Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

I would be happy to record 5 albums a year.

Since their self-titled debut, the musical vehicle that is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has been in non-stop motion. Alec Ounsworth’s idiosyncratic wailing, warbling, yelping even, strangely enough gave the band mass appeal, a sort of cultish fanbase of oddballs and popstrels alike. The band even made it into the BBC’s Sound of 2006 poll, at number 2 – that ain’t bad going for a band that started off almost as a bedroom project.

I am approaching Alec, the eponymous singer from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, with some trepidation. I remembered him being pretty hard work when I interviewed him last year – he is not the talking kind. Not in a bad way though. It is pretty rare, and nice, to talk to someone who is not all but too keen and prone to boring self-promoting rants. Alec’s shrugs and murmurs are actually endearing. One of his gems includes his answer to how it was playing a sold out show in Central Park earlier this summer: “I dunno,” he says, “it was different than playing not in Central Park.” Magic.

I have difficulty being creative with every new show – I like the idea of being creative at home.

“There’s no shortage of people to talk to,” he says, “or people to play to it seems. I don’t mind talking to people at all,” he stresses, “but to me, everybody approaches interviews as interviews, rather than just discussion, which it can be, should be!”

On record though, Alec has to be one of the most imaginative songwriters. His surreal, fascinating, bouncy lyrics don’t cease to amaze. From ‘Is This Love’: “And we can do the zarathustra / We can do the broken fist / We can tear down all the borders / Or abbreviate the list”. To ‘Satan Said Dance’ on the new record – a chiming chant of the song title.

Now, in the reception of a hotel in Old Street, given the option, Alec jumps at the chance to go elsewhere for some early morning coffee. So we take a short walk to a fancy café that looks like a butcher’s from the outside. We are about to enter when a fat lady in an apron informs us they have a no-smoking policy. “That’s fine,” says Alec, looking disgruntled. After a little prodding, he admits that it’s not fine, and we wander further to find a good, greasy smoky café, old-fashioned style and all that.

On our way, Alec is surprisingly alert. He says he has been up since five in the morning. It was a ‘brave new world’ to see people milling on the streets at 7am, though according to his home time, this interview is taking place at 4am! I ask Alec what he has been doing since five in the morning? He says he has been aimlessly walking around East London, admiring the architecture and watching the slow trickle of office workers quickly build up into rush hour and die out again.

“Having gotten eight hours of sleep of the last three days, I didn’t really know where I was,” he says. “I hardly know where I am! Nah, it’s alright. It’s not uncommon, unfortunately.” He seems a little distracted and reminiscent. Homesick, probably. When he was younger, Alec had a love affair with London – “My sister was working at a hotel called The George Hotel, and I remember coming and visiting. I had this real romance for London when I was a kid. I preferred it over any city.”

London weather bodes well with Alec; he likes it overcast. “I remember when I was a little kid, overcast weather made me think I hated going to school, so it made it feel like a day off, and I could do whatever I wanted, for some reason.”

This morning, he found out he had £5 stuffed down the side of his bag from a long time ago, and decided to go and spend it. “I wandered over to the community college, I dunno, just wandered. I went back to the hotel for a second, thinking I might try to get some sleep, and stayed there for about five minutes and left. I feel a little out of sorts, but…”

We find a corner café with pre-war machinery and the loudest coffee machine. The café is also, clearly, some sort of hub for all builders within two miles of the Old Street area.

Alec tells me the band went out last night to see The Flaming Lips, as a ‘work’ outing, who performed a double encore, to popular demand – a necessary evil according to Alec. “I remember at the beginning we sometimes, when I didn’t want to, didn’t go back out. If we were headlining or whatever, just cos I don’t think it should be as necessary as it seems,” he says, looking out of the window. “Since last year, every time we’ve played a show, we’ve come back for an encore…[but] there are some bands that get off, and run back on no matter what the crowd thinks.” Although he admires Wayne Coyne’s showmanship, he admits that he finds it difficult to be creative with every new show.

Dave Fridmann, who produced their new album, ‘Some Loud Thunder’, also produced the best Flaming Lips albums, including the masterpiece that is ‘The Soft Bulletin’. Of the partnership, Alec says, “Going in, [Dave] knew that it would be a balance. He knew I kinda had a good idea of what I wanted – so it was a balancing act.”

If I didn’t go on the road as much, I would be happy to record 5 albums a year. That’s what I like to do! I like to record albums.

He creates an air of lost joy as he talks of his passion for recording. “If it were all up to me, which it seems to be getting a little farther away from,” he whispers, “going on the road so much… if I didn’t go on the road as much, I would be happy to record 5 albums a year. That’s what I like to do! I like to record albums.” I suggest they become a band that do a handful of shows a year on purpose, and build up mystique, travelling only when they like. “Maybe we will,” he laughs wistfully, “chances are not bad that that might happen.”

Most of the songs on their second LP have been ready for a long time, written in the ten year period since Alec started writing songs at 16. Songwriting obviously came easily to Alec, even at a young age. “It’s weird,” he says suddenly, “I could write ten songs in a day, and then three of them I’d designate for CYHSY. It’s just because the instruments that are played, and the mood that I want for this particular project… when we run through it in practice, it’s fairly easy to determine what takes pretty immediately.”

I wonder how much more readily available material Alec has up his sleeve. “Yeah, well for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, probably just two more albums,” he admits candidly, “but I’ve written songs for other projects. Probably for two other projects that I wanted to work on, probably four or five albums-worth at least.”

Although he has played four or five shows with friends, “I’m pretty much worn out from playing live shows anyway,” he admits slowly. “It’s sometimes interesting to try out other songs and other formats, just because the other projects – none of them are the same. When I get the chance I’m working on other things.”

The strain of travelling has taken its toll on Alec over the past twelve months, since they grew into media darlings on both sides of the Atlantic. “Going on the road is fine n’all, but it’s a totally different game. Frankly, it’s pretty fatiguing. Also, I have difficulty being creative with every new show – I like the idea of being creative at home [through recording],” he says quietly, looking into his black coffee. He almost sounds like a broken man. No wonder when he finally came off tour he found enough energy to record the follow up in record time.

Though on more recent travels, Japan captured Alec’s imagination. “I’d never been there, [and] a lot of the other places, like in Western Europe, Mexico, Canada, I had already been to. With Western Europe, there is a certain mentality that is approachable, and with Japan it’s approachable, but people see things a lot differently. And it comes off architecturally, and things like that. I can’t really say it in three sentences,” he concludes.

Hopefully the next looming tour will offer more opportunity for exploring – and plenty of rest, in what’s bound to be another gruelling schedule.

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