Cymbals Eat Guitars don’t have a label. They don’t have a handler. No tour dates. No marketing plan. No gear sponsorships. No Apple commercial. Most of the members still work day jobs.
And yet, the feisty New York four-piece stands on the precipice of something huge. Their terrific self-released debut Why There Are Mountains has garnered attention from just about every hipster music pub worth its snuff. Indie rock veterans are giving them shout outs. And in almost viral fashion, their special brand of emotive post-1990’s rock is spreading iPod to iPod across the country.
We recently exchanged emails with frontman Joseph “Ferocious” D’Agostino. To our surprise — and delight — he writes almost as manically as he sings.
Interview by Blake Jackson
I read somewhere that Cymbals Eat Guitars used to dabble in Weezer covers. How did that early experience inform the band in its current form?
Weezer => Pavement => ∞
When I joined my first band in the ninth grade, the first thing we ripped into was “Buddy Holly”. I was like 13, my voice was still bell-clear and prepubescent (I was totally trembling on the precipice in that regard though), and I was stumbling through the power chords zero-heft, trebly as shit clean tone courtesy of my Dean practice amp and fireburst balsawood Dean Strat, since I hadn’t rustled up the cash for a Metal Zone or DS-1 (guitar effects pedals). It was an unforgiving set of circumstances, but the other guitarist had it on lockdown… intense, brandy new Marshall MG Half Stack, sweet abalone inlayed electric blue Ibanez. He laid down the crunch and I sang, and at the end of the practice we all agreed we had to get some shows before my voice changed. The castrato approach worked for a time, but only for some songs. For instance, we ended up playing a show at this guitar academy in Tom’s River, NJ — I believe this is the same place that holds the Guitarmageddon competition each year — and decided that we’d cover “Tired Of Sex”. I couldn’t really sell that one. Our bassist Ray Garneau, who would soon abandon his considerable musical talent in favor of academic pursuits and the cultivation of his artistic gifts — he’s a student at Columbia University now, and graciously agreed to paint the cover of Why There Are Mountains — laid down the low, flattish Matt Sharp backing vocals… you know, right before the heavens-rending solo, “Why can’t I be making love come true? What’s a guy to do?!”
I still think Pinkerton is a fabulous record. The post-batshit solo section in “The Good Life” where it all goes to slow motion, with the tinkling xylophones and the slide guitar? Really splendid. And the second verse of “No Other One” — “aaalll of the drugs sheee-eee does scare me real gooood” — with that little sing-songy guitar line over it? AAHHH so great. And what about the end of “Across the Sea”, right before the last chorus… “As if I could live on words and dreams and a million screams, oh how I need a hand in mine to feel”. That was my favorite musical moment for a long, long time. At least until I heard the “This is the city liiiiife” part of “Silence Kit” towards the middle of my sophomore year.
So to answer the question directly, Matt and I cut our teeth and learned how to play rock music through Weezer. I’m sure there are some vestigial elements quietly informing our current incarnation, but it mainly provided a basis (read: trove of liftable melodies) for essaying those first steps into songwriting. Weezer’s music is perfect for formative years, in the same way that Slanted is. As a kid you’re partially in awe of the obvious virtuosity (Rivers’ SHREDD or Malk’s melodies) but at the same time it’s accessible enough to imitate and learn from.
Your album pays homage to some of my favorite albums of the 1990’s (specifically Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West). That’s been mentioned a lot in early reviews. How much of that was intentional?
This is going to seem pretty dubious, but I have never, not even once, listened to Lonesome Crowded West all the way through. About halfway through “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, I usually get bored and switch it over to The Moon and Antarctica. LCW has never really grabbed me. I’m definitely gonna give it another shot soon though. Same thing with Built To Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. “In The Morning”, “Car” — those don’t really resonate in me like some of BTS’s other material. Fucking… Keep It Like A Secret, however, defined my mid-to-late teens. The guitar solo in the middle of “Carry The Zero” is so soulful and powerful, and that whole ending passage after “afraid it’ll fall a-paaaaaaaaaart”, I just cream for that shit. That “Else” melody is from God. Same thing with Perfect From Now On, though I like the lyrics on that record a good deal more than I do the actual music.
