The glory of youth.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Pitchfork, Bowie, The O.C., and Jimmy Fallon
You already know who Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are, you little internet-scouring, indie rock snob scum, you. And, because you already know who they are, I see little need for introduction, other than to say there are five members of the band: Lee Sargent, Tyler Sargent, Alec Ounsworth, Robbie Guertin, and fan-favorite Sean Greenhalgh.
I met Lee and Tyler on a sunny Friday afternoon, last Friday in fact, in the East Village. After being given "the business" by a bartender at Grass Roots for moving a chair, we walked on to find more friendly confines for the interview. That’s when Lee and Tyler, brothers, pointed out that they "don’t usually dress alike." Yes, they were both wearing dark t-shirts, jeans, and Chuck Taylors. I tried to mask my aching embarrassment for them with casual small talk until we finally found our spot: a dark booth at the ACE bar. Luckily they weren’t carding, because Lee had realized a few minutes beforehand that he’d lost his drivers license. This seemed to be an ordinary type of occurrence for Lee (note: Lee has since found said license).
Without further ado, prepare to find out more about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah than you ever, ever, ever wanted to know...
So, Lee, you mentioned that you "don’t really work" in your voicemail message today, so then what do you do?
Lee: Uh, I just got out of graduate school.
What graduate school?
L: I went to design school for two years. I got an MFA in something called Design and Technology. I don’t really know what that is. Um, So now I’m –
What was your final project?
L: I made this thing that was supposed to be installed in a gallery, but I never set it up cause I just didn’t want to do it in the end. My thesis was –
And they still let you graduate?
L: Yeah, yeah. Cause the thesis show was after graduation - WELL after graduation...um, I think. I wouldn’t know because I didn’t attend. (laughs)
It sounds like a scam.
L: Yeah, but I built the whole thing and programmed it for a gallery setting. It had a round table with three laptops and a projector above, and I programmed this thing in C++. Essentially, it projected data going from and coming to each person’s machine. It was like a pretty visualization of data swimming around on the table. Sort of life-like movements, just sort of algorithmic. Um, like your different network activities ranging from instant messaging to emailing and downloading web pages – those are all um...You can, like, PARSE apart web data and find numbers that tell the computer what that activity is and what it’s requesting from the ser – (laughing) never mind.
Good answer. That’s a good ending to the answer. Very perceptive. So you graduated from this weird program...
L: Yeah, and other people did more normal stuff. My friend Mark made this website that was like a social networking thing for cyclists to meet up and go on rides, but it was really smart. Mine was really pretentious and dumb.
What about you Tyler?
T: I have a job job.
"It would be like the band that the gangs always got to play." -Lee Sargent
Oh man, so do I. What’s your job?
T: Um, computer stuff. Mostly PHP database crap. (laughs)
L: This is such a rock and roll interview.
T: Yeah, this is awesome. Have you ever heard of structured query language?
Can you please tell me more about it along with the readers of Tiny Mix Tapes?
And how it relates to "This Home On Ice?"
L: If you don’t know how it relates, then you’re missing out on something.
T: ...it’s a full time job and I work from home.
T: And I go to this office every Tuesday. Tuesday is the big day I go out to the office.
What do Tuesdays feel like?
T: I get on the train, I go out to Long Island.
Do you dread it?
T: No, not really. Because, the rest of the week...is very lonely. (LAUGHS)
T: Well, it just kind of changes things up.
T: I LOVE the office. No, it’s like being in that space for like a day, it’s like: I’m glad I don’t do this every day.
Oh, when did you guys move to New York City? When did that all happen?
L&T : Uhhhh...
Oh, wait, how old are you guys?
28, and (to Tyler) you’re how old?
Oh, you’re both 28!?
L: Oh, I thought you knew we were twins.
Oh, you ARE twins! I though you guys were kidding.
L&T: No, no, no...
Ohhhhhh, ARE you identical?
