Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Their first new album in more than three years, Hysterical marks a major milestone in the continuing evolution of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Born out of an intensely collaborative process in which songs were constructed, dismantled, and then rebuilt anew, the album finds the band – Alec Ounsworth (guitar, vocals), Robbie Guertin (guitar, keyboards), Lee Sargent (guitar, keyboards), Tyler Sargent (bass guitar), and Sean Greenhalgh (drums, percussion) – at their most confident and creative, expertly expanding upon its already distinctive sound. From the chrome-plated licks of “Maniac” and the title track to the sheets of eddying synths and emotive motorik pulsebeats of “Into Your Alien Arms” and “Ketamine and Ecstasy,” the band delivers up sonically provocative pop music that is simultaneously jubilant, mesmeric, and altogether infectious. Hysterical reveals Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to be a wholly developed band in full command of their unique artistic gifts.
“I think with this record I’m starting to finally understand what the identity of the Clap is,” says Ounsworth. “We’re all on the same page now. We’ve stepped back and are able to approach things with a lot more understanding as to what this project is.”
CYHSY first came together in 2004 and quickly earned critical and popular acclaim with the 2005 release of their self-titled (and self-released) debut. They toured nearly non-stop, pausing only to quickly record 2007’s Some Loud Thunder before hitting the road once more. As such, the band were understandably feeling a bit spent when the time came to consider Album No. 3. They briefly began woodshedding material in early 2009 but soon came to an agreement that perhaps a break was in order.
“I don’t think we could’ve come out with a third record around that time and make it work the way it does right now,” Ounsworth says.
“It hadn’t let up at all,” says Tyler Sargent. “We realized it was the wrong thing to do. We didn’t really know how to continue to push it forward.”
The decision was made to take a short hiatus to allow the band members time for general decompression and extracurricular musical activity. In July 2009, CYHSY played Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival and then temporarily closed up shop.
“It helped a lot to get time away from it,” Sargent says. “When you’re playing all the time with one band, you just think about the sound of that band. Whereas if you take some time off, you can do some independent exploration that you can bring back into it.”
“Taking time off, I think everybody developed to a larger degree than if we were to have kept on,” Ounsworth says. “You find yourself in this position where you’re only playing in one particular way. A project can trap you if you don’t try to go in other directions.”
The brief interval served its purpose, instilling in the members of CYHSY a renewed sense of conviction and belief in the band. For his part, Ounsworth came to “an understanding of why the band was important to people and why it is important to people.”
In April 2010, Ounsworth, Greenhalgh, and Tyler Sargent reconvened at Ounsworth’s home studio in Philadelphia as well as at CYHSY’s Brooklyn practice space. Their goal was to build a foundation of songs that could then be developed by the band in total.
“We began making a lot of demos.“ Sargent says, “ We built up a collection of songs that we were happy with.”
The revivified Clap spent the better part of a year fine-tuning the material, recording dozens of different demos for many of the songs, allowing them to veer in multiple directions before settling on what all agreed worked best.
“The band works best together by letting stuff happen,” Sargent says. “That was the problem with the second album, things weren’t allowed to naturally progress. Whereas on this one, they were and so there were a lot of musical ideas generated.”
“The pre-production was extraordinarily important for me,” Ounsworth says, “as far as latching on to how I approach it. I can’t anticipate how Tyler’s going to play, I can’t anticipate how Lee’s going to approach it, and so I’m still a little bit in the dark until we get together. For me, it’s all about us coalescing. “
When it came time to record, CYHSY chose to collaborate with producer/mixer/engineer John Congleton, known for his work with Okkervil River, Explosions In The Sky, Clinic, and The Mountain Goats. They kicked off the sessions in January 2011 with a week’s worth of recording at Hoboken’s Water Music.
“It was a nice process,” Sargent says, “everyone playing together in this big room. It’s not like you have people separated into these soundproof rooms where they can’t really look at each other. We’ve tried that before and it takes away that chemistry. Whereas if you’re sitting in a room together, it’s just much nicer.”
“John has a boundless enthusiasm,” Ounsworth says, “which was helpful for us after doing so much pre-production. He really knows how to push things towards the end, so it doesn’t turn into just doing it, just putting it down. He knows when to say, ‘That’s a good performance but let’s try and get a little bit more of that je ne sais qua.’”
From there, CYHSY headed to Dallas to finish work at Congleton’s own Elmwood Recording. Congleton – who in addition to his Grammy nominated production work also fronts Texas-based indie outfit The Paper Chase – proved especially invaluable to Ounsworth when it came time to track his characteristic vocals.
“It was really helpful for me that John is a singer, so he knows what it’s like,” Ounsworth says. “He knows what the recovery time might be, he knows when to say, ‘I think you can get that better.’ For me, that was enormous.”
With its elegant hooks, simmering atmospherics, and uncommon use of space and intensity, Hysterical widens the band’s idiosyncratic formula, incorporating a remarkably expansive tidal wave of sound, all multi-layered keyboard tracks and big, booming drums. Imbued with sweeping synthesizers, juddering bass, and all manner of percussive dynamics, songs like “Same Mistake,” “Misunderstood,” and the elongated piano-pumping epic, “Adam’s Plane” are marked by inventive and boldly articulated arrangements that form a veritable vortex of melody and rhythm.
The stirring sonics belie what Ounsworth calls “an unsettled quality” to his admittedly opaque lyrical approach, an undercurrent of pragmatic pessimism that permeates songs like “Misspent Youth” and “Idiot” with mystery and inscrutable power.
“As euphoric and optimistic as things might sound,” Ounsworth says, “the idea of tempering that optimism with a little dose of reality has always been of interest to me.”
Having come close to the brink, the extended gestation period that led to the new album sees CYHSY returning to action with rejuvenated strength and a spirit of true intent. With Hysterical, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah came together and crafted something that feels fresh, invigorating and new, no less so than to the band themselves.
”Even after three records,” Ounsworth says, “it almost feels like the beginning.”