[billboard.com] On Jan. 22, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took the stage at Sydney's Metro Theatre, where, nearly a decade earlier to the day, the rock trio's feral frontwoman almost died. Back in 2003, Karen O—drunk on the energy of the crowd (among other things)—fell headfirst off that very stage, thwacking a guardrail on her way down. The monitor that she'd been clinging to toppled with her, collapsing onto her head. Living up to her bedlamite reputation, Karen O finished "Rich," the song she'd been singing, and followed it up with "Maps," the elegiac ode to forfeited love that reached No. 9 on Billboard's Alternative chart and turned the New York–based band's debut album, Fever to Tell, into a certifiable hit. (The video for "Maps" has since been viewed more than 15 million times on the group's official YouTube channel.)
"I felt like I'd been hit by a truck," says Karen O, who was rushed to the hospital in a stretcher when she eventually lumbered back to her dressing room. "It was a pivotal moment for me. My insanity onstage had been escalating and the more I hurt myself, the more the crowd enjoyed it. I was like Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler.' After that, I basically had to clean up and figure out a way to entertain without that grotesque spectacle of recklessness."
Karen O has put aside her preshow ritual binges in favor of the occasional jigger of tequila or whisky, and she admits that her nerves were at an all-time high when she "returned to the scene of the crime" this year. "On the dawn of the new record, it felt like a pretty big accomplishment that I was able to do the show and actually walk out of there on my own two feet," the 34-year-old New Jersey native says.
From a table on the second floor of Congee Village, a garish Chinese restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Karen O and her bandmates—guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase—are ladling through a bowl of allegedly meat-free congee. "My vegetarian radar is on high-suspicion mode," says Chase, also 34, who has known Karen O since the mid-'90s when they were both students at Oberlin College in Ohio. (Zinner and Karen O met at a dive bar in New York's East Village, where she moved after transferring to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.)
Despite their fleeting preoccupation with the rice gruel, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are in a reflective mood. The night before, Karen O and Chase spent the evening at Union Pool, a dank concert venue in Brooklyn, where Zinner reunited with Challenge of the Future, the rock band he formed with friends from Bard College. The reunion show was a fund-raiser to start a college trust for the daughter of one of their late friends. "I've been thinking about the past a lot lately," Zinner says.
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