It’s a blindingly hot August day, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s long-awaited third album, Hysterical, will be born into the world in less than a month. It’s been a strenuous four years (on-and-off) in the making, the acclaimed indie rockers battling back from an indefinite hiatus and near self-destruction—but today, frontman/songwriter Alec Ounsworth couldn’t be more enthralled with his band’s newfound focus. In fact, even though the rest of the world hasn’t even heard Hysterical, the quintet’s supposed “return to form,” he’s already planning the band’s next LP.
“We’ve already been kinda piecing together the next one!” he laughs, taking a break at his Philadelphia home. “You know, that’s just the way it works, to a degree. I think everybody wanted to make sure that when we re-emerged that we emerged not in some sort of scatterbrained sense where we just kind of jumped out there—but kinda well-practiced and ready to go. It’s that idea of respecting yourself, respecting your audience and everything. You have to work hard to make a live show work and all that. We wanted to make sure—I think that was the intention—to have all the pieces together.”
There’s a sense of ease in Ounsworth’s voice as he discusses his band’s music and general plight, evidenced by the deep sighs and carefree laughter that color his trademark nasally tone. But if you’re at all familiar with Clap Your Hands’ quirky, infectious tunes, that easygoing nature might come as something of a shock. Since they emerged back in 2005 as trendy critical darlings with only a self-produced/released self-titled debut to their credit, they’ve carried along a mirage of foggy self-seriousness. While their instrumentation is lively and colorful, Ounsworth’s lyrics are insular and fidgety—the ambiguous poetry of an alcoholic, genius poet strung out in the big city, battling his own demons with inside jokes and sadness cloaked in cynicism.
“You look like David Bowie, but you’ve nothing new to show me,” goes one oft-quoted wisecrack from their critically lauded debut—and to many unconvinced observers, Ounsworth may as well have been talking about his own band. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah had struck while the iron was hot, earning their place in the upper reaches of indie rock by not only writing great songs but also through plain ol’ word of mouth and web traffic, during the peak of the mid-2000s blog-band boom. They were thrust into the national spotlight seemingly overnight, labeled poster-boys of a DIY movement they weren’t aware of joining. But with any meteoric rise, there comes, of course, the inevitable backlash.
Critics had a field day with the “sophomore slump” tag as their follow-up, 2007’s Some Loud Thunder, arrived to a reception of head-scratching confusion and outright hatred. Working with Flaming Lips’ producer David Fridmann, Ounsworth and company (bassist Tyler Sargent, guitarists/keyboardists Lee Sargent and Robbie Guertin, and drummer Sean Greenhalgh) retreated into the studio with hype levels that would have given most bands whiplash. They eschewed immediacy altogether, emphasizing odd instrumentation over dance beats and hooks, even coating their lead-off title track in a controversial bath of ear-busting distortion. It was a difficult album that appealed to a much smaller audience. Many reviewers viewed it as a bulging middle finger to the very fans and critics who sang their early praises. But Ounsworth doesn’t see it that way…completely.
“In a way, it was kind of that,” he says. “I never really wanted to alienate people absolutely. That was never the real intention. I mean, people talk about that first song, and it just didn’t really sound right clean! It was a good song, and I think Dave and I came to the conclusion that it should just be a mess, and that’s the way it’s supposed to sound. And we kinda took every song that way. So it wasn’t a direct ‘fuck you’ to anyone. It was more like, ‘This is the way we hear it,’ and that’s kinda it. And you know, I don’t necessarily like what everyone likes, and I don’t blame them for it. I would hope they blame me for it. So that’s the end of it really!” he adds with a laugh.
But even if Some Loud Thunder wasn’t intended as a ticking time bomb, that’s ultimately what it became. Too much pressure, an unrelenting tour schedule, too little time for reflection—it was a recipe for creative and personal disaster. “We had gone through a lot in a short amount of time for a band,” he recalls. “I don’t know. You know how it was—we had immediately been swept into going around the world on tour, that kind of thing where you don’t even bother to really unpack your bags because you’re just going to be leaving again. So it was a lot to take in at the beginning. We were very thankful for it, but to a degree, I think we really burned ourselves out.”
It wasn’t an immediate implosion, and Ounsworth is quick to point out that their hiatus was in no way related to any form of inner turmoil. The band needed a break, plain and simple—a fact made very clear when they reconvened to work on new music: “It seemed to me a bit of a struggle to get together and work on material at the time. … I think we kinda needed to recharge a bit and work with other people. It just made sense. We were working, and it did feel like we were onto something at that time, but to me, the immediacy of a rock ’n’ roll record and the sort of direct passion that comes off is what sets it apart and the final allure of this form, so if you’re just doing it and kinda going through the motions of doing it just because you’re supposed to, it doesn’t really seem like you should do it at all. So we needed a little time to pursue other projects and do our own things in order to get back into that passion we had when we began. Otherwise, there’s no point in really treading water, I don’t think.”
Everybody kept busy—Greenhalgh dabbled in production; the Sargent twins ventured into soundtrack work; and Ounsworth, most notably, struck out as a solo act, releasing two albums in 2009: Skin and Bones, under the guise of Flashy Python (which featured members of fellow Philly favorites Man Man and Dr. Dog), and another, Mo Beauty, under his own name. It was an exercise Ounsworth found creatively valuable, allowing him to stretch his musical legs and explore other styles. Ultimately, though, something didn’t feel quite right about it.