A couple of people have mentioned Pavement, and for me that’s right on. The first four records hit home like few others, though Wowee Zowee is my personal favorite. If I had to make a case for Pavement being the greatest rock band of all time, I’d cite the last chorus of “Pueblo”. It is incontrovertible. Anyway, I don’t think we control where we draw inspiration from; certain records have become woven into the fabric of our lives and really become a part of who we are. And naturally they’re going to affect artistic output. But speaking for myself, I didn’t deliberately do any one thing on record or during the songwriting process to pay homage to a particular 1990’s indie milestone, no.
Does it bug you to hear comparisons, given how important creating a singular sound and brand is to achieving longevity?
I welcome comparisons. I mean it’s the language of the rock critic. Obviously, the last thing I would want is to be relegated to revival act status, like the way a lot of people slapped that sticker on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Tapes n’ Tapes. I’m confident that our record transcends the-good-for-what-it-is categorization (just like CYHSY and The Loon did, in my opinion) that some people would assign it. There’s a pretty eclectic patchwork of influences; enough so that it sounds fresh, I feel. In terms of songwriting and record making, we’re just doing what comes naturally. We want to make the hairs on the back of peoples’ necks stand up at some point during every song, to sweep them away into something really big and cohesive and alive-sounding. As long as we can continue doing that, it doesn’t really bother me that we might sound a little like this forbearer, or a mixture of this godfather and that luminary.
A song like “Indiana” sounds relentlessly upbeat, until you get a handle on the lyrics. Does the happy sound/sad song style prevent CEG from under-writing a song or settling for less?
I’m not really working within any dichotomy purposefully. I’m not electing to write some super-dark lyric and set it to synth-y sunshine pop as like, an iconoclastic stylistic gesture. The lyrics for “Indiana” were written separately from the music as poetry and later pruned and trimmed and revised a little so that they might fit with this tune I had been working on for some time. The same thing happened with “Some Trees”, to an extent — dark, hallucinatory lyrical content set to power pop, or whatever. “Wind Phoenix” is pretty bouncy also, but I was in a very miserable place.
I think I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but it holds water: When Daniel first joined the band and was listening to some demos I had made to work out some parts for himself, he told me that he noticed the lyrical peaks, or the passages that are most emotionally direct are rarely paired with a big, bombastic STRINGS moment or whatever. So I guess I feel that because the lyrics and music are written separately and later combined, there’s little room for us to fuck up and accidentally tug some heartstrings and get maudlin or exploitative. Our songs tend to progress in movements and sections, rarely repeating or reprising, so it helps that there’s little to no repetition present in the lyrics. Honestly, there’s so little artifice here that I can’t really comment on the process. I don’t want to sound like a dick and tell you that our songs occur pretty organically, but we’re not scheming or angling here, we’re just letting it flow.
Speaking of the songwriting process, how does yours work? Does you write the songs and then share them with the band or is it a more collaborative effort?
I had been writing the songs myself, but some of the more recent songs — “Like Blood Does” and some of the new material we’ve been working out — were conceived more collaboratively. I still came to them with the lyrics and the music, but lately I’d give less thought to the structure and just let the guys help me transition all the parts and pieces together. Daniel had more of a hand in structuring “Like Blood Does”, for instance; he suggested that I play the first section solo. We’ve got this new song too, called “Tunguska”, that I’m really happy with.
Since we’re a quartet live, it’s hard for me to think in terms of two guitars and exactly what my parts will be until we’re actually recording. For this album, the solos were largely improvised and I ended up liking many of them so much that I just learned them and play them live the way I did on record. Daniel had his parts worked out cold before we ever entered the studio, at least the Wurlitzer and piano stuff — synths and organs are a little more forgiving.
