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Arts and Entertainment

Alec Ounsworth (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Flashy Python) Talks About His Solo Project

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Alec Ounsworth I Photo by Michael Regan

Alec Ounsworth I Photo by Michael Regan
In 2005 Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was the coolest thing since sliced bread. The band was one of the first bands to have emerged from obscurity with no label backing them just the full power of the Internet. Major labels saw them coming and quaked with fear. They put hope into garage bands everywhere who were releasing their tracks independently into the murky ether of MySpace. Heralded by critics and fans a like, the world was theirs. And then after their sophomore release in 2007, they disappeared back from whence they came never to be seen again...or so we thought.

Lead singer, Alec Ounsworth has had an extremely busy year. His super group, Flashy Python (combining members of the Walkmen, Man Man, and Dr Dog) self-released their debut album Skin and Bones in August and he released his first solo disk Mo Beauty in October on Anti Records. Which I believe is the rock equivalent of doing zero to sixty in five seconds. We caught up with Ounsworth to discuss his new album and more importantly, where the heck he's been for the past couple years. Here is some of what was said.

Alec Ounsworth - This is not your Home

When did you first pick up an instrument?
I had piano lessons when I was four or five probably, and then when I was twelve or thirteen I switched to guitar. I guess the piano wasn't cool enough or something. The sad thing is that I'm trying to learn the piano again now.

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Why did you decide on a solo project? Were there songs that you thought didn’t fit into you other two bands?
They all hang together in some fashion. I didn’t mean for that to happen. A lot of the songs on this album wouldn’t work with Clap Your Hands. They were like orphans who I didn’t really have a place for at all. I had a bunch of those and I sent them to Steve (Berlin), who prompted me to whittle them down. I turned out about fifteen and we headed of to New Orleans to see what would happen. There was some preparation, but no real plan.

Why did you choose New Orleans to record this album?
I had met Steve down there when we were on a trip there together and I think we both recognized around that moment the romantic quality of New Orleans musically and otherwise. We thought it would be an interesting idea to do something there. There are very few cities in the US which have that call to you to them musically. New Orleans has that.

Alec Ounsworth I Photo by Michael Regan

How long did it take to do?
Around ten days. That’s really quick!
I know, I'm not used to doing shotgun records. Steve does them from time to time. Actually I didn’t believe it could happen that fast. I was really surprised. They were ten grueling days.

This is gonna sound weird, but was this record really a solo album? I mean I know you have your name on it, but you had a whole bunch of guys from the New Orleans music community backing you up. Did it change the vision you had for the songs?
It was as much a solo album as any of the others. It was very similar in the sense that I wrote the songs and then we all hunkered down and put it together. I mean you try and figure out as much as you can about what’s going on beforehand. It's like any director looking over a film. You can write the film, but the shape of the film will be altered by the people working on it. You can only anticipate so much. Steve was the primary director on the front end of things.

What song are you most proud of on this album?

That's a hard question. Probably "That is not my Home (After Bruegel)" because it came out so unexpectedly. I brought it in and they tore it down and brought a whole New Orleans thing to it. It was really neat. I think there's a little extra effort in it, maybe.

Why did you title it Mo Beauty?
I was walking along the road and saw it on a sign.

The same sign that's on the cover of the album?

Yeah. It had been a beauty salon at some point if not currently. It just seemed to fit.

What inspired "Holy, Holy, Holy Moses"?

I had partially written the song in a general fashion before I got to New Orleans. I write a lot of songs that way. When I got there though, it really came into focus and became like an ode to New Orleans or something like that. It defines my personal relationship with the city. It just made more sense when I went down there. It's really cool. It started one way and ended up another.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth

Both Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Flashy Python emerged without any help from professional PR companies or record labels, why did you choose to sign with Anti- for this solo project?
(laughs) Because they gave me the money to make the record. That was kind of the bottom line. I wasn’t going to shell out my own money to make it. That wouldn't have been nice. When Steve and I were talking about this album we figured that if we were going to do this right, that we were gonna need to get somebody behind it. And you can't fair to much better than Anti.

Yeah, it's a reputable label.

(laughs) More importantly it's a sustainable label, apparently. They were great. They were never up in my face about anything. It wasn't weird at all. In fact I don’t really know what it is. I know they exist. I know I made a record. That's about it.

I have to ask, what is a Flashy Python?

It’s a call sign for a naval ship. My old man was in the navy. He was in the third wave in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. He didn’t really engage in anything in that fiasco, but he used to talk about the call signs on the radio and Flashy Python was one. So I stole it from him. I've stolen names from everyone. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Mo Beauty. It's all stolen.

What was the worst show you ever did?
It wasn’t a bad show. It was a good show, but a terrible thing happened. I was touring with Clap Your Hands in a small club in England and the speakers were perched precariously next to the audience on these tiny stands. We launched into "The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth" pretty early in the set and for some reason people seem to go nuts for that song. It got all raucous like a turbulent tidal wave and the speaker crashed over on this guys head and knocked him out. We stopped the show and determined that he was going to be okay. It was just ugly. It wasn’t a bad show someone just got hurt. He was okay though, but it kinda got me thinking about this is dangerous business.

What was the weirdest thing you’ve seen in the audience?
It’s funny how regular it all is. You get used to people heckling you from the front and shouting from the back. I heard that some girl flashed the band once, but I can’t say that I saw it. Oh! You can have my friend's story. I've got a friend who DJs at these parties in different cities and he was telling us a story about this show in Chicago. These girls got into a fight during his set and he had them take it outside. He corralled them down the street because he didn’t want the cops to see the fight and break up the party. But then they started strangling each other and he decided to intervene. He put one of the girls in a full nelson and the other one took off. She was a really tough girl too. She was saying things like, "I’m gonna kill you," and "I have a gun." While they were wrestling the cops showed up and my friend said to her, "Look, the smartest thing to do right now is for me to let go of you and you run in one way and I'll run the other." And that's what they did.

Man, what if she had pulled her gun?
I know! He told this story so matter of factly too. Like this sort of thing happens to him all the time. I guess being a DJ is dangerous.

Is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ever going to make that third album?

I can't really speak to that. I don’t know. Everyone seems to be doing his own thing right now, but I'm working on songs as usual. We'll see.

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What album did you listen to obsessively last month?
Robert Wyatt’s last one. I've been obsessing about Robert Wyatt for awhile now, though.

Well thank you so much for talking with us.

Thank you!

Be sure to catch Alec Ounsworth at the Wiltern this evening with local favorites The Cold War Kids. Doors open at 7:30pm.

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