DAZED & CONFUSED - December 2006
Vol. 2 - Issue 44
Pages 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107
When Dazed brought Debbie Harry from Blondie and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs together in New York, it was mutual admiration that got these two iconic frontwomen chatting... about creativity as a turn-on, Debbie's work fighting HIV with the Viva Glam campaign and, of course, rapping with boobs. Interview by Milena Selkirk
PHOTOGRAPHY MICK ROCK
Previous page (103) and left (104): Debbie wears bodysuit by Everlast by Norma Kamali; belt by Kiki De Montparnasse; ring by Alicia Humphries, Karen wears leopard print belted shorts and leotard by Christian Joy; tights by Legs Avenue; boots from Trash and Vaudville; gloves Karen's own. Top right (page 104): Karen wears top hat t-shirt and silver belted leotard by Christian Joy; tights by Wolford; boots from Trash and Vaudville; gloves by LaCrasia.
Initially, there is tension. Stylist and designer Christian Joy scurries about the photo studio, sifting through racks of wildly coloured dresses, high-heeled shoes and a pile of bulky, shimmering necklaces. Today, Debbie Harry and Karen O, two talented frontwomen from two different generations, will meet for the first time. So far, though, each is staying in her own corner, having their make-up and hair done, and quietly sizing each other up. Loud music is playing over the PA, but no one is talking yet... will anything happen, as someone famously sang?
As the lead singer and focus of Blondie, Debbie Harry defined everything that a woman in a punk band should embody. "I have a really bad attitude," she admits later, with a smirk. Converting millions to their cause with her platinum blonde hair, velvety voice and unpredictable stage demeanour, Harry and Blondie became arguably the biggest face and band of the late 70s, creating dozens of chart-topping hits across the world, and introducing mainstream audiences to up-and-coming genres like rap, new wave and reggae.
Karen O formed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2000 as a release for some of her pent-up energy, creativity and frustration. "I went to all these shows in New York and I was just bored to tears," says Karen, "so I wanted to shake things up, strip things down, make them timeless." Releasing several EPs and two albums, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have now established themselves as one of the most compelling rock groups of today. Much of their appeal lies with Karen, who dresses in fantastical costumes, embodies both fun and fearlessness onstage, and sings their quirky, abrasive pop songs in that triumphant yet still vulnerable voice of hers.
Then, once the champagne starts to flow, Debbie and Karen's eyes finally meet and they begin to loosen up. "You're so fucking amazing - your performances, everything!" Karen eventually says to Debbie, stretching her arms around the Blondie icon as if she's attempting to capture her. The pair are striking poses for legendary rock'n'roll photographer Mick Rock, who is dancing around the studio, shouting things like, "Get really close! I want lesbian shots!" And between outfit changes, Debbie and Karen come to realise that, despite their 30-or-so-year age difference, they perhaps have a lot more in
common than they initially thought. Dazed was there for the whole conversation, covering growing pains in suburban New Jersey, mixing art with politics, to good old sex and violence.
Dazed and Confused: So Karen, when did you first discover Blondie?
Karen O: I think it was when I was in high school and there's been a lot of talk about boobs today [during the shoot] - Debbie has some big-ass boobs and I was always really flat, until I was about 18. I think the first Blondie song I heard was 'Rapture' and that freaked me out because she had boobs and she could rap. I lived in New Jersey where there were only two things to do. You could either go to the mall, or drive around in cars. So, it was winter and it was snowy and there was ice everywhere. And there was this amazing moment when me and my girlfriends were doing donuts and singing Blondie at the top of our lungs, and that's a really fun memory.
Debbie Harry: (Laughing) What happened to the car?
K: We bashed it up a bit but nothing major.
D&C: You must have seen footage of Debbie onstage, doing her thing...
K: Yeah, like effortlessly! That's how it seemed... absolutely effortless.
D: I bet that's what people say about you, too.
K: Aw, I don't know if people say that about me. People say I spit beer all over myself and that I wear really ridiculous outfits. But Debbie's effortlessly cool. The attitude is just so New York City.
D: I was perfect for punk. In fact, I still feel like a punk.
K: Yeah, and that comes across.
D: I have a really bad attitude.
K: (Laughs) What balances that out?
D: I don't know.
K: Is it that you're really a mushy, squishy softie inside?
D: I guess I am really sensitive, and that saved me from being a complete monster, although I can be one... What saves you? Or are you not saved?
K: I'm sort of fighting myself. I have to do a balancing act all the time - I think it might be part of my half-Asian upbringing. Like, I can be really shy and polite and ingratiated to people who walk all over me, like the rude copy clerks at Kinko's. I may not stand up for myself in that situation, but when I get onstage, it's like RAAAAAHHH! Onstage, I can express my frustration and sexuality. Sexuality is a big part of what we do. I have a lot of conflicts and a complicated idea of what I think sex and sexuality is... obviously, it's what I want to get out of my system. I mean, I think sex and violence is behind everything. But on the other hand, I want to write children's books, although I know there is sex and violence in those too. I feel that I should try and get as much sex and violence out of my system now that I'm in a rock band.
