Music: Clap On

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has worked hard but not long to achieve much

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Jasper Coolidge

Further proof that the major-label system is obsolete, we give you Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, whose self-released debut has sold around a quarter of a million copies.

One of the stereotypically inspiring bio nuggets of the successful band is the lengthy and arduous struggle that has proceeded said band's rise to the top. There is no more familiar story in music than the overnight sensation that has worked literally for years before gaining any attention at all.

Thankfully, New York/Philadelphia quintet Clap Your Hands Say Yeah does not fit that formula. At all. After coalescing as a band two years ago, the band played a handful of gigs, spent a year working on their debut album while paying the rent with day jobs, and then watched incredulously as their self-release sold out, pressing after pressing; at last check, CYHSY had moved nearly a quarter million copies of their first album worldwide.

"Yeah, it's been pretty overwhelming," says keyboardist Robbie Guertin. "We just made an album that we were proud of and we were fortunate everyone else liked it so much, too. It's totally exciting. It's like, 'Who are these 200,000 people?' "

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah began in 2004 when Philadelphian Alec Ounsworth was visiting his sister in Boston and became aware of guitarist Lee and bassist Tyler Sargent, identical twin brothers trying to start a band.

Ultimately, they recruited Guertin and drummer Sean Greenhalgh, friends from Connecticut College, to join them. The quartet moved to Brooklyn and Ounsworth returned to Philadelphia, commuting back and forth to collaborate with his new bandmates on the songs he had brought to the band, which is named after some graffiti they'd seen. After a few practices, the band secured their first show at The Siberia in Manhattan on the Sargent twins' birthday in March. Three months later, CYHSY began work on their first recordings during gaps in their day schedules.

"Originally, it was just supposed to be us recording a few songs in order to get started," says Guertin. "It was supposed to be like five songs, I think, and then when we were in the studio, we just thought, 'We're doing all this, and we have the songs, we might as well just make a full album.' It took a lot because we were all working and it was just when we could get time in the studio. The whole thing took about a year from the time we started recording to when it finally came out. The actual recording time probably was two weeks."

The year that it took CYHSY to complete their initial recordings turned out to be fairly advantageous, as it allowed the band the luxury to explore all the possibilities of Ounsworth's New-Wave-meets-Indie songs.

"It definitely evolved," says Guertin. "It was kind of good to have the time in between to look at each version. 'Heavy Metal' we recorded, I think, like three times. Alec, in particular, was sick of that song. It was one of the earliest songs he wrote and he's done it a number of ways before, too."

When the band finished the album, they chose to self-release, not through some militant design to avoid the major label system but by convenient necessity.

"The idea was to get some stuff down and then once we had the whole album, it was like, 'Maybe we could send this to some labels,' " says Guertin. "We made 2000 originally, and I did the packaging and we made it a complete product so we could have something to sell at our shows and on the Web site. It just sort of came out organically."

Within weeks, CYHSY became the toast of music Web sites; the 9-out-of-10 review given the album by Pitchfork spiked interest in the band, and the media and industry came calling.

"We definitely got some offers from labels and we talked to a lot of people," says Guertin. "They were offering advances and a lot of support and it was definitely an option, but we'd already come pretty far on our own."

As the band blew through subsequent pressings of their debut, it became clear that they should just stick with the model they had created and pursue the DIY route. They rounded up their own domestic distribution and publicity and signed with Wichita Records in the UK to expand into the European market. By the fall, CYHSY had hooked up with The National to open their U.S. tour dates and the wider exposure spread the band's gospel further.

The overwhelmingly positive reviews for CYHSY continued to pour in and within months the band had notched domestic sales of over 100,000 units.

The band's sound, often likened to early Talking Heads crossed with a less moody Arcade Fire and lightly coated with the twisted Pop of Neutral Milk Hotel, might have its origins in the band members' individual tastes, but Guertin diplomatically sidesteps identifying any actual influences.

"We've all got lots of different influences," says Guertin. "We never sit down to write a song and say, 'This is going to be a Brian Eno type of song,' or 'This is a Bob Dylan song.' It's totally little bits of lots of different stuff that come together and hopefully it's something coming out of us that we're creating."

Everything has happened relatively quickly for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and their imminent plans reflect the fast track they've found themselves traveling. Ounsworth had nearly 40 songs completed before the first album was recorded and he's written a batch of new songs, so CYHSY is ready to go back in the studio after wrapping up this current live circuit. Although nothing is set in stone, the band is in discussions with frequent Flaming Lips' collaborator David Fridmann to utilize his engineering skills for their sophomore album, which they hope to have out this fall.

In the meantime, the warp-speed journey of CYHSY continues unabated. At this rate, the band will release their first live album next year, followed by a greatest hits package. Can the career-spanning box set be far behind? With Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, anything seems possible.

CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH performs Wednesday at the Southgate House with The Brunettes.

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