One Band Clapping

The much-hyped Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the phenomenon of the indie band as small business

But there's no Heads-like art-funk in CYHSY's trunk; what the band primarily has to offer is a stylish kind of drone-rock that sounds a lot like Galaxie 500's version of the Velvet Underground (you'd be forgiven for thinking that's Dean Wareham donating a spiraling guitar solo to "Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away") and a sprightly guitar jangle that recalls the heyday of Flying Nun Records (the Chills and the Clean, particularly). The touchstones are familiar, but the combination of those textures, Ounsworth's voice, and occasional dollops of synthesizer, organ, and harmonica results in songs mostly enjoyable and rarely plagiaristic. Only once, really, does the latter happen: "In This Home of Ice" sounds exactly like something the forgotten (but still active) Nebraska dream-pop trio For Against might crank out, but when your larceny is that obscure, few fans are likely to notice or care.

What people who are interested in CYHSY do care about is being able to get their hands on the damn disc. With demand for the album increasing dramatically over the summer, the group's supply couldn't quite keep up (perhaps a nice problem to have), and since the task of going to the post office and shipping out the albums fell on the band members, orders got a bit backlogged. That's all about to change, though, as the band recently inked a direct, precedent-setting deal with the Alternative Distribution Alliance (which is owned by Warner Music Group) that will finally get Clap Your Hands Say Yeah into major retail chains and onto such sites as Amazon.com without the group finding itself beholden to the parent corporation on any level. No creative interference or hassles about sales figures from higher-ups, no boring marketing meetings, no being forced into annoying promotional appearances, just pure distribution -- a unique and sweet situation for any band that wants to retain its independence but still get its music heard.

Aside from the distribution issue, the small businessmen of CYHSY have found ways around some of the other challenges that come with not being on a label. They're not getting tour support funds, but the money coming in from album sales is helping to finance their current tour. Those added resources have also allowed them to hire a well-regarded independent PR firm in New York to handle press. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the band's manager, Nick Stern, also happens to hold a prominent position in Atlantic Records' publicity department, and his music industry contacts (think bookers, key journalists, etc.) have undoubtedly been invaluable.

Still, says Ounsworth, he's noticing that as the band's profile swells and its tour schedule grows lengthier, there are fewer hours in the day to take care of all the minutiae that comes with being a self-run outfit, and it may force the Clap to reassess its position at some point.

"We'll have to see how it goes from here," he says. "I wanna make sure that everyone has enough time to work on what matters, which is getting the songs right. I'm not so rigid about not being on a label that I want the music to suffer as a result."

If and when that decision's to be made, it's ultimately Ounsworth's call -- make no mistake about it, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is his baby.

"It's pretty much worked out that it's my band, I do all the songwriting," he says, explaining that when he first linked up with his Brooklyn-based bandmates 18 months ago, he implored them to come down to Philadelphia for rehearsals and recording sessions rather than vice versa. That turned out to be impractical, but Ounsworth notes that their working relationship has been so special that he's been willing to make the repeated trips north, crash on couches, and generally endure the New York City lifestyle he admits he's not all that fond of.

"These guys have been spectacular. The important thing about a band, I think, is that everyone understands pretty early on what they have to do, what their role is. So when I brought the songs to these guys, even though I pretty much knew what I wanted, certain parts were not arranged and so forth and these guys were tremendous in executing certain ideas. They just get it, and I was lucky to find a good group of guys where everything clicked."

And with new material in his head that he's excited about, enough for two or three more albums, he figures, Ounsworth chuckles mischievously that he's put a new challenge to the band.

"I presented a bunch of new songs to everybody before we left and I said, 'OK, we're basically gonna try to practice these on the road, at shows.' And so we throw one in that we're kinda not familiar with every night. Not everybody's quite got it, but I kinda like that. There's a certain sorta mystery to what might happen, and I love shows with a lot of suspense."

There's also a lot of suspense when it comes to the fate of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Will the massive buzz translate to a lasting musical presence, or will these musicians crumple under the weight of all that hype and expectation? Can they maintain their model of artistic and business independence, or will they be forced to abandon it in the face of overwhelming demands of the marketplace? The answers will become evident in time, but on this particular afternoon, Ounsworth's not all that worried about them.

"Like I said," he laughs, "today is a beautiful day."

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