In a nondescript London hotel bar, Alec Ounsworth shields his tour-worn frame behind dark sunglasses, flicked-up peacoat collars and strong coffee. A year ago, the Philadelphian never imagined he’d be touring Europe (even on a shoestring and no sleep); he’d just formed Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on a whim, visiting his sister in Massachusetts and bumping into guitarist Lee Sargeant, whose band were moving to Brooklyn. Ounsworth handed Sargeant a demo-tape, soon finding himself commuting five hours to New York to rehearse his songs.
“I’d been writing for ten years, since I was seventeen,” rasps Ounsworth, enthusiasm burning away a jetlag fug. “I had tried writing short stories, but it wasn’t for me. Music is like an umbrella of ideas, you can draw influence from everywhere, from Van Gogh, from Kubrick, from Raymond Carver, from anyone you want. Songs came naturally, in a way other writing didn’t. I had to get involved.”
Sentenced to piano lessons from an early age, Ounsworth stumbled across copies of Sergeant Pepper’s and The Freewheeling Bob Dylan in his parents’ collection when he was ten. Soon, he was visiting the record store on his own, buying albums because he loved the cover, or recognised names on the sleevenotes from other successful purchases.
“There’s a lot of different ways to branch off from The Beatles and Dylan,” he smiles. “The magical impression certain songs left upon me from childhood were more resonant than anything else.. Listening over and over, to those great rock albums, you work out why, say, ‘Astral Weeks’ sounds so perfect, so finished. You figure out what you need to put a great album together, subconsciously.”
Certainly, the group’s eponymous debut album, a glowing set of amber anthems, betrays the confidence, the ambition, the brilliance of a classic, its subtle, subterranean indie-rock accented by Ounsworth’s vocal, a vulnerable, keening oddity recalling David Byrne, Jeff Mangum and Jonathan Richman. Following a glowing 9.0 review on influential American website Pitchforkmedia.com, the album’s modest first pressing sold out; Ounsworth estimates current sales near the 40,000 mark, though he hasn’t checked the figures lately. The singer’s vagueness might be a symptom of tour fatigue, or it might be his way of handling being the biggest underground phenomenon since kindred spirit’s the Arcade Fire. The pressure of following up the debut doesn’t noticeably perturb the laconic front man.
“I have a backlog of demo tapes at home, enough for the next couple of albums, but they‘re not too well filed,” he grins. Before ducking out for another cigarette, another cardboard tumbler of caffeinated rocket-fuel, he pauses, considers those tapes. “It’ll be interesting to meet the me I was again, back when I recorded them.”(c) Stevie Chick 2005