Bobby Townsend interviewed Yeah Yeah Yeahs' guitarist Nick Zinner for Sydney's Drum Media about his 41 Strings project. Here's what he had to say:
It's been a long journey for Nick Zinner, from playing tiny, raucous shows with the fledgling Yeah Yeah Yeahs in New York City at the turn of the Millennium, to his self-penned orchestral piece being one of the main attractions at the 2011 Sydney Festival. While the musician has always been ambitious and inventive, it isn't a career trajectory that he gave much thought to, back in the early days. “I didn't think something like this would be possible at all,” he laughs. “It was the furthest thing from my mind.”
However, not only is it possible, but it is very much a reality. With two shows at The Opera House, 41 Strings is a piece written for acoustic and electric strings and percussion and is led by the versatile Mr Zinner, who plays guitar and conducts a four-part classical piece featuring guitars, violins, violas, cellos and bass. Oh, and not to mention three drummers and synths as well. Using the Four Seasons as inspiration, the music chronicles the ups and downs of the seasons and is at times dark and moody with hints of melancholy, while elsewhere full of hope and elation. “Essentially I was asked to create a composition to perform at a free event in New York that was a celebration for Earth Day,” he explains when asked how the idea came about. “It was the 40th anniversary and they just asked me to write anything I liked. I'd always wanted to create something like this. Although I had done a little bit of writing for strings for film soundtracks a few years before and also for Karen [O, singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs], I'd never done anything that was so open-ended and so big. It just seemed like an exciting project to take on. It was a great opportunity, to spend a lot of time thinking about it and working with those sorts of capabilities.”
And so, after a successful outing in the guitarist's home country, 41 Strings has now been given the opportunity to travel all the way across the world to Australia. It is a privilege not lost on the American. Zinner is generally a quiet, laid-back fellow, but there is an upbeat tone in his voice as he exclaims his anticipation. “I'm so excited and happy about it. It's truly amazing that I get to go over and to be able to perform something like this.”
While he will be taking along a bunch of musicians that performed with him in New York, including Hisham Akira Bharoocha (Soft Circle, The Boredoms), Ben Vida (Soft Circle), Brian Chase (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and string arranger Gillian Rivers, Zinner has also been busy recruiting musicians from Australia. “We're using the Sydney Youth Orchestra and I've been searching for guitar players over the past few weeks.” Fortunately for him, and for the country's musical reputation, it has been a fruitful quest, with plenty of potential candidates throwing their plectrums into the ring. “So far, it's good. It's really good,” he beams. “There are a lot of great guitar players in Australia and I've just been getting recommendations from friends that I have over there. We've pretty much found everybody, which is very exciting.”
So, with the line-up of Team Zinner complete, he arrived a few days prior to his appearance at the Sydney Festival for some serious last-minute rehearsing (as well as a quick DJ set at the Hunting Lodge in Hyde Park). “We're looking at four days, which is good,” he says when talk turns to how much time he will have to turn his hotchpotch collection of talented mates and strangers into a fully-functioning orchestra. “Four days should be good,” he repeats. At first, it sounds as though he is trying to convince himself more than anyone else, but actually, it turns out that he is genuinely relieved at how much time he will have. Four days is double the preparation time he was afforded before 41 Strings' debut in The States. “It's really mostly for the guitar players. When we were doing the New York performance, we only had two days and that was really hectic. Everything about the performance was, like, trial by fire.”
Buoyed by the success of the New York shows, Zinner speaks calmly and with confidence about his turn at the Sydney Festival, where he will play and conduct, surrounded by the musicians, who will be, in turn, completely surrounded by the audience. However, when asked about the fact that he will be taking to the stage in the iconic Opera House, his nonchalance is replaced, once again, by genuine excitement. “It's unbelievable. I've never even been inside that place,” he buzzes. “It's a true honour and I feel really lucky to be able to have that opportunity.”
While the clamber for tickets to see 41 Strings from an intrigued Sydney public proves Nick Zinner to be a rather important figure in the music world these days, it seems hard to believe that it has been over a decade since he, Chase and O got together and started creating visceral, thrilling, catchy-as-hell New York punk rock. One wonders whether it feels that long to the guitarist. “Most of the time, no, but sometimes it does. Ten years is a really long time for a rock band. You know, most of them don't even last three years, so it's pretty incredible.” Even after ten years, the desire to keep on evolving and bringing out new material remains strong for the three-time Grammy-nominated trio. “We've been writing on and off for the past year or so. We have also been working on Karen's Stop The Virgens opera and now we're putting our heads together and working on some more Yeah Yeah Yeahs stuff.”
Whether he is exhibiting photos, crafting ambitious live orchestral pieces, working on film scores or collaborating with the likes of Bright Eyes, Scarlett Johansson, Damon Albarn and Santigold, it seems that Nick Zinner always has a hundred projects on the go at once. “I go crazy if I'm not doing something,” he admits. “I've just been writing stuff and I'm scoring a film right now. I did a photo show a couple of weeks ago.” However, the truth of the matter is that, while he is a creative soul, ever wishing to push his own boundaries and try new artistic ventures, he isn't the multi-tasker you might expect. Rather, he focuses fully on each individual project before moving on to the next one. “I feel like, whenever I'm working on something, I try to only work on that. When we're working on Yeah Yeah Yeahs, none of us can do anything else because we're touring or writing or recording and I try to give myself 100 percent to whatever project I'm working on.”
Zinner's dedication to his art bodes well for anyone heading to see 41 Strings at the Opera House. If his back-catalogue of diverse creations is anything to go by, it'll be absolutely fantastic.
41 Strings takes place on Sunday January 22nd at 5.30pm and 8.30pm. More information can be found here, and don't forget a limited number of tickets for both shows will be available at the Tix For Nix box office on Sunday morning.