A Sit Down With Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!

Written by Noah Wunsch on . Posted in Arts & Film, Music.


It was just a month ago that I shared a first kiss with a girl I would never see again, “Is This Love,” playing inside the party. The hopping guitar riff, and spaceship synth seemed to whirl around us as Alec Ounsworth sang, “You’re so much different from me, this I know.” And while – at the time – the kiss seemed truly wonderful, a month later I can fully say… Eh. I didn’t get the toe rush feeling from the kiss. I got it from the song.


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah blew up with their eponymous debut album in 2005. Six years later, they’re still at it with Hysterical; an album that seems to deal with the idea of growing up from an adolescent perspective. Any one of the songs could be the title of a literary young adult novel: Misspent Youth, Maniac, Into Your Alien Arms, In a Motel, Ketamine and Ecstasy. But the sophistication lies in the emotions these tracks elicit. An understanding that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, everything is okay. There’s time. Take it.

The five piece band of Yeah-Sayers is made up of Sean Greenhalgh (drums), Robbie Guertin (guitar/keyboard), Lee Sargent (guitar/keyboard), Tyler Sargent (bass) and Alec Ounsworth (guitar/vocals). They’re currently touring around the US, making their way to NYC December 7th, for a show at Webster Hall.

The band initially met when you were all at Conn. College. You were studying medical anthropology. How did you go from that major to forming a band?
A: Where else are you supposed to go? [Laughs] I did a thesis in Mexico, doing field work, thinking I’d go straight to grad school, but it didn’t seem like it was for me at the time.

I always appreciated the idea of trying to create. I liked trying to create music, before then and onwards. I’ve always appreciated it. The overarching idea of trying to do music, especially this form of music, was that I wanted to touch or affect as many people as I possibly could. The import of what I was doing in academia wouldn’t have been as dramatic as what I do now. That said, I also think that it just so happened that we came together and made a record people appreciated. We were lucky enough that people paid attention.

I think your music generates a lot of memorable moments. It’s a positive influence in the way that people want something romantic to happen when your songs are playing. Is that something you’re aware of?
A: I think it’s probably what I’ve been drawn to about certain musicians or records.  That’s probably where it comes from. It’s not something I consciously consider while making a record; it just is by virtue of instinct. What I’m interested in, in music is the idea of escapism in a way… That’s not the right word. A dream like quality to the music, Tom Waits in Dallas, Blood Money Records. The Beatles, it could be anything. That’s a relatively good start. Certain David Bowie records, like Heroes. It’s appealing to me. The Blue Nile made a great record called Hats. It’s dark, but it’s not morose or pessimistic. I like the idea of a dark feeling fantasy, but not necessarily sad or oppressive.

Your first album got major web-hype, which sort of launched your careers. How have you maintained that web presence?
A: I don’t think you can force the issue necessarily. People have the ability to sign on and off on the internet, and they do. As far as I’m concerned we sort of maintained it in the way we started. We took the necessary steps to get the word out, nothing extraordinary. We’re still doing that. Leave it up to everyone else to take it upon themselves, whether it catches on or doesn’t. A lot of it is putting your faith in other people.

Where’s your favorite place to perform? Why?
A: Ireland was really something. It makes you feel like you’re doing a great job, the audience is so enthusiastic. I don’t know what it is, but every time we play there, it’s been fantastic. Maybe it’s that people have just the right amount of drink, but it’s a real surge every time we play there. At one show in Dublin, when we released our second record, the audience was going crazy. It was such a great energy. If you’re ever vacationing in Ireland and have the chance to go to a venue, do it and check out how a part of the show the audience makes themselves.  Most places we’ve been have been very supportive, around the world, from Brussels to Ireland to Japan to the States. I can’t really pick out one specific venues that is head and shoulders above the rest. We just got back from Australia and they have a sort of different approach, they’re a little bit more reserved. Which is probably how I would be, but I envy the people who can let go.

