Interview by Monte Holman
You’ve heard their name sprinkled across blogs and music nerd sites like rainbow sprinkles on soft-serve for months now. But until recently Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was still mailing CDs to record stores from Alec Ounsworth’s home in Philadelphia. Now, they’re shopping for a label after selling out of their original pressing of their self-titled debut.
We’re taught to be skeptical of bands that receive as much hype as quickly as these guys have—they’ve only been playing altogether for about a year. But after hearing the album, and especially after having the chance to converse with Ounsworth about real music icons like Axl and Tool, we’re completely drained of skepticism.
They’ve been branded by Pitchfork’s steaming hot prongs as this year’s Arcade Fire. And for good reason. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah backs that shit up.
We talked to them about their music, Philly, and and found out about Alec’s first concert and rumors about a Guns and Roses tribute band.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are Alec Ounsworth (vocals, guitars), Tyler Sargent (bass), Robbie Geurtin (guitar, keyboard), Lee Sargent (guitar, keyboard), and Sean Greenhalgh (drums)
In This Home On Ice
Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood
Over and Over Again (Lost & Found)
Some rarites at Philebrity
FREEwilliamsburg: Area code 215, where am I calling?
Philadelphia, that’s where I live.
FREEwilliamsburg: Does everyone else live up here in New York?
Yeah, everybody else lives up in Brooklyn.
FREEwilliamsburg: How does that work for practice?
It’s, uh, you know. (laughs) It’s good for them, bad for me.
FREEwilliamsburg: I really, really like the first song on the record. Why’d you choose that one to kick things off?
I don’t know-I like the idea of trying to challenge people a little bit on an album, and it seemed like that was the only place we could put that one. I wrote it as an introduction to the whole idea of the band, so it seemed like the ideal place to put it.
FREEwilliamsburg: Have you been playing the songs from the album live long? How old are they?
I wrote a few five or six years ago. Some are pretty old, and I’ve rearranged them a bunch of times over the years and rearranged them while the band was working on them. Yeah, most of them are pretty old.
FREEwilliamsburg: Are the newer songs written by the band, or do you bring an idea to the table?
Usually I write the songs here in Philadelphia and bring them up. I built a studio, and I try to get everything together, which I suppose is one of the reasons we’ve been able to bring everything together. It’s a combination of songs that are prepared to a certain extent combined with the guys in the band, who are very technically proficient. So that propels it all forward.
FREEwilliamsburg: Did you record the album at your studio in Philadelphia?
We recorded part of it in Providence, Rhode Island, and we recorded a few tracks in Brooklyn.
FREEwilliamsburg: Who’d you record with?
We recorded at Fireproof Studios with a guy named Adam Lasus in Brooklyn, and we recorded at a place in Providence at a place called Machines With Magnets with a guy named Keith Souza.
FREEwilliamsburg: Did you know those guys previously?
No, I didn’t know either of them. Somebody from the band-these guys are all much more band – experienced than I am. (bark, bark) The other guys in the band suggested them. (growl, bark)
FREEwilliamsburg: What kind of dogs are those?
(laughs) I have two English Springer Spaniels. I’m just kind of chilling outside with them right now. We just took a little walk, and we went for a swim. So they’re drying off.
FREEwilliamsburg: Sounds nice. Do you live in the city or outside the city?
It’s in the city, technically, but it feels a little like outside the city. Philadelphia’s an interesting place. We have an enormous urban forest, and I take walks with these guys and it’s like going up to Vermont, really.
FREEwilliamsburg: Did you grow up around there?
Yeah, I actually grew up not too far from where I am right now. (laughs)
FREEwilliamsburg: Did the band start playing while you were all in Philadelphia then?
Yeah, I’ve been in Philadelphia the whole time the band’s been in progress.
FREEwilliamsburg: How long has the band been together?
A little over a year.
FREEwilliamsburg: Seems like you did a lot of live shows before the record. How has that affected recording?
When we started recording, we had only played a handful of shows. In fact, it’s something nobody’s really brought up too much-but the recording was initially intended just to be six or seven tracks. We were just starting and were wanting to get more shows. (laughs) We were recording an album-not an album; I guess it’s called an EP-for the purpose of getting shows at, say, the Mercury Lounge or something like that. It just happened that things started to move forward a bit faster than we thought, and by the time we got down to Brooklyn to add more tracks, we had started to play bigger shows, and we decided to make this a full-fledged album.
In any case, I guess that’s not really answering anything. (laughs) Anyway, we had played a lot of live shows, and the studio recording was interesting because the guys in the band weren’t too familiar with the songs yet. The studio recordings kind of pushed the live shows forward. I remember I was in the control room singing the lines and pointing out the parts when the guitarist was supposed to go and shit like that (laughs). So I think it was helpful to have the studio recording so everybody could go back and say “ok, this is the structure of the song.” I don’t know if that answers the question. (laughs)
FREEwilliamsburg: Did you feel any pressure to put out the album quickly because of the reception you guys have been receiving (which is pretty phenomenal)?
Yeah, we wanted to get it out as soon as we could. The live shows have been, surprisingly, great. Everybody’s been very enthusiastic. Mostly the pressure came from everybody asking “when the hell are you going to put out an album??” (laughs)
FREEwilliamsburg: Internet sites and blogs and things have adopted and endorsed you guys pretty hard-core lately. How do you react to Pitchfork’s making you their “it” band?
I appreciate it-that’s the first thing I’ll say-I appreciate it. I was very unaware of Pitchfork. I’m not sure I had been to the site before. Apparently their opinion holds weight in some circles. I appreciate it, but I’ve got to say I don’t feel one way or the other about it. It’s helpful. A lot of people wouldn’t have thought of us otherwise. Sometimes you need a point of reference.
