NEW YORK—Every article about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah recounts the same scenario:
A scrappy band from Brooklyn releases a scrawl of a CD and distributes it entirely on their own. An Internet buzz spreads word of the disk, and over the course of a year, it goes on to sell a miraculous 100,000 copies. Major labels come oiling around with offers. The Clap guys look them over, only to politely turn every one down flat. A DIY dream is born.
Rarely mentioned in this admittedly stirring story line is what the band’s music actually sounds like. “It can be a little off-putting to try and classify our songs,” admits Clap leader Alec Ounsworth. “We’re too restless to stick with one style.”
So they’ve wound up stitching together scores of them. On Clap Your Hands’ latest CD, Some Loud Thunder, released Tuesday, they use sound like finger paints, filling every nook and cranny with dabs of guitars, horns and keyboards, not to mention a menagerie of yelps from Ounsworth. You can call it “rock” because it’s aggressive, six-string driven, and has recognizable songs. But you couldn’t corral Thunder under any conventional genre, unless you consider a modern answer to Eno’s solo albums from the `70s a genre.
The most frequent reference point for Ounsworth’s yammering vocals would be David Byrne’s outbursts with Talking Heads. The comparison makes Ounsworth shrug. “We both use the English language,” he allows. “And we both shave.”
Otherwise, he sees no connection.
That’s typical of the responses you get from the singer. In conversation, Ounsworth comes off as sure, earnest and far more concerned with his music’s intent than with its effect. When asked about Clap’s bent for distorting some songs into a captivating blur, he says, “A lot of people are not sure how to take it—which is fine.”
Quizzed on his preference for baffling lyrics, he explains: “Verbal classification of a certain thing is not the most honest way of considering art.”
And when queried about the new album’s lust for cramming songs with aural tics and doodads, he offers, “We don’t do it to intentionally alienate anybody. But if they (feel that way), that’s their problem.”
The group’s take-it-or-leave-it approach has only further endeared them to the indie-rock set. It did so right from the start. Formed in New York in 2004, Clap drew a substantial audience for its live show before they recorded a single track. “We built a foundation,” the singer says. “People believed in what we were doing to such an extent that when we had an album they wouldn’t hesitate to buy it.”
Yet, who would have thought the band’s odd sound would catch on to such a degree? Ounsworth says he understands the appeal of discovering a band, privately, over the Internet, likening the allure to “overhearing a conversation in a bar.”
At the same time he says he’s “surprised when anybody shows any appreciation at all. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Either way, the guys clearly have enough confidence in their core audience to believe they can build on it by themselves. They walked away from talks not only with the major labels that courted them (Columbia) but with indies as well (Barsuk). Ounsworth says he asked them all the same question: “What makes you think we have anything to gain by any sort of bond?
“They didn’t have a real answer.”
As it stands, the band already amassed the funds to both take more with the new CD, and hire a good producer: David Fridmann, best known for his work with Flaming Lips. With Fridmann’s help, “Thunder” achieves a rare density. Yet all the ornate filigrees never stop it from rocking.
If the result makes the band bigger, Ounsworth seems determined to keep some things small. He recently moved out of Philadelphia, where he grew up, to a more remote town in Pennsylvania (the rest of the guys live in New York City). Likewise, he vows his band won’t tour excessively, in order to keep their shows fresh.
Maintaining a pure spirit clearly means a lot. To wit: Ounsworth seems far less excited talking about his band’s achievements than with marveling over things like a charity series the group has been involved with the past few years. The fund raises money for girls so they can attend rock ‘n’ roll music camp.
“To see this bunch of eight-year-old girls playing with such unbridled enthusiasm - doing it just to do it,” he says, “that’s the way everything should be.”