This was the first single from Brooklyn-based experimental rock outfit Yeasayer's second album, Odd Blood. Bassist Ira Wolf Tuton told MTV News: "That song probably existed between the three of us longer than any other song on the album, so just psychologically, it made sense for us to release it first and try to get it out of the way."
The song's title refers to the nickname of a 1930s Italian boxer Primo Carnera, who won the 1933 heavyweight championship but was accused of being a Mafia-sponsored "false champion." The lyrics reference various opponents of American prizefighter Joe Louis, including Carnera. Keyboardist/vocalist Chris Keating told About.com why he chose this subject to write about: "I was always interested in writing a song that had boxing mythology in it, that was, in some ways, about Joe Louis. Max Schmeling was a German boxer who was fighting for Germany in the '30s, and so as a result became a champion of Hitler. Joe Louis defeated him in 1938, and that became this moment of legend in boxing mythology, that this black guy was able to beat this Nazi boxer, thereby demoralizing the Nazi regime."
Guitarist Anand Wilder explained to Drowned In Sound: "'Ambling Alp' was an instrumental track that Ira composed, he'd just purchased an electro-harmonica pedal, and we got these really cool flute sounding tones out of that make the riff, and then Chris wrote the song around it. At first it was all [makes disturbing wordless sound approximating the melody], and I think he was reading the Malcolm X autobiography, which mentioned Joe Lewis fighting Primo Carnera, also known as the Ambling Alp, and he shaped the verses around that story."
The song's music video finds the three band members divest of all their clothes hurtling down rocky hills and engaging in a pagan ritual. Wilder told Drowned In Sound: "The video was done by these guys Radical Friend, they'd done a Black Moth Super Rainbow video that we really liked, and so Chris got in touch with them. He talked to them about the concept and then they wrote a treatment for it and asked if we were okay with nudity and being in a desert and getting gunk poured over us. We were like 'sure, whatever it'll take'"
Keating explained the band's name to Spin magazine: "My friend Grady is sort of anal retentive. He used to carry around this book of names - a black book with thousands of band names that he'd scrawled in there. We totally jacked the name from his book. We thought there was something nicely sinister about Yeasayer - almost like a cultish sense of positivity. I didn't anticipate the amount of 'Clap Your Hands Say Yea' headlines that we'd generate. I'm gonna shoot the next person that prints that. But at least we're the only thing that comes up if you Google 'Yeasayer.' And Grady has something he can put on his tombstone: Provided Yeasayer with their name."
Chris Keating explained to NME: "I was trying to write a sophisticated 'jock jam.' Like those techno sports anthems you hear at football matches. I am simultaneously excited and appalled by the kind of group-mentality chanting at sporting events and I'm always curious about the kind of music that gets people amped up."
Keating explained his interest in 1930s boxing to NME: "I think that there are some very strong characters and stories in professional sports. Especially the stories stemming from a previous era rife with racial tension and emerging nationalist tendencies. My grandfather was a boxer in England around 1939 or so and he fought at the Royal Albert Hall during World War 2."