Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has a new album, Hysterical, out today. I thought it would be fun to share an interview I did with the band back in September 2005. They played a show at my college, and I got to talk with singer Alec Ounsworth, guitarist Lee Sargent, and drummer Sean Greenhalgh afterwards. What you are about to read originally appeared in a publication called Mindset, which is part of the radio station WVFI at the University of Notre Dame (with a few minor edits for grammar and formatting). I have a few current thoughts at the end, too.
"An Interview With Clap Your Hands Say Yeah By Steve Fabian" (Mindset, September 2005)
Up until about a week before their show at Legends, I was only acquainted with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah through massive critical lauding in the indie music press. One can never truly know what to make of hype, so I realized the only thing I could do was actually listen to their music (surprisingly, it seems like a lot of people miss this step). I'll admit that while the songs sounded pretty good, I had a hard time thinking they were great. I did not see where all the buzz and praise were coming from. That changed when I saw them live. Suddenly, the songs came to life, exploding forth with vitality, energy, and talent. The admiration all made sense to me then. I was fortunate to be able to interview three of the band's five members after the show.
SF: So how has the tour been, the first time playing nationally?
Lee Sargent: It's been great.
Alec Ounsworth: We've had really good shows in a lot of new cities where we never played before, it's exciting.
SF: Is there anything you've been listening to on the road that is going to remind you of this tour?
Lee: The National. [CYHSY was touring with the National at this time, but did a headlining show at Legends at Notre Dame]
Alec: So far, N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton.
SF: You're an N.W.A. fan?
Alec: Yeah, I like that album.
SF: So West Coast or East Coast hip-hop?
Alec: Uh, probably leaning towards East Coast, but they're both good.
SF: Right, I like East Coast better, too. But back to the subject of tours, what's the last good show you've seen?
Alec: Jonathan Richman, from the Modern Lovers. It was great.
Lee: Mine was the Hot Snakes.
Sean Greenhalgh: I saw this kind of bluegrass band in Brooklyn, the Roulette Sisters. It was great. It's real old-time with banjos and mandolins.
SF: Very cool. So, if you guys were on Death Row and you were about to be killed, what would your last meal be?
Alec: That's a good one. I like tilapia.
Lee: I'd have a Buddha Bowl.
SF: A Buddha Bowl, what's that?
Lee: It's something I ate in Columbus. It's like tofu with peanut sauce. I'd wanna be really healthy to die. It would have to be from the exact same place.
Sean: I would say my mother's spaghetti.
SF: If you were on a desert island and you could only have a board game, what would it be and who would you want to play with?
Alec: Yahtze, and I'd play with my two dogs (laughs).
Lee: Umm, I'd play Candyland with myself.
Sean: I would say Clue and I don't know who I'd play with. I guess it would be somebody that I got along with, so not anyone in the band, certainly.
Lee: Oh, come on, I'd play Clue with you, Sean (laughs).
SF: What's your favorite Madonna song?
Alec: (Laughs) That's the hardest one yet! I can't even think of any.
Lee: I know the answer to this one. I'm a sucker for "Cherish."
Sean: I actually have a soft spot in my heart for "Ray of Light."
Alec: I don't know if I can answer that one.
SF: That's fine. I saw your album's artwork and it reminded me of "La Danse" by Henri Matisse. I don't know if you were going for that or not, but I did wonder what artists you guys like.
Alec: I like Chagall a lot. And Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Vincent Van Gogh.
Lee: Huh. I think that might be my Madonna question that I don't know how to answer.
Alec: (Laughs) You're like, "Like a Virgin"?
Lee: Yeah, "Like a Virgin," whoever painted that.
SF: I guess you could maybe even just say "Madonna," there are a lot of Madonna figures in art. How about you, what's your favorite?
Sean: Uh…art. What is art? (Laughs all around)
SF: You answered a question with a question, which most people seem to do these days. Anyways, on the album [the song "Upon this Tidal Wave of Young Blood"], there's the line about Bigfoot being caught. I have a friend who is very into cryptozoology, so I wondered if you guys are into any other cryptozoological figures.
Lee: Oh yeah, have you ever seen that Herzog film? [Incident at Loch Ness]
SF: I don't think I have.
Lee: Well, I figured it out halfway through it's sort of a joke, but they're out there looking for the Loch Ness Monster, and they bring a crypto-zoologist. But what other ones are there?
