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Nick Zinner: The Pop Alchemist
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs busted into the collective pop-music consciousness in 2002 with the subtlety of party crashers driving a trash truck through the front door. On the surface, their music was all punky swagger and sass, served up via the formidable performing presence of vocalist Karen O. And upon a casual first listen, the music could seem primitive and buzzingly minimal. But the simplicity was deceptive.
On tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ in 2009, Nick Zinner tweaks one of his three pedalboards stocked with Line 6, Boss, Electro-Harmonix, Foxx, DigiTech, and other pedals (as well as a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power) as rhythm guitarist Jessica Dobson looks on. Photo by David Belisle
At the root of the aural ruse was the exuberant, inventive, and resourceful playing of guitarist Nick Zinner. And if a few deeper listens of any of their first two EPs or full-length LP didn’t hip the casual listener to that fact that Zinner was an uncommonly clever guitar player, arranger, and texturalist, seeing one of the band’s high-octane shows usually obliterated any doubt.
Though they have occasionally augmented the band with an additional guitarist or keyboard player, Zinner and drummer Brian Chase are the band’s only instrumentalists. It’s an arrangement that keeps Zinner on his toes in the live context. But it also gives him plenty of room to create the dynamic, driving buzz and howl that sets the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sound apart. And in a single song, Zinner can juxtapose frantic, off-kilter lead lines with hooks and riffs worthy of Zep or the Buzzcocks, and create moods that move from melancholy to frenzied—all while displaying a remarkable empathy for the expressive power of Karen O’s voice. Their sound and success are a testament to the creativity that can be sparked by limitations. And few guitarists are doing that as craftily as Nick Zinner.
“It changed everything,” says Zinner about the eye-opening experience of working in the context of a smaller band. “When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs first started, I was playing in a more traditional five-piece band. When Karen and I started writing rock songs, I was going against the full-band approach. I was really trying to do everything, and cover the entire aural spectrum of a full band. Despite our minimalism, we were always thinking maximum.”
Zinner was well prepared for the challenge of covering so much ground on his own. Early experiences with acoustic guitar, violin, and heavy metal gave Zinner a wide spectrum of musical reference. And the disciplined thumping of jazz-schooled drummer Chase created a solid rhythmic foundation from which Zinner could concoct the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ more melodic personality.
He also drew influence from guitarists who took more adventurous and inventive routes around the constraints of small groups and primitive musical forms, favoring players in stripped-down settings who pursued outside-the-blues-box techniques.
“Nick Cave always had the best guitar players for me,” says Zinner, reflecting on some of the minimalists/maximalists that helped illuminate his way. “Rowland Howard from the Birthday Party, and Blixa Bargeld from the Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten were making sounds so minimal and direct, while being totally weird. I liked those first three U2 records too, and what the Edge was doing with delay and textures. He was sort of showing off and hiding at the same time. And Sonic Youth were making such a bizarre sound while still rocking out.”
For Zinner, an Edge-like zeal for imaginative use of effects pedals was a first step toward filling out the blank spaces in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ architecture, and creating a sonic signature for the band. Chains of loopers, delays, and fuzz tones not only helped Zinner add girth to the band’s sound, but also became essential compositional tools. These pedals allowed Zinner to create spiky, repeated riffs over which he could play melodic hooks or counter-melodies to Karen O’s vocal lines.
On the band’s breakthrough “Maps,” for instance, Zinner plays and stores a simple 32nd-note pattern in a Line 6 DL4 delay that he summons repeatedly throughout the song—building dynamics and tension almost like an orchestra conductor. It’s a startlingly effective technique.
“Most of what I’ve done is totally dependent on effects,” Zinner says. “But I think its good to switch things up, as difficult as that can be. There are a few instances on the last two Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ records where I would either play acoustic guitar or plug straight into the board. At first, it was a lot like the dreams where you find yourself naked in a crowd.” Such sentiments might reflect the anxiety that’s inherent to changing direction in a still blossoming career. But Zinner is committed to reinvention. “I’m usually doing something between what I know and what I’m striving to achieve. I have no idea what, if anything, people expect from me. Instinct has to come first. I’ll put in a considerable amount of time working on a part, but usually my first idea is the best one.”
Nick Zinner’s Gearbox
Guitars: Mid-’80s “E” Series Fender Stratocaster, First Act Nick Zinner Signature Delia
Amps: Fender Hot Rod DeVille 212, Fender Twin Reverb
Effects: Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, DigiTech JamMan, DigiTech Whammy, Foxx Tone Machine, Electro-Harmonix POG