Interview: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Earlier this year, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were struggling to sell more than five albums a day. Now they're selling out every venue they play. Laura Barton finds out the secret of their overnight success

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's debut album is the most delightful, if bonkers, record imaginable. It begins with a circus ringmaster's cry before hurdy-gurdying through 12 joyous tracks, all with inscrutable titles, such as The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth. It has drawn comparisons with Talking Heads and !!!, and has sent the indie music world into raptures. Yet the Brooklyn-based band seem more startled than anyone to find record companies from the UK calling them at odd hours and David Bowie attending their shows.

It is the morning after another triumphant New York gig for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and the sun is pounding unseasonally. In the back of a yellow taxicab, the manager is welded to his mobile phone, frantically trying to locate the members of his band. We find bass player Tyler Sargent standing on a street corner, looking a little the worse for wear.

The band - Alec Ounsworth (vocals and guitars), Lee Sargent (guitars and keyboards), his twin brother Tyler (bass), Robbie Guertin (guitars and keyboards) and Sean Greenhalgh (drums) - met in college, though Ounsworth, hung over and a bit prickly, is keen to dismiss the notion of Clap Your Hands as a college band. "I find it pretty irrelevant," he says. "How we met has nothing to do with anything." He is a little happier talking about the album. Self-funded, self-produced, it was recorded principally as a seven-track showpiece to score gigs. "But then," says Ounsworth, "we decided to tack on some more songs, because we'd started to get shows that we wanted to get. So we figured, why not turn it into a full-length?"

The band began selling the record through their website, packaging and posting each one. "That's where we started out," says Ounsworth, "kinda running a post office, delivering stuff to stores around the US. Initially, orders were small. "We started out selling like five a day," says Greenhalgh. "But then," Ounsworth smirks, "it got to the point where it was really impossible for me to write and package them all individually. I think I missed a few."

The gradual increment in sales was due to a combination of the band's live reputation, CDs bought, burnt and passed on, and the fact that they began to be name-checked on all the right weblogs and music sites. The defining moment was a review on Pitchfork, the diehard music-devotee site which similarly introduced the Arcade Fire to a wider audience.

"I think," recalls Greenhalgh, "that Pitchfork happened on June 20. Because on June 20 and 21, a lot of people placed orders." Ounsworth shrugs. "Though we had already sold out a few shows by then."

And did things immediately go a bit insane? The band snicker. "That day," says Greenhalgh with a smile, "I think we sold 600 or something."

Since then, the world has turned a little odd for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. In Montreal, people they've never met greeted them like old friends. One rather senses that the band are not wholly certain who they can trust. "It's always been the case for me that I've never been able to shake people off," Ounsworth says dryly. "It can be great, it can be a fun way to meet people, and it can be a really annoying way to meet people. But it's fine, I understand," he concludes, in a voice that suggests more bewilderment than comprehension.

Already the band have received their first hate mail - an email telling them they "fucking suck" - but they appear to have taken it with good grace. "It just goes along with the inevitable bit of a backlash," says Tyler. "I think it's totally a good thing to be getting a reaction, just any reaction." They laugh. "I don't know why, but some people seem to have a real problem with how I sing," explains Ounsworth innocently. Indeed, he possesses what you might call the Marmite of singing voices: adenoidal and slurred. You either love it or you hate it. He has, he claims, always sung the same way and has not worked hard to cultivate it. "Maybe I've got more comfortable, I've been able to control it better than I used to. I used to sing maybe a little more cleanly, but now I have more of an idea of how I can mess around."

Their first shows were low-key affairs: small venues, small crowds. "I remember getting 40 people at the Mercury Lounge and being like, yeah!" says Tyler. "When people we didn't know started showing up we thought, it's really workin'."

They've used foul methods to lure people to their gigs. "Our very first show, a lot of people came because we billed it as our birthday party," confesses Lee. "People showed up thinking it was just a party and then they were like, 'Aw, we gotta listen to your fuckin' band?'" It was a mixed reception. At the time, the band were unsure of their own song titles and, indeed, chord changes. Ounsworth recalls how after the gig, one of the twins' friends told them: "This is by far the worst project I have ever seen you play in." The twins laugh. "Yeah," says Tyler. "He said Alec sounded like Adam Sandler crossed with David Byrne. But at least it was a strong bad reaction." Lee nods. "Ever since then, we've always used him as a barometer."

Though the band are now well-versed in their own titles and music, the impulse to improvise mid-show is still proving hard to resist, especially for Ounsworth. "It's not the lyrics so much as the inflection," explains Greenhalgh. "Sometimes he'll get really out there. It's almost like a jazz saxophone or something."

Ounsworth doesn't look too fazed by the Sandler-David Byrne-jazz saxophone hybrid suggestion. "I mean, I think we're more Hall and Oates," he says, smiling, "but I don't care. What are our influences? The Pointer Sisters, Rachmaninov ... I dunno. I listen to everything. I'm sort of obsessive - I've got to be listening to stuff every day." Part of the band's eclectic sound is, they say, due to their varied listening habits and the fact that "we come from entirely different backgrounds. Lee and Tyler have a bit of a jazz background."

The Sargents nod. "We played jazz for a long time," says Lee. "I think that comes off in the guitar work. I was once told that I unlearned the guitar in order to play indie rock. But that's the best thing that you can possibly do." His brother perhaps sums it up best: "We go out in all these different directions and come in somewhere else."

The band recently completed a sold-out UK tour, playing to a succession of feverishly excited audiences, and plan to return in the new year to coincide with the launch of their album. In the meantime, they hope to record some new material and come to terms with the snowballing Clap Your Hands Say Yeah mania.

"There's no way you can fail to be surprised by the reaction," says Ounsworth with utter bafflement. "I don't know the level of public opinion ... what people think ... I don't know what the hell's going on! But I do know that when we signed our souls over to the devil, he promised that this would happen."

· The single Is This Love is out now on Wichita. The album Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is out in January on V2


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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