Oh, that’s funny.
T: But we usually don’t dress alike.
L: Yeah, our parents stopped dressing us alike when I went off to graduate school.
Did you go to the same prison?
L: You know, it was just one of those throwaway things. All five of us (the band) went there.
Oh, okay. So that’s where you all met.
T: Well, we’ve know Sean the drummer since the 6th grade.
L: We used to play in a band with him in the 6th grade.
T: In the 8th grade.
L: Or, in the 8th grade. The band was called "In The Attic."
Did you guys play "in the attic?"
L: Oh, we totally did.
"We’re going for people to love the shit out of the whole thing, or just hate it. And it’s sort of working. I think." -Lee Sargent
Did you play any shows?
L: We played one.
T: One show.
How was it?
T: Atrocious. It was like, atrocious and brilliant.
L: Wasn’t it like a pool party or something?
T: It was a pool party.
What was the music like?
L: It was all covers. We did the GnR version of "Knockin On Heaven’s Door" – a LOT. We played "Under The Bridge."
T: And that Buffalo Springfield song.
"For What It’s Worth?"
"There’s somethin’ happening here..."
L: Yeah, "There’s something happening here. I don’t know where my parents are. They were supposed to pick me up an hour ago."
Okay. So then you all met in prison. That’s colorful. And then uh –
T: Is there any way you can change "college" to "prison" in the interview?
So did you and Sean start a band right away when you were up there?
L: No none of us – well Tyler and I played in a band together all throughout prison. The first two years, we were in a party band. Like, the whole place got shit-faced and danced to our music. It was basically like – it was THAT prison party band.
Yeah, I didn’t have that band, but that’s cool.
L: Well, did you have gangs?
L: It would be like the band that the gangs always got to play.
So, you guys were in that, but how did –
L: Well, Sean had his own band. Alec had his own band.
T: And Robbie also had a band.
Did the bands have a scene?
L: Yeah, there was definitely a good music scene. It was a really small prison, like 1,300 people, but there was this building called "The Barn." It was like a prison club, and anyone could join. There was a big room for equipment, and then there was another room where people could just set up their drums and leave them there, and you could sign out 2 hour time slots to go in and play. It was awesome. There were bands playing all the time. It was like there was a record label on the grounds, you know what I mean? So, a lot of the people went on to continue to play music.
So, was it a question of, while you were up there you all wanted to move down to New York and start a band?
L: No, this wasn’t even a consideration when we were in prison. We were released in 2000. Alec was released the same year. Sean was released in 2001. Robbie was released the next year. And then Alec worked on a lot of music on his own. He recorded a lot of songs on his own, and he had his own ProTools setup. So he made this demo of songs and he wanted a band to play them. It was six songs or something. And he had a ton more. So we got together to play that stuff and write more stuff and whatever, so that was like January or February...
T: It was January.
L: January of 2004.
Okay, so about a year and a half ago.
L: Yeah, and then we played our first show two months later, in March.
Where was the first show?
T: It was at a place called Siberia. Do you know that place?
Yeah, I’ve never gone but I’ve heard about it.
T: And, an interesting side note to that first show is that Jimmy Fallon was the last man standing at the show. But, he didn’t know anything about us...
Did you guys talk to him?
T: Yeah. He told Lee that he shouldn’t laugh at his own jokes.
L: Yeah, I made a joke and I laughed.
T: But that’s Jimmy Fallon’s thing!
L: And then he busted me for it.
Was he serious about it?
L: No, he was joking but he was definitely trying to insult me a little bit. He was trying to call me out on it, but he was also sort of joking. He was also sort of really fucked up.
"There was one email that said, ’You are fucking awful.’" - Tyler Sargent
So, what was the Gothamist show (Monday the 20th at The Knitting Factory) like relative to the other shows you guys have played?
T: That was the first show we’d played since that track review on Pitchfork, so I think that brought a lot of people out. Because, the show we’d played before that was at the Delancey, for our CD release show, and that was pretty full as well. I don’t know they just keep getting bigger.
