Remember when "indie" meant something? When indie was more than a fashion statement or a pose struck by 'tween pop stars ready to shuck a bubblegum image? Cast your mind back to 1989: A couple of Stockton, California kids named Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg hole up in a studio and, for $800, lay down the "Slay Tracks" 7-inch and release it on their own label, Treble Kicker. Cassettes are passed from hand to hand. College kids go apeshit. Pavement is born. A movement is under way. That was indie.
And so is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the most hyped band out of New York City since the Strokes were making A&R reps salivate back in 2000. This summer, the group's eponymous, self-recorded, and self-released debut blew into and out of record stores on word of mouth alone.
Anyone lucky enough to get his or her hot little hands on a copy of Clap Your Hands from the original pressing of the album probably heard about it from bloggers. Much as people used to dupe cassettes for their pals, Clap fans began e-mailing MP3s to their friends and burning up chat rooms with talk of these nobodies, who alternately sounded like the Talking Heads -- if the Talking Heads had been an Elephant 6 band -- and a latter-day, prog-pop Ziggy Stardust.
Once the taste-making music website Pitchforkmedia.com got a copy, the die was cast: The review read like a mash note.
"It was definitely a case of, you know, let's put it out there and see what happens," recalls frontman Alec Ounsworth. "We recorded the album by ourselves and for ourselves, did the initial press, and slapped up a website. And then, suddenly we found ourselves making a lot more trips to the post office than we'd anticipated."
Clap Your Hands sold out its first pressing of 5,000 in a matter of weeks. A couple of those copies wound up in the collections of David Bowie and David Byrne, who then started turning up at the band's sold-out gigs. The hype reinforced itself. The album was re-pressed and redistributed. Journalists started calling. Label execs began sniffing around, though the band remains unsigned -- by choice.
"I guess, at the moment, I'm just wondering what a label can do for us that we haven't been able to do for ourselves," Ounsworth says. "My concern is that if we sign with a label, we'll fall into that trap of overexposure. Attention like that makes me personally uncomfortable. I'm not even crazy about doing interviews."
Ounsworth is saying all this, of course, during an interview -- one of the necessary evils of promoting a tour. As the band's guiding genius, he's been so inundated with interview requests that he figured the easiest way to get them all done was by e-mail. But that plan was complicated by the dearth of free time and good wi-fi service on the road, so he's making cell-phone calls on a train from Philadelphia to Penn Station -- a regular route for the Philly native since he formed his band a year and a half ago.
"It's really not a big deal, the band being in New York," Ounsworth says. "All the songs pretty much take shape in my basement in Philly. That's a good place for me to work, because I'm not distracted. Then I come to rehearsal with what I've got, and the rest of the band enhances what I've done. Usually, they're playing parts I've basically laid down with drum machine and synths."
Ounsworth, who also performs as a solo artist, makes it clear that his bandmates' contributions to the Clap's music are "essential."
"What I bring to the band is a draft," he explains: "a fleshed-out draft, but a draft nonetheless. It's like I'm a big, big Dylan fan, and one of the things I've learned from seeing him play live a lot is the way a song can change so much, just in the subtleties. A change of inflection in the vocals, a shift of pace, slower or faster . . . It's the same song, but it's a different song too."
Ounsworth cites Dylan again as he talks about the Clap Your Hands live experience.
"I like things to be as loose as possible onstage," he says, "to keep things interesting for us, if for no other reason. When you record, if you're a perfectionist like I am, the studio offers you the opportunity of perfecting a song. But when you play in front of a group of people, there's an adrenaline. Trying to play a track note for note, beat for beat from the album -- that just kills the adrenaline. And it doesn't work, anyway."
Conversation with Ounsworth makes it clear that the hype surrounding his band hasn't ruffled his feathers much. Going on tour, he says, "is positive, but it won't change the music." He swears that if he can't figure out a good reason to sign with a big label, he's dead set on staying indie. And despite the fact that the kind of industry momentum that normally takes years to build has blown up behind his band almost instantaneously, the attention isn't making him sweat the sophomore slump.
"I don't think my approach toward making music is going to change, just because people know my band's name now," he says. "And anyway, the next album is basically written -- the next two, in fact. They're not recorded yet, but the songs are done. So, as far as I'm concerned, the path is charted."
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