The road to success for indie-rock wonder boys Clap Your Hands Say Yeah wasn’t the typical uphill battle most bands face. The band hasn’t played too many shows in half-filled holes-in-the-wall or dingy shitboxes for little more than beer money since their first gig in 2004. Aided by an avalanche of Internet prattle from the Brooklyn-based bloggerati, the band’s self-titled, self-produced, self-everything debut was independently released in June 2005 to immediate and universal critical acclaim. The wellspring of praise drove sales beyond the band’s ability to keep up, necessitating a distribution deal with ADA and a European label deal with Wichita. Despite selling north of 90,000 copies of the album to date in the States alone, the band has yet to ink a deal with any of the many majors that have come calling.
The fact is, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s path to success wasn’t really a road at all, but a 100-mile stretch of rail line between Philadelphia and New York City, a route frontman Alec Ounsworth traveled for rehearsals and gigs more times than he cares to remember.
“I’m pretty familiar with this trip by now,” Ounsworth explains from his cell phone as he makes his way through Philadelphia’s Market East Station for yet another train headed for New York. “Most of those trips over the last few years I was either bringing up demos to share with the band or coming up to play a show, staying a night on a friend’s couch and then riding back home.”
Ounsworth’s frequent train rides seem to have influenced the overall feel of the 13 tracks on the album—from the creepy dissonance of opener “Clap Your Hands!” with its lilting organ and carnival (conductor?) caterwauling prologue, to the pulsating polyrhythm of “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away” and the dance-happy exuberance of “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth.” Ounsworth’s warbling country yelp and the band’s post-punk dance bravado sent rock writers scurrying for pithy analogies to the Talking Heads, David Bowie and Joy Division. The comparisons sell the band’s expansive tastes short, in the singer’s opinion.
“Generally, I have a pretty good idea where these comparisons are coming from, but I also have a pretty good idea that I don’t sit around listening to Talking Heads all day long,” Ounsworth says. “I don’t listen to More Songs About Buildings and Food and then write a song or anything like that. Velvet Underground has been extraordinarily influential; Brian Eno has been extraordinarily influential, as has Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and Charles Mingus. Everyone’s been influential in their own way.”
First off, tell me about the Arthur Lee benefit you’re involved with. Are you a fan of Love’s music?
Oh yeah, I’m a pretty big fan of Love. I probably have four or five of their albums. My booking agent’s the one that got me involved with the benefit show. She just mentioned it one day, said they were having this benefit. I didn’t even know the circumstances of Arthur Lee’s situation, and she brought me up to speed. It seems like a very good cause, not only because I’m a fan but also because it’s a chance to gain a certain degree of exposure to the fact that somebody like Arthur Lee is in such dire straits. To me, he’s one of the legendary figures in American music. He’s fallen on hard times and it’s just worth it to help out.
It’s sheds some light on the fact that a lot of musicians go without health insurance.
Exactly. That’s just so completely incredible to me.
One of the other musicians on the bill was just announced—Robert Plant. Did you go through the prerequisite seventh-grade Zeppelin phase?
[Laughs] I think I did touch on it, maybe not as much as some other folks. But I’m familiar with most of the Zeppelin stuff. I think I went through that phase a few years later but have since gone back and listened to some of it again. Good stuff.
So the question everyone’s asking—who is this indie-rock supergroup that you’ve apparently put together to play this benefit show? Are you even allowed to say?
Maybe I should keep it a mystery. I’d rather not though—I’ll expose them. It’s going to be four-fifths of Dr. Dog, who are also big Love fans. They just seemed right for two reasons: First of all they’re in Philadelphia, and since I’m here as well it makes it more convenient for practicing. Also they’re a little more familiar with Love’s material than the guys in Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. It just seemed like a nice opportunity to do something with these guys since they’re friends of mine.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Do you come from a musical family?
I’m not sure. In a way, I did. I was encouraged to study music when I was a kid. My brother still plays the cello, so we both continued with it. But my family wasn’t necessarily a musical family. I grew up taking lessons and became attached to it on my own, so I discovered a lot of this stuff by myself.
What instrument did you start on?
My first instrument was the piano. I played that for about seven years before I picked up the guitar.
When you sit down to compose a song, do you go to the piano or the guitar?
A little bit of both. With the songs for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, I think more often than not I start on the guitar. I’ve got a little studio I’ve set up in my basement in Philadelphia, so I can run through all the parts of a song just as I imagine they might be on bass and keyboards, to get everything prepared.
What typically comes first for you—lyrics or music?
More often than not it’s music, but it happens in different ways. I’ve tried all sorts of ways to write a song. Sometimes you can get an idea from playing percussion and other times you can get an idea from playing piano or guitar. Sometimes a vocal melody gets stuck in your head and sometimes lyrics or phrases pop in your head. So it really happens in all sorts of ways.
The creative process must be a bit different because you live in an entirely different city than the rest of the band. How fully realized are the demos that you build in your basement before you present them to the other guys?
It depends. More often than not, I bring up demos with most of the stuff relatively fleshed out, which is to say guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion or drum machine and vocals and back-up vocals. We kind of run through it based on that. It’s a fleshed-out outline, but it’s still open to suggestions. Usually, that’s the way it goes. Before we were on tour all the time, I’d bring three or four songs up every week. Sometimes, if I was extra excited and had written something the day before practice, I’d just bring up a guitar line and have suggestions for what the other parts ought to be.
It seems like you use a lot of first-person perspective in your lyrics. Is any of your writing is autobiographical?
