Interview: A Conversation with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Recent Clap Your Hands Say Yeah tour dates have been an opportunity to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the band’s iconic second album Some Loud Thunder and TMB recently explored the relevance of this record with frontman Alec Ounsworth, delving into his thoughts about the band’s debut record and the role it played on the development of the sophomore release, as well as the band’s subsequent records.

The first time I listened to the title track I thought, “shit, this illegal download is garbage!” Was that the point?

Ha! Not exactly… I thought it was good song and was frustrated that the song was not working clean.  I think I was hoping to make it pop a bit more in a ‘White Light/White Heat’ kind of way. I might have been somewhat attached to the demo as well. The demo was very raw and the finished product ended up skewing in this direction.

Can we get a bit of context for readers who may not be familiar with these records. You say on your website that SLT was a response to “the not unwelcome but still uncomfortable great interest in the band’s first album, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.” Why did the interest make you uncomfortable and what did you want to achieve with this SLT response?

I might not have been so naturally comfortable with attention at that time and still am of the mind that the first album, while I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more than I did then, was a good start and a sort of foundation for going forward, but not at all the final word. What interested me about making and performing music didn’t seem to fit what other people had in mind for the band. With Some Loud Thunder, I might have been looking to see what exactly people would be willing to take based on certain albums that influenced me, but I was not intentionally trying to alienate anyone.

The CYHSY style and tone is essentially a manifestation of your own personality, experiences and delivery. Is this observation valid and if so does it ever become a burden?

I think that is pretty close. I don’t know that it is a burden exactly but sometimes I wish I were a bit more happy-go-lucky and could project that feeling in the songs. I think it is important to put everything out there. I am not embarrassed to do so and usually I find that I can more substantially connect if I’m transparent.

I wrote about elements of a show you did in Manchester in 2014 sounding very much like The Smiths lost in a small Pennsylvania backwater. Do bands such as this resonate with you?

Ha! I like that. The Smiths are one of many very important bands for me. There is a sort of playful darkness in their music that certainly resonates with me. This is true of a number of other Manchester bands too.

If you were stuck in a musical decade then, which one would you choose?

Probably the 70s. The 70s seem to cover the culmination of certain songwriters (Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks, etc.), Stevie Wonder (Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life, etc.), Randy Newman (Sail Away, 12 Songs, etc.)) as well as the rise and immediate impact of others ((e.g. Television, Patti Smith, PIL, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, Joy Division, The Smiths, Suicide, etc.). People seemed to be taking a lot of exciting chances in the 70s.

At this show you performed an almost unrecognisable version of Some Loud Thunder,stripped of all its fuzzy, alternative sensibilities. Has the significance of the track changed as it moves further away from its raison d’être?

No, nothing has really changed. I like to vary the approach as I go to keep it interesting for me and hopefully interesting for the audience. I have never really understood going to a show where the band plays everything exactly as it is on the album.

Prince once said “Technology is cool, but you’ve got to use it as opposed to letting it use you.” Regarding your debut and SLT, what did tech allow you to do when you were making this album?

I think we had a similar approach to the first, a balance of analog (drums, bass likely) and digital (generally everything else). It was/is nothing entirely new but digital recording allows you to explore all options and then some which can be a blessing and a curse. I think that the struggle is somewhat evident on the album insofar as a lot of the job was trying to identify ideas which serve the song rather than frivolous guesses. Mostly, I think we were successful but I’d like to imagine I’ve gotten a bit better about keeping the big picture in mind and being able to make decisions more quickly. In music, technology is a helpful tool but doesn’t really seem to matter unless your goal is to date yourself.

Eleven years on, are you still using it productively or have there been times when tech has dictated your creative decisions rather than a useful tool in achieving them?

It really depends on who you are and what you want out of a given album. Technology can be used in any number of ways but the point for me is to keep it human. I don’t know if Prince’s comment directly applies for me in the studio except as it concerns sonic options.

I’m never surprised by how satisfyingly creative a new CYHSY album is and I read that you were particularly grateful for Dave Fridmann’s contributions to your records. To a layman, can you explain what the producer does during the creation of a record like SLT?

Dave is able to sonically guide the album I guess. He takes a bit of pressure off of me and I trust his judgement on how things will shape up. For SLT, we camped out at Dave’s place for 6 weeks. He mostly had us tear down and rebuild songs in hopefully a relatively unique way.

America seems to have these musical hot spots geographically… You’re from Philadelphia. What kind of musical influence has the city had on you and your records?

I don’t know that I’ve been too directly influenced by bands in Philadelphia. I think I was more influenced by being brought up here than I have been by any bands in the area. That said, there are and have always been a lot of good ones around.

You’ve been featured on a few shows and movies. Do you have a favourite or even a despised cinematic moment where CYHSY have featured?

I don’t think so. I thought it funny that we made an odd little cameo in the movie, The Great Buck Howard.

Never mind the technological changes we’re experiencing, a lot has changed socially and politically since your debut. Have these changes influenced your music in any way?

I tend to be a little more jaded lately. This has been a particularly tough year but, except for a few older songs, I normally steer clear of social or political commentary. I might come back to it in the near future but because there is so little nuance in politics these days and the indiscretions are just so obvious that I don’t think I’d be shedding much light pointing out the faults of those who should know better.

Can you give our readers a prediction for the future?

Argentina 3 – Nigeria 1.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will be back in the UK in October and you can check out their other tour dates here.