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Alec Ounsworth on ill-informed critics, navigating hype and why he stays indie

By Patrick Rapa
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Back when Myspace ruled the world, jangly, high-intensity Philly indie-pop band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was an unlikely juggernaut. The songs on their eponymous debut album were catchy but idiosyncratic and vulnerable. The band was the indiest of indies, without even a small label repping them in the U.S. Still, they found themselves touring the world to rave reviews. The follow-up, 2007’s Some Loud Thunder, was beloved by the true believers, but the internet hype machine was starting to move on.

Now that second record is cause for celebration, with a revamped CYHSY playing it front to back at Johnny Brenda’s twice, on November 30 and December 1. We recently caught up with singer-guitarist-songwriter Alec Ounsworth—whose levelheadedness doesn’t seem to jibe with those emotional Billy Corgan-esque vocals.

The first record brought a lot of attention. What did you learn from the experience?
I learned to be grateful when your music connects with anyone. I already knew this, of course, having played so many good shows in Philadelphia and New York between 2003 and 2005, before the album was released. I think my gratitude was only reinforced when the album came out and I began playing in other parts of the world.

Were you suspicious of the hype?
I don’t think I was suspicious. I was aware of it. Hype has nothing to do with me, so I guess I could and can ignore it fairly easily.… In the end, I guess I am just proud that any interest came to the band organically rather than on account of some calculated push. It seems a rare thing.

Some Loud Thunder wasn’t as well received as the first one, but it’s held up nicely. Do you feel any sort of vindication?
I’m not sure how much vindication I feel. People are entitled to think what they like. Sometimes I do wish critics were a little more informed. I imagine people assumed at the time that the album would just be the same as the first. That would have been easy to do but seems dishonest. Unfortunately, I often have a hard time giving people what they want.

You’ve stayed independent all these years. Do the big labels have nothing to offer?
I’m not sure. I guess I have generally preferred a more organic, independent approach but am usually open to suggestion, provided it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the project.

What’s your favorite song off Some Loud Thunder? What do you think doesn’t get enough love?
I like “Love Song No. 7” quite a bit. “Underwater” and “Some Loud Thunder” are also quite good. I think the album is more a matter of overall shape than any single tracks that stand out, which is one of the reasons I wanted to play it from beginning to end.Regarding which song doesn’t get enough love… I don’t play “Goodbye to Mother and the Cove” very much these days. That will be nice to revisit.

You’ve played the big festivals. You did a living room tour. I’ve heard you say you prefer to interact with fans on a more personal level. Did you feel nothing playing before tens of thousands of people going nuts for every song?
I think it took a while for me to realize that I was going after something a bit different when playing for a lot of people. For big shows, it’s more the power of community that matters. When I began, I felt that too many people blurred that feeling of intimacy which, at the time, I thought was the main thing. I feel pretty comfortable in either situation at the moment.

I liked your most recent record, The Tourist, a lot—I think it’s some of your best songwriting, and best music period. It’s also deeply personal record. Were there things you decided were too dark to make the record?
Thanks. Yes, The Tourist really came out well and, like the others, I’m very proud of it. Every record is deeply personal. I try to write in such a way to connect with people even if they don’t know always know exactly what I’m getting at. There were some things a bit too dark or personally revealing that needed to be withdrawn but I think I left enough clues.

See Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at Johnny Brenda’s Nov 30 and Dec 1 at 8pm. $18–$20.

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