There were few bands last decade that generated as much buzz as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah did with their debut record–so few that you could probably count them on one hand. That buzz was definitely deserved, as their self-titled record still holds up as one of the landmark albums for a crucial time in music history.
There were few bands last decade that generated as much buzz as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah did with their debut record–so few that you could probably count them on one hand. That buzz was definitely deserved, as their self-titled record still holds up as one of the landmark albums for a crucial time in music history. When the industry’s commercial stranglehold was exposed by file sharing and indie music seemingly went straight for the metaphorical jugular, CYHSY slid right in and made some huge waves.
In the years that followed the debut record, the band has put out three records, the newest being Only Run, which was released this past June. It’s fair to share that the albums that followed the 2005 debut where divisive, but it’s definitely endearing to not only see someone not trying to chase lightning in a bottle, but also to really carve out something new with each record. Whether you’re a fan of the new work or not, the respect has to be there for a band that has the guts to try something different and actually do it.
I got a chance to chat with frontman Alec Ounsworth before his performance in Richmond, VA this Sunday night, which to his recollection will be his first ever show in Richmond. To say the least, it was a fascinating peek into the mind of one of music’s most criticized and creative personalities.
So many things are written about the band, and right or wrong, most of it is about how you’re living in this huge shadow created by the success of your self-titled debut record. I’m sure you’re probably more aware of this than anyone, so what do you think about it?
That’s just a number of people’s opinions. It doesn’t matter to me really. Personally, it’s not my favorite of the four, so… I beg to differ. Regarding being in the shadow, there’s no rhyme or reason as to what seems to stick with people, so I have no real control over that.
So what is your favorite of the four?
The newest one, Only Run, and the second, Some Loud Thunder, are both contenders. On Hysterical, the songs are pretty decent. First? Well, I like that one the least, personally.
The self-titled record will turn ten soon. What do you think when you look back on it?
I think it was a good start, you know? I’ve also said in many interviews that I wasn’t sure when I was finished that it was the right move to release it. I wasn’t crazy about it really. I think it was a good start though. That’s all I can really say about it.
Anything you would have changed about it?
It wasn’t a matter of working longer. I remember that process being a very long time. It had stops and starts because there wasn’t a lot of money to pay for three weeks of studio time. So it was a lot of coming in and out. Naturally, that took a while. I don’t really know if there’s anything I’d particularly change about it. The records are what they are. I never really look back. Maybe I’d do a little bit immediately afterwards, but then whatever changes I thought would have been necessary immediately afterwards, I usually just forget about so I just look at the big picture, which is better anyway.
So talk to me about the new record, especially since it’s just you really, along with Sean Greenhalgh.
I don’t know. It was similar to the first in that it’s a collection of songs that I was hoping might fit together. The first album was a little bit more of a hodgepodge because we worked on it for so long. It took a year to get it out so things kept getting tacked on as time went on. This is more working on songs for a while and trying to make a collection that kind of fit together sonically.
I’ve heard you say before that musicians have a responsibility to take chances with their music. Did you take any chances, big or small, with this new one?
Yeah, I think so, but I think more to the point, it’s a responsibility not to look back and not try to repeat a formula. While it might be comfortable and might please a lot of people to try and repeat the past, it’s important to try to move forward and express what you’re feeling at a given time.
“Coming Down” off the record featured Matt Berninger from The National. How did that collaboration come about?
Matt’s just a friend. It seemed like it would work well with that particular song. I had already done the part and after some consideration, Sean and I talked about it and thought it might be nice to have a guest. We’d never done that for vocal parts, so we asked Matt out of the blue if he was available. And he was, so that was nice.
Any other people you’d like to work with?
Yeah, I wanted to work with Kevin Drew on this one too. He’s also a friend of mine, but the timing just didn’t work out. It was for a song that I didn’t even end up putting on the record. Lætitia [Sadier] from Stereolab, she was someone else I thought about it. There are a lot of people I really admire who are vocalists who I sort of know and am lucky enough to just hit them up if I need to, like Matt.
Have you gotten a chance to listen to Kevin Drew’s new record, Darlings? It’s really good.
It’s awesome. Yeah, Kevin sent it to me a little bit before he released it and it’s just great. To me, it’s my favorite of his releases. I think it’s right up there with anything that Broken Social Scene has done.
