It’s well over 12 years now since the release of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self titled debut album. A lot of the New York outfit’s work has quite rightly been lauded, and praised initially for generating interest without the help of a label in any shape or form. The world is a very different now, so I put it to Alec Ounsworth, the band’s founding member, frontman and driving creative force, that perhaps, despite being of pioneering mindset, it may be a tad trickier to trigger a similar level of public curiosity if the band were only just now starting out?
Alec Ounsworth: That is a really good question. But I like to think that we would be able to generate the same interest, yeah. Because it wasn’t all just down to running without a label. I like to think there was a certain quality to our music that attracted so many people to our shows in New York even before we got to the point of releasing anything. So it wasn’t necessarily down to an ‘internet buzz’ – it truly was very much a word of mouth thing. It was our freakish nature – the combative nature of the band, even, that got people’s attention in the first place. So I guess it would be the same kind of thing if we were starting out now. There was no great method in it; we’d just do what we did before, and play live shows again and again and again. I guess it helps that we’re New York based, which made us kind of accessible. When we started out, bands like TV On The Radio and Interpol were always around so having that kind of scene was useful.
God Is In The TV: So what’s your opinion on things like Spotify or other streaming services? Good or bad?
Alec: Quite honestly, I don’t know. I guess I’m more a traditionalist than anything. Initially I thought of streaming as a really bad thing, you know, because as a result people don’t really buy albums anymore. But at the same time, it gives people more of a chance to get their music out there more easily. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. Maybe I’m just trying to convince myself – I’m just trying to be optimistic!
You’ve said before that you’re a little uncomfortable with the continued adulation for your debut album. Why is that?
Alec: I just got a little tired of playing it live, but then people seem to identify pretty readily with ‘The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth’ and, unusually, it’s a song I can still appreciating performing. I listened to it (the debut album) recently and a lot of it is actually a lot better written than I remember. I just got to a point where I think “It’s good, but it’s not up to the standard of the last album.” I guess it’s a bit of a nostalgia trip now, so it’s easier to get attached to it.
I was somewhat confused that Some Loud Thunder is due for a 10th anniversary reissue. I mean, my maths isn’t brilliant, but didn’t that record come out in 2007?
Alec: (laughs) Well spotted. We’ve been promoting this in the US since last year and it’s just trickled over into the next year a little bit. You know, we’re still very much an independent group and we’ve only just now got around to getting our story straight. It’s nice to be able to present the album as a whole to our true fans, and I love the way one song goes to the next on that record.
‘Mama Won’t You Keep Them Castles In The Air And Burning‘, from that album, is one of my all time favourite songs. I’ve never actually thought much about what the lyrics mean, but it feels really personal and, perhaps, cathartic?
Alec: I’m just trying to think which lyrics you mean…
(NB – rather embarrasingly, my brain completely shut down here, a bit like when a contestant on The Chase gets their first cashbuilder question wrong, and it wrongfoots them so badly that they would struggle to recall their own name at that point. But Alec was waiting for an answer, so I copped out and said “Mmmhmmm….all of them.” But trust me, Google it and you’ll see I wasn’t lying – it’s an incredible song).
Alec: I guess it could be cathartic. It just kind of hangs in there together, that track. I think it was about some broken relationship or another, but then I know I’m a diffcult person. But hey, I’m trying!
I don’t think you’ve been difficult at all! Not during this interview anyway. Does it affect you when you get a less than enthusiastic review, just out of interest? I only ask because The Tourist, from what I read anyway, seemed to divide opinion drastically. I thought it contained some of your best work yet, whereas the guy who reviewed it for us seemed to love the first half of the album, but really didn’t go a bundle on the second half…
Alec: (laughs) I don’t mind the negative reviews, as long as they give me something I can work with. You know, I’ve probably read more positive reviews where I’ve thought “What on earth are they talking about?!!”
I take a bit of an objective approach to reviews – almost like I’m reading them with interest as a third party. It doesn’t really strike me too hard if we get a bad review. I think often the bad reviews are by people who expect me to do the same thing over and over again, and that’s just something I’m never going to do.
So, of the things you have done, what’s your fondest memory?
That’s a tricky question, but I’d say when we played Japan not so long ago, we met the owner of this club there, and he was telling us about how he opened the club in 2005 when our first album was released, and was expressing how important it was to him that we were there. He was quite emotional about it, and it’s kind of that direct interaction with people that makes it all worthwhile. I mean, music has helped me through some difficult times over the years, and knowing that my songs have done the same for others is such a rewarding thing.
And speaking of rewarding things, you won’t find anything in the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah canon that hasn’t been subjected to the most thorough of quality control checks by Ounslow himself, and as a result, each and every album can be considered essential. Luckily for us, that deluxe anniversary release of Some Loud Thunder will be hitting the stores in November, and, even more excitingly, the band play several UK shows the month before that. If you’re a self respecting music fan, you really need to get yourself to one of those gigs. See you there!