‘New York freaks me out!’

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's lead singer talks Big Apple, breaking big and being broken on tour


With the development of the Internet, indie musicians could finally make do without the benefit of a large organization behind them. Even so, it wasn’t until the Philadelphia/Brooklyn-based quintet Clap Your Hands Say Yeah released their self-titled debut album in the summer of 2005 that the Net’s full potential was tapped.

Not only did the band sell the album through their Web site, they did so initially without a distributor or publicity. There wasn’t even a press release until some foreign record companies licensed the album in the fall after its release, but by then online pundits had praised it to the skies and the band members were spending more time filling orders (some 25,000 copies of the album were shifted out of bass player Tyler Sargent’s apartment alone) than playing gigs. For once, the hype was justified.

Though CYHSY’s debt to ramshackle indie-rock trio Modest Mouse is clear, and leader Alec Ounsworth’s vocal resemblance to Talking Heads’ David Byrne unavoidable, the music is exuberant and melodic in ways that aren’t easy to compare with anyone. The infectiousness of their sound is based on repetition and a delicate layering of elements. The band’s name conjures up gospel-like release, and appropriately many of the songs build to an epiphany.

In January, CYHSY played a single, sold-out show in Tokyo at Shibuya Club Quattro. What made the audience clap hands and say “yeah!” was the emotional dynamic: The arrangements seemed so careful and controlled, but the performance was genuinely unhinged, creating a sense of danger that Ounsworth acknowledges in the song “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood.”

“There are things we can’t control,” he sang, “Will we give ourselves a fright when we become less than human?”

Discussing that whirlwind Tokyo appearance over the phone from his Philadelphia home in the summer, Ounsworth gave the impression that he is, in fact, intimidated by this sort of energy. “Initially, I thought [Tokyo] was a little overwhelming,” he said. “I get thrown by bigger cities and densely populated areas. New York freaks me out, to be honest. And I thought Tokyo might be the same, but actually I found it comfortable.”

It might be a problem that New York freaks out Ounsworth, since the rest of the band lives there and he prefers Philadelphia. The way he explained it, the group assembled around his songs.

“I had been working on these songs for years, and they were mapped out before we even started. I ran into a couple of musicians and passed them the demos and asked them if they were interested in playing. Before we knew it we were doing shows.”

CYHSY, in fact, wasn’t necessarily meant to be a full-time job. Until about a year ago, Ounsworth still worked days and CYHSY was only one of various musical projects he was involved with, but once the band took off he put everything else aside. He’s been touring almost nonstop ever since. Last July, the band was supposed to appear at Fuji Rock Festival ’06, but canceled. Ounsworth explained this was because he was recovering from exhaustion, although the official line at the time was that the singer had lost his voice.

They’ve since found time to record their second album with producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Mogwai) in upstate New York. “He’s been trying to light a fire under me to reshape some of the stuff he thinks might be more interesting if it were recorded in an alternative manner,” Ounsworth said. “I’m open to that because we’re working with Dave for a reason.”

The record is reportedly finished and will be released in the New Year. Once again, the band will put it out themselves, at least in the U.S.

“We’re probably just going to have somebody distribute it for us,” he says. “At this point we do need a little help, but I don’t imagine we’ll get it in the form of a label.”