“In the beginning, we did something that was a little bit different,” says Alec Ounsworth, “and it had to do with a combination of stubbornness and good luck and genuine belief in the general public.”
We’re sitting in a warm cafe on Germantown Avenue, and it’s evident that the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman is a regular. The soft-spoken Ounsworth, sporting his wedding band and a red Phillies cap, chats amicably with other locals who pass by the table. It’s funny that Ounsworth—despite the Billboard-charting album sales, the sold-out shows at Union Transfer and the write-ups in The New York Times—can remain so unnoticed. But, he points out, that’s one of the perks of a city like Philadelphia, as opposed to the star-inebriated culture of New York or L.A. That he should prefer obscurity isn’t really surprising, either. Spend five minutes with the guy, and you’ll see that he doesn’t exactly scream Lollapalooza-playing-rock star, even though that’s exactly what he is. Better yet, just look at his band’s history, one that shows a refusal to let any past success dictate musical direction.
“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t think, ‘Oh, maybe I should toe a line here,’” Ounsworth says through a grin. “To me, that’s not why I got into this.”
CYHSY’s eponymous debut in 2005 was a milestone for independent music. There was no record label to offer financial support, no A&R team to organize single release dates or press campaigns. It was just the Mt. Airy-raised Ounsworth and his bandmates, promoting the album on their website and selling it at shows. The return on their investment was swift and sure; television appearances and slots at festivals soon followed. This blog-based road to success is what makes CYHSY such a Millennial-specific story; theirs is a career jump-started by MP3 downloads and music blogs rather than one of high-rise meeting rooms and promotional posters. CYHSY showed the music community that not only did a DIY approach allow for more creative freedom, it could also be more lucrative.
But despite a seeming indebtedness to the Internet, Ounsworth insists that he has no interest in critical acclaim. “I don’t read reviews,” he says matter-of-factly. “If people show up to shows, then I gather that it’s working for some people. If they don’t, it’s not.”
This maverick attitude explains the band’s subsequent career arc. 2007’s Some Loud Thunder was released to more lukewarm reviews. Critics harped on the album’s more experimental nature—the opening track features a purposefully fuzzy, blown-out bass line. “Our second record was commercial suicide for a lot of people,” says Ounsworth, who admits that their steadfast commitment to artistry has certainly had commercial repercussions. Still, he’s sticking by that philosophy. “It very much confuses me when people say, ‘Well, what will people think about this group?’ I can’t keep track,” he says. “I never think I’m playing to cattle or something like that. I think I’m playing to individual people. You stick to what you believe is right and don’t try to guess.”
CYHSY’s 2011 follow-up, Hysterical, a decidedly more restrained album laced with lush synthesizers, faced a similarly tepid response. Last year, the band’s guitarist Robbie Guertin and bassist Tyler Sargent left to pursue other projects, leaving Ounsworth and drummer Sean Greenhalgh to shoulder the load. So when the two headed north to upstate New York to record the band’s fourth album, due out next year, CYHSY teamed up once again with producer Dave Fridmann, who worked on Thunder. It’s probably safe to expect another weird and wild CYHSY record. And, as Ounsworth points out, if fans keep showing up to concerts and listening to the records, then critics be damned.
Given Philadelphia’s relative lack of nationally-recognizable artists, it’s odd that Ounsworth isn’t known more prominently as a Philly musician. He’s often associated with Brooklyn, a place that the other CYHSY band members have called home. He’s certainly got the frankness, and the honesty, that Philadelphians are so famous for. And as his unwillingness to bend to critical pressure shows, he’s a hardass.
“One of the reasons that I like Philadelphia is because if you’re a musician, people don’t seem to really care. You’re just like anybody else,” he says, speaking fondly of his relationship with the local music scene. “And Philly’s a tough audience. They don’t pretend to like you. They challenge you. I like that.”
Sat., Oct. 19. 6:45pm. Free. Jamaican Jerk Hut, 1436 South St. bloktoberfestphilly.com
PW's Music Issue 2014