One Band Clapping

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

Answering his cell phone on an early Thursday afternoon, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah main man Alec Ounsworth has pretty much no idea where he is -- aside from lounging on the back porch of a house owned by members of current tourmates the National -- and he's perfectly fine with that.

"I've narrowed it down to either Kentucky or Ohio ...," he deadpans with a just-woke-up kinda croak that trails off, then suddenly perks up.

"Hey, there's a hummingbird over there, that's fantastic! Wherever I am right now, it's a really beautiful day. That's really all that matters."

The twentysomething singer/guitarist seems unfazed that his band (whose name was taken from a bit of graffiti on a Brooklyn wall) has entered uncharted waters, playing shows for the first time outside of Philadelphia (where Ounsworth makes his home) or New York City, where the other four members -- drummer Sean Greenhalgh, guitarist/keyboardist Robbie Guertin, and twin brothers Lee and Tyler Sargent (on bass and guitar/keyboards, respectively) -- reside. Nor is he too terribly bent out of shape about the full slate of interviews he's got lined up this afternoon, and the next afternoon, and, he acknowledges, pretty much every afternoon for the foreseeable future. That's what happens when you're leading the most talked about, most hyped band of the year. But, Ounsworth claims, he has pretty much no idea about that, either.

"I gotta say, I am foggy on the whole thing. Mostly, folks ring me up for these interviews and tell me what's going on, and I'm like, 'Ohhh, OK ... pretty neat!' I mean, I don't read or listen to anything that's written or said about us. It's just not that interesting to me. But stuff gets into your head here and there, and the thing is, as soon as people start to pay attention to that stuff and maybe start believing the hype or whatever you wanna call it, they start to lose whatever that thing is they might have had. Things start to get all mixed up for them. So I don't pay attention to it at all."

After a bit of prodding, Ounsworth does admit to having read the review of CYHSY's self-titled album on Pitchforkmedia.com; posted at the end of June, it was the "shot heard 'round the indie-rock world," if you will. Love it or hate it, Pitchfork is firmly ensconced as one of the most popular and influential music sites on the Internet, and the fawning write-up essentially did for the Clap what Beavis and Butt-head did for White Zombie, although, in this case, favorable comparisons to Modest Mouse, Yo La Tengo, and Neutral Milk Hotel, rather than "Huh, huh ... these guys RULE," is what turned the group from complete unknowns to the must-hear band of 2005 virtually overnight.

Now, we're all used to the hype machine going into overdrive for indie-rock artists (hellooooo Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire), but those bands have had record labels providing at least some muscle -- getting the albums into stores, to the press, and to radio stations, and mounting showcases and other promotional events to get the word out. What's pretty remarkable about the Clap's breakthrough is that it's been achieved entirely without the help of a label. The quintet is still unsigned, having self-financed the recording of its debut and self-issued it this past spring (barely a year after the band's inception), pressing up a few thousand copies to sell at shows and via its Web site, and to self-distribute to independent record shops and a few key media outlets, bypassing the typical route of recording a demo and trying to score a label deal.

"I had a brief fantasy when I started writing music that I might be able to do something kinda completely, 100 percent by myself, without anybody, and I say 'I' and don't include the rest of the guys because at that point we hadn't even started out at all," Ounsworth explains. "But as soon as the band started getting going, I thought, 'Well, maybe this could still work on that particular level,' and so far it has. I have nothing against the idea of labels, it just so happened that it didn't seem right for me at this time. I'd say what we're doing is the same thing as someone starting a small business."

Once the "Pitchfork effect," and the subsequent dissemination of the band's songs via MP3 bloggers, took hold, the first pressing of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah quickly sold out. Local shows began selling out, too, and pretty soon, noted NYC indie-band stalkers David Bowie and David Byrne could be spotted in the crowd, the latter very likely because he caught wind of the conventional wisdom claiming Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sounds exactly like early Talking Heads.

It's a debatable comparison. Certainly no one with fully functioning eardrums would deny the tonal and phrasing similarities between Ounsworth and the Rhode Island School of Design's most famous dropout, especially during Ounsworth's swaying "Away we gooooo" vocal refrain on the carnival sideshow-esque album opener, "Clap Your Hands!," or the way he casually guides his gliding whine through the opening stanzas of "Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)." Most often, he comes off like a cross between Byrne and the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, occasionally slipping into Paul Banks (Interpol) territory when he drops his voice down a register and attempts elegant enunciation, as on "Details of the War."

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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