“It could very well be because Clap Your Hands is the first band that I’ve ever ever really worked with at all, and that’s what I’m used to,” he says, “and there’s no getting around that. Working on some other projects was rewarding, but there was always something that seemed to be missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It’s great; what you’re doing is great; it’s all working out, but something is missing. I think it has something to do with how Sean plays drums and how Tyler plays bass … and how Lee and Robbie play.”
So Ounsworth decided he needed his friends back. Since everybody was still in contact and on good terms, it wasn’t too tough to convince the others—but Ounsworth didn’t want to step on anyone’s creative toes. “It was kind of a long time coming,” he says. “Everybody was up for it. I think everybody was just excited for the prospect, and maybe in a similar way, everybody had acknowledged and really knew we had something special going. I was maybe the one who needed to stretch out a little more. But at the same time, all these guys have been working on other projects and doing well at what they were doing, so I didn’t want to be like, ‘I want to pull you guys away from what you’re doing.’ It had to be, ‘Well, are we all going to be in?’ Again, I didn’t want to say, ‘This is it. We’re starting, and that’s it!’ Everybody just got into it right away, and it was like no break had ever really occurred or anything.”
In early 2010, the five members got back together for rehearsals, banging out whatever came up—old tracks, covers, bits and pieces of new jams. Ounsworth had already been in contact with John Congleton, veteran indie producer, for quite some time, so they all came together when the time was right.
“I think, in the back of our minds, we always planned on keeping on, so we started tentatively at first, and then we really dove into it,” he says. “And it just kind of worked out that John was available at those particular times. It seemed like John was the right guy, so we just had to work around his schedule a little bit. So we didn’t get into the studio until I think November or so, and we did a weekend in Hoboken, where we did the bass and drums, where we all played live and kept any scratch tracks that worked. And then we went down to John’s place in Dallas for about two weeks or so, finishing it all off with the overdubs and mixing.
“Getting back to it,” he continues, “it revealed itself immediately that what was missing was that kind of ineffable element of this project, which I, at the beginning, almost refused to acknowledge. Everybody was telling me at the beginning, ‘There’s something about this,’ but I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, right.’ [Laughs] ‘We do what we do.’ But at the same time, now I have a lot more appreciation and understanding for that. I can understand why bands keep on for such a long time—there’s this element that you just can’t put your finger on that makes it tick.”
Hysterical came together easily, the band functioning at a creative peak. And the key word there is “band”—at the band’s inception, Ounsworth really viewed Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as a solo project with a little help from his friends. It’s only now, in the process of getting “hysterical” that he’s able to appreciate how lucky he is to have such gifted players at his disposal. If he had it to do all over again—if he had the luxury of more time for craft and consideration—he would have presented Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as more of a full-blooded band, with more collaboration and musical layers. Hysterical might not have the extreme, giddy sugar high rush of their debut, but that isn’t where Ounsworth’s head is, anyway. It’s a more mature, subtle, reflective album that demonstrates all sides of the band’s personality—from the sublime chord changes in the road-weary tour ballad “In a Motel” to the propulsive rhythmic dynamics that catapult midway through the utterly hypnotic “The Witness’ Dull Surprise” to the piano flourishes (courtesy of veteran session man Mike Garson) that pepper the emotional climax that is “Adam’s Plane.” They haven’t lost their trademark quirky charm (for proof, check the bouncy, grin-inducing “Maniac”), and Ounsworth’s lyrical finesse has never been sharper (“Is it strange that I can’t see the hand in front of my face?”).
When I ask Ounsworth for context on that line, it seems to strike a thematic nerve. “It’s that whole ‘disappearing in plain sight’ kinda thing.”
But the idea of vanishing into thin air is one that worked musically, as well. “We wanted that explosive element of this band to come off but also it’s supposed to, as I described to John, sound sort of like a disappearing act. And just kind of with those two general guidelines, we kind of moved form there. I think that kind of takes in both sides of this band—that we’re all kind of moving forward together, and that’s when the band’s at its strongest, I think.”
They’ve come full-circle. They had to dissolve into thin air before they could be built back up. And just as the band’s never been stronger, Ounsworth himself is now in a much better personal state.
“There is a degree to which I don’t necessarily think I am cut out for this line of work,” he says, “as far as the outside aspects of it that tend to rule things and get you away from your primary objective. And so I have a tendency, and I’ve always been this way, to sort of self-destruct or initiate self-destruction [laughs]. And I think there was a degree to which, during this period off, where I kind of came to terms with the respect I’ve always had inherent in this project and any project that I work on, for the musicians that I play with and for the fans and everything. It kind of made sense to me, but at the same time, there was kind of a self-loathing that I didn’t pick up on that and that I cut myself away from people. … I think that’s why we took so long to make this or to work on this. And I think, finally, it worked. It was like a revelation to me, and usually I feel like I can’t anticipate most everything, but I think I needed to step away a little more on this one. I learned a lot about myself.”