SF: Well you know, there's Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, the Yeti, the Sasquatch. Then there's the Loch Ness Monster, the Champ. Every culture has some of them, there are tons more.
Lee: The Abominable Snowman, that's it.
SF: Is that going to maybe appear on the next album?
Alec: We'll try to fit that in somewhere. (Starts singing) A-bom-i-na-ble Snow-Man! Da-da-da-da-da-da! [In case you were wondering, Some Loud Thunder did not have any references to the creature]
SF: How about this, what do you think my favorite song on your album is?
Lee: You look like a "Home on Ice" -kinda guy.
Alec: Uh…no, wait, wait, wait, I think I can guess. I don't think it's "Yellow Country Teeth." I think it might be "Gimmie Some Salt."
Sean: Yeah, I'm gonna agre with that.
SF: "Home on Ice" or "Gimmie Some Salt"? No, it's actually "Over and Over Again," that's my favorite.
Alec: Who'd have thunk it? (laughs)
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)
SF: I'm working on a playlist of songs that talk about people who look like David Bowie (CYHSY laughs), so that's going to be on there.
Alec: That's good, I like that.
SF: You know "Distopian Dream Girl," by Built to Spill?
SF: That's also one.
Lee: There was a guy at the show last night with a "You Look Like David Bowie" T-Shirt.
Alec: That was a great shirt. And it had a picture of Aladdin Sane on the back.
SF: Oh, that's cool. I would ask you your favorite David Bowie song, but I already asked about Madonna and Bowie's probably harder, right?
Alec: I think I can answer that a little bit easier than Madonna.
SF: Oh, you could?
Alec: Yeah, cause I actually know his songs (laughs).
SF: Let's have it, then.
Alec: "V-2 Schneider." Maybe asking for my favorite album would be even better. I'm just taking this thing and asking a question to myself now (indicating the recorder and laughing). Ok, so what's the best album, in my humble opinion? Not Lodger, not Scary Monsters.
Sean: Station to Station?
Alec: Low, I think Low.
Lee: Is that the one with "V-2 Schneider?"
Alec: No, that's Heroes.
SF: So how exactly does one do the Zarathustra? (They laugh)
At this point, Alec tells me the amazing story behind this lyric, but after he does, he swears me to secrecy.
SF: Let's see. Are you guys fans of The Big Lebowski?
Lee: Yeah, I am.
SF: Ok. Do you have either a favorite character or quote?
Sean: You're out of your element, Donnie!
Lee: I like Water a lot. And my favorite line is…I have a lot of favorite lines from that one…but, I'll say "This isn't 'Nam, Smokey, there are rules!"
SF: Nice! So I was thinking it would be clever if I asked you who your favorite talking head was, you know, like Larry King or Bill O'Reilly, something like that… (Laughter from CYHSY)
Alec: Max Headroom.
SF: …but I wanted to do an interview without the Talking Heads involved.
Lee: You've done your homework.
SF: Well, it comes up in everything I read about you guys. I mean, I can see where it's coming from, the voice thing…
Alec: Sure, yeah. But it's unintentional.
SF: Right, but I decided that there's lots of stuff I'd rather ask. Especially since you guys are pretty new and haven't been asked a lot of questions yet. I'm going to be putting out new information. That is…if anyone even reads this. (They laugh really hard).
Lee: That has to go in there.
SF: Whoops, I didn't say that.
Alec: You should start out the interview with "If anybody's going to even read this, this is for you."
SF: Ok, I might do that. I don't have anything else really. If that's cool with you guys.
Alec: Yeah, that was great.
This was a really fun conversation, the guys were all very cool. Because of how good their music sounded live that night and how enjoyable the interview was, I think Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will always be a band I care about. I regularly return to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and am a fan of Some Loud Thunder, which was generally reviled. Yes, the sound quality isn't always great, but it's still a very interesting album with strong songs. Now, after time away, reviews are saying the band is being too normal on Hysterical, and they are not only generally unfavorable, but seem to retroactively boost Some Loud Thunder. I just don't get it. This is band almost inevitably tied to some contextual factor at each phase of their career, and from my perspective, it seems the prevailing narrative on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah always misses the point. They are neither as great or as horrible as you might read. They are most accurately quite good, which is much less interesting. All I know is I will get Hysterical and I'm pretty confident I'll enjoy it. That's good enough for me. I'm glad to have spent time with their music and, briefly, with them.
Hope you enjoyed the interview. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the band and their music.