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  • “My desire to document was something personal” Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner on his new photo exhibition


“My desire to document was something personal” Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner on his new photo exhibition

Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner started photographing his unmade beds decades ago. Now, 300 of those photos are on display in 'Slept in Beds' at the Janine Bean Gallery.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Born in Massachusetts, guitarist and photographer Nick Zinner moved to New York in 1990 and, after meeting singer Karen O in a local bar, formed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2000. Success came quickly – alongside The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem, they were part of a wave of groups exploding out of New York in the early 00s. Twenty years later, the band’s distinctive blend of indie rock, post-punk and electronica remains hugely popular.

Outside of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Zinner has a number of other musical projects, including Head Wound City and the alternative rock band, The Rentals. A passionate photographer as well as a renowned musician and producer, Zinner has published five photography books and exhibited his work all over the world. His latest show at the Janine Bean Gallery features 320 photographs of his Slept in Beds project, an ongoing photography series depicting the hotel rooms Zinner has stayed in over time.

You began photographing your unmade bed over two decades ago. Would you say you’ve documented every bed and hotel room you’ve slept in during that time?

Well, I’m gonna say it’s more like 98%.

The missed 2% is forgetting or were they just too dishevelled?

I’ll always document, the more dishevelled the better! But would I share it publicly… maybe not. But there’s no excuse to forget anymore with the iPhone. And one day, I’m going to unearth my Blackberry from the mid-2000s – I’m sure there’s some great ones on there, too.

Photo: Nick Zinner

Seeing this latest batch of 300, are they all still meaningful to you?

They are not easy images to ascribe meaning to. But it brings me back to certain times – often in-between, insignificant times but others are really poignant and emotionally charged. I was just looking at the Slept in Beds [photographs] from 2020 for the first time, photos taken from those few occasions when I was able to travel. I think it was a trip to Joshua Tree [National Park]. And I was just reminded of the significance of that event and the weird places that I stayed in and the charismatic owner who showed me ‘round.

When you see them spread out in a room of the Janine Bean Gallery, conceptually they are all the same, always a bed, a table, a lamp or telephone, yet there’s so much detailed variation between them…

These are places destined to be forgotten

It draws attention to odd things, like bed boards, overhead lamps and that weird shit on the walls. And when you see them all together, you really see all those little quirks and characteristics. I have always been fascinated by these repetitive spaces, these solid spaces where everything inside is different each time. It is a bit like if you work in the service industry, and you’re basically doing the same thing day after day, but the people on the other side are always different.

Is the aim to take something quite unremarkable and turn it into something exceptional?

I suppose I don’t especially like hotel rooms and places where you sleep, these are places destined to be forgotten. And it’s destined to be unimportant, but there’s this slightly obsessive side to me that wants to make them memorable. Not important but notable.

Photo: Nick Zinner

You travel so much – are you conveying the experience and tedium of long tours, moving from city to city, hotel to stage, waking up each day in another strange room?

I think there’s something interesting in that. But I don’t want to say it’s a bad thing or a good thing. I’m not trying to arouse any type of sympathy. I enjoy it. But it is like a Groundhog Day routine, that you just get into, as you get into any other type of routine.

One of your big inspirations was the French artist, Sophie Calle, and Slept in Beds is reminiscent of The Hotel, when she worked undercover as a chambermaid and gathered all sorts of intimate information about the guests…

It’s possible that that was part of the original inspiration. I saw that work when I was just a teenager, and there was just a photograph of a stark bed, and underneath she had written a short two-sentence story. And it was a Eureka moment. I was amazed you could do something so simple and basic yet be so suggestive and beautiful and allow it to be so totally open to interpretation. It kind of grabbed me.

How many of the pictures are from Berlin?

Loads are from Berlin. It’s one of my favourite cities and a place that I spent a lot of time in. A month here and there. I love how healthy the arts are here. How all this strange experimental music is so well received here. And it’s not this super niche thing like it is in a lot of other cities.

Photo: Nick Zinner

You studied photography at New York’s Bard College and in Lacoste in France. Did you ever think you’d become a photographer?

