The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have never been more dangerous than when they're threatening to behead everyone on the dance floor. On "Heads Will Roll," the second track on the New York trio's latest album, “It’s Blitz!” singer Karen O yelps her mandate over slabs of marbled synths: "Off, off, off with your head / Dance, dance, dance till you're dead!"
Over a recent lunch at a busy Chinese joint on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the lynx-like singer -- who will bring her band to Coachella's main stage on Sunday, a show that'll kick off more than four months of international touring -- explained why a little tough love goes a long way.
"We still have to grab people by the collar," she said, her eyes peeking out from beneath long bangs. "We put out a record every three years now; we could easily be forgotten. If you look at a lot of our peers that we came up with, a lot of them have disappeared."
Karen O, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase still feel the urgency of the band's volcanic self-titled debut EP and 2003's "Fever to Tell." But they channel it anew on their third album with a steely suite of disco-era keys, processed guitars, piston-timed drumming and Karen O's vocals, which veer from vampy to achy.
The result is the band's most flagrant dance record but one with the tough tenderness of Blondie's "Parallel Lines." Chase describes it as "really celebratory and ecstatic," he said. "But we put ourselves through a heavy process to get there. It wasn't easy."
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have courted disaster before. In 2006, the making of "Show Your Bones" prompted internal clashes as the musicians worked to add cooler tones to their fiery racket.
"We never talked about breaking up, but we all probably thought about it," Karen O said with a laugh. "But when the going gets rough, you can't just bail."
For "It's Blitz!" the band went through a few different writing phases starting in December 2007 -- those include sessions in pastoral Massachusetts and at an isolated ranch in Texas near the Mexican border.
After the initial bits of DNA emerged with the songs "Skeletons" and the laser-shimmer of "Zero," the album's synthetic sound was born.
Zinner, who's been hailed by critics as one of rock's best guitarists for his trademark chimes and snarls, branched out to play keyboards, the record's most obvious break from expectation. He also disguised his guitar turns with reverb and delay. The change made him insecure sometimes but "that was the point," he said. "The worst thing we could do at this time is rely on old tricks."
Co-producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio pushed them, as Karen O put it, to "foreign places we couldn't reach on our own. He's a visionary voice." Co-producer Nick Launay was heavily involved in the band's songwriting process, making sure it didn't stray too far.
"We tried a lot of things we haven't tried before," Sitek said in a phone conversation. "We recorded live drums to sound like drum machines, guitars to sound like synths. The idea was something like there's nothing left of rock and roll."
In the last few years, the band members have softened as musicians and people. Sitek, who produced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut EP and album and also helped on "Show Your Bones," said that the vibe in the studio was a departure from the rowdy tension of years past.
"There was less drinking, more dancing. We're in our 30s now, it's a little different."
The New Jersey-raised Karen O, 30 and a Silver Lake denizen since 2004, is moving beyond her initial stage persona as punk vixen in tatters designed by close friend Christian Joy.
"I'm not a 21-year-old angsty self-destructive rapscallion anymore," she said. "My performance used to be centered around blitz, but now it's closer to kung fu. I try to harness the energy instead of just flying around the stage."
But the essence of blitz will never leave; it's only been redefined for now. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are dedicated to its spirit.
"We have no allegiance to any one style," Karen O said, "only what's raw and true."
Photo: Jennifer S. Altman / For the Times