Crash and Jangle: An Interview with Joseph D'Agostino of Cymbals Eat Guitars
Cymbals Eat Guitars plays a youthful brand of earnest and expansive rock that evokes both the jangle of Pavement and the fuzzed-out bliss of British shoegaze.
Cymbals Eat Guitars have a seemingly random, hip name and are based in New York City. The comparisons to the growing legion of late-oughts indie-rock buzz bands ends there, really.
On Why There Are Mountains, Cymbals Eats Guitar's recently released debut album, there are no dance beats, no feigned lo-fi garage-rock, no freak-folk excursions. Instead, 20-year-old singer/guitarist Joseph D'Agostino leads his group -- Nick Berenholz (bass) and co-founder Matthew Miller (drums) -- through earnest and expansive rock that evokes both the jangle of Pavement and the fuzzed-out bliss of British shoegaze -- just without the slacker sarcasm of the former or the disconnect of the latter.
D'Agostino (of Staten Island, N.Y.) began the band before it had a name in 2007, through collaborations with Charles Bissel of the Wrens. Since then, the band did a "soft release" of their debut record, gaining the attention of Pitchfork. They also created their own label (Sister's Den Records) for the proper fall 2009 release of the album, which was produced by Kyle "Slick" Johnson (Modest Mouse, the Hives). A tour with the Pains of Being Pure at Heart began in early September, and other high-profile dates, like opening for the Flaming Lips, finds their profile growing higher still.
Do you feel that initially self-releasing the album prepared you for dealing with the bigger re-release and all that goes along with it -- promotion, touring, interviews, and so on?
When we released the album ourselves and were pressing all these copies, we didn’t have the tour to go along with it or even the audience we have now. It was a soft release in every sense of the word. Now I think we are prepared to take it to the level of a full national and international tour. It's still very new and exciting.
How are you handling the newfound attention from the industry, the press, and fans?
I don’t really find anything that goes along with receiving attention about the music to be stressful. Like with the press, no one wanted to interview us or me a year ago. Doing this interview is exciting. A little before March, WOXY in Cincinnati began playing our record and putting it into rotation regularly, then KCRW, then the Pitchfork review. We’ve sort of been gradually getting more and more press and more people interested. So, yeah, at this point I feel prepared when I give interviews and I feel less nervous. Obviously, as far as performing we’ve come a long way since our self-release. We’re definitely better for having done the first 3,000 copies ourselves.
You open the album with “And the Hazy Sea,” which is really an attention-grabbing song. Tell me about the process of deciding to kick off the album with that track.
I thought about the sequencing and about the way everything fits together. For my whole college career, which wasn’t that long, I thought about nothing else. Everyday I just had a notebook in front of me. I would always be scribbling and I was always thinking about this record and how to best present the songs. One thing was always the way it was, and that was that “And the Hazy Sea” would open the record.
I don’t know. It’s just sort of through-composed. There isn’t a whole lot of repetition or recurring choruses or lyrics. At the same time, it has the big washout at the beginning, and out of that it really gives the listener a good idea of what we’re about. Our producer Kyle said, “I don’t know, leading off with this track might not be a good idea. You should have 'The Living North' or something because at the beginning it’s a la da da."
Why There Are Mountains is new to a lot of people, but not to the band. Are you working on a follow-up already?
I am just finishing up the third song that we have for the new record or what is going to be the new record whenever we hunker down to record it. Probably this time next year we’ll have to seriously start thinking about getting into the studio. This summer, outside of our commitments with the band, I sat in my room with my guitar, amp, and pedals and just kind of worked over this one song for days and days and days. So we have three songs right now. And once you have three or two even, you start to get more into the mindset of less songwriting and more record making and how they’re going to fit together. It’s good to feel that again.
With all of the hype behind Why There Are Mountains do you feel like you need to prove yourselves or live up to the buzz?
It’s a difficult question to navigate. I definitely don’t want to make it seem like I don’t want the association of Pitchfork; they’ve done so much for us and the [Pitchfork] Festival was one of the best experiences of my life. These guys are about the music and genuinely love the music they support. But anyway, I do hope that we are able to cross over a bit more and transcend that Internet buzz bin thing and get national attention in magazines. It's sort of started already. We had a review in the New York Times for a show we did at the Brooklyn Bowl. That paper’s delivered to my house everyday so I’m still riding high. Greg Kot from the Chicago Tribune just did a story on us; I’m a huge fan of his book about Wilco, Learning How to Die. We definitely have national, international ambitions.
