The self-released indie rock band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were celebrated by the blogosphere, then shunned. They’re back with what may be their most masterful record. But will listeners notice this time around?
In the summer of 2005, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah emerged and became a case study in how to succeed as a self-released band. Their quirky and upbeat sound inspired an internet feeding-frenzy as mp3 bloggers sang their praises, eventually helping CYHSY sell about 200,000 copies of their self-financed debut CD.
But the story didn’t end there. Not only did the band become a reference point for the new ways artists could succeed in the internet age – it also became the poster-story for the new ways they could flounder. For those readers who follow online record reviews, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah became a reference point for discussing the very notion of “hype and backlash” in the internet age.
According to John Congleton, who produced their latest album, it couldn’t have happened to a more unlikely band. “[Singer] Alec [Ounsworth] is probably one of the most technophobic people I know,” he says. “I’m not even sure he has an email address.”
Blocking Out The Noise
“It certainly was confusing at first – Both the speed at which we shot up in the beginning, and with the way things turned,” laughs CYHSY drummer Sean Greenhalgh. “It was confusing on both sides.”
“We didn’t really set out to be this buzz band,” he says, “and we didn’t ask to be some kind of cultural touchstone either. We just wanted to make a record.”
Today, a few of the outlets who led the original hype parade are now content to lead the latest wave of backlash, preemptively dismissing the band’s newest record.
“The internet giveth and the internet taketh away,” jokes producer/engineer John Congleton. The punchline? To anyone who’s listening, Hysterical is easily Clap Your Hand Say Yeah’s most masterful record to date.
And, while a few of the more fickle media outlets like Pitchfork have doubled-back, effectively panning their latest album, some of the more measured review sites like All Music and NPR have been much kinder, commending Hysterical for showcasing stronger songwriting, more confident performances, and a richer production aesthetic than ever before.
As someone who largely ignored the band’s first album due to the online media circus surrounding it, I was surprised to find just how much I liked this one. Singer Alec Ounsworth sounds more honest – and more like himself – than he has in the past.
The band is now able to deliver tighter performances while maintaining their quirky sensibility, and John Congleton’s production is powerful, organic, and atmospheric all at once.
Whether or not you’re a fan, it’s hard to ignore that this is likely the band’s most mature and well-honed release to date. But that might not help them much in the blogosphere.
Drummer Sean Greenhalgh has used the lessons he learned in the studio during the band’s three records to become a producer in his own right. But on Hysterical, he and the band still deferred to Congleton’s production expertise. When it’s time to work on your own music, he says it can be best to “turn off that part of your brain.”
“It’s absolutely helpful to have that outside perspective,” Greenhalgh says. “It’s pretty hard to be objective when you’ve got your own parts at stake. It’s great to have someone who can come in from an almost conflict-resolution standpoint, someone who can break a tie with the votes and say ‘Alright, we’re going this way.’ It can get you over humps that would otherwise be impasses.”
Greenhalgh also remarks that he’s a “student of audio compared to these guys,” referring to the producers and engineers who helped them make each of their three records. “I was just that guy in the studio annoying the engineer with a million questions,” he says with a smile in his voice. Most recently he’s used his own production chops working with the NYC-area band Conversion Party.
“It’s interesting to see that everyone has their own style,” he says. “[Flaming Lips producer] Dave Fridmann, who did our second record [Some Loud Thunder] is pretty laid-back. He really wants to hear what the band wants to do. He likes to take direction, and will work with you as much as you want. That’s really fantastic, and he’s got his own sonic imprint too.”
“He also enjoys working on the grid in Pro Tools I think, and that’s what we needed for that record. He was great at deconstructing songs and then building them back up on the grid. You can hear that in a lot of the Flaming Lips where they cut it all up and put it back together.”
Some Loud Thunder was built that way as well, according to Greenhalgh. “We were just off the road, experimenting and building new songs up in the studio,” he says. There were even a few songs where Greenhalgh would sit down in the live room, hit the kick and snare a few times, and then return to the control room as they built new arrangements from his samples.
For their third album, however, the band would take the opposite approach. This time, they decided to do most of their arranging before the sessions and play through all their takes live as a well-oiled unit.
Plays Well With Others
“Most of what you hear on this record is us playing together in the room with a few keyboard or vocal overdubs afterwards,” says Greenhalgh. “There’s very little editing.”
“Congleton was really helpful with that too. His whole attitude was ‘This is supposed to be fun. It doesn’t have to be a tooth-pulling process.’ We really needed to have that kind of energy injected into it. We’d play each song 3 or 4 different ways and John would help us decide between the different feels.”
“I also think he’s more hands-on in terms of saying ‘This is good’ and ‘This is bad’. He certainly drives the sessions a little bit more. He just has a different energy than say, Dave, who’s more laid-back. Everyone has their own approach. It was amazing to see a lot of different ways to get at it.”
Greenhalgh has similarly fond words for engineers Adam Lasus and Keith Sousa, who worked on the band’s tight and punchy-sounding debut. But for Hysterical, CYHSY wanted to go big, beefy and atmospheric, and Congleton delivered.
Their new producer came up from Texas and booked Water Music, an enormous Neve-based tracking space in Hoboken NJ. “You can hear that room on the record,” says Greenhalgh.
“John probably set up twenty mics in the room the first day. We switched out snares a lot, and would use different mics and dampening on the kick drum to get different tones for each song. One of the coolest sounds he got were from two old Neumanns at the far end of the room, maybe 30 yards from the kit – It just sounded like instant ‘When The Levee Breaks’.”
“The whole approach,” says producer Congleton, “was in making sure none of the sounds were too obvious. You want to make things clear, but we also wanted to let some of the sounds stay a little mysterious.”
To that end, many of the guitars on the album were tracked without close mics. Congleton says he was going for sounds that were more “diffuse”, and would often set mics several feet back from the amps, or even point them off-axis from the speaker entirely.