Photo by Michael Regan
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah came about at an interesting time. A time that seems quaint and idyllic compared to today’s hellscape. But it was only 12 years ago that the project, headed by Alec Ounsworth, appeared virtually out of thin air and launched a thousand blog posts.
The 2005 self-titled debut arrived at a time when the internet was just emerging as a force that could make or break an artist before anyone had even heard their work. CYHSY became a flashpoint for a debate about a much larger topic: who deserves attention and why do they deserve it? But that debate practically excluded the music itself. The band just happened to enter the fray when the culture was ready to reckon with this particular topic.
The follow-up, Some Loud Thunder, came quickly on the heels of the first album. Viewed today, the album is clearly a logical extension of the self-titled. The edges are a little weirder and there’s some more distortion, but the heart remains the same. However, the internet had no time to sit and consider it as a piece within the larger confines of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and moved on.
But all these years later the band is still here and putting out reliably interesting and evocative tunes. They’re coming to Brighton Music Hall on Saturday December 2nd and will be playing Some Loud Thunder in full. We caught up with Ounsworth to talk about what that album means to him, the band’s place in the history of the convergence of the internet & music, and (gulp) journalistic integrity.
Allston Pudding: You’re coming to town for the 10th anniversary of Some Loud Thunder. Why did you think it was important to mark the anniversary of that album?
Alec Ounsworth: I think it was a relatively overlooked album. And I sort of feel, it’s going to sound strange maybe, but I’m happy enough with all of my albums that I wouldn’t mind revisiting them in order. I think that primarily it was an album that I still believe in and a lot of other people do.
AP: It’s funny that you say overlooked. Some Loud Thunder is actually how I found Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I was in high-school when it came out and I was watching Conan one night and you guys played “Satan Said Dance”. And I was like “What is this? I’ve never heard anything like this.”
AO: I remember that, I was playing a flying V that night.
AP: Yeah it caused me to go back and listen to the first album and then Some Loud Thunder, so I’m excited to see you’re paying some attention to that.
AO: Yeah and it gives me the opportunity to revisit the album in a different way after 10 years. Most of the people that I look up to, they don’t just play their songs the way they were on the album necessarily. So a lot of the songs have been adjusted to fit a live format a little bit better.
AP: When you say overlooked is that in relation to how widely-popular the debut was?
AO: Yeah I think so. I’m not complaining or anything like that because I was happy for the attention for the first album. But I feel like in a large way I’m still coming off of that album, which is very peculiar. Strangely, that album still doesn’t mean as much to me as some of the others [laughs]. There’s a shadow that looms over other albums by virtue of that. I don’t blame anybody and I think it was mostly that it was the first look at the project—an introduction. That’s the way I saw it and still see it. It wasn’t like the project couldn’t be improved after that.
AP: Did it take you time to come to terms with the reaction to the first album and then the reaction to the second?
AO: Not really because we did the second album pretty quickly after the first. I was told we could kind of coast on the first for a long time and just tour on that for years and years. But I had it in my mind that bands should be working pretty consistently. So I didn’t really stop to think about it too much. Maybe some of the songs themselves were in reaction to my general displeasure with the attention at the time [laughs]. Again, you can only be grateful that you get any attention at all. But for me it was not exactly what I thought I was signing up for.
AP: What was the displeasure rooted in?
AO: It was almost immediately taking me away from why I was interested in doing music in the first place. On a very small level, I started to see that stories were made up about me and I’m a relatively private person. So I didn’t really understand where people were getting their information. I felt like a lot of journalists didn’t really work hard enough to get to the heart of what I actually wanted. A lot of people seemed to feign interest and that struck me as a little bit off.
AP: What do you think it is that they were missing?
AO: A lot of people latch onto something because it’s moving of its own volition. They want to pay attention because other people are paying attention. But they don’t really quite sit down and listen as attentively as I think people should if they’re going to really venture into the whys and hows of a particular project.
AP: It’s interesting, you might be the first band of the internet-era to explode with a pre-determined narrative before most people had heard your music. But now, that’s the world we live in day-to-day. How do you reconcile your place in that history?
AO: Oh, I don’t think anything of it still. It’s funny because at the beginning people said “oh what did you guys do differently? There must’ve been some sort of amazing business model.” Actually we had a website just the way every other band did. We had a MySpace page. And we played a lot of shows in New York for about two years before we released the album. We also said ‘no’ to a lot of offers. Maybe that is the only real thing that defined it.