I think it always has to be somewhat autobiographical. For me, I can’t pull the whole Red Badge of Courage routine where I’m writing about something that I haven’t necessarily experienced. I might experience it in an abstract manner, or it could be as indirect as possible. It could even be gleaning from something that I’ve encountered that wasn’t mine per se but relates to me or something I’ve experienced. I think music by its very nature has to be autobiographical in some sense. I write about things that matter to me directly, so it may not seem as abstract to me as it might to other people.
One of the tunes off the album, “Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth,” about the experience of tackling New York City as an outsider, seems very autobiographical.
For that one in particular, I pieced together a couple of my own experiences about how it feels to be displaced, but I projected that on to someone else’s story that I knew that moved to New York.
Where did the inspiration come for the way the album opens? It has the same kind of feeling of crowd noise and cacophony that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does when it starts.
That whole thing came a little after the fact. I found myself alone in the studio in New York and was just messing around with this old church organ that the engineer had, and that melody just popped into my head. He recorded it, but I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. So I took it home, set lyrics to it and the next thing I knew, I had the song that I wanted to start the album with. With the first album, we had a lot of time to work and mess with everything. If you have enough time to think about it, if you have enough time to fill in the gaps in the album to make sure that it moves the way you’d like, that’s the type of song you can come up with. Now that song is something I can’t imagine not being on it.
On the song “Over and Over Again,” one of the lyrics goes, “Success is so forbidding / But it makes me think I’m winning / Quiet, dim the lights / Adopt another lifestyle.” It’s kind of an interesting analogy for the ride you guys have had over the last year or so.
I suppose that if I had to try to decide what that means, I’d say it’s a comment on the illusory aspect of success. For example, people sometimes ask me how I feel to be successful or to be acknowledged as successful at this point, but I really think that success is achieved in one’s mind. If you have a good idea, it doesn’t matter how many people are paying attention to it because I don’t believe in that aspect of success. I think it has to do with whether you complete your vision to the point where you’re satisfied. That’s success to me.
Was there a point during the last year and a half when you realized the magnitude of what was happening?
I don’t think so really. In a way I don’t think things have changed all that much. I’m a lot more tired than I used to be. And I can’t seem to stay in one place for more than a week anymore. [laughs] If I get a chance to step back and actually get a good look at it, then perhaps. But I haven’t really been following too much besides going from one place to another and playing shows. That’s what I did before any of this happened, so I can’t really recognize any point at which it’s changed.
It’s probably safe to say that the spotlight’s a bit brighter than it was before.
Sure, fair enough.
Much is made of the fact that you’ve foregone signing to a label. Where did the band’s DIY ethos come from?
Before the band even started, I had a certain fantastical notion that this sort of thing might be possible. Whether or not it was idealistic to the point of pretension is another matter. But to hold on to that fantastical notion and run with it was an opportunity I never really thought would be realized.
Do you think that approach endeared you to the under-30 music fan who is Internet savvy and generally distrustful of mass-marketing campaigns or corporate authority figures? Is your approach the new approach for this generation of music fans?
Yeah, I think so. It has to be unique to each individual or each band though. For us, it seems to have worked for various reasons. The music industry lately has gotten a little off-track, in my opinion. There needs to be some rejuvenation, not only in an artistic sense but in the general philosophy of how artists distribute their work and present it to the public.
We’ve met some nice people at record labels, but in the end, we’ve had to say no. I’d rather not take up any sort of relationships that might potentially hold bad omens for the future—those can be some dark, dark clouds.
You have said the band has material ready for two or three more albums. Will the new album coming out later this year be from that stock or are any of them new?
There might be two or three new songs on there, but the rest of them are from a little while back. We start recording in the first couple of weeks in June, so unless I’m able to get home for a couple of days and actually piece together a few new ones, they’ll come from that reserve.
Any specific plans for recording?
I think we’re gonna be recording in upstate New York with Dave Fridman. I hear different things every day, but I hear that may be the case.
He did a great job with the new Flaming Lips album. That’ll be an interesting locale to record in given that some much of your press has associated your music with urban New York City.
Yeah, that’s kind of funny to me because all the songs were written in Philadelphia! They all kind of draw on some experiences I’ve had in both New York and Philadelphia, but you’re right, it’ll be an interesting change of scenery.
Have we reached a point in time where the Internet alone can launch a band?
The Internet is helpful to spread the word and make word of mouth move a little faster, but that’s all it does. Unfortunately it doesn’t help write songs.
In a story in The New York Times last year, you were quoted as saying, “I don’t like the idea of being overexposed. Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting, and he was perfectly content. Overexposure is something I worry about.” You’ve had plenty of exposure since. Do you feel overexposed now?
I don’t think I feel necessarily that we’re overexposed. It’s funny because I’ve started to think about it too. I do still worry about it, and I do understand that there needed to be a relative push that made things stable for us as a band. It’s important to spread a certain philosophy you believe in. In the end, you just have to watch yourself and be careful of how far out there it gets. I have a feeling that if we had signed to a major label, it may have been a little more than I bargained for. I’ve been able to stay relatively level-headed over the last six or seven months, but I’m going to start getting a little bit of time to myself, and at that point—I don’t think that it will come to mean for me that things have moved in a direction that I haven’t necessarily wanted or would consider overexposure. I don’t know. I guess that’s the bottom line.
Sounds like something you struggle with a little bit.
Yeah, I think everyone needs to get past the whole idea of exposure as a measure of success and instead look to see if the quality of the work is there. The creative quality of art is sometimes lost in the overexposure of it all. That’s when you have to step back and be careful that you’re not letting yourself get out of hand.
Ringo Starr plugged the album on his website, and you’ve had both David Bowie and David Byrne sit in with you within the last year. What’s been the most surreal experience?
I don’t think of any of this as surreal really. Those are people that I admire and if they show any sort of interest, it’s nice and you accept it and you move on.