The year is 2004. America is halfway through the long slog of the Bush era. The nation has been in Iraq for only a year, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that WMDs will never be found. Still, America saves its shock and righteous indignation for an accidentally exposed nipple on the Super Bowl stage. Rock bands are still on TV and radio, and "American Idiot" is ranking pretty high on the TRL countdown. The iPhone is still years away from its launch.
In New York, musician Alec Ounsworth has pulled off something remarkable. His music project Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is one of the first to garner what later comes to be known as "internet buzz." His band doesn't need TRL or radio: A 9.0 review and "Best New Music" designation from Pitchfork Media for a debut self-titled album is enough to build a fan base and send the band on a successful tour.
Or at least that's the origin story. Whereas the bands of yesteryear once embraced rock mythologies, those of the internet age seem to want to cut through the bullshit to undo theirs. And Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is no exception.
"I don't know if I give too much credence to the idea of the internet bolstering the project," Ounsworth says. "In fact, we did it more or less the old-fashioned way." He believes their initial success and continuing career trajectory relied more on traditional means — namely, cutting their teeth as a live band around the New York scene and building.
"The only difference was that when we were in sight of other people, it was more of an international thing... For us, when it popped, it was all of a sudden. In Western Europe, we were able to play venues as big as the ones we were playing in New York."
He does have one key piece of evidence to support his argument: the fact that he's still around. Many of the buzz bands of the mid-'00s learned the hard way that if you live by the Pitchfork, you can also die by it. The tastemakers at that online magazine tended to treat their favorite bands like dog-chew toys — exciting for a few days or weeks but abandoned quickly for the next one.
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After tepid receptions to three subsequent albums and a soul-searching hiatus, Ounsworth is back with The Tourist, a lush, layered, and emotionally raw record — his best in years.
Not that he'll be reading the internet's thoughts. "I really do stay pretty far away from it, because if I started paying too much attention, then I might start pandering," he says. "I get why people do it. A lot of people are running scared right now because the music industry is... like the Wild West. A lot of musicians don't know where any revenue sources are going to come from down the line. I was lucky because we were able to do everything independently, which gives me a certain degree of control. I don't need a label or anybody to be involved on my behalf, sort of the same way it's been the entire time."