Indie band's fans clap their hands and say yeah

March 08, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Although he's talking to you on his cell phone as a friend drives him to a guitar shop in New Jersey, Alec Ounsworth assures you that you didn't reach him at a bad time. In fact, this is the only time the busy singer-songwriter-musician can chat with you.

Ounsworth is pleasant, relaxed and nonchalant. However, he all but tells you he doesn't care for interviews or talking about making music, something that "just comes" to him.

"I don't care to read about myself," he says. "I like to work on music and, beyond that, it's up to everybody else if they like it or not."

And lots of people like it.

In the past year, rock critics and Internet music junkies everywhere have been buzzing about the guy and his band with the weird name: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

With neither a record deal nor a publicity machine, the Brooklyn, N.Y.- and Philadelphia-based quintet - Ounsworth on vocals and guitar, Tyler Sargent on bass and his brother Lee on guitar and keyboards, Robbie Guertin on guitar and keyboards, and Sean Greenhalgh on drums - became one of 2005's most talked-about acts. The group's self-titled debut was No. 22 on Blender's "50 Greatest CDs of 2005" list.

The sudden attention, fueled largely by word of mouth and chats on the Net, "crept up on us," says Ounsworth.

In a testament to the growing power of grass-roots indie blogs, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which plays Washington's 9:30 Club tonight, self-released, promoted and distributed its debut, which has sold about 80,000 copies.

"We understood early on that we didn't need a label," says Ounsworth, 28. "It was a no-brainer that being independent would work for us."

Although the group has accomplished much on its own, some say its reach, without the help of a major label, will be limited.

"I'd be hesitant to say that the success of Clap Your Hands is the end of major-label authority," says Michael Azerrad, editor-in-chief of eMusic, the second-largest music download Web site. "They have sold tens of thousands of CDs, but you still need a major label to sell millions."

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, whose name comes from graffiti Ounsworth saw on a building in Brooklyn, is comprised of average-looking Joes. The album's yellow-and-pink cover looks like something done in a third-grade art class. But the music inside excited bloggers and the elitist New York music press.

The band's sound is refreshingly experimental but accessible. Rippling with clever lyrics and daring instrumentation (a toy piano, an old pipe organ), the songs are evocative and well-crafted. Ounsworth's unorthodox, yelping singing style invigorates the songs. Glints of Talking Heads, Joy Division and Neutral Milk Hotel sparkle throughout the mix. Part of Clap Your Hand's appeal is to sound familiar, yet fresh at the same time.

Adam Lasus, indie-rock producer and owner of Fireproof Recording, the studio where the band tracked its album, oversaw the project. "They were super enthusiastic and creative with the music, and it all flowed from there," he says. "They're sponges of different generations of music, but it all comes out in their own expression."

Ounsworth says it's important that the group maintains complete control of its music. And if that means limiting exposure of it, so be it. A few months ago, The O.C., the prime-time soap opera that uses loads of indie rock for its soundtrack, approached the group about using a few songs. The band said, "Thanks, but no thanks."

"Why do you need to overexpose yourself?" Ounsworth says nonchalantly. "The music is already there, you know."

And if people want it, they will find it.

"Working with labels is not an idea that we're completely against," Ounsworth says. "But if we have to surrender any control, creatively or otherwise, it's not worth it."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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