Spotlight: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
“I’ve been a little overwhelmed of late,” says a slightly tired-sounding Alec Ounsworth from his home in Philadelphia. “We’ve been rehearsing and trying to get all the pieces in place to pull this off,” he says, referring to the first Clap Your Hands Say Yeah tour since the band went on an indefinite hiatus in 2009.
His momentary grogginess quickly fades as he begins discussing the rehearsals and Hysterical, the group’s third album (and their first in four years), which came out this past September. In a week, Clap Your Hands will hit the road performing a handful of shows in intimate venues across the United States. and Europe as well as a number of festival appearances including San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival.
Ounsworth becomes more animated in discussing the band’s future. “We let it rest for a little while after the touring cycle of the second record—which is to say that everyone got involved in their own projects and we didn’t really stay in touch,” he explains. “I had to approach writing in different ways with new groups of people. Working on those projects renewed my appreciation for Clap Your Hands and made me see that it was special.”
The hiatus was a natural progression considering the speed at which Clap Your Hands buzzed their way around the blogosphere following the release of their 2005 self-titled debut. Almost overnight, the group’s new wave indie rock sound took them from playing D.I.Y. venues in Brooklyn, N.Y. to becoming one of the most talked about underground indie acts. Rather than heading back into the studio when they finished the second album’s touring cycle, the band opted to step back and let their next recording sessions develop more organically.
During that time, keyboardist Robbie Guertin and bassist Tyler Sargent started their own project called Uninhabitable Mansions. Drummer Sean Greenhalgh began working on production duties for a number of artists while guitarist Lee Sargent worked on a movie score for indie director Alex Karpovsky’s film Woodpecker. Ounsworth released an album with his side project Flashy Python, while also teaming up with producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) to put out a solo New Orleans-themed record called Mo Beauty (2009). The latter features a notable lineup of New Orleans guest musicians including The Meters’ bassist George Porter Jr. and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, both of whom Ounsworth says had a major impact on his ability to work in the studio setting.
“I had never written any charts before or anything like that,” he admits. “Just to witness people working at a level of experience that I had previously been unaccustomed to was eye-opening.”
So, when Clap Your Hands finally regrouped to begin working on Hysterical, the members built on their experiences outside the band and began writing more songs together. “I have more of a feeling on this record that the strengths of the entire band come off because we were able to get together and approach it in a very unified fashion and build the songs from the ground up,” Ounsworth says. “This entire record had to make sense for everyone—especially after coming back after that amount of time. We had to all be enthusiastic about every piece.”
On the new album, the group enlisted the production help of John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, Modest Mouse), churning out a more song-oriented record with a fuller sound. While the dance-y, New Wave grooves heard on the two previous releases are largely absent, they are replaced by grandiose string arrangements (“Same Mistake,” “Motel”), muffled guitar solos (“Yesterday, Never”) and a more traditional indie rock sound. Still, Clap Your Hands’ idiosyncratic approach remains as Ounsworth’s off-kilter, David Byrne-style vocals croon over punchy pop songs.
“I think this record is a pretty good example of a band moving forward,” says Ounsworth. “You try to get at everybody’s strengths and leave no stone unturned. I’m looking forward to this record because I think that this is the best we could have done and, frankly, arguably the best that we have done. That’s the perfect position for us.”
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