FREEwilliamsburg: Do you think it’s pushed you toward considering labels, that sort of thing, since everything thus far has been pretty DIY?
Sure. I think for right now, we’re pretty firm about being DIY. We’ve been talking to folks here and there about signing on, but I like the idea of it being an independent operation as long as we can do it. But the fact of the matter is, there are five of us. We all have our own obligations, and it’s very difficult between five of us to handle everything. So that would be the purpose of a label.
FREEwilliamsburg: Do you mean that the label would take care of scheduling details?
Primarily distribution. We’ve literally sat around with a bunch of Uline packages, single boxes, to send CDs all over the world from my house.
FREEwilliamsburg: I got a mass email today from Sound Fix Records here in Williamsburg talking about how they finally got more Clap Your Hands Say Yeah records.
Well after the Pitchfork thing, I thought it would be a relatively gradual process and that me and another guy in the band, Robbie, would be able to handle it ourselves because everybody was preoccupied. But then the Pitchfork thing came out, and I realized that it was kind of humanly impossible. So essentially we transferred it over to a place called Insound, which I was pretty unfamiliar with, and they’ve been handling the bulk of it for direct internet sales. If we tried to do it ourselves, I don’t know if any other albums would ever get made. (laughs) We’d be packaging this one forever.
FREEwilliamsburg: Are you familiar with other local bands in Philadelphia?
Not too much. I had a certain interaction with a certain group of people that were relatively off the map. I used to play performances at this cabaret, and it was interesting. There was this transvestite performer with a shaved head, and that was my real connection to Philadelphia. But as far as rock n roll bands are concerned, I don’t know too much about it.
FREEwilliamsburg: What about Brooklyn? Any more connection?
About the same that I do to Philadelphia. I have to admit, I feel more connected to Philadelphia in a proudly superficial sort of way. (laughs) Know what I mean? There are bands that I hear are going to play with us that I hear are from Philadelphia, and I gotta say, I get all excited, and I don’t even know who they are. (laughs) As far as NYC is concerned, I’m not too familiar with what anyone’s doing, musically.
FREEwilliamsburg: Is it true that someone in CYHSY is in a Guns N Roses tribute band?
(laughs) Yeah, it’s true.
FREEwilliamsburg: Who is it?
Sean, he plays the drums with us. And he’s Axl Rose for Mr. Brownstone. He’s taking on the world as Axl. (laughs) I’ve never seen them, but I hear a lot about them.
FREEwilliamsburg: What was the first concert you ever went to?
I think the first concert I went to-I could be wrong about this, but I think it’s right-I was about 13 or 14, and I went to one of the Lollapaloozas. It might’ve been the second year in. I remember-who was it-Alice and Chains and Tool. Man, I haven’t listened to Alice in Chains in years and years. When I was 13 it was great. Tool’s performance was pretty cool.
FREEwilliamsburg: Tool’s a great band.
Yeah, and Primus was good too-I liked them.
FREEwilliamsburg: Both of those bands had great videos. I was always disturbed by them. Tool videos always had a caterpillar going through a pipe underground or something.
I’m pretty sure that was first. It was either that or the Dave Brubek Quartet.
FREEwilliamsburg: Where’d you see them?
At a place called the Keswick theater, which is in Glenside, Pennsylvania, nearby. There are probably others before, but those are the ones that are bigger to me.
FREEwilliamsburg: You have a couple sold-out shows coming up here.
Yeah, at Southpaw and the Mercury Lounge.
FREEwilliamsburg: Has that been ordinary?
I don’t know – I know we’ve sold out a few shows before, but I don’t think it’s been regular.
FREEwilliamsburg: We’ve mentioned the internet following. What’s the deal with that video that guy made. Is that something the band endorses?
I’m not sure what to think about that. We’ve had plenty of conversations with him. It was a friend of a friend, and he wanted to do a video for free, and I said we weren’t interested. We weren’t finished with the album. But a lot of people were saying “he’s doing it for free-you have nothing to lose-you don’t have to use it or do anything with it,” and apparently-I just got wind of this a little while ago-he took it upon himself to put it out there. I don’t think it’s terrible or anything. I’m not much of a music video person, myself. I’m struggling with the basic concept of the music video, anyway. I don’t know what to say about that. He did it. I suppose he can do what he wants with it, but as far as us claiming it as ours, I don’t think we’re exactly doing that.
It’s not really an issue. I’ve been hearing so much about this lately that I’m tired of it. I don’t care what the hell happens with it anymore. (laughs)
FREEwilliamsburg: Fair enough. I hear you’re going on tour this fall. How’d that come about?
We played a show a little while ago at the Mercury Lounge, and a band called the National was playing there. We both liked what the other was doing. I got to talking to some of the guys, and they came down to Philadelphia to do a show and I went to see them. We got to talking, and Aaron, one of the guitarists mentioned they were going on tour and needed somebody to support. It’s a perfect, perfect situation because these are all great guys. The guys in the National are really cool guys, and they’ve been through it time and again. They’re all a little bit older and ostensibly more responsible (laughs). They may be able to show us the ropes as to how to keep stable on a tour.
FREEwilliamsburg: Are you looking to record again any time soon?
I was hoping to record when we get back. We’ve practiced enough new stuff to do an album fairly soon. There are a couple other things-we may or may not be going over to England after the tour with the National. I’m not really sure-this is kind of speculation. But if we have a chunk of time, we’d like to get back into the studio soon.
125 5th Ave
w/ Dirty on Purpose, Dr. Dog, and Saints and Lovers
217 E Houston St
New York, NY
w/ Portion Control
Seaport Music Festival
South Street Seaport
New York, NY
First Unitarian Church
w/ Magnolia Electric Co
6 Delancey St
New York, NY
w/ The National