ALEC Ounsworth likes not being famous. For a few scary months in 2005 he was on the cusp of something akin to celebrity (the indie rock equivalent at least). The experience did not agree with him very much.
“I don’t really understand why anyone would want to get bigger these days,” says the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t admire artists that are [incredibly successful]. There are a few who didn’t invite it –those I make an exception for. Generally, I don’t enjoy what they do.”
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah came along just as the internet was evolving into a conduit of hype for new bands. A spindly outfit somewhere between Talking Heads and Pavement, at first pass, they seemed unlikely material for overground success. However, with websites such as Pitchfork cheerleading boisterously, the group were catapulted into the spotlight.
On a back of a handful of singles and a few concerts around New York (Philadelphia-native Ounsworth had temporarily relocated to Brooklyn) , Clap Your Hands found themselves baptised in buzz and all over the web. Had Twitter existed they would surely have ‘trended’ alongside ebola and Kim Kardashian’s bottom. It was not enjoyable time for the shy singer.
“I’m happier communicating at a small level. I have always felt that way. I never aspired to play to thousands a night.”
With all that attention pressing down, Ounsworth blanched. He withdrew: in what media appearances he did consent too, he came off as taciturn, almost grumpy. It was as if he wanted the world to leave him alone– to go back to drooling over The Strokes and White Stripes. In fact, this wasn’t terribly far from the truth.
“I think a lot of that had to do with how I answered questions in interviews,” he told me in an earlier conversation. “It was to do with not have a real appreciation of how far we had come, to a point where we could communicate to a lot of people.
“I do believe I took success for granted to a degree. At the same time, when you are operating at that level, there are lot of things that are very artificial. It carried me away from a grounded territory which is very important to me.”
It is fair to say that the baying media is no longer a problem. Several months ago Clap Your Hands quietly released their fourth album, Only Run. Gritty, rambunctious, ripely psychedelic, it is possibly their most accomplished LP yet– certainly more rounded than their hyped debut. And yet the world was not exactly holding its breath to see where Ounsworth was at creatively. If the record has elicited a response at all, it has been a vaguely curious shrug: ‘Oh, so that band are still going’.
This suits Ounsworth fine. For him, music started as a hobby and passion. He struggled getting his head around the fact it had become his job. He does not enjoy the conveyor built fashion in which the music industry operates: record an album, go on the road , record another album… So last year, he embarked on a tour of fans’ living rooms across North America and Europe. It was an opportunity to get in touch with part of himself he feared lost – and to present his music in what he felt was the most honest way, all its quirks and blemishes on view.
“I am happy communicating on a small level,” he says. “I don’t have a big calculated plan. My career is what it is.”
He appears not to regret his handling of the early hype – that is to say, his crankiness and lack of humour. “I try not to look back at things and have regrets. I work in a very simple way. I have an idea as to what I want to do in an album, I put it together.”
In view of his disdain for popular bands it seems strange Only Run should feature a cameo from Matt Berninger of The National – a group not unfamiliar with heaving arenas.
Ounsworth shrugs – as he says, there are exceptions. Some people get to the top without having schemed their way there: he respects what The National have achieved, even if he would hate to be in their shoes.
“Those are one of those bands that are different,” he says. “They don’t set out to make the same record over and over. I admire people like Tom Waits, Nick Cave. Bob Dylan does things that seem to suggest he is trying to alienate his audience. I think he is just trying to keep moving. Inevitably that will alienate a certain section – that’s not why he is doing it. I appreciate what The National have done. I still count those guys as friends.”
Ounsworth left gentrified Brooklyn as soon as it was practical do so and is now happily installed in Philadelphia. It’s a scrappy town, not impressed by hype or fads. Ounsworth doesn’t feel there is a ‘scene’– not amongst the musicians he calls friends at least. However, there is a lot of honesty and hard work.
“You can do what you want in an unfettered way,” he says. “A lot of the musicians based in Philadelphia have always lived there, which I think tells you something.”
Ounsworth used to think he had a strong opinion on the relationship between music and commerce. He was not a fan of giving music away for free and found it difficult to be enthusiastic about streaming services such as Spotify.
“I have yet to make a final decision,” he says. “I’m not for Spotify. I guess I have come to terms with it. Talking to people, I get the sense that many would not know how to listen to the catalogue were it not for Spotify. I remember being told this after a gig … and I was like ‘Well, I have copies of the albums right here’. Nonetheless, we’re at a point where, if my music was to be taken off Spotify, it would be hard for some people to find it. I don’t use services like that – it’s an alien world to me. I appreciate that lots of others do.
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