How long ago was the CD release show?
L: It was three weeks ago or something.
T: But at the Knitting Factory there was definitely a new kind of energy in the air, and I think we were feeding off that.
Can you describe that energy at all?
L: It was really just a feeling and a confirmation that a lot of people were coming out to see us. You know, when you’re coming up as a band, you’re playing all these mismatched bills. You don’t know who’s there to see what. You find out at the end of the night when you see the tally. So it just felt like everyone was really enjoying it. And the really special moment, I think, about the show was how we ended. We brought it down to this level, whereas we’ve always ended it – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that "Satan Said Dance" song? But we didn’t play it that night. We usually end with a big happy energetic song where people are going crazy. But that was a nice way to mix it up, and have each show be its own thing.
Lee, when we were talking outside of the Gothamist show, you mentioned that you do follow the whole internet music scene culture...thing. So, after this Pitchfork review, and Tiny Mix Tapes gave you a good review. So, how does it feel to be on the verge of maybe being some kind of "it" band?
L: Well, first of all we didn’t think Pitchfork would ever review our record because we’re not on a label. I don’t read Pitchfork much these days because I don’t have any money. So if there’s, like, a record I want to buy I’ll have to buy it and then I’ll be in debt again. Um, so I don’t really read it much. But I’m fully aware of how influential it is and I’m fully aware of what they do for a lot of bands.
But, do you know what I mean, you guys have been doing this band for a year and a half. And now the potential is very real, in terms of the band going to a different level, in terms of success and also attention. So how does that – or maybe you don’t think about it at all...
L: Well, we do. But we always knew that this band was going to be successful eventually. We didn’t know how long it would take. You hear about really awesome bands like, "paying their dues" for three years and not getting noticed. So that was always a possibility. But, the thing about a publication like Pitchfork is that they can decide when that happens. You know what I mean? They can say, "We’re going to speed up the process and this is going to happen...now!" And it was a kick in the pants for us, because we lost control of everything.
T: Today that became very real because – have you read it today?
L: We were like headlining news on Pitchfork. "Clap Your Hands Discusses Album and Upcoming Tour Plans." It’s like a little interview with Alec, and it just says like, we’re going on tour in September with The National. But it definitely feels like – Pitchfork definitely grabs on to bands in this way. They’ll mention something, and then they’ll do an record review, then very shortly after they’ll have a big news item. It’s like, "This is OUR band." It definitely feels – because of the way we’ve done this whole thing, it doesn’t feel fake at all. Because the one thing that we all really love about the way Pitchfork has written about us is they’re very interested in the fact that we haven’t spent any money on PR ever. And that’s something we’re sticking to. I mean, we’re paying you a million dollars for this interview. But, that’s fine. That’s totally fine.
You did give me that cigarette.
L: Um...yeah, I sort of trailed off there.
I thought it was interesting that you said they seem to stake a claim on a band, but even with that you don’t feel...
T: I do feel – I personally feel a little bit uncomfortable about it because after that came out, we didn’t have – I mean, we’re doing this all on our own, which is great, distribution and everything. But we’re getting emails from record stores all around the country saying, "How does one get your CD?"
L: Which is also kind of awesome, because, I mean I totally feel that, it can be frustrating. But it just adds to what people have said – that this is very much a DIY operation and because of that, certain people in certain parts of the country are...never going to see this record. I mean, they will, but...it might take a little while. I enjoy that.
So guys, thoughts on the album...
T: Well, it’s a huge relief. It took such a long time to do. We started recording in June, I think, of last year. So, it just took a really long time. The whole recording process and...
How long did it take?
T: Well, we spent like 5 days or something like that in Providence. We recorded 7 songs in Providence, and it was originally meant to be an EP, just to have a recording. It was originally meant to sort of be a demo. And just the way that we’re doing this ourselves, there’s really no way to distinguish.
