Interview: When Rock ‘n’ Roll becomes more than the sum of its parts – Talking Life and Loss with Cymbals Eat Guitars

CEG 2New Jersey’s Cymbals Eat Guitars announced their arrival onto the alternative music scene with their debut album Why There Are Mountains back in 2009, and theirs was certainly a statement of intent. Shot through with enigmatic lyrics, killer guitar hooks and an explosive energy, Cymbals Eat Guitars had arrived as the new kings of slacker rock. Since then, frontman Joseph D’Agostino has been at the helm of the band overseeing line-up changes and a second album. Now he is driving things forward with the band’s third album, Lose, due for release on August 25 (August 26 in the US), which seems set to be the most autobiographical and emotive collections of songs Cymbals Eat Guitars have released to date.

We caught up with D’Agostino at his apartment to talk about how Lose came together and were treated to an arrestingly upfront, honest and candid insight into the personal influences that lie beneath the surface of the new album’s incendiary rock ‘n’ roll.

Let’s start off with a standard one: how and why did you start making music?

I was playing classical piano for much of my childhood so I had a bit of a foothold in music, then I switched to guitar when I was about thirteen, pretty much so I could get girls… which didn’t end up working anyway! I fell in love rock music through most of the usual gateway bands. Among the first records I bought were the blue album by Weezer, Hail To The Thief by Radiohead and Sumday by Grandaddy, that kind of thing. Then I started playing in bands when I was a junior in high school and started writing songs. As I went to collage, those songs would turn into some of the tracks that appeared on the first Cymbals Eat Guitars album, Why There Are Mountains. At the time I was taking guitar lessons from Charles Bissell from The Wrens at his place in Brooklyn, so he was kind of a mentor to me. He got me reading the right books and listening to the right records. Then I wanted to record the first album, so I got a band together through Craigslist. That’s kinda how it started.

You’re about to release your third album, Lose. That’s a pretty apt title because there seems to be a lot of overriding themes of loss on the album. You’ve said in interviews before that you’ve started to deal directly with the death your close friend Ben High through your music. Is this something that has shaped Lose as a whole? 

Yeah, I felt it was a good idea to address it in a more direct way and it felt good to do that. There were songs I’d written before for the last two albums where there might have been a line here and there that suggested it might be to do with Ben, but I just felt like I was ready to give it its due. I’d kinda figured out my voice at that point and I felt like I could write about it. I think about Ben every day and I’m close with his family, so I got their blessing on the project before I started in earnest and it all just started to come out. I started writing with the band in March 2013 when our new drummer Andrew [Dole] joined the band and it only took a year to write everything. I think that had to do with me wanting to get a lot of things off my chest, and I think the song structures came to us more readily because we weren’t labouring over them as much as we had previously. I think the songs on Lose are a lot more direct and satisfying, more fun to play, and more fun to listen to. In a lot of ways it’s the most fun record we’ve recorded, as well as having a lot of heavy subject matter.

Yeah, the song structures on Lose sound a lot more straight forward and direct compared with your previous two albums, like ‘Chambers’ for instance. Was this style something that was deliberate on your part, or was it something that just happened as the songs came together? 

It happened as organically as that kind of thing can happen. We pushed our sound all the way in one direction for [second album] Lenses Alien. Everything was quite complex and prog-y with complicated time signatures and melodies, and I think we just got really tired of playing those songs every night. It got to the stage where I don’t think the whole experience was as enjoyable as it could have been for us, or the audience. So, with Lose, we wanted to push it in almost the complete opposite direction and see if we could write some songs with bigger hooks and bigger choruses that people could latch on to. I think with our last two albums there aren’t really any single lines that you could sing along to as a chorus without sounding like a complete idiot (laughs). I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could write a turn of phase in the songs that had some kind of universal, emotional value as well as being really personal and deeply felt for me. I think we accomplished that on a lot of these tracks. I think ‘Jackson’ has a great chorus, ‘Warning’ has a pretty huge chorus and ‘Chambers’, like you said, has one as well.

How did this new style of lyricism translate into the recording process?

We’re an indie rock band so we don’t have a huge amount of money, and we were in and out of the studio in a short space of time. It only took us six days to record the album. Our producer John Agnello was really happy that we had some big hooks and some big choruses, I know he was keen for us to swing for the fences in that regard. He pushed me really hard to streamline some of the song structures and make sure that I was singing a lot, instead of rasping or screaming. I think he was happy with the vocal delivery on this record and the choruses and the hooks. We had a great time.

It sounds like it was a pretty smooth recording process. What was influencing you when you were putting the album together? 

Direct influences for the lyrics would be writers like Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Richard Ford, those dirty realists. I was really, really into Denis Johnson when I was writing the lyrics for the record this time around. I think some of the lines fall on the ear in a similar way and have this laconic quality with an emotional heft to them. I was also listening to a lot of Brit Pop like The Stone Roses, Suede and I was listening to a lot of Blur, mainly 13 and their self titled record. I love Damon Albarn, he’s such a rock star. I saw him in New York not too long ago and he blew me away. Also, I know that everybody in the band is a huge Deerhunter fan and their music definitely influenced this record.

Lyrically, there seems to be a lot of nostalgia in Lose, like the kind that sums up the loss of some sort of romance about listening to music when you’re young compared with when you get older. 

Yeah, that’s true. But I’m only 25 so I think stuff like that can maybe sound a little ridiculous. It’s like those early Walkman records where they’re only 26 and they say ‘Oh, I’m ageing out of the scene’ but, you know, sometimes that’s how I feel (laughs). The track ‘Child Bride’ on the new album has a refrain that goes “Slow the years down, Lose your twenties, Loaded all the time”. That applies to my own life and my friends who are pushing 30. The song is specifically referencing this childhood friend that I had who moved out of my block very abruptly. I met him later in Orlando, Florida at a show we were playing and he was looking really strung out. It made me think of the sordid stuff people can get caught up in during their 20s. Sometimes people escape, and sometimes they don’t.

So you convey the darker side of suburban upbringing in your music? 

Yeah, and there is a lot of darkness. I’m lucky though, my family is a picture perfect Italian one. It’s nice. I grew up in South Jersey, which can be pretty different to an urban New York upbringing.

What’s happening with Cymbals Eat Guitars over the next 12 months? 

We’re super excited to be opening for Bob Mould at some of his shows here in the States. Then we’re doing some headline shows, then hopefully we’re coming to Europe in November. That’s getting worked out right now. Other than that it’s anybody’s guess. It just depends if the record takes off… if it’s hot, or if it’s not!

Lose is released on August 25 (August 26 in the US). Keep up to date with Cymbals Eat Guitars, including their tour dates, right here.



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