Alec Ounsworth won’t side with streaming over vinyl, but understands you might

“The connection I feel with vinyl can never be replaced by listening to something on the computer or a phone.”

One-man bands tend to fall into two distinct categories: those of the self-indulgent, ho-hum, navel-gazing variety, and those that reflect a fully and consistently realized singular vision — one that rewards listeners with something new upon every spin.

Thankfully, multi-instrumentalist indie-music-making machine Alex Ounsworth is an artist who falls very much into the latter category, and he proves his mettle yet again on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s new release The Tourist, out this Friday in various formats via his own CYHSY label.

And The Tourist is ready to take you along on one hell of an exciting aural journey, from the initial acoustic take-off of The Pilot, to the furious guitar jamfest of Down (Is Where I Want to Be), to the echo-drenched The Vanity of Trying, to the fine feedback squall of the closing track, Visiting Hours.

To make sure The Tourist carried a consistent sonic tone, Ounsworth again enlisted producer Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Spoon, MGMT), who had worked on a few of CYHSY’s previous albums. “The reason I wanted to work with Dave was because I figured he was the right person to deal with some of the sounds we had in the first place,” Ounsworth reported to Digital Trends. “At first, I was not sure this job would be perfect for him until we started adding more and more layers to it, and then I realized he was the guy. Then I knew the album was in the right hands, considering all that we had come up with for it.”

Digital Trends called Ounsworth at his southeastern Pennsylvania homestead to discuss the ins and outs of working with Fridmann, how just a few decibels can make all the difference in a final mix, and coming to grips with streaming.

Digital Trends: First off, I really like the way most of your lead vocals are double-tracked on The Tourist.

Alex Ounsworth: I did a lot of that because I really like the bizarre effects that can have on the vocals. This is my seventh album all told, and to a degree, I’m getting a little tired of hearing my voice. Whether it’s dry or even if we add a lot of reverb, I’ve had enough of it! (chuckles) So I wanted to mess around with it a little bit.

Also, I’m a fan of some of Brian Eno’s earlier productions and some of the things John Cale does, and that may have brought me to the doubled-vocal idea. There’s supposed to be a sleepy-dreamy quality to some of these songs.

I would say the second half of Better Off is a good example of that, where you’re clearly going off into that space. And nice use of the line from Lou Reed’s Vicious, by the way. I appreciate that you “hit me with a flower” there.

(chuckles) I’m glad somebody fished that out! That’s nice. I wasn’t expecting anybody to pick that out, even if it’s pretty obvious.

It sounds like you’re putting that second vocal about a millisecond or so behind the lead vocal.

They don’t sync up entirely, yeah. I didn’t want it to be as strictly on top of the lead as, let’s say, like Gary Numan does. Gary Numan puts it right on top; he’s very deliberate about that.

What I like about the feel of a lot of these songs is the looseness to them, so I wanted to preserve a little bit of that. I’ve had a lot of conversations about doubling vocals. Some producers are absolutely against it. Not that he was, but when I worked with John Congleton on the third Clap Your Hands album [2011’s Hysterical], John was of the mind that the vocals should be right on top if we were going to do it at all. But I do like the warbly aspect of it — that they’re sort-of being there, but not being there precisely.

I’m with you on that. I think Fireproof is a pretty good example of that idea.

Yeah, exactly. I think my favorite example of it is on The Pilot, where the doubling is a little bit off, reinforcing the fact that the song is supposed to be a little looser.

And you lay it all right out there: “Are we a tourist, or are we a pilot?” Does that line apply to 2017 more than ever, or what? Did you have a sense of things to come when you wrote that line and how cognizant you were of the future?

(laughs) Right? I wish I would be able to sniff that out in advance — my worst nightmares! It doesn’t seem to end; it’s amazing.

It’s something new every day. One of the other things I like about this mix is the cymbal work and detail on the drums, and how the percussion sometimes counters with the vocal or the guitar line.

“I like the warbly aspect of doubled vocals — that they’re sort-of being there, but not being there precisely.”

As far as drums-and-percussion interaction goes, I’m more of a mind to have it be more jarring. Several times on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s first album (i.e., CYHSY’s self-titled 2005 release), I cited early Rolling Stones albums and how the tambourine was 10 dB higher than the rest of the band. I appreciate that aspect of the mix. Obviously, this mix is not quite as jarring as that, but my engineer Nick Krill and I did work together to make sure it was more balanced. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t as much of a stickler about it as I used to be, because I left that to Krill a little bit more.

I think it stands out more during the back half of the record on the last three songs, which are a little more acoustic-oriented after we get through the heaviness of The Vanity of Trying. The cymbals on Ambulance Chaser stand out to me a lot, especially at the beginning.