It’s taken four years for Hysterical to come out, whereas it only took you two between your first and sophomore albums. What’d you learn in those two gaps?
A: I learned quite a bit about creating records. How to work in the studio. How to try to balance the direction that any given individual wants to go on a project. As far as the industry is concerned, I’m beginning to understand less and less [laughs], and that’s a problem. I think the model is changing as we speak, and I don’t think it’s going in a very positive direction, thought there are definitely some champions of the new form. That said, you take your punches and you keep going. That aspect hasn’t changed.

“Ketamine and Ecstasy” is an amazing song title, and I’ve read the lyrics, they’ve got a sort of non-linear Ted Berrigan-like feel to them. Did you write the song with the high of ketamine or ecstasy on your mind?
A: I’m not overly familiar with the high of those drugs, it had more to do with people self-medicating. The conclusion that is reached from that, is that the medication kind of kicks your ass. I like to keep it sort of removed, the message of the song, but it has to do with coming up from a certain naivete or innocence, and coming to the point of relative experience and recognizing that you need to keep starting over and over again. That certain ways out are not what they seem. It’s a theme for the entire record: a lot of what’s taken at face value is simply an illusion. Sometimes you need that illusion though. As Guns ‘n Roses have said before me, “Use your illusion.”

So what are the personal experiences that influenced Hysterics?
A: A lot of the content had to do with reaching back. An evaluation of where I once was at any given time. More the idea of reflecting on how I might have been and certain mistakes that might have been made and needed to be made. I live in a relatively isolated setting in Pennsylvania. I’m a family man now, things are different than they once were, which doesn’t mean they’re any less exciting, just that they’re new. I’d say a lot of the themes discussed on this record, a lot of the themes that people take to mean interesting, dangerous or exotic like hard drugs or staying out all night and losing your shit. A lot of that stuff I didn’t think was very interesting in the first place. It was what it was at a particular point for me. Now that I’m even farther from it you find it harder to see what’s interesting, but what you find is more rewarding. That’s the hope.

It was just a month ago that I shared a first kiss with a girl I would never see again, “Is This Love,” playing inside the party. The hopping guitar riff, and spaceship synth seemed to whirl around us as Alec Ounsworth sang, “You’re so much different from me, this I know.” And while – at the time – the kiss seemed truly wonderful, a month later I can fully say… Eh. I didn’t get the toe rush feeling from the kiss. I got it from the song.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah blew up with their eponymous debut album in 2005. Six years later, they’re still at it with Hysterical; an album that seems to deal with the idea of growing up from an adolescent perspective. Any one of the songs could be the title of a literary young adult novel: Misspent Youth, Maniac, Into Your Alien Arms, In a Motel, Ketamine and Ecstasy. But the sophistication lies in the emotions these tracks elicit. An understanding that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, everything is okay. There’s time. Take it.

The five piece band of Yeah-Sayers is made up of Sean Greenhalgh (drums), Robbie Guertin (guitar/keyboard), Lee Sargent (guitar/keyboard), Tyler Sargent (bass) and Alec Ounsworth (guitar/vocals). They’re currently touring around the US, making their way to NYC December 7th, for a show at Webster Hall.

The band initially met when you were all at Conn. College. You were studying medical anthropology. How did you go from that major to forming a band?

A: Where else are you supposed to go? [Laughs] I did a thesis in Mexico, doing field work, thinking I’d go straight to grad school, but it didn’t seem like it was for me at the time.

I always appreciated the idea of trying to create. I liked trying to create music, before then and onwards. I’ve always appreciated it. The overarching idea of trying to do music, especially this form of music, was that I wanted to touch or affect as many people as I possibly could. The import of what I was doing in academia wouldn’t have been as dramatic as what I do now. That said, I also think that it just so happened that we came together and made a record people appreciated. We were lucky enough that people paid attention.

