Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Hysterical in SA  

by Evan Milton

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the New York founded indie band that shot to fame, first on the internet and then through a series of acclaimed live shows, are set to tour South Africa.

It's thanks to the Adidas "All Originals" series, and Cape Town hipster website that South Africa will experience live performances from a band still on its ascendency, and just after the release of their third studio album. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, widely monikered to CYHSY, formed in 2004 and earned widespread critical acclaim for their eponymous self-released album in 2005. Their early success - selling over 125 000 copies of that debut, without any label support - was fueled largely by their popularity on blog sites, especially those covering indie bands. Inclusion in  the "Best New Music" list on the critically heavyweight helped, as did the news that David Bowie and David Byrne enjoyed the band - both were seen at their early gigs. Their third studio album, "Hysterical", was released in late 2011.
"On the first record, we were not working with a producer who had a specific direction, and that's why it sounds the way it does," says frontman and songwriter Alec Ounsworth from his Philadelphia home (the rest of the band lives in New York). "With 'Hysterical', there's a certain element which John Congelton brought to the project. We implied a direction, and all agreed on that, and then he had a hand in the bigger sound. I don't think it necessarily changes the material, but the sonic quality of an album has a lot to do with who you're working with at any given time, and I like each record to be somewhat different, if possible".
"Hysterical" is described as "dripping with elegant hooks, simmering atmospherics, and uncommon use of space and intensity" and older listeners will again detect a similarity to some of Byrne's work with Talking Heads, although mediated impressively by contemporary indie sounds, and with hints of Congleton's signature darker sound and expansive sonics. Expect "a remarkably expansive tidal wave of sound, all multi-layered keyboard tracks and big, booming drums". Translating studio material like that to the stage presents its own set of challenges.
Ounsworth laughs at that, then says in calm and measured tone: "The thing about live shows is that people tell me a they are a lot different to the way I converse. I sound, in person, to be more fatigued than I am on stage, apparently, and that may very well be true. As far as I'm concerned, playing live is an opportunity to lose myself. I sort of black out, and then arrive at the end of the set and keel over backstage. That's the sort of quality to the Clap Your Hands project - when it really works, it can be very powerful. The energy is palpable and I enjoy that aspect of it. The live show has really been coming together and, after the European tour, everybody knows exactly how to move. We are looking forward to bringing it to South Africa, and we've heard good things about the audiences and the shows there. I'm also very curious to see the place."
Ounsworth writes his songs and, after that, determines where they will find a home - with CYHSY, or a solo project like his album "Mo Beauty" (2009) or his second band, Flashy Python. It's a comfortable arrangement, with CYHSY guitarist and keyboardist Robbie Guertin and bassist Tyler Sergent involved in their own side-project, Uninhabitable Mansions. "I'm working on some new songs now and i think they'll be for Clap Your Hands," says Ounsworth. "I'm trying to establish a certain direction for the next record, and then I'll start working on that in a little while. Hopefully, we'll have some demo versions soon. That's the way things work in music now; you've got to keep going at a steady rate - keep creating and making music."
Asked to cue local fans into his thought processes behind some the CYHSY's song gems, Ounsworth is initially - and understandably - evasive. "I have trouble explaining the overall intention of any given song and I wouldn't like to suggest that 'This is what it is'. But I like, 'The Witness' Dull Surprise' - it just ended up being structurally interesting. 'Hysterical' might be the best song that we have created in our time as a band, just by virtue of the fact that the whole band seems to clearly understand what it's all about. That's where the strength of this project lies. 'Misspent Youth' has an interesting quality. It tends towards a certain darkness lyrically and it might be difficult to listen to, over and over - it's not necessarily one of those songs. But there's a serious quality to each of the songs on 'Hysterical', and that comes across, and that's important to us."
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah play in Cape Town on Friday 13 April at Wittebome Civic Centre (Rosemead Avenue, Wynberg, 8pm) before playing Johannesburg on Saturday 14 April (Town Hall, The Street, Newtown, 8pm). Tickets range from R275 to R375 from More on

First appeared in the Cape Argus "Good Weekend" of 2012/ 04/08.

Music journalist, Digital marketing strategist, SA Music Awards judge and radio DJ for Fine Music Radio.

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