Yeah, that one went through a number of different approaches, but you’re right — I think that helped guide the album to the end. But that was sort of a trick to lead you. Like on the first album — there’s a song called Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away, and while [drummer] Sean [Greenhalgh’s] playing was great, I thought syncing the drums was the best option, yet still make it somehow feel more explosive, you know?

Ambulance Chaser began that way, but I’d say there was more Fridmann on that one than Krill or myself. He spearheaded that balance, for sure.

alec ounsworth of clap your hands say yeah fb 03
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/Facebook
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/Facebook

Certain little tricks we do like that are what I talk to Fridmann about. We look for how to push people’s attention in certain ways that are pretty overt. I’m thinking of The Stooges’ Raw Power (1973), where that guitar comes in and messes with the levels because it’s 10 dB above everything else.

And then on Randy Newman’s 12 Songs (1970), the song after Mama Told Me Not to ComeSuzanne. Mama is the single and it’s pretty standard, but then Suzanne pulls back, and you really have to turn your receiver up to hear what’s going on with Ry Cooder’s slide work, and everything else. To me, that’s the beauty of listening to music like that.

I love that too. People are going to listen to this album on streaming services like Spotify, where one of your tracks, The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth, currently has over 5 million listens. How do you feel about your audience streaming The Tourist?

“If streaming is what you’re into and what you’re accustomed to, I can’t really tell you no.”

Uh, yeah, well — I’m still coming around on that, I guess. (chuckles) I wish people knew what they were missing sometimes. I’m not trying to be didactic or anything like that, but the connection I feel with vinyl can never be replaced by listening to something on the computer or a phone.

But, really, to each his own. If that’s what you’re into and what you’re accustomed to, I can’t really tell you no. (chuckles again)

Point taken. What else has Dave Fridmann worked on that you’d recommend people check out? I know what my picks would be, but I want to hear yours.

I mean, MGMT’s last record (MGMT, 2013) is really, really good. That’s the one that stands out the most to me more than anything else. I didn’t listen to it a lot in the approach up to making this album, but you can listen to them back to back and see what I’m talking about.

That’s a good call. For me, because I’m a surround sound guy, I’d pick what Dave did with The Flaming Lips on the 5.1 mixes in the literal space of 360 degrees for Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) and The Soft Bulletin (1999). That kind of approach wouldn’t work for everybody, but it totally fits with what they do.

Oh, those guys are incredible. At first, you might think of gimmicks when you approach some of the concepts they’ve tried, but if you realized how much they consider every aspect and how long they work on their ideas while making it look like they just tossed them off, your respect grows for them, honestly.

And they inspired me, because Clap Your Hands’ Only Run (2014) really needed someone like Dave to ground what we were doing with it.

I think that album shows your progression from the start. It’s the right mix of your sensibilities with Dave’s sweetening — though maybe “sweetening” isn’t the right word for it …

No, I know what you mean. He’s as important to me as a soundboard or a friend to discuss music with more than anybody. As a producer, you can’t help but be taken over by what he does. We have our share of disagreements, of course, and we don’t even listen to the same music all of the time, but we do find common ground. That really makes something that’s interesting to me more often than not.

Since you had a lot of success doing a tenth anniversary vinyl edition of the first Clap Your Hands record in 2015, have you thought about going back to any of the other albums and doing something similar?

“We should revisit all of our albums in 10 years and just make them all sound equal.”

I was just thinking about that as you were calling me. I was compiling a list of about 35 songs I want the band to go over before the next tour. The second album, Some Loud Thunder, which is the first one we worked on with Dave, has its tenth anniversary here in 2017. That would be interesting — but not really that easy — to try and pull off.

You’d have to call it something like Louder Thunder, especially if you want to play with the dB on there at all.

(laughs) Yeah yeah, right; why not? It would be interesting to listen to the new album and then go back to Some Loud Thunder to see how far he’s come, and how far we’ve come. It would be nice to revisit that. We are going to do some of those songs on this new tour, and put some of these things together.

But I agree with you. It would be nice to remaster that album and take another look at it.

For one thing, I’d like to hear you revisit a song like Arm and Hammer.

Yeah, I agree — Arm and Hammer, Yankee Go Home, Underwater (You and Me) — those all would be good to do. Literally, a half hour before you called me, I was just thinking I need to look at that album again — so I think I will, considering it has been 10 years. I jokingly told my manager that we should revisit all of the albums in 10 years, and just make them all sound equal. Why not? They’re all equal to me. The first album doesn’t stand out more than any of the others do.

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