D: Some excuse!
K: (Laughing) Well, what about you? What about the sex part?
D: I don't know, but I always felt like that was everything. I mean, obviously through genetics I'm a woman, but I definitely have the brain of a man.
K: That's interesting - in what sense?
D: I overestimate my own strength all the time and I'm always doing really bad things to my body, because I think I can do anything - it's as if this other person is controlling this little woman's body. Also, I'm much older than you and when I was coming up, women had two choices, really - to get married or to become a teacher. I would have killed myself rather than do any of that, but fortunately I got to turn to rock'n'roll.
D&C: I wanted to ask you, Debbie, about the beginning of your career. You were in The Stilettos and several other groups before punk even started. How did you develop your stage presence?
D: In terms of performing, I was never formally trained. Were you?
K: (Shakes head) No.
D: It's almost like you get lost. It's like you try something, you get comfortable, you forget things. If you have the balls to just keep doing it...
K: For us, it's more about during the late 90s and early 2000s. The whole electronic wave had just been going on - you know, house. I wanted to just blow things up. Also, I was 20 and full of angst. I think everything I do originates on the dancefloor. What about you?
D: I love dancing. Yeah, we were fighting against groups like the Eagles and all those bands with the 'country boy' kind of thing. It was really so dull. We just wanted to get them off the stage and to move. The only other group that resonated with us was the New York Dolls. They were really remarkable and they really had that New York 'thing'.
K: Did you find you could trust it?
D: I found it irresistible.
K: Yeah, we had a hard time trusting it. The shelf life for vibrant NYC energy is always so short but now, looking back, I know that it was real.
D&C: You live in LA now, Karen. Do you still have a lot of New York in you?
K: Well, I've spent 25 of my 27 years in New York so yes, definitely. I'm a girl from New Jersey.
D: She is definitely not an LA woman. I like it there, but I always come back.
K: Have you ever lived anywhere else?
D: Not really. If I'm not on the road, I'm in the city.
D&C: Debbie, you are one of this year's spokesmodels for Viva Glam, a lipstick from which 100 per cent of the profits go to HIV organisations. It raises millions of dollars and I wanted to ask you about using your position to bring attention to causes that you care about.
D: Well, it's not a bad idea. I think there's an obligation on our part to remind people, but I always tried to keep politics and political statements out of my songs. I prefer to show my awareness in other ways.
D&C: And since the 80s, you've also been involved with a number of other HIV and AIDS campaigns, right?
D: Not big time, but I do try to give something back. I'm also very involved with the environment, which I really feel strongly about - I think that is something major that we need to address.
K: I think I'm on the same page as Debbie in not wanting to make my art political. With the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, we want to make people feel something in really hard times, because genuine feeling and release is hard to come by these days.
D&C: I know that Debbie sings a song on the new Moby record, and Karen, you're working on a solo record...
K: Well, it's not really a 'solo' record. I just want to be constantly creating, it's just so vital to keep working. Look out for me and Debbie's new single, which is going to be called 'You Kiss It, You Keep It'.
D&C: Is that a joke or is that for real?
K: Well, we just figured it out!
D: I'm working on some solo music and we've been reworking some Blondie tracks that were never released.
D&C: A question about longevity...
D&C: Well, Debbie, you have been a rock star for a long time. Any tips for Karen as to how to keep it going?
D: Being an artist is a learning process. Maybe that's the key, you have to keep learning things and keep turning yourself on, not just settling for the status quo and forcing yourself to move forward. Let's face it, as an animal, you have to be satisfied and interested to be out there. It's a little bit uncomfortable, but in the long run there's a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in taking a chance. It's a real turn-on.
Every single penny of the M.A.C Viva Glam lipstick and lipglass sale price goes to help people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. M.A.C Viva Glam lipstick is available at all M.A.C stockists www.maccosmetics.co.uk
STYLIST - CHRISTIAN JOY. HAIR - SEIJI UEHARA. MAKE-UP - MIKE POTTER, USING MAC STYLING ASSISTANT - MARCI LEISETH. MAKE-UP ASSISTANT - BRUCE LINDSTROM. PHOTOGRAPHIC ASSISTANTS - JINDA PHOMMAVONGSA AND LIZZIE LEIGH HORAN. SHOT AT FORMULA, NYC. PRODUCTION - LIZ VAP. SPECIAL THANKS TO ASIF AHMED AND JONATHAN PARTCH AT SHMANAGEMENT!, MAZDACK RASSI, FORMULA, MARTIN LEAHY AND MATT D'AMICO AT 10TH STREET.
Debbie wears leopard print dress Everlast by Norma Kamali; jewellery by Alexis Bittar, Karen wears metallic dress by Christian Joy; necklace by Alexis Bittar.