Have you ever played in a band that was compared to another band that you had never really heard before? I wouldn't say that has happened to me, but after listening to Bloc Party's Silent Alarm for most of 2005 and recently listening to Gang of Four's Entertainment! and Return the Gift, I wonder about other bands.
In the case of Bloc Party, the young band's music is often compared to the music of the legendary post-punk band, Gang of Four. Members of Bloc Party have said many times before that they weren't really influenced by GoF or much of any post-punk circa '79-'81. Since these guys are my age, I can understand not knowing much about the genre. Sure, I've been a fan of Mission of Burma for years and listened to Gang of Four from time to time, but that was pretty much the extent of it. If I started a band that I thought was different and unique by adding a dancier feel to poppy post-hardcore, would I be considered a Gang of Four knock-off too?
The strange thing about originality is that it has been played out for quite a while. Bands/artists have been rubbing off on others for a long time and they have also been pigeonholed as copycats. Sure, the Beatles took a lot of cues from American rock & roll and R&B, but they molded them into their own unique style. I'm sure there are people that still think they poorly copied Little Richard, Elvis, Roy Orbison and Cliff Richard and watered it down for a larger audience.
There is a line between intentional and unintentional nods when creating your own sound. In the case of my old band, the 11:30s, we were very much influenced by shoegazer rock bands like Ride and '60s garage rock bands like the ones you found on the Nuggets box sets. We really enjoyed the Strokes, the Hives and other modern bands but I wouldn't say we were copying them. I'm sure there are people that thought we were and no amount of us explaining our influences could change that.
I remember interviewing Dave Vicini from Boxer and asked which bands, other than Lifetime, influenced them. Turns out, he said that Lifetime wasn't really an influence even though their sound was very much in the vein of Lifetime's. He said the Pixies were probably the biggest influence more than anything else. From then on, I've been careful about asking bands about their influences.
It's unfair how we paint bands into corners by thinking they're copycats, but we do it all the time. In the case of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, so many people scoff at their sound as being a Talking Heads knock-off. I haven't read any interviews where they discuss their influences, but I wouldn't be surprised that CYHSY didn't list the late great Heads as one.
Bands tend to get signed because of similarities in sounds to other emerging acts. When you group them together, one can't help but think that they are copying or paying homage to each other. Well, that's understandable but how could you explain a band in Ohio and a band in Florida who sounded alike, but had never heard of the other's music, is a ripoff or a copycat?