Burn-Out Not an Option for Determined Cymbals Eat Guitars
As has sometimes been the case over the past few years, Joseph D'Agostino found himself discouraged. The singer and guitarist for Cymbals Eat Guitars was touring with his band behind their third album, LOSE, a heartbreaking collection of mountain-sized anthems that was met with critical praise upon its release in 2014. Except, by his estimation, it wasn't connecting the way he was hoping it would.
"We did a show in Nashville to nobody," he remembers. "We played to five people, and a little of that disillusionment and exhaustion started to happen for me. I thought, 'What am I doing? Why is no one coming to our shows?'
"So, I’m loading up the van, pushing an amp, and up walks some dude," D'Agostino continues. "He asks if the music is done for the night. I tell him, 'Yeah, man, it ended a half hour ago.'
“But then I look at him and think, 'Oh, you’re David Berman.'"
For a devoted student of '90s indie rock, whose band's early work was incessantly — and not inaccurately — compared to Pavement, Built to Spill and other college radio greats of the Clinton Administration, meeting the retired frontman for underground rock legends Silver Jews was a big deal indeed. "This was someone I’ve admired for over 10 years," D'Agostino says. "He inspired everything I did. We talked for a while, and eventually, I told him we just played to nobody. He told me you can’t let your self-worth be defined by how many people are at the shows or if the shows sell out. He said he used to do that, and it was always disappointing."
(Stream the entire new Cymbals Eat Guitars album, Pretty Years, via NPR)
Well before D’Agostino needed a pep talk from his hero, Cymbals Eat Guitars made their debut with 2009's Why There Are Mountains, which won them immediate blog buzz, some high-profile festival gigs at Lollapalooza and CMJ, and tours with Wilco and the Flaming Lips. Not bad for a kid only a few years out of high school. But after a few lineup shifts (bassist Matt Whipple and keyboard player Brian Hamilton joined during the Mountains tour) and the subdued reaction to 2011's knotty, insular follow-up Lenses Alien, the band essentially rebooted with 2014's LOSE.
After recruiting drummer Andrew Dole — an enthusiastic classic rock head — the band went about crafting a suite of anthems that were defiantly and unfashionably huge-sounding and direct, at times recalling the epic grandeur of Sunny Day Real Estate or U2. Similarly, D'Agostino, who has a tattoo referencing the work of novelist Richard Ford, delved deep, writing about his quarter-life anxieties and the death of his high school best friend and former bandmate, a topic he previously couldn't bring himself to confront. The result was one of the best guitar-rock bildungsromans of recent memory, one that found Cymbals Eat Guitars transcending their youthful influences to carve out a distinct identity.
"I went from trying to write lyrics that were smart and poetic to just trying to write lyrics how I would speak them," D'Agostino says. "I knew when we finished about half the record that we had a special album. I was excited."
The album was again met with mostly positive reviews, but it was hard not to get the sense that it was getting a bit lost in the glut. The band wasn't asked to play any of the big festivals, and their attempt to tour with emo groups like Brand New and Say Anything led to mixed results. "Some people think we have pop-punk characteristics that might appeal to that legion of fans, but we felt like tourists and a little out of place," he says. "I don’t know how many people we ended up really grabbing and keeping."
D'Agostino takes a sip of his beer. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his girlfriend Rachel Browne, singer and guitarist for the adventurous indie-pop group Field Mouse. He's in New York to care of a few business issues, and he picked the Brooklyn BBQ place Arrogant Swine to meet up. His hair is near buzz-cut short as always, and he's wearing a blue T-shirt for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. He mentions that between tours he's been working for a moving company, which is especially exhausting work during the summer, and hard on the hands.
"The record wasn’t hitting like I hoped it would," D'Agostino admits. "It’s like with every record, you want certain things to happen and then maybe they don’t. I feel like I’d been at it for a while, and it wasn’t working out in the way that I wanted it to. It’s shitty to have it all boil down to money, but these are practical concerns. I love the songs that we write more than ever, but it’s hard to make ends meet."