L: It could be a demo, yeah. I mean you look at this and you don’t see a label anywhere. You look at the spine and you just see the band name and you’re like, "What? So this is your friend’s band?" And we struggled with it for a little bit, you know when people see it they might not take it seriously, you know, if there’s not a label. And we had the idea of just coming up with a little label name, but that’s just a little too transparent. That’s just something you do to form an opinion. So, I don’t know. It is what it is, and that’s the greatest thing about it.
Were you going for anything, any particular vision, for the album, or were you just trying to write good songs.
L; Well, first it was just we had a few songs and we were going to do an EP. Then, it became something that was going to become more of a cohesive thing. You know, there are those two instrumentals that weave their way in there. So, we wanted to throw that stuff in there to make it more of a full experience. And that first song sort of suggests that, I think. Because it is very much an introductory thing.
I was mentioning to Lee at the Gothamist show that you guys have to ride "Home On Ice" all the way to the top. What do you think of that song, is it your favorite, or do you guys have any favorites?
T: Uh, I don’t know. If there is a single on it, I think that’s easily one of them.
L: It’s probably the most immediately catchy. You know what it is as soon as you hear it. And that’s great. It’s a lot of fun to play. And it came out sounding really nice. It’s really well textured and everything. But, as far as favorite songs, my opinion is always changing. Cause they all mean different things to me. They’re very different stylistically from each other, but then there’s also some intangible thing that ties them all together. And I guess that’s Alec’s voice, that’s the unique thing that works well over all of these different songs. And it just works somehow.
I feel like I should have questions about Alec’s voice, and his performance style, too. But, I really don’t. I mean, do you guys have anything to say about it? It’s unique, it’s a stamp...
T: I love that people just have very strong opinions about it. If they hate his voice, that’s a good thing.
L: That’s what we’re going for. We’re going for people to love the shit out of the whole thing, or just hate it. And it’s sort of working. I think.
As long as you can elicit some kind of reaction from people...
L: We just started getting hate mail two days ago.
Oh, no way!
T: There was one email that said, "You are fucking awful."
That was it?
T: That was it.
Well it’s cool if you guys can enjoy the backlash.
L: Big ups to those people. To have their lives so squared away that they can actually spend the time to do that. And now we have all their email addresses, so they’re going to get invited to all our shows.
T: But that "You are fucking awful" email.
Well if you can enjoy the backlash, then you’re going to have a great time. ‘Cause there’s going to be a backlash. There’s no way around it, no matter how good you are.
"Can I ask you something about the O.C.? What is up with the O.C.?"-Lee Sargent
So, how does it feel to get compared to all these established bands, when it may or may not make any sense. Like, the Talking Heads thing, you guys sound nothing like the Talking Heads...
L: Well, I think the reason why we don’t love that stuff is that they’re always bands that we don’t listen to. They’re all very respectable bands. Period. Next sentence. It’s just a very easy way to talk about music, to make these comparisons.
Well, it is the challenge of describing music, which isn’t an easy thing to do most of the time.
T: Well also, people are just finding out about us now. I mean, later on they would hopefully compare albums of ours, but now all you really can do is pick bands to reference. But there’s no other way, I mean...it’s ROCK. I mean, if you weren’t going to bring other bands in to the equation, it would be...
L: You’d have to have a really, REALLY strong grasp of the English language to write about rock and roll without naming another band – ever. I can’t imagine doing that.
I can’t imagine doing it either.
L: Maybe the English language is to blame for this problem.
Well, the music journalists will be happy to hear that. So, what’s the fuckin’ plan?
L: The plan is, for the immediate future, we’re touring with The National in September. That’s a national tour. Yeah, all puns intended. Something like 30 shows in 35 days. And we like The National as musicians and people. I’ve been listening to their latest record, Alligator, non-stop, and it’s an amazing record.
And are they from Brooklyn too?