What I’m particularly proud of is we didn’t really use anybody to help put ourselves forward. We didn’t really try that hard. I didn’t make a music video at all for the first album. I wasn’t trying to put a lot of attention on the project. I think people came of their own volition to this music, and that’s something I’m proud of. They were either interested or they weren’t and that’s an unusual thing to me.
AP: There is such a unique sound to that first album that wasn’t really around at that point. It’s almost like people were reacting to the fact that other people were finding something like this and didn’t know where it came from. You just happened to be at the start of a wave that was about to take over.
AO: The internet in particular. It was good and bad, and it’s still good and bad. It gives a lot of artists a platform and people can do what they did with us. Although, it’s become so oversaturated that things don’t quite get as big because people move on to the next thing in five seconds. It’s a strange time now online. But back then, you did have that little window of opportunity where you could capture people’s attention and they would really dig in and try to invest themselves.
AP: Do you think there’s anyway we could get back to that?
AO: I don’t know. Maybe I’m just hoping but I feel like there’s some sort of reversion to a time where people want a little more simplicity. I think they’re getting tired of the constant bombardment of information. I feel like people shed their devices to a degree and go back to a simple time of something a little more substantive. Like sitting down with an album rather than quickly rushing through it online. I feel like to a large degree people are not always paying attention to the right things—in music anyway.
AP: You’re doing a run of living room shows coming up, is that along the same line of thinking; of trying to connect more with people?
AO: Yeah that’s exactly it. Facebook friends are all well and good but it doesn’t really mean a lot to me. It doesn’t feel like a connection to me. If people like my photo on Instagram that’s fine but I don’t really give a shit finally. I want to see these people and know who they are. I want them to know a little bit about me too. That’s a real connection to me. Old school [laughs].
AP: In your travels around the country, do you see tightknit communities anymore or has the internet really broken that open?
AO: I don’t know, I guess I never really thought of it as such a scene. It’s like I live in Philadelphia and, look, over there it’s Scott and he’s in Dr. Dog I’m going to go talk to him. And all of the War on Drugs guys are all hanging out. To me I never really thought of anything as a scene, it’s just people who are hanging out and going to shows that their friends are playing.
AP: So it’s just friendships but people look back through rose-colored glasses and see more there.
AO: Yeah it’s more like “We have this in common and maybe you could join me on stage to play a song just for shits-and-giggles.” I don’t think everybody meets in some swanky club after and they’re snorting cocaine off all the tables. Maybe that’s the way it was a long time ago. Or shit, maybe I wasn’t invited [laughs].
AP: Are you going to be playing any of the upcoming new record on the upcoming tour?
AO: It’s possible. The thing is I’m rearranging the songs from Some Loud Thunder so I already have a lot of work in that regard. It’s not a terrible idea though. I was thinking of doing covers. This also might be biting off a little more than I can chew, but I was thinking of doing the songs that influenced the writing for the album. Not specific songs, but what I was effectively listening to at that time.
I mentioned journalistic confusion. This is one of the things that surprises me any time I see any review—which I don’t really look at anymore. But when I did it was like “I don’t understand where this person is coming from. This has nothing to do with what I was going for or what I was listening to.” I feel like I could shed some light on what sort of primary influences are. And make it interesting too because these are songs that I really believe in. People like John Cale or Brian Eno or Tom Waits.
AP: It’s interesting because when you’re doing a review you have to keep the boundary up between you and the artist. So it’s all about what you think about it and your personal beliefs. If you think it sounds a certain way, that’s going to go into the review and be entered into the record. But the artist could’ve been listening to something completely different and taken one little idea and ran with it in a different direction.
AO: Yeah it’s funny to me. This is what I mean. Nobody seems to really care what the artist himself is going for [laughs]. I used to read reviews and think, “Oh so we just don’t like the same music” [laughs]. That’s kind of the beginning and the end. We just don’t have that in common. We wouldn’t have a romantic relationship together because we wouldn’t have anything to agree upon. To me that shouldn’t be the point of a review. A little bit of objectivity has to come in.
AP: I think that’s a thing a lot of people struggle with is getting outside of your particular likes and interests and just being able to recognize someone for putting in effort and executing well.
AO: Exactly. It’s probably a pretty old complaint [laughs]. I don’t imagine I’m unique in that. I feel like I was learning more about the journalist or critic back in the day than I was about what I did. What I did was completely beside the point [laughs]. This guy just got a new puppy, that’s what I learned.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Outer Spaces
Saturday, December 2
Brighton Music Hall
158 Brighton Ave.
Allston, MA 02134