by Adam McGrath
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is one of the most written about indie bands of the past decade, ever since their smash debut blew up the fledgling blogosphere in 2005. But in ten years worth of digital ink, it’s possible that no one has ever gotten the band’s inscrutable nucleus, Alec Ounsworth, just right.
Only Run, the band’s fourth album, released independently on June 3rd (as all the albums have been), would seem on the surface to be a departure from previous efforts. The original lineup of the band is no longer together, and the new songs feature more synthesizers than guitar. However, after talking with Ounsworth earlier this week, I’m largely convinced that these shifts simply reveal what has been true all along: this project has always been a one man show at heart.
Doing it on your own seems to be at the center of Ounsworth’s ethos, and several lyrics on Only Run point to the burdensome effects of this outlook. On “Beyond Illusion”, atop a driving electronic drumbeat, the singer claims, “We were born to fight alone.” And on “Coming Down”, a duet featuring Ounsworth’s old touring buddy Matt Berninger of The National, Ounsworth insists “I’ve been going it alone all the while.”
This sense of me-against-the-world also applies in a specific way to the challenges of the modern music industry. Ounsworth says, “I try not to let the trials and tribulations of the music industry get to me, but I’ve done all of these records independently, and things seem much more uncertain to any given artist than they ever have before, and a lot of [the album] had to do with facing that, in my own obscure stance. It came from a place of uncertainty, not with my capacity as a songwriter, but with how long I can fight against the powers that be.”
So while it can be debated whether the musical direction of Only Run is the result of the lineup dissolving or the cause, for Ounsworth it seems perfectly consistent with his original artistic vision. He says, “That’s kind of always the way I had envisioned it, at the beginning. Things got a little out of control at the very beginning, and immediately became something that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I never had pictured it as a one-for-all entire band concept. Whether people like it or not, that’s how a lot of bands work. Whether anybody likes it or not, I require absolute creative control. That’s just how it works; that’s all I’ve known.”
Ounsworth also says that without the willingness to try something new, music can quickly become stale. “I don’t understand, these days,” he ponders, “why a lot of people seem to make the same record over and over again. My favorite musicians (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits), are the ones who don’t stay still, don’t just stay in some sort of rut by virtue of the fact that people happened to like their last record. That’s not very artistic, not very creative, and doesn’t really seem to help anyone. At its very worst, it’s dishonest.”
So it seems that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Alec Ounsworth will forever be inextricably linked. But that doesn’t mean he’s always on stage by himself. Though earlier this year he played a series of intimate living room shows around the United States and Europe, tonight, June 27, at Johnny Brenda’s, a full band will perform songs from all four CYHSY albums.
The current touring lineup consists of notable Philadelphia musicians, such as drummer Pat Berkery (War on Drugs), Nick Krill (Spinto Band) and bassist Matt Wong. Tickets are still available, so come out tonight to hear new songs and classics alike.