Clap Your Hands Say Yeah On The Value Of Tiny Audiences

Why play a stadium when you can play someone's living room? Clap Your Hands Say Yeah lead singer Alec Ounsworth is spending four months doing just that. Here's what he learned by scaling back after big success.

Bands today, even the big ones, are on the surface more approachable than ever. They play more shows, release more music, and are a simple @ away on Twitter. Their pictures, snapped by fans with cellphones, are everywhere online; you can turn to YouTube for footage of them performing in a Brooklyn-apartment sized studio. And there's no one who understands playing the game of constant interaction better than the music industry’s original Internet-age pioneers, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY).

But “there’s this illusion of closeness,” as lead singer and songwriter Alec Ounsworth sees it. To some degree, he feels that technology makes bands so accessible it actually keeps musicians from meaningfully connecting with fans. In fact, the more likes and followers you connect with online, the harder it is to have any genuine relationship with the bigger audiences who eventually turn up at your shows.

“I remember this one show. I love Mexico, it was a dream of mine to play there,” Ounsworth says, recalling a festival date from 2006, just one year after the band’s debut album. “But we were playing at the Azteca Stadium, and that wasn’t a show I was looking for. I was grateful, but I remember walking through the tunnel to the field and there were more than 15,000 people. Again, I’m grateful this was happening, a lot of people aspire to this, but I remember thinking I didn’t know how to bridge the gap. I don’t know how to make this relatable to people at this level.”

The problem sounds like a nice one to have, but, what’s a successful band that wants to genuinely connect to do? After a decade of dreaming about it, Ounsworth wanted to again play for fans in a way that he’s been unable to since first releasing a successful album. So he teamed up with Undertow, a small music collective that helps artists with everything from records to tours, and decided he’d only play shows in U.S. living rooms for the first four months of 2014.

“For me, there’s more of a need to approach people directly and that’s what intrigued me the most about doing this,” says Ounsworth, who finds creative reward in understanding the unique meaning of his music to individual fans--something that's impossible to discern after a stadium show. "It’s one thing to put out a Facebook post and say you’re in someone’s hometown or that you played Cleveland the other night. It’s quite another thing to actually talk to everybody in someone’s living room.”

Ounsworth isn’t the first artist to try this. Undertow has arranged living room tours since 2009, but the artists involved (say, David Bazan or Sarah Jaffe) aren’t critical and commercial darlings on the same level as CYHSY. And others who have tried it on their own, like U.K. post-punks Palma Violets last year, often plan selective house shows in between proper tour dates.

Ounsworth himself has tried different methods in the past 10 years to reestablish this kind of relationship with fans. The band has done multiple-day residencies at smaller venues in a single city, hoping to meet demand while being able to get a feel for the area and its people. And he says one of the reasons CYHSY has played so many festivals is that they enjoy being able to get into the crowd after sets, hanging out among music fans. But in each of those scenarios, he still feels a strange distance.

“There are a lot of different ways to approach a career in music, but the general rule is to be appreciative of your audience. If you can organize and are motivated, you should approach them directly,” he says. “But a lot of people don’t like this--to talk about their music or to go out to a merch table at a bigger show and do autographs, it can be immediately overwhelming. But I think it helps to go through what I went through and come back to this in a certain way. You have to have a need for this closeness to the audience.”

The shows on Ounsworth’s living room tour are, as you might expect, unlike any other concert experience. During a recent stop in New Orleans, Ounsworth steers the night to be as much of a hangout as it is a performance. He solicits questions from the audience, and asks a few of his own (“Where are the best venues to play around here?” “What’s the Maple Leaf Bar like? I’m supposed to meet a friend there later.”) The formal mood is abandoned early on; fans offer him drinks from the fridge.

The stops are only scheduled to be about an hour, but in New Orleans Ounsworth plays 17 songs that span hits, new material, and even songs he needs to explain to the diehards in attendance. After the show, he hangs out for nearly as long, casually interacting with fans in a variety of likely dream scenarios. Ounsworth is just as willing to do the imaginable--listen to stories people have about their experiences with the band, sign posters, or shake hands--as he is to do the unexpected, like joining a few fans for a post-show cigarette or talking about the neighborhood over a plate of hummus.

Attendees leave muttering about it being among the most memorable shows they’ve seen, but it’s another one in a tour seemingly full of them for Ounsworth. That same weekend, he played in (relatively) nearby Austin. (The tour schedule is dependent on a few things, not the least of which is proximity of potential venues within a few days’ span. Ounsworth drives himself from city to city, ideally no more than six hours.) Organizers were instructed to have space inside with a single chair, mood lighting, and room for 40 to 50 people to view, but in Austin Ounsworth noticed most of the attendees were already gathered around a firepit in the back.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Live in 2012 Image: Flickr user Jeremy Perez Photos

“I stepped in and said ‘Let’s do it here, around the campfire,’ and it became one of those experiences,” he says. “I’m sitting on a log with everyone around just doing a show. For me, that was the pivotal experience so far, it was the idea for the tour. It’s supposed to be extraordinarily intimate. It just so happens I’m playing this concert that means a lot to people, but other than that, we’re interacting on a fairly normal level."

Ounsworth’s living room tour next hits the West Coast before coming back through Big Ten country in April. With a new CYHSY album, Only Run, coming out in May, it’ll likely be awhile before he gets an opportunity like this again--though don’t be surprised if he pops up at a merch table while touring the new album. With two months of living rooms under his belt, he already sees value in this tour.

“The last record we did in a very traditional fashion [using a label, distributor, a promoter, etc.] and usually these are experiments for me,” he says. “So that was a way to see what it was like to do things in the traditional way. It sort of brought me to understand that this is the only way for me. In a way, the living room shows are a perfect example that the model I had in place already works--independence in its purest form. My conclusion is that the only way to do things right is to find the people in your audience. The living room tour, it’s not what I’m going to do from here on out, but it helps me discover why I got into music in the first place.”

[Image: Flickr user Nan Palmero]

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