By Michael Lello
Photos by Jason Riedmiller
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is in the midst of a transitional period. A new EP, new band members, a new album set for a release next year.
In July, the Alec Ounsworth-led project released the 4-song EP, “Little Moments,” which we have been streaming here. It is also available for purchase as a download or limited 10-inch, signed vinyl, here.
We recently sat down with Ounsworth at the Theatre Of Living Arts before a show in which he and CYHSY debuted songs from the EP, new covers — including Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and a Frank Ocean tune — and songs from the band’s fourth full-length album, set for a January 2014 release. Ounsworth, who will perform a solo set Thusrday, Aug. 29, at Johnny Brenda’s before CYHSY dates in the Midwest and East Coast, chatted with us about the EP and album, the pros and cons of working without a label, the genesis of his brilliant 2009 solo album “Mo’ Beauty” and what it means to be one of the music world’s first “blog bands.”
sH81R: How did the songs on the new EP come together?
AO: Pretty much like the other stuff has come together, insofar as like I just probably put . . . I either started on piano or acoustic guitar and messed with some melodies and started adding synthesizer. It’s pretty much followed that same formula for every record that I’ve done. As far as recording, I did most of it at home.
H81R: Did you produce it yourself?
H81R: Who else played on it?
AO: Sean [Greenhalgh] played some drums on it. And he did some synth programming stuff.
H81R: And the rest is you?
AO: Yeah. But it’s not entirely dissimilar from the way we do a lot of the other stuff.
AO: Well, I mean, two of the songs are going to be on the next record. So I guess it would be.
H81R: How would you describe the upcoming full-length to someone who has been listening to the band since day one? What do you think they’ll think?
AO: What do I think they’ll think? I don’t know. It always surprises me what they thought of the other ones.
H81R: How do you think you have changed as a songwriter or musician since CYHSY started?
AO: I don’t know. I don’t think I can recognize that. I don’t know. Maybe things have changed. You go for certain things on certain records, but you try to make them all fit. When you try to make a record fit, you go with your first instinct, and you try to run with it throughout. I hate records that sound like they’re not of a particular time. So that’s all part of it; you try to capitalize on whatever mood you’re feeling at the moment.
H81R: What have been the pros and cons of self-releasing CYHSY’s albums?
AO: The pros are that we can do whatever we want. And the cons are that there’s nobody there to tell us that that’s actually going to be viable to the general public (laughs). But I prefer the pros. I mean, it’s always nice to make a buck, but I think these days you have to try to do what you can, one way or another.
H81R: People cite CYHSY as one the first “blog bands,” if not the first. Were you aware of that, and were you trying to tap into the growing proliferation of music blogs in the mid-2000s?
AO: No. It just happened. I didn’t know anything about those. It wasn’t really much of an Internet person. So no, I didn’t read them, I don’t read them, but I’m happy that people have opinions.
H81R: What type of role do you think the blogs had in the band’s early success?
AO: I think it had a large role. I think it has, ya know, it’s like somebody telling a friend that you should check this record out, and that friend telling his friend, but in a different way, in a virtual way. But yeah, I do think it had a large role.
AO: When you did your solo album, you worked with a label, Anti-. Why?
H81R: I wanted it to be easy. I had just finished a record with some friends of mine in Philadelphia, and just to do everything by yourself is really hard. I never really had the experience of a label, and that support; somebody to help you with album artwork and actually design your album, and you can just sit back and say, “I like this photograph” and “I want something like this,” and they do it. I’ve never actually had that experience.
H81R: Did you feel that album was more prominent in stores, with the label involved?
AO: No (laughs). I don’t think so. I never saw it in any stores. I don’t have any on vinyl myself.
H81R: Stanton Moore, George Porter Jr. and some other New Orleans standouts play on that album. Was it a matter of you writing the songs and saying, “These are the guys I want?”
AO: No, not at all. That was Steve Berlin, who sort of, he initiated the entire thing. [Editor’s Note: Steve Berlin of Los Lobos produced “Mo’ Beauty.”] He just wanted to make a record with me, and I happened to have some songs that I thought might be worth working on. George Porter I knew, mainly from The Meters and some of the recent stuff, but Stanton I had seen when I was down in New Orleans playing with a trio, and I talked to Steve. I didn’t recognize him, I didn’t know he was Stanton Moore. And I talked to Steve a little, and I was like, “You know it would be great if we could get that drummer from that venue where they took us,” and he was like, “That’s Stanton, we can probably get him, let’s give it a shot.” That’s the way it works down in New Orleans, which I think is kinda great, and they’re great, great musicians.
H81R: How did you get hooked up with Steve Berlin in the first place?
AO: I met him down there with a bunch of different musicians. We were doing a retreat sort of to assess the situation post-Katrina and see what we could do to spread the word, helping musicians come back who had been relocated and that sort of thing. And Steve and I just got talking.
H81R: Who is in the current CYHSY lineup, besides you and Sean?
AO: We have a keyboardist and we have a bassist and keyboardist, and I don’t know. They’re names are Zack and Matt. That’s all I can say, really.
H81R: Are they both Philly guys?
AO: One’s a Philly guy and one guy’s from Providence.
AO: We’re going to mix [the new album] with Dave Fridmann, then we go on tour. People recently have been telling me I should try and work on some covers. These guys are really enamored with some of the covers I’ve been doing. I was thinking it would be nice to do a covers record.
H81R: What are some of the covers?
AO: Well these guys, I don’t know what I think of it, but I did a version of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” which I think is somewhat interesting. We’re playing it tonight, so you can tell me whether or not it’s interesting. Stuff like that, in that vein. I also did Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut,” I did “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” by Bob Dylan in sort of a synth-y way. I’m not really positive what I think of it. I don’t really know. If other people say they like it, I’m like, “OK, maybe other people will.”
H81R: Is there anything you’ve been listening to a lot of lately?
AO: I liked Tame Impala’s last record. Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange,” I really like that. My friend has a band called Light Heat, I really like that record. The Walkmen’s last record. Dr. Dog. I was just practicing in Dr. Dog’s studio, and Toby (Leaman) played me the songs from their forthcoming record, and it sounds great. That sort of thing.
H81R: Speaking of Dr. Dog, how would you describe the comeraderie in the Philly music scene?
AO: I don’t know how I’d describe it. It’s supportive. Everyone realizes what they’re up against (laughs). We all cry on each other’s shoulders from time to time. We do what we can to help each other, because we know what it’s like to be in each given situation.
H81R: Is there any sense of pride or satisfaction in seeing the success of each other’s projects?
AO: I feel like that about almost every band I’ve toured with, for the most part. Like Elvis Perkins. I was just talking the other day, Elvis Perkins played First Unitarian Church and he sold out the upstairs section, and I remember seeing him a few years earlier opening for the Pernice Brothers and they’re wasn’t an enormous turnout. I figured that was the height of their career and then they stopped. The Walkmen, I just say them at Union Transfer a little while ago. But yeah, every time I see Dr. Dog play, it’s kind of a celebration of everyone from Philadelphia.
H81R: Do you have any other projects you’d like to get to? Like Flashy Python?
AO: Yeah, I mean I don’t know when, because I’m kinda preoccupied with doing everything for this record, but I’d really like to. I’ve talked to Matt (Barrick) who played drums on that record, from The Walkmen, and he wants to do something. I don’t know if we’re calling it Flashy Python or what. Maybe we’ll call it Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (laughs).