I really tried. For the four to five years that I was in New York, in between finishing school and seriously touring, I worked in a dark room, printing. Because that was the only skill I had, and I was trying to be a photojournalist. That was my dream. But 9/11 made me realise that I didn’t want to be a photographer. I didn’t have that kind of drive in the face of, well, horror. I had always wanted to be where the action was, but on 9/11, I had zero urge to take photos. I remember on the day it happened all these dudes got their cameras out, and it all seemed so wrong. It was a big realisation. It took me a few years to put it all together.

Were you nearby?

Yeah, I was like 20 blocks away. I think I realised that my desire to document was something personal. Still being the outsider looking in but with an exploratory approach. Anyway, I couldn’t do it professionally, I never learnt proper techniques. Basically, I was unemployable!

So you started doing photography for yourself?

I started photography when I was in college, and I just started documenting everything in my life. And then, when I moved to New York City, when things started to click with the band and we started touring, I began taking pictures of everything, documenting every crowd that we’ve ever played to.

What was the urge behind doing that?

It was about what photography has always been about, documenting time and events and people. At that point, I never thought it was going to last with the band [Yeah Yeah Yeahs]. I just thought it would be great to look back at this when I’m 30 or whatever.

Photo: Nick Zinner

You really thought it would be over so quickly?

Absolutely. None of us ever thought that it would last. I suppose we’re not big planners. But at the time it felt so improbable. If anyone had asked if we’d still be doing this three years down the line, we would have said, “Fuck no!” That idea would have been absurd.

You released your last album, Cool it Down, with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2022. Will there be another?

We’ll see. We never really thought past a few weeks. And we’re taking this whole year off.

Do you need to go your separate ways after spending so much time together?

We’re all made up of many selves.

It’s totally good to go back to our lives and other projects, you know, play with friends. It’s extremely healthy for a band. In my elder statesman perspective, I realised, too, that we’re extremely fortunate to be able to do that. It’s a rarity now.

As you mentioned, you always take photographs of the crowd at your concerts. In many of the pictures, they are staring back at you utterly transfixed. Do these images capture that strange unreality of playing live?

I get kind of asked a version of this question from time to time. And, you know, we’re all made up of many selves. And on the one hand, it feels totally unreal. And then, on the other hand, it feels absolutely natural and perfect. Especially when I’m there with my band mates. I have problems keeping eye contact with people or public speaking, even just ordering coffee in a café can be difficult, but I’m totally natural and competent when I’m with my friends or playing in front of 50,000 people. So it’s insane. But they’re both true.

Is the crowd now trying to get themselves in the photographs?

It’s definitely become a thing. Everyone knows I take the photograph in the intro to our song, ‘Zero’. My friend calls it a “camera solo”, which I thought was hilarious.

It’s an intriguing inversion of the spectator-performer dynamic…

Showing these beds makes me feel giddy and anxious.

I really like the ones where people don’t really understand what is happening. Or they’re not even interested or even looking at me. They’re just looking at Karen and lost in this event. I’ve got loads of these crowd images now, but it takes me literally 10 years before I can even think about showing them, to take it from something that I do for myself to something that I can exhibit – even to think about showing these beds makes me feel giddy and anxious and also excited. But I’m never thinking, oh, this will be a really cool art thing that people will really like.

From an archival perspective, there is going to be this tremendous documentation of crowd fashion and the evolution of the hotel beds from the late 90s to now…

That’s true! I never thought about it like that. I always loved the work of the Bechers and their objective cataloguing.

You’ve been working a lot with Iggy Pop recently…

Yeah, he was looking for musicians in the US and got in touch. Playing with him has probably been the closest I’ve come to a religious experience. It’s just an unbelievable privilege. I’m gonna be doing another show with him this year and I’m really ecstatic about it.

Apart from that, what else have you got coming up?

I’m doing some film scores and more collaborative music. I’m doing something in New York next month, but I can’t really talk about it! I’ve also got a few new book projects I’ve been working on as well. I just came across all these amazing crowd photos from 2004 – and ‘05 and ‘03 – that are just incredible. They make me so happy and I definitely want to do a crowd photo book.

  • Slept in Beds, through Jul 6, Janine Bean Gallery, Torstr. 154, Mitte, details.