Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah brings David Moloney up to speed on the story behind the band’s hiatus, the creative process and his problems with the blogosphere
Not many bands these days can create an air of mystery around themselves while also avoiding being labelled as inauthentic, but Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are definitely one of these few. For months in early 2011, the music world was filled with speculation as to whether the Brooklyn quintet had gone on hiatus or were actually secretly writing, an issue complicated by statements from the band about their hiatus being immediately followed by a performance on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show.
As long ago as that was, the issue has never been cleared up by the band, so Otwo thought it would be the perfect opening question to put to lead singer, Alec Ounsworth. He confirms that they were on a hiatus but “because we were on a break I don’t believe that we were ever really broken up.” How very Ross and Rachel of them.
The real question is, of course, why they felt the need to go on a hiatus. “It just didn’t seem right and the pieces weren’t falling into place. I think the last thing that anyone should do when they’re trying to be creative and make a record is to try to force it.” Ounsworth says. “You know, you have to go your separate ways and do your own thing for a little while and then kind of come back and see if the next time is better. If it’s not, you have to re-evaluate your position altogether.”
With Ounsworth having pursued a solo project and an album as his alter-ego Flashy Python, not to mention the other band members’ side projects, did CYHSY find it difficult to start working together again? “It was surprisingly easy and it kind of made me understand why this project worked in the first place. There is a certain element to CYHSY that I can’t really put my finger on that just makes it work and makes it stands up.” This realisation occurred almost immediately; “I saw that as soon as we started working again, literally at the first practice, I could see why it worked whereas before I’d probably taken it for granted to a large degree because it was really the first band that I had been in.”
Listening to the band’s third and latest album, 2011’s Hysterical, one can easily understand what Ounsworth is talking about. Coming four years after their last effort, Some Loud Thunder, the record has a level of togetherness that was lacking in previous offerings. This could be due in part to their choice of the legendary John Congleton, noted for working with acts as diverse as St. Vincent and Baroness, to produce this album. How did they decide to get him on board with their latest project? Ounsworth states that he had been in contact with Congleton during the time around the ‘break’ and had always found what he had done interesting. He considers Congleton a musicians’ producer because “he’s been through it and he knows what it’s like.”
However, the main reason that he chose Congleton is “that John toils away the way I do, trying to write songs pretty constantly and that’s something I hadn’t come across necessarily. It was something that was very valuable to me at a particular time and fortunately the rest of the guys took to him as well and it all just came together easily.”
It would be impossible to have an interview with CYHSY without asking Ounsworth’s opinion on the blog culture that dominates music journalism nowadays. CYHSY could almost be considered the most perfect case study of the influence music blogging has acquired, and how it can ‘make’ a band in a very short space of time. Their 2005 debut album became an overnight sensation after an intense bout of online hype. So what are his views on the culture that brought him and his band into the spotlight? “It’s strange because it’s at once very influential, and on the other hand not very influential at all. It can put somebody on the map, let’s say somebody who has a certain approach that is seen to be unique, somebody who might not have been discovered otherwise and whether or they can run with that has to do with how much work they’ve put in. So basically, it helps in the short term, I imagine.” He goes on to counterbalance this point with “it has the ability to cheapen a potentially honest and unique thing by virtue of the fact that there’s so much out there. People say that the proliferation means that people are listening to more music than ever these days but I wonder what that really means.” To him the variety of musical experience blogs promote can be shallow, favouring breadth over depth. He says that this is in stark contrast with how he approaches music because he likes “to really dig into one person for a long time. I have my favourites and I’ll listen to their entire records and that still happens but I get a little bit sceptical when I hear people are just consuming constantly. I just wonder how much of that is going in and staying there.”
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah play Tripod on January 25th. Tickets priced at €20. Hysterical is out now.