In Conversation: Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Talks “Some Loud Thunder,” Ten Years Later

The experimental-indie-rock maestro has a special place in his heart for the band’s sophomore album, even if its initial success was subdued by a well-received debut record and music critic snobbery.

The successful debut album. It’s a blessing and a curse for a band. Sure, you’re in the spotlight, but the pressure placed on your sophomore album can sometimes be insurmountable. For Alec Ounsworth’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a well-received freshman effort meant being thrown into a position his group didn’t ask to be in, where they were urged to experiment, but not too much.

The resulting record, Some Loud Thunder, is an even more frenetic, warbling frolic into the mind of Ounsworth. As a stand-alone, it shines, but it broke under the weight of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and was a victim of its time—the 2007 peak of Pitchfork snobbery—leaving a masterful collection of songs in the dust of its predecessor.

But Ounsworth prevailed, and has since made three other albums under the CYHSY moniker, despite an ever-changing musical landscape and brief band hiatus. And even though Some Loud Thunder did not initially receive the stage it deserved, the central brain behind it is pulling back the curtain one more time to release a tenth anniversary reissue and embark on a subsequent tour.

What does Some Loud Thunder mean to you a decade after its release?

I don’t think it was given much of a fair shake. I was proud of it when it came out. It was one of those things that happens when you get some degree of interest in your first album. People almost want to overlook the second. I had that in mind a little bit when I recorded it. In fact, before I recorded it I thought I was just going to record an album of white noise. I was going to record the dehumidifier in my basement, and actually make a real release out of it just to get over the second album thing, but the rest of the band wasn’t onboard [laughs].

So we made Some Loud Thunder, and I don’t think people knew what to make of it. I don’t think they realized how much I don’t like to be pigeonholed, and that was a pretty reasonable example that I pull from a number of places, and not just one. It’s not all “Yellow Country Teeth.” So I still feel good about it. I mean, I feel good about all of the albums, but this one especially. It means a little bit more to me, in a way, because of the time. It was such a confusing time, but at the same time kind of euphoric.

Confusing in terms of the shock of the self-titled album doing so well or the general buzz around the band?

“We were sort of thrust into a position where it was almost as if people were urging me to experiment, but they were also urging me to do the same thing as the first album.”

Yeah, a little bit of both. We were sort of thrust into a position where it was almost as if people were urging me to experiment, but they were also urging me to do the same thing as the first album. It was like, “We trust you because you didn’t have anybody looking over your shoulder paying attention to the first album. We trust you’re going to do the right thing.” Little did they know, for me the right thing was something a little bit off the wall. Experimentation was the right thing. And working with Dave Fridmann did not inhibit me in any way. Dave is the guy you go to to fuck things up. Every idiosyncrasy that came to mind he entertained, because that’s Dave’s style. And it says something that I’ve made two other albums with him since. We see eye to eye. It might not be generally favorable… [Laughs.] But we like it.

It’s interesting what you said about people urging you to experiment but also urging you to do the same thing. I feel like that’s the curse of the successful debut: If you make a sophomore album that sounds exactly like it, you’re going to get criticized, but if you put out something that’s too different, you’ll get criticized for that as well. So what do you do?

Yeah, it seems like people have softened a bit. I hear a lot of bands putting out the same albums all over again, obviously with variations—the song titles are different—but that’s not the way I listen to music or track people’s careers. To me, the people who are important are people like Bob Dylan or Lou Reed or David Bowie or Tom Waits, sort of heavyweights who moved around quite a bit in their careers. If you’ve listened to their albums from first to last, you know how much they’ve changed. Each album they challenge themselves and their audiences. I don’t hear that quite as much anymore. There’s some bands that do that, but I didn’t feel like I needed to humor anyone at that time because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

The music journalism landscape has softened as well. 2007 was the heyday of Pitchfork taking down a band just because they could, and other sites followed suit. These days, it almost feels the opposite. Like no one has anything to say.

Well, Pitchfork still does that [laughs] but I think you’re right. It’s almost like people are scared for some reason. I think artists seem to be afraid to take chances; journalists seem to be afraid to criticize. They seem to be afraid to really put in the work to actually know what they’re listening to. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know if it was different either back in the ’70s or whatever. I just know that things have gotten, to me, fairly soft. And there are some exceptions out there, but by and large it seems like people are acting out of a certain degree of fear. And I don’t know if it’s the oversaturation of music, or if people just like fast food.

I think everybody’s looking over their shoulders these days, because everything is so theoretically accessible. And everybody thinks that with some little tweet they can get everybody upset, or at least one person that I’m thinking of gets very upset [laughs]. But people have gotten very sensitive, and it’s just like, yeah, criticism’s gonna come your way. Sometimes it’s fair, and sometimes it’s unfair.

Do you ever wish Clap Your Hand Say Yeah’s success didn’t happen so quickly?

“People have gotten very sensitive, and it’s just like, yeah, criticism’s gonna come your way. Sometimes it’s fair, and sometimes it’s unfair.”

Yeah, there’s a part of me that wishes it didn’t come so quickly… Even years before the album came out and we were playing really small shows, there was enthusiasm. And I knew the songs were not quite there—to me anyway—but I appreciated everybody liking my voice. That was nice, but I thought I could do better. So on the first album, I wasn’t surprised. I was hoping that people liked it for the right reasons. And as my career goes on, people are suggesting that I’m rebuilding something, and the truth is that I’m just starting to understand how to do this from one album to the next better and better. And I’ll keep making albums whether anybody likes it or not, but I thought the first album had a lot of misguided positivity to what was happening.

How so?

I think people latched onto the energy of the album, but they missed some other things that took a lot of work, like lyrics and song structure, things like that, which is common. I hear some big bands now—I’m not going to name any names—and I think that I get why people might like it, but I listen to it and I’m like, there’s nothing there. It’s just a feeling that’s guiding you, and I don’t understand. So even our first album, when I was pretty green, I paid attention to songs. That seems to be, maybe not dead, but a relatively abstract concept at this point. And sometimes I wonder why I try so hard.

Because, even though maybe it’s not on as large of a scale, there still are those dedicated fans and audiophiles that appreciate the same things you do.

Yeah, that’s it, and I have to be reminded about that by you and my manager and whoever else is in the general area [laughs]. But that is it.

The integrity and honesty shows in all of your music, so I applaud you for that, especially after all the success you garnered from your first album. A lot of bands get that taste and want more fame, and their music suffers.

Something that occurred to me—and it probably was because of the acceleration of it all—was that I didn’t like any of what we were doing. Because I didn’t ask for it, and I wasn’t in one of these bands that was trying for five years to get noticed, I didn’t like being catapulted. Now I might appreciate something like a sold out tour a little bit more because I have that experience under my belt, but back then I took it totally for granted and thought it was a bit of a hassle. I was able to get that perspective, and I knew then that it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. One of the reasons why we stopped playing for a while was because I did feel like it was becoming dishonest. I didn’t want to go out and fake it on stage. I didn’t think it was fair to people to do that.

How did you come back from that?

I made two solo albums and went on tour, like start-from-scratch stuff. It made me realize how lucky Clap Your Hands was, for one thing, and I realized you can find some sort of balance. My heroes found a balance between making it interesting to them and hopefully making it interesting for the audience. When I came back to Clap Your Hands, I was like, “I want to make this equally interesting for me and audience, [so] we’re just going to have to work harder.” And that lasted, for me, a little longer than it did for other people, but that’s alright. Now I feel better about the project than probably ever before. FL


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