Blog Break

What's in a name? For Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, almost everything

This is a story about a band named Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. They moved to Brooklyn from Philadelphia, and recorded some songs, mostly written by a guy named Alec Ounsworth.

On the way to their first gig, they were driving through Brooklyn, near the Gowanus Canal, and saw the phrase "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah" written on a wall in 6-foot-high letters. Not graffiti letters, but normal-looking letters, which seemed strange. They needed a name, and the phrase seemed appropriate. After playing together for a few months, the band recorded a self-titled album, and released it themselves.

It sounds like the origin story of every band that ever dreamed of tweaking the nipples of indie-rock critics and pretty hipster girls. And it is. Most bands play shows, record, post songs online and hope somebody somewhere is listening. Where Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's story differs is that a whole bunch of influential somebodys suddenly started listening.

"I don't think we did it differently than a lot of bands," said Tyler Sargent, who plays in Clap Your Hands Say Yeah along with his twin brother, Lee (Alec Ounsworth had lost his voice at the time of the interview). "It just really caught on, so it turned into a story, but we started out just making a Web site, posting songs on it--I think we posted rough mixes after we were recording."

The story it turned into is one about how word of mouth, file sharing and Internet blogs actually can do the work of a record label, street team and publicist combined.

Dan Beirne, a contributor to the MP3 blog Said the Gramophone, came across a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah song on a file-sharing network, and the name caught his attention. He listened to it, loved it, posted it, and from there, the band's popularity on the indie rock network superheated. Without a label. Without glossy ads or cross-marketing. This is how the story is supposed to go: Some people hear some music, like it, pass it along, and the band gains fans--not because they have hip haircuts, but because of the music.

But at what point does the spike in popularity become less about the music and more "everybody else likes them, so they must be good"? Is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah really that good? Really, what is it about the music that created such a word-of-mouth chatterfest?

"I mean, there are a lot of things, and it's hard to pinpoint--people like it for different reasons, I guess," said Sargent. "It might be that people point out how melodic it can be; they might be interested in the lyrics. ... I guess it can be several things for different people. People often point out that Alec's voice is unique."

It could be the tambourine. The rhythmic energy. The strange lyrics. The David Byrne-esque carnival of it all. In other words, lots of little things that, when combined together, make an attractive package. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is just weird enough to be edgy, just modern enough to be interesting, but still comfortably resting on the lap of what's familiar.

The first song, a sort of thematic introduction to the band, aptly named "Clap Your Hands!" filters Ounsworth's vocals through a megaphone as a calliope toots along. "Away we go," sings Ounsworth, and the record obeys. The tambourine in "Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away" is just as commanding as the band's name, like an emphatic "All Tomorrow's Parties," and the toy piano on "Sunshine and Clouds (And Everything Proud)" gives way to "Details of the War," which has by far the best lyric on the record: "Camel dick, crucifix, everyone's the same and on and on." "Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" has a New Order-esque bass line and drunk dance beat, and "Is This Love?" has all the elements of your standard mid-first-decade-of-the-21st-century modern-rock song: giddy guitars, a slight late-'60s retro pop feel, a dance beat, synthesizers and subtly political lyrics: "We can do the zarathustra / We can do the broken fist / We can tear down all the borders / or abbreviate the list."

The name alone, though, seems to be the most interesting thing about the band, and it's the name that first caught the eye of that first blogger. It's arguable that if Clap Your Hands Say Yeah had a more standard band name--one word, a noun or an adjective, something more forgettable--and not an imperative, their story might have had a more generic middle and end.

"It's unlike a lot of typical band names, I guess, so I'm really not quite sure what to make of it," said Sargent. "I heard someone say it repulsed him and attracted him at the same time."

The person who said that was the blogger Beirne, as quoted on NPR in November of last year. But once Beirne was pulled in by the name, it was the music itself that hooked him. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah do have something going for them: They're just trying to write good songs. That was the whole idea in the first place, and all of this attention was a fortuitous plot twist.

Said Sargent, "We just try to stay focused on what we're doing and try not to pay a whole lot of attention to (the attention). But it's a good thing."

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