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Men of mystery
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ride a quiet wave of on-line hype
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Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's official Web site

Elisabeth Donnelly reviews CYHSY's show at Boston University.

If Clap Your Hands Say Yeah seem elusive, that’s by design. Although the sorta-Brooklyn band (more on that later) catapulted from relative anonymity to the indie success story of the summer in a matter of months, thanks to the grassroots fan power of Internerds, the fivesome’s official on-line identity is subtly evasive. There’s no bio or press kit on their site — for that sort of thing, you’re stuck with a Wikipedia entry. The on-line photo gallery is equally cagy, offering mostly teasing glimpses of the twentysomething band members in blurry, shadowy, and other inscrutable states. Elsewhere, they’re just as reluctant to share: the NYC-based firm Big Hassle Publicity doesn’t even mention them as a client on its site. It’s been reported that most of the band met at Connecticut College, but CYHSY dodge questions about their genesis like defendants in criminal trials.

And right now, they’re missing. It’s a mid-September Wednesday, and CYHSY are headlining a sold-out show at T.T.’s. A sit-down interview scheduled a couple hours previously doesn’t materialize: after a delayed soundcheck and a brief Phoenix photo shoot, they evaporate into thin air with a tour manager named Gabriel. No one knows where they’ve gone: not the T.T.’s door lady, not Elio, the house sound dude, who knows CYHSY twins Lee and Tyler Sargent back from when Lee roomed with his girlfriend. Poof, vanished, gone.

Then keyboardist/guitarist Robbie Guertin emerges from a parked U-Haul trailer, arms cradling a T-shirt bundle. He’s just returned from a dinner at the Green Street Grill that frontman/song architect Alec Ounsworth left early for a nap in the tour van. The Sargent twins, Lee (keys, guitar) and Tyler (bass), appear and greet their white-haired, red-faced father, who’s leaning against a car and grinning wildly. Drummer Sean Greenhalgh: still missing.

So what about that interview? "Read the blogs," smirks Guertin. "They’ll tell you everything you need to know."

Most blogs will tell you that CYHSY are from Brooklyn, which isn’t entirely accurate. Ounsworth still resides at his mom’s house in Philly when he’s not couch-squatting in NYC. The rest of the CYHSY boys — the Sargents, Guertin, Greenhalgh — do live in Brooklyn, but they grew up around Boston. The Sargents, 28-year-old identical twins who hail from Hingham, even did time on the Boston indie circuit in a melodically plodding, prototypically mumbling band called Clown Down.

The first local CYHSY show took place last May at Great Scott; that was also the first time the fivesome had played outside the Pennsylvania–New Jersey–New York area. A lot has happened since. In June, Pitchfork bestowed the enviable mantle of Next Big iPod Thing on CYSHY by awarding their homonymous release a whopping 9 out of 10. When an album scores that numerical rating from that site, it’s pretty certain that tens of thousands of people will hear it. A sizable percentage might even buy it. That held true for CYHSY, who caught on among the bloggernaut faster than bird flu: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah became one of Insound’s fastest moving units ever. Since July, the band have shipped more than 25,000 copies of the disc from a Brooklyn apartment. More than half the shows on a recent cross-country tour opening for the National were sold out. They’re such a hot prospect, it’s rumored Columbia offered them a mega-contract (they declined) and The OC invited them on the show (another refusal).

Pitchfork also gushed about how nice it was to hear a release without a PR-spun mythology. And so the absence of myth became the CYHSY myth. "It’s funny the way everyone says we self-released our album," Guertin says after I finally wrangle him and the Sargents together for a beer upstairs at the Middle East. (Ounsworth’s "sick in the van"; Marshfield native Greenhalgh is still out eating with his family.) "We recorded something, every band has to do it, and now you can do it yourself. It wasn’t some big ‘We’re going to be Fugazi or Ani DiFranco thing.’ " And so far, they’ve been swatting away labels like badminton shuttlecocks. Last month, they sidestepped a domestic-label deal by linking directly with ADA Distribution; earlier this month, they signed with the British label Wichita. As Guertin points out, "The question we keep asking labels is, ‘Well, what can you for us that we’re not already doing?’ Because we’re getting so much exposure, we’re selling CDs, so it’s always hard for them to answer. There’s definitely things that a label can do. But at this point, profit-wise, we can make more doing it ourselves."

You have to imagine that some of his confidence comes from band manager Nick Stern, who works in PR at Atlantic. Both together and separately, the band members have played music for years and never garnered such success. Lee’s sometime sideline is a country-and-keyboards quartet called Takka Takka (named after "the sound of subway cars moving" and a Roy Lichtenstein title). Tyler’s secondary band, the Vowels, is an indie foursome in which he plays guitar. Greenhalgh not only is in the Vowels but also impersonates Axl Rose in a Guns N’ Roses tribute band, Mr. Brownstone. Ounsworth records solo: the CYHSY track "Details from the War" shows up in a demo version on his Web site.

As the tech-savvy members of CYHSY, the Sargents and Guertin are amused by the bloggernaut that’s propelled them into minor stardom. "If I could do my graduate thesis again, I really would’ve done it on this whole process," says Guertin, a Belmont native and printmaker/illustrator whose girlfriend, Dasha Shiskin, drew the CYHSY cover art. "It was never about posting all of our songs everywhere. If you only have 30-second clips, people’ll listen to those a couple times. But if you give them a couple of songs, it’ll get into their head and they’ll want more."

They’re also amazed with the live-show response. "What surprised me was to see people dancing really hard," Lee says. "I associate that reaction with an entirely different form of music. Somehow we fall under the umbrella of indie rock, and indie-rock shows are like this" — he folds his arms and glowers — "and that’s not how our shows go." So how does he think of CYHSY? "I always just say ‘rock.’ If you’re trying to put music out as an entirely original band and you sound like whatever band meets whatever band, you’re doing something wrong."

Although Sargent isn’t willing to make the cliché’d comparisons, there’re thousands of frantically typing fingers that have: Talking Heads, Neil Young, Neutral Milk Hotel, Yo La Tengo. But though you can extract all these references from their 12-song debut, the disc is much more. Ounsworth, who writes most of the songs, delivers his words in a diction that leaks out like a dull-tipped marker rendering cursive letters: words bleed into one another, sometimes morphing into new, unrecognizable forms. In the opening "You’re Your Hands," a rockist rap skit in which Ounsworth sells applause as a cure-all at what sounds like an organ-pushed call-and-response revival meeting, "lip off" sounds like "Lily Bob"; "wooden" comes out like "puddin.’ " Or he’ll stretch words like taffy, as in the hopeful tambourine-quake daybreak of "Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away," where he bleats the word "long" into an eight-syllable cry of "La-ha-ha-ha-ahh-ha-ah-ong."

Although Ounsworth with his chief-writer credit and his authorship of lines like "Time has gotten by on alibis and wine" tends to eclipse his mates, his solo stuff whines like acoustic campfire jams. In CYHSY’s hands it’s renewed. It’s gorgeous stuff. "You can only get so far with hype," Guertin says on the walk back to T.T.’s. "If the music wasn’t any good, y’know, the hype would be worthless. And people hear it and really like it."


Issue Date: October 21 - 27, 2005
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