Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-titled 2005 debut opens with a slightly skewed carnival romp. There was no predicting it at the time, but in retrospect that circus-like intro perfectly sums up the feverish excitement that followed the record’s release. The band didn’t have a record deal (they still don’t), but they didn’t need one. The internet carried them on its wings, making them unsuspecting guinea pigs for a post-millennial music industry model where blogs usurped the role of cultural tastemaker from print media juggernauts like Rolling Stone and Spin.
Their quirky yet tuneful indie pop immediately made them blogosphere darlings. But for frontman and chief songwriter Alec Ounsworth, the record’s runaway success wasn’t something to celebrate as much as it was something to contend with. Not one for the overwhelming buzz or adoration internet fame can heap on young bands, Ounsworth is a guy who wants little to do with anything beyond his songs and the people listening to them. As such, the band wrestled with keeping things manageable in the face of overnight success.
“I never really wanted to blow it up, as they say,” Ounsworth says. “For me, it would have led me down the wrong path. I like it small. I always pictured clubs, not giant arenas.”
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has spent much of its career successfully fighting to retain its sense of self, and it’s that uphill battle that Ounsworth reflects on in discussion of his band’s earliest days. Rather than reminiscing about the songs that make up their debut, he recalls secret shows the band used to play up and down the East Coast, something that simultaneously built their work ethic and kept him and his bandmates grounded in the face of growing attention.
“I think at a certain point it felt like a lot of things were being given to us and there wasn’t much of a challenge, and that bothered me,” he says of the attention surrounding Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s debut. “I like to try to win people over. I thought sometimes we got away with sloppy shows. You get things handed to you, and you start to lose perspective. I remember trying to manufacture a sense of true, honest feeling. To me, that was really important, and it still is.”
Music being the forward-moving venture that it is, Ounsworth isn’t much for jogging down memory lane. But in preparing a tour commemorating the tenth anniversary of the band’s landmark debut, it’s difficult not to look back at the record itself. In June, the band re-released the album along with twelve additional acoustic tracks performed by Ounsworth. The bare-bones cuts are evocative of the singer’s insistence on intimacy over grandeur, inspired by solo shows the singer played at house parties throughout Europe and the States over the years.
“I have hundreds and hundreds of cassette tapes dating back almost twenty years, of me tinkering around with new songs,” he says. “Listening back to those and hearing what you hear on a cassette tape, there’s something about listening to something on a cassette tape that makes it very personal.”
Fittingly, the band’s nine-date U.S. trek will wrap up with two nights at the Bowery Ballroom (August 1–2). Returning to the Bowery is a homecoming, and not just in the sense of coming back to Manhattan. There’s a comfort level the band has with the venue itself. For Ounsworth, a guy who constantly strives to connect with his audience in the vein of musical mentors such as Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Tom Waits, it’s a room that encourages his most adventurous musical instincts.
“We’ve had some incredible shows there,” Ounsworth recalls. “I went out there on our last show and decided to try something I wasn’t sure would work in a venue of that size. I came out before the encore with just an acoustic guitar and no mic and tried to sing a song. And it worked. There’s something about that venue, and really New York audiences: They’ve always been there with us, you know? Bowery is one of those venues that just has a certain magic.”
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah play the Bowery Ballroom August 1 and 2. August 1’s performance has sold out, but tickets are still available for the August 2 show here.