Your album mentions specific locations like Lake Michigan, Philadelphia, Newark and Indiana (and a few less specific ones). Even though you’re in NYC, you seem to set your lyrical scenes far away. Why is that?
Your voice is a harsh instrument, just as powerful as any on the album. When Cymbals Eat Guitars are playing shows, is it ever difficult to replicate such an emotive delivery? How do you keep it up night after night?
I guess we’re going to see about that, aren’t we? What it’s going to be like to keep it up night after night, I mean. We haven’t been in a touring situation yet; our shows have been pretty well spaced apart. We rehearse three times a week though, so if I’m able to sustain the energy working that kind of schedule, I’m pretty sure I’ll be OK. I sing every day, whether it’s my band’s material or just screaming along to whatever is in the car stereo. I don’t think I’m going to have a problem belting my shit out every night, because I’m really proud of our music, I believe in it, and I take pleasure in performing it. Whenever I start to feel hoarse, I’ll just think of what the singers from The Blood Brothers must feel like after a performance, and I take heart. I don’t know how those dudes don’t burst all the capillaries in their eyes.
I’m really going to have to stop smoking though, that’s becoming evident. That vocal hook in “Share” at about 2:20? The falsetto high C? Every so often it gurgles in an unbecoming way. When we were making the record I smoked as much as I wanted because Dan had me convinced that singing is 90 percent mental, as evidenced by the great tenor Caruso — a chain smoker. I guess back in October when I was laying down vocals, the cilia in my lungs weren’t completely petrified, but now my range will probably suffer pretty markedly if I don’t stop.
What do you guys do for day jobs? Do your coworkers/employers know about the band?
Daniel is a waiter at one of Mario Batali’s restaurants in the meat-packing district, Del Posto. He’s met that great redwood of a celebrity chef a couple of times, but it’s at his other job, Astor Wine and Liquor, where the real celeb sightings go down. We’re talking David Cross, Paul McCartney. I’m not really sure if his coworkers know or care that he’s in a band. I don’t think he readily volunteers that information anyway. The rest of us don’t have real jobs. Matt is a student (read: professional drinker), I work part-time in the basement of a law office file-clerking and also “go” to “school,” and Neil repairs amps and handles band business.
Has the critical attention you’ve been getting as of late translated into label attention?
Not really. Soon after the (Pitchfork.com) review was posted, we were contacted by Cory from Absolutely Kosher, saying that if Jagjaguwar, Sub Pop and XL hadn’t beaten down our door by the end of week with offers of women and gold, to holler at him — and to holler at him if we had a surfeit of women and gold, also. That’s pretty much a direct quote. Aside from that, mum’s the word, though I’m gonna chalk it up to this week being SXSW. Right? Right? I mean, a label will be nice, but right now we’re okay with pedaling our shit DIY-style. Neil’s very good about that. He makes spreadsheets and everything, he’s on the phone all day with record stores, he’s cashing out his 401K to repress another 1,000 copies of our record. Devotion.
Describe the ideal partnership for Cymbals Eat Guitars.
I couldn’t rightly describe our ideal partnership. We’ll just need a group of enthusiastic people to take over business while we’re on tour, or if we’re lucky, once the demand for records becomes so large that we can’t operate the business end of things ourselves. Ideally, guess I’d take 100 Neils.
What are your future plans? Tour? New album? Behind the Music?
We’ll absolutely be touring, and writing, a singin’ and a proselytizin’ all over this fine nation and abroad.
Alright, favorite band/album and favorite guilty pleasure. Go.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or American Water for me. Dark Side of the Moon for Daniel. I was going to put down like Entertainment! or Pleased To Meet Me for Neil, but he shocked me and said Sgt. Pepper’s/Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash, so… and for Matt, I think it’s Dookie.
As for guilty pleasures… I don’t know, I kind of like Lilly Allen. Daniel likes David Gray, but he’s not guilty about that. For Matt, it’s Dookie.