L: They’re from Brooklyn, yeah. So, there’s that tour. And then we have a handful of shows before that around here.
So this tour in September, it’s going to be like your big introduction to the rest of the country.
L: It’s like a debutante ball. Our coming out party. This tour is going to be amazing. And there’s this idea among bands starting out that you have to go on the road and pay your dues, and lose thousands of dollars, and starve yourself. But, no one’s making you do that. And that’s why this feels really good. The timing is definitely right to do it.
T: And also, with the speed that all this stuff is happening, September is a long ways away. It’s so amazing though, it all has to do with this one website. I mean, it’s a WEBSITE. It lives on a computer.
Yeah, and I feel like David Bowie DOES read Pitchfork, even if that’s not the reason he came to your show. And I feel like the guy who does the O.C. reads Pitchfork. And these hydra discover it, and then it all can become more easily commodified and...it can be a little scary.
L: Can I ask you something about the O.C.? What is up with the O.C.? We’re always asked if we would give music to the O.C. Do they just bring new music in?
They don’t bring NEW music in, hell no!
T: But hyped music?
I mean, have you ever watched the show?
T: I’ve watched it, like, twice.
I watched some of the first season.
L: How much of it?
Half of it.
L: The first half or the last half?
Okay, I watched most of the first season. But I have a soft spot for shitty melodrama. Anyway they have the character, the Seth guy. And I remember in one of the episodes he talked about "Death Cab." And in the first season they’d still have really shitty bands on, like Rooney.
L: Oh yeah! I remember! I mean, I don’t remember. No, I didn’t see that.
But, then obviously the guy who writes the show - it’s this one guy, this young guy who I saw on Charlie Rose. Do you guys watch Charlie Rose?
L: Yeah, yeah, all the time.
Charlie Rose is the shit.
L: You actually look sort of like Charlie Rose – in a good way. He’s a very handsome man.
I certainly wouldn’t take that as an insult. Anyway, this guy is in touch with youth culture, and bands that are breaking through. So, what, last season I guess Modest Mouse was on, The Walkmen, Spoon. The Shins were on the Gilmore Girls. But anyway, the characters talk about these bands, and then the bands go on the show, and then they put the band’s songs on the soundtrack. So then the O.C. gobble them up and the band’s become the O.C.’s thing. And the bands get this exposure, for sure, and god knows they sell more albums. On the other hand, they’re on the O.C., a shitty FOX teen show.
L: But do they actually perform?
Yeah, some of them do.
L: It sounds a lot like Beverly Hills 90210.
It is a lot like Beverly Hills 90210.
T: Like when the Flaming Lips played.
Did they play "She Don’t Use Jelly?"
T: Yeah. It was like, when the Peach Pit turned into a nightclub.
So anyway, the O.C. has become this thing with indie bands. So, the reason people ask – I mean you guys probably will be asked by the O.C. to be on their soundtrack. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t say probably, but it’s totally within the realm of possibility. So, that’s why people ask you about it. I view it as just a monster.
L: I don’t think we’d ever do that.
Any plans for a new album?
L: Well, no concrete plans but we have a lot of new material. And, we all think it’s going to be really strong.
L: I think it’s going to be better.
T: Yeah, I think the next one might have something more to it.
Where did the money for the album come from?
T: Mostly from me and Alec. We just went in debt knowing that we were comfortable about the prospect of getting the money back. And we almost have, I think. Robbie keeps the books.
As far as labels are concerned, are you guys more interested in starting your own thing or hooking on to a label?
T: I would like to get hooked up with a good indie label. We’ve had a lot of major label A&R people write us, and say "Send us music" and stuff like that. And they come to our shows, but that just sounds like a nightmare.
Then you’d be forced at gunpoint to go on the O.C.
L: Yeah, we love the way it’s going now, in that it’s a highly internet-based thing and it’s great. We love it. So we want to maintain that, um, M.O.