I think your music generates a lot of memorable moments. It’s a positive influence in the way that people want something romantic to happen when your songs are playing. Is that something you’re aware of?

A: I think it’s probably what I’ve been drawn to about certain musicians or records.  That’s probably where it comes from. It’s not something I consciously consider while making a record; it just is by virtue of instinct. What I’m interested in, in music is the idea of escapism in a way… That’s not the right word. A dream like quality to the music, Tom Waits in Dallas, Blood Money Records. The Beatles, it could be anything. That’s a relatively good start. Certain David Bowie records, like Heroes. It’s appealing to me. The Blue Nile made a great record called Hats. It’s dark, but it’s not morose or pessimistic. I like the idea of a dark feeling fantasy, but not necessarily sad or oppressive.

Your first album got major web-hype, which sort of launched your careers. How have you maintained that web presence?

A: I don’t think you can force the issue necessarily. People have the ability to sign on and off on the internet, and they do. As far as I’m concerned we sort of maintained it in the way we started. We took the necessary steps to get the word out, nothing extraordinary. We’re still doing that. Leave it up to everyone else to take it upon themselves, whether it catches on or doesn’t. A lot of it is putting your faith in other people.

Where’s your favorite place to perform? Why?

A: Ireland was really something. It makes you feel like you’re doing a great job, the audience is so enthusiastic. I don’t know what it is, but every time we play there, it’s been fantastic. Maybe it’s that people have just the right amount of drink, but it’s a real surge every time we play there. At one show in Dublin, when we released our second record, the audience was going crazy. It was such a great energy. If you’re ever vacationing in Ireland and have the chance to go to a venue, do it and check out how a part of the show the audience makes themselves.  Most places we’ve been have been very supportive, around the world, from Brussels to Ireland to Japan to the States. I can’t really pick out one specific venues that is head and shoulders above the rest. We just got back from Australia and they have a sort of different approach, they’re a little bit more reserved. Which is probably how I would be, but I envy the people who can let go.

It’s taken four years for Hysterical to come out, whereas it only took you two between your first and sophomore albums. What’d you learn in those two gaps?

A: I learned quite a bit about creating records. How to work in the studio. How to try to balance the direction that any given individual wants to go on a project. As far as the industry is concerned, I’m beginning to understand less and less [laughs], and that’s a problem. I think the model is changing as we speak, and I don’t think it’s going in a very positive direction, thought there are definitely some champions of the new form. That said, you take your punches and you keep going. That aspect hasn’t changed.

“Ketamine and Ecstasy” is an amazing song title, and I’ve read the lyrics, they’ve got a sort of non-linear Ted Berrigan-like feel to them. Did you write the song with the high of ketamine or ecstasy on your mind?

A: I’m not overly familiar with the high of those drugs, it had more to do with people self-medicating. The conclusion that is reached from that, is that the medication kind of kicks your ass. I like to keep it sort of removed, the message of the song, but it has to do with coming up from a certain naivete or innocence, and coming to the point of relative experience and recognizing that you need to keep starting over and over again. That certain ways out are not what they seem. It’s a theme for the entire record: a lot of what’s taken at face value is simply an illusion. Sometimes you need that illusion though. As Guns ‘n Roses have said before me, “Use your illusion.”

So what are the personal experiences that influenced Hysterics?

A: A lot of the content had to do with reaching back. An evaluation of where I once was at any given time. More the idea of reflecting on how I might have been and certain mistakes that might have been made and needed to be made. I live in a relatively isolated setting in Pennsylvania. I’m a family man now, things are different than they once were, which doesn’t mean they’re any less exciting, just that they’re new. I’d say a lot of the themes discussed on this record, a lot of the themes that people take to mean interesting, dangerous or exotic like hard drugs or staying out all night and losing your shit. A lot of that stuff I didn’t think was very interesting in the first place. It was what it was at a particular point for me. Now that I’m even farther from it you find it harder to see what’s interesting, but what you find is more rewarding. That’s the hope.

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