He takes another sip, apologizes and cracks a small grin. "But I’m just complaining," he says. "I don’t want to do that. Let’s get positive."
“4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY),” the confident, strutting first song and lead single from new album Pretty Years, tells the true story of a holiday party that got out of control, with D'Agostino getting a ride from a friend of a friend and almost getting his ass kicked when the driver ran over the wrong people's fireworks. "He’s lucky they didn’t kill him. Lucky they didn’t kill us," he remembers. "We got pushed around, and it was scary, but luckily I was able to reason with them and tell them we weren’t driving." The song ends with a dazed D'Agostino declaring:
My depression suddenly lifted
All the adrenaline shocked my nervous system
Swore I'd be present and grateful for every second
Later the feeling faded
I couldn't help it
Fittingly, this was the first song that Cymbals Eat Guitars wrote for Pretty Years. Wanting to maintain creative momentum, the band worked quickly, writing the songs together in six months. As has become the case during down moments on tour, D'Agostino came to rely on Dole to keep spirits high.
"I think my enthusiasm comes from passion," Dole posits. "I love everything about being in a band. I've never had another job that's been nearly as rewarding as being in a touring band. I think working quickly has made us not overthink what we're doing. I feel like the pace of the band is just a reflection of what we all feel needs to happen for it to survive.”
The band recruited producer John Congleton, who has worked with the Thermals, Cloud Nothings and Sleater-Kinney, and won a Grammy for his work on St. Vincent's 2014 self-titled album. They cut the album in four days using mostly first or second takes, but D'Agostino insists that the band never felt rushed. "Congleton had an idea about what he thought was cool about our band, and that was the edge-of-the-seat vocal performances," he says. "This idea of this high-wire, could-implode-at-any-minute energy, and we just went for that. We did a lot of touring for LOSE, and that had some advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is I gained full control of my voice."
The result is a tough, live-wire collection of surging anthems and a worthy follow-up to LOSE, featuring guitar outbursts only slightly less nuanced than the lyrics, which examine feeling young and burned out with a sly perceptiveness. There's also something new for CEG, and increasingly rare for rock bands (and many other songwriters, actually): an honest-to-goodness love song about trying to be a better person for someone else, the sparkling "Have a Heart."
"I have been lying about it a little," D'Agostino says. "Rachel and I had been friends for five years. We weren’t dating or even thinking about dating by the time I wrote most of that song. Matt Whipple had written most of the verse lyrics, and I fleshed out the chorus. I texted Rachel that I just wrote a love song, but I’m not in love with anybody. Later, I kind of revised history and just told people it was about Rachel, but I really just wanted to try my hand at writing a jubilant song about being in love."
For Pretty Years, the band decided to leave their label, Barsuk, which released their last two albums, and moved to Sinderlyn, a new label run by Captured Tracks founder Mike Sniper that aims to work with established artists. The label has already begun an aggressive pre-release singles campaign to get the word out. "I thought it was huge-sounding," Sniper says of his first listen to the album. "Just really inspired and well-thought-out. A real record. There's a bit of a guitar-based music backlash right now that's a bit difficult for everyone to put their finger on. If you look, the only guitar-based bands that are cracking the major press pages have a story of some kind, whether political or social, or they've been established for a while.
"We strongly feel this is their best record," Sniper says. "Our job is to get people to hear it, which I think we're doing."
D'Agostino says he's making peace with the idea that the internet tastemakers who broke his band in 2009 aren't much interested in bands like his (or bands in general) these days, and is proud of the album he made and determined to stay positive. As enthusiastic as he is about the album and the energy he's captured, he admits that the title (referencing the lyric "Goodbye to the pretty years" from "Dancing Days") is a holdover from the burnout he's looking to escape.
"I was feeling very exhausted, physically and mentally," he says. "I was feeling very used up. I know how that sounds, because I was 25 during the LOSE tour and I’m 27 now. I know it sounds a little weird, but I have been doing this for almost eight years, and it’s an intense kind of lifestyle. I think you do age a little faster, even if it’s not on the outside."
He sighs, takes another sip, then looks up. Okay. No more negativity, he says. Starting now.