman lost to a very incompetent man and that stung deeper than I anticipated.”
Although it could be pegged as an anthem for the various movements of resistance that have risen to action since Trump’s election, she says that was never the intention. “It was just supposed to be like, ‘Fuck this bully shit. We’re going to see through this change and do this together.’”
Immediately after that song on the record comes ‘Redeemer’, a brooding noir-ish track that bristles with an intoxicating mix of danger and power. “You’re not coming for me/I’m coming for you,” asserts Karen over bubbling, spy thriller soundtrack-worthy synths. She’s reticent to say exactly whom she’s referring to in those lines.
“You don’t have to say,” Brian tells her with a laugh that only partially masks the sense of protectiveness in his comment. Instead, Karen offers that it’s about “the hunted becoming the hunter.” Whether this was her purpose or not, it’s a song that could reflect the societal shift brought on by things like #MeToo and Time’s Up.
Aside from change, ‘Lux Prima’’s other big recurring theme is light. Its title (which it shares with the opening track) means “first light” and, like day itself, it cycles through to closer ‘Nox Lumina’, which translates roughly as “last light”. In between, there’s the gentle disco-funk of ‘Turn The Light’, which has Karen singing about painting stars in the night’s sky and how her “love will turn to light tonight.”
Light will play an integral part in the duo’s first art installation, too. An Encounter With Lux Prima, which opens at LA’s Marciano Art Foundation next month, will give fans the chance to take the record beyond a set of songs on their phones and turn them into a sense-heightening experience. “The way it’s going to be mixed, it’s going to be surround sound, like a sound bath almost,” Karen explains, her excitement growing as she does. “Then there’s the light aspect – there’s a light on this monolith in the middle of the room. It’s like you’re turning into that light and you feel like it’s a part of you, to a certain degree.”
A sample press image of that monolith looks like something out of Lord Of The Rings, a pointed slab of rock with a crack through its middle that omits a blinding, purple-tinged light. The actual event will likely be cooler than that sounds – helping her and Brian out with it are Tobias Rylander, the man behind The 1975’s plaudit-winning light show, Star Wars sound designer Ren Klyce, and filmmaker Barnaby Clay, who is also Karen’s husband. The final details for it all are still being worked out, but visitors can also expect to be hit with winds, smells (insert your own fart gags), and other “crazy stuff”.
The idea for the installation was born when Karen was listening through some old mixes of the record with her husband at their LA home. Surprisingly, it was an early version of ‘Ministry’, the string-laden, trip-hop-tinted swooner, which proved too much for her dining room ceiling to handle. “It started falling on the table cos the bass was insane,” she cackles. “[Barnaby] was like, ‘You guys should perform this like how Pink Floyd did ‘Live At Pompeii’.’ She shakes her head and sighs. “I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s such an awesome idea – that’s never going to happen.’”
While Karen and Brian might not be popping up in any ancient Roman amphitheatres any time soon, if all goes well with the LA opening, their psychedelic sound bath experience could set up shop in other locations around the world. They’re also considering having it replace traditional tours and live shows. “We didn’t do the record traditionally so the live element won’t be either,” Brian reasons. “We’re still figuring out what we’re gonna do.”
Regardless of just how they present ‘Lux Prima’ live, what is certain is how important it is to them that people “experience” the album as just that – a full record that takes you on a journey, rather than a grab-bag for you to pull favourites from.
“Because of playlist culture now, it’s rare that you listen to a full record unless there’s an artist that you really love,” Karen suggests. “People listen to music so differently now [compared to when we were starting out]. I heard that they’re phasing out downloads so it’ll be just pure streaming. I remember when there was this malicious rumour going around that, one day, music would just be available on subscription streaming services and the music industry was like, ‘We can’t have that.’ Now here we are.”
“The idea of download culture is done,” Brian chimes in. That notion is of particular interest to him – his big breakthrough came in 2004 when ‘The Grey Album’ became an accidental viral success. “‘The Grey Album’ would never exist right now,” he says. “Unless it was on a streaming platform, there would be no way for people to get it. It would be too much effort for people to spread. It wouldn’t work in your ecosystem on your phone. It wouldn’t have worked before [the download age] and it wouldn’t have worked after.”
What might not be done is the collaboration between him and Karen. They currently have no plans to work on anything else together but say they’d be up for it should the opportunity present itself. In the meantime, they’ll both be busy working on their own projects. In December, Broken Bells – Brian’s band with The Shins’ James Mercer – released a new single, ‘Shelter’. A new Gnarls Barkley has been talked about since 2010. Brian won’t confirm new music is coming from either, but it seems safe to assume at least the former will be active this year. “I always get nervous talking for other people,” he explains, eyeing up the dictaphone in the middle of the table suspiciously. “I don’t know what they want me to say.”
Karen, meanwhile, has just contributed two songs to the soundtrack of Amazon’s new TV show, Hanna, including a haunting cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’. Following last year’s shows celebrating 15 years of their debut album, ‘Fever To Tell’, Yeah Yeah Yeahs will return to festival stages once more this summer, but the wait for new music seems like it will take a little longer. Last time the singer gave an update on their next moves, she said she was waiting for inspiration to arrive. “We’re there still,” she says, laughing apologetically. “It’s gotta be the right timing for everybody.”
Right now, it’s time for the temporary walls around us to come down and for Karen and Brian to part once again. Whatever the future holds, ‘Lux Prima’ captures two greats adding to both of their legacies in inquisitive, creative form – no raucous theatrics needed.