What were you listening to while you were making the new record?
I was listening to a bunch of what [mixer] Dave Fridmann had been working on because I just wanted to get an idea of for where his head was at that time. I really dug into the new Tame Impala. I guess it’s not really new anymore, but Lonerism is the one. Maybe more recently, the MGMT self-titled record was great too, and I really like that one.
It’s interesting that you bring up MGMT because you’re both in the same boat when you think about it. You both had a lot of hype over your debut records, but when you tried to do something different than that debut sound, the criticism just started pouring in. It’s almost a crutch that is undeservedly put upon you.
I know and I think those guys do a good job of taking it in stride. They’ve taken their hits, I believe, because they are true musicians and they want to think of themselves as such and not keep going back to a certain formula. I think they’ve done a great job. Whether or not it ruffles the feathers of anyone who’s listening to them, you can’t get around it. It is what it is.
So did any of those influence the new record?
No, not for those two. I didn’t really listen to them as a reference point or anything. It was more sonically. The only influence I could speak to from those two records would have been from Dave’s side of things. Beyond that, I think Blue Nile’s album Hats, and there’s no getting around that Radiohead is always in the back of one’s mind these days. They’re just unavoidable. This was a little more of a songwriter type of record, so in that sense, I wasn’t trying to rely too much on just a stylistic or an absolute aesthetic output. It was more just that these are songs when you break them down. I think Radiohead goes into this one area where something sounds cool, it has a nice mood to it, but it’s usually the mood that’s expressed. I don’t think it’s a bad thing though because they do a really good job.
Now, I know you’ve famously been independent your whole career, but after ten years, have you opened up more to working with labels?
Not particularly. I do think labels help a lot. For every record, we’ve actually worked with someone in Europe so I do have some experience dealing with them. To take on the whole world by yourself, that’s pretty difficult. The label that I’m working with now over in England, Xtra Mile, they’re great and they help out with all sorts of stuff. In that sense, it’s really helpful. As far as remaining truly in control creatively, that’s important to me and if somebody can recognize that and be okay with that, then I’d be happy to work with them. For the most part, I’m all right with my manager.
I’m sure requests from labels were flooding your mailbox when you first came out, but have they slowed down over the years?
Yeah, and it’s a good thing. I think a lot of the labels that think it’s going to be the matter of a high advance or just the opportunity to sign with any label that might have some kind of name recognition – I think those labels have steered clear, and they get it. The labels to me that I’d actually want to work with are in it for the long haul, and understand that I don’t necessarily want to do it in a compromised fashion. Those are the ones who come around from time to time, and I was lucky enough to find one of them in England.
So tell me about the living room tour you just went on?
Oh, it was great. I loved it. I loved meeting everyone. It’s much different than going on the road with a band because you generally get whisked away when the show’s done and you don’t get much of a feeling for the people there. That said, the bigger shows can be an opportunity in and of themselves, but the living room shows, I get to meet everyone so it’s a ton of fun.
Any stories you’d care to share?
I generally tend to refer one I did in Austin. I went in and we went around back to this person’s backyard and there was a campfire that they had. They also had the living room set up. I sort of looked at the living room and then looked at the campfire and said, “Why don’t we just do it right around the campfire here out in the woods?” So I just played my set around the campfire for everybody. It was those unique experiences that made those shows what they are, which is a lot of fun for me and obviously for everyone else.
To wrap up, what do you think is the biggest change that’s happened to you over the past ten years as a musician?
Well, I’ve seen a lot in the past ten years. I’ve made six albums – four Clap Your Hands and two other projects. A lot has changed, as you know, in the music industry over the past decade, and not to speak to the business part of things too much, but it’s sort of a weird ride. Doing all of this, I don’t really look at it as ups and downs or anything like that, but I think this trip that I’ve been on, doing what I do, has sort of brought me back to where I wanted to be and made everything honest again in a very bizarre and roundabout way. But certain things had to happen. Things that might have been considered by others to be failures or frustrating experiences had to happen in order to reduce it to a form that I considered initially pure–and I still do, but it took me a while to get back to it. The living room tours are just one example of it, I think.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s fourth record Only Run is out now and available from their Bandcamp page. You can catch the band this Sunday night, August 17th, at The Camel. For more information, click here.