You seem to not only be very aware of the music press, but you follow it and enjoy it.
I’ve been reading about music for as long as I’ve been listening to music. I definitely read most of our press, not because I want an ego stroke or something, but because it’s something that comes naturally to me having grown up with Google. I want to see reactions, and I want to see opinions. I don’t know what that really says about me, but I’ve always liked to read it.
Many musicians say they don’t read their press.
It’s such bullshit. We work so hard on trying to make a good record, and it’s good to hear about it from people. People telling you they love the record in person, it’s the same thing to me.
You had two shows in November in London with The Flaming Lips. How did that come about?
On MySpace, I friended Stardeath and White Dwarfs, which is [Flaming Lips frontman] Wayne [Coyne’s] nephew’s band. They are signed to Warner. They’re a psych band, too. They’re really cool and open for the Lips always. We friended them on MySpace, and a couple days later they messaged us back and said, “Hey, we heard a lot about you guys, and we'd like to play a show sometime." Also, possibly us sharing a booking agent these days; [Cymbals Eat Guitars and Flaming Lips] are booked with Paul Boswell. Soft Bulletin and Metallic and Yoshimi were all huge to me. I got a chance to meet Wayne at Pitchfork, and I got to talk to him for a minute because he had to run. He knew who we were, and he knew that we were going to open for them. I could have died happy.
You seem to be heavily influenced by ’90s indie/college radio bands, but at only 20 years old you weren’t around for the heyday of that scene.
I was definitely not around for the heyday. I’m sure that when Pavement put out their last record I was in the sixth grade listening to rap-rock or something. It’s true, though. I didn’t get into anything good when it came out, but thanks to some friends of mine in high school that were into some cool stuff, I was able to get into it after the fact. Better late than never, of course. A big part of Neil’s background in music is college rock. Not even college rock, but The Replacements and R.E.M. and Minutemen and Wire. I guess with the ’90s being so recent, it’s just the same as liking the music form the ’60s or the ’70s. Pavement’s huge for me.
What do you think sets Cymbals Eat Guitars apart from many of your indie rock peers? There definitely seems to be elements of Radiohead and Built to Spill in your sound.
By the way, thank you. Radiohead and Built To Spill are two very flattering comparisons. I think it helps set us apart. In some ways there’s a little more ambition. I'm not so much interested in the skronky, lo-fi, jangle thing or two-minute pop songs. I like two-minute pop songs, don't get me wrong, I just want something a little grander in scope, and bands like that figure into it.
What type of music did you play in your cover band?
Basically, the only good songs were Weezer songs; the rest were horrible '90s mainstream fare because we were in high school, and we were playing people's birthday parties and backyard parties. We played [Weezer's] "My Name Is Jonas", "Tired of Sex", and another one, "Only in Dreams." Weezer was a big part of our education in rock music -- Matt and I at least.
Tell me about original Cymbals Eat Guitars bassist Dan Baer’s illness. Did it threaten to break up the band?
At the time when Dan got sick, we had just moved into our first proper rehearsal space where you leave your own stuff and pay per hour. We had our own place since March, and we were just rehearsing five days a week, four and a half, five hours per day, just really to try to get our live act up to snuff. And then on April 17, which was the day we were supposed to open for the Walkmen at Williamsburg Hall of Music, I was leaving with a car full of equipment, and I got a call that he was at Bellevue [hospital], and the doctor says he has to be admitted. Playing that show at that time was only after a month of intense rehearsing under our belt. I don't think it would've been the most beneficial thing for our career. It was too soon, and we were in over our heads. In the long term, that cancellation was probably the best for our career. Having lost Dan as a member... he had such finesse in writing parts. He really had a lot of taste in his arrangements. The piano part on "Indiana," that sounds like Roy Bittan from the E Street Band. Really percussive but melodic. I really am regretful that he's not there anymore, but Brian is definitely a creative force in his own right in different ways than Dan was. Everything's a constant evolution.