I like the idea of approaching people on a more personal level. It might not mean a financial windfall or anything like that, but you eventually find yourself in the position of having people who are on board for life.
BY WILLIAM LENNON
When Chicago INNERVIEW asks Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth how he’s doing, he sighs. “I’m alright,” he says. “I’m on the move. I have a flight in an hour and a half…” He sounds tired, which is not all that surprising considering as of right now, Ounsworth essentially is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — pulling triple duty as guitarist, vocalist and synth-wizard (with help from producer/Reel Big Fish alumnus Matt Wong on bass.)
Brooklyn may be ground zero for the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah phenomenon that came out of nowhere 10 years ago when their first self-distributed demos diffused across the internet like an extremely trendy form of pollen, but Clap Your Hand’s deepest roots remain in Philadelphia. Ounsworth perks up a bit when we discuss the scene in his hometown, where the CYHSY mastermind regularly recruits Philly musicians like Matt Barrick of The Walkmen and Man Man’s Billy Dufala for his various side projects. We later discuss the guitar he recently got from Philly-based, family-owned guitar company DiPinto. “Chris DiPinto just put a Bixby in for me,” he says cheerfully. “So I can bend notes now.”
When asked about what he’s been listening to, he rattles off Van Morrison, Randy Newman’s 12 Songs, and Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Notably, The Talking Heads and R.E.M. don’t come up. Ounsworth has always claimed that the influence of these bands on CYHSY’s music is minimal, and our conversation seems to back that up. (A lot of people roll their eyes at the idea that CYHSY doesn’t really crib notes from its sibling acts, but is it so unbelievable that people with similar influences working with similar instruments might produce similar music?)
These days, Clap Your Hands is mixing more traditional gigs with small-scale “living room shows.” But Ounsworth says he doesn’t see going from rocking stadiums and packed SXSW showcases to playing for a few dozen people as a step back. “I like the idea of reducing,” he says. “I like the idea of approaching people on a more personal level. It might not mean a financial windfall or anything like that, but you eventually find yourself in the position of having people who are on board for life.”
Maybe “reducing” is the common theme of the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: a smaller band, smaller shows, a stripping away of all the potentially noxious byproducts of the band’s previous success and fame. “This is an opportunity for me to approach songs in a different way,” Ounsworth adds. “In a living room you can’t always do things the way you did them on the album, so you have to make them sound complete with just an acoustic guitar.”
About 20 minutes in, I start to wind down the interview so Ounsworth can catch his flight to Santa Fe, where he’s set to play at an event for Outdoor magazine. “I was thinking I’d bring a toy piano out…Y’know, just for ‘Sunshine and Clouds’. Hang on, it’s right here…” I can hear the tinkling sound of the piano over the phone, and for some reason we both crack up. “It’s called a Jaymar. I mean, I like the idea of bringing a little toy piano on stage. It’ll be fun!”