by Billy Ball
Cymbals Eat Guitars' DIY debut, Why There Are Mountains, took months after its soft release to catch with critics and fans. After all, it's not the easiest thing to sidle up to, considering frontman Joseph D'Agostino's sprawling, ragged songcraft and Isaac Brock-style yelps. But for every moment of ear-shredding cymbal-crashing, there's a soaring guitar solo to reach the cheap seats. Cymbals eat guitars, you know?
The Independent caught up with D'Agostino earlier this month as the band prepped a follow-up (three songs are already written) and made the rounds through small indie clubs across the nation this fall. They'll be playing at Local 506 tonight, Sept. 29, with The Pains of Being Pure At Heart.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: People seem to be anticipating big things out of you. How do you deal with that as you prepare a follow-up and trying to tour this record?
JOSEPH D'AGOSTINO: Our efforts are going to touring for this record, but right now, creatively, I'm not thinking about our debut. I know three songs doesn't seem like a whole lot in getting the next record out, but for me it really is because I don't write songs like once a day or once a week. It will take me three months to write a song, and I'll work on it perpetually throughout that period. So to have three songs done—I'm planning nine songs for the next record—it's a third of the way done. The amount of attention that we're getting doesn't really figure into the creative side so much. If anything, it's just encouragement: "OK, I know once these songs are done, people are going to want to hear them." That's just something nice to think about. It's not really pressure. We're just sort of doing our thing.
Tell me more about your songwriting process. Your songs include a lot of tempo changes and shifts that sound like puzzle pieces being put together.
For the songs on our debut, a lot of them came from way back from the time when I started writing songs. When I was first getting started, the easiest way to do that was to put songs together. It wasn't verse, chorus, verse, chorus. I would come up with a hook and something interesting, and that was sort of the centerpiece for one section of the song. Something else wouold come up, and it would just sort of come next in the movement. It was just sort of tacked-on—well, hopefully not tacked-on. Hopefully, there's some sort of fluidity. But it's really just pieces strung together, hopefully little hooks tying everything together. Nothing really repeats in the music, and nothing really repeats in the lyrics. They're just sort of complete thoughts, and that's how I hope it comes across. Each song is just a complete thought all the way through.
Do you have to be in a certain mood to write?
I haven't figured it out yet. If I sit down and force myself to write something, it always ends in failure. I remember watching an interview with Jeff Tweedy—he's one of my favorite musicians, from Wilco. He said, "If you don't have the pen in your hand or you don't have the guitar next to you, then you're never going to write anything." So I just always try to keep myself in a position where I have what I need to write something if the opportunity arises, but it's very sporadic and spotty. I guess I haven't hit my stride maybe where I'll be able to write with more consistency. But, for now, it comes as it comes.
Can you talk a little about the sound you've made? There's a lot of noise in these songs, and there's also an epic tilt.
I always talk about Pavement in interviews, but really a song like "Pueblo" off of Wowee Zowee, the last chorus of that song is so grand and ragged. To me, it's like one of the biggest rock moments I've ever heard. It's so epic, but it's just two guitars, bass and drums. I definitely have a soft spot for records like that, like Arcade Fire's Funeral. That was a really big record for me when I was in high school. There are some songs on that record, I'm sure for everybody, that are like a heaving, emotional masterpiece. I can't listen to "Neighborhood #1" without crying. That lyric, "We remember bedrooms and our parents' bedrooms and the bedrooms of our friends. Then we think of our parents. What ever happened to them?" I want people to feel the way that writers like that make me feel.
Where's the top for you guys? Some indie bands are labeled sell-outs for getting too big. Where do you want to be in 10 years?
I would love longevity. I would like a career where we have a fan base. It's hard to say this without sounding contrived. It's a great feeling to have people love your music and come to see you play. You mention a band like Wilco again. They've pretty much done exactly what they want over the course of their career, uncompromising, and yet somehow manage to sell a lot of records, have a lot of fans, and now in their mid-40s, are playing to 75,000 people per night in festivals and huge outdoor arenas. You know, that's pretty great. God knows if a band like ours is built for that sort of epic performance scale every night. To be honest, I think that we're very well-suited to small rock clubs. We do well in that setting. I'm just hoping that maybe we do have that sort of reach and that kind of longevity, and that the songs keep coming. Where would I see myself? It's hard to say, but so many great things have happened already. There's no real divide between indie and mainstream anymore, so I couldn't rightly say where we're going to be or what's going to happen. I'm optimistic.
You guys started out as a Weezer cover band, right?
Yeah, I mean Cymbals Eat Guitars didn't start as a Weezer cover band. But (drummer Matt Miller) and I began learning how to play rock music by listening to Pinkerton and The Blue Album. Pinkerton was probably the record that made me start to listen to records and buy records for reasons other than what was on MTV. There was substance there, and there was something wrenching and something visceral. So Weezer is great, and that's what gave us our start pretty much.
And from there, you thought, "Hey I can do this. I can make albums."
Exactly. That's what everybody says about records like Pinkerton. Pinkerton is really complex in some ways—key changes and awesome guitar solos and John Bonham-like drum fills. But in some songs, there's still power chords, and there's still things you can latch onto and bring into your own songwriting if you're really young. It's easy to draw inspiration from something like Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement. You hear it and you think, "Yeah, I could conceivably pull off something like this." That's very important when you're just getting into rock music. You don't want to be listening to Radiohead, and be like, 'Oh no. How the fuck am I ever supposed to do that?'
Can you bring me up to date with the band?
We've been pretty busy, just sort of since the record. We had the record mastered last fall. It was actually my birthday, November 7. We sat on it and basically didn't really get anything done in the way of new material or even thinking about new material until March when things began to pick up for us. People started listening to the record. As far as a new record, I have three songs finished that we've been playing live for a couple months now, just kind of figuring them out. We prob won't be recording until this time next year. All the shows that we have done and that we are going to be doing in the next year will be going into making the new material what it should be by the time we see fit to record it. But everything we're doing is in support of Why There Are Mountains, our debut.
What did you think of the response to the new album?
In order to spend a lot of money and so much time making a record, you have to believe that at some point it's going to do well or that a certain number of people are going to catch on and be into it. On some level, we were pretty sure that there was an audience out there somewhere for it. We really had no way of knowing that it was going to be such an overwhelming positive media response. It's great. It's the most flattering thing in the world. It's just great that we're able to do what we're doing right now.
You released the first album independently. Have you talked with any labels about releasing the follow-up?
We did what you would term a soft release. We self-released the first 3,000 copies, and that's all that we've moved right now. We just got a distribution deal in the United States, so I guess we're releasing records through our own imprint, our own label. Just recently having gone over to the U.K. for like five days in July, we just finished signing a record deal over there with Memphis Industries. So we have a record deal outside of the United States.
As a self-released band, what kind of pressure does it put on you guys to handle all that yourselves?
In some ways, obviously, there's more pressure because you have to handle who you're going to work wit in terms of who's going to do your publicity or radio or booking. Normally, a label would say, "We have these stables of people that we usually use, and we're going to pay them out of your percent, and this is how much you get." I hate to put it in terms of money. Really if I just eliminate the middle-man through the outset, then it's easier for us to make a little bit of money and turn it right back around into what we're doing. Every cent that we make has to go back into funding our touring expenses.