Q&A: Cymbals Eat Guitars’ Joe D’Agostino Opens Up About The Pain Behind LOSE + “Chambers” (Stereogum Premiere)
There’s a moment early on in LOSE, the third album from Cymbals Eat Guitars, that immediately leaps out. Frontman and lyricist Joe D’Agostino describes his best friend looking like David Bowie on Soul Train, a reference that’s strikingly similar to one of the many memories recounted on Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. On Soul Train, Bowie sang “Fame,” the final song on Young Americans, the album Mark Kozelek references near the end of Benji — and despite vast differences in their respective ages, upbringings, and musical styles, both D’Agostino and Kozelek use that pop culture time-stamp to help navigate larger reflections on death and dying. It’s just a coincidence, really, but that’s what makes it so great. Just as so many of us imagine a personal significance in the same songs and artists (how many times have you heard someone say, “This song is about me”?), our relationship with loss and grief is not unique, and that gives it a universal power. That power is present on LOSE, an album that says so much about the way we grow, and change, and most importantly, how we remember.
D’Agostino is smoking an American Spirit while we walk around Williamsburg, Brooklyn, trying to find a quiet place to sit. He mentions he’ll have to quit things like alcohol and smoking to make sure his voice is at its best on his band’s upcoming tour with Bob Mould. He talks enthusiastically about an adolescence spent loving Zen Arcade, the Wrens, and Yo La Tengo, but it’s tougher to get that feeling from music these days (with a few exceptions, including Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor which he calls the best album of the last five years) and that leads to us talking about this new album, which means we have to address a difficult subject. When an artist does an interview for an album, in some ways he’s sharing his feelings with the hopes that the middle man doesn’t fumble the details too much delivering a story that will ideally lead to some general interest. But when the subject matter of that album is as sensitive and painful as that of LOSE, those stakes become even higher and those artistic intentions become harder to share.
“I feel apprehensive about using this tragedy as, like, a press angle, but a record needs context for people to really get inside of it,” D’Agostino says. Much of LOSE‘s subject matter is about by Ben High, D’Agostino’s high school friend and bandmate, who died in 2007. But this life-changing event becomes a jumping-off point: back to memories of adolescence and forward to his present, addressing things that D’Agostino had been unable to, until now.
“Our first record in particular, I hadn’t had any life experience, I was 18, 19 when I was writing, and so … I had a general feeling that I wanted to express to people but no real specificities of life lived,” he says.
LOSE is full of specificities, particularly New Jersey landmarks: The (literal) emotional roller-coaster opener, “Jackson,” is named after the town to which many flock in the summer to go to Six Flags; Cape May and Mystic Island are both mentioned in “Place Names”; in “XR” he namechecks Vintage Vinyl, a place that holds fond memories for D’Agostino, who used to make trips to the Fords, NJ-based store to pick up CDs, then drive around listening and smoking cigarettes — that song includes the lyric, “I wanna wake up wanting to listen to records again, but those old feelings elude me.” It’s a sensation that D’Agostino is chasing throughout LOSE.
“‘Laramie’ came all at once,” he says of the album’s eight-minute centerpiece which acts as something of an emotional eye to the storm, but after that moment LOSE opens itself up even wider in its second half. D’Agostino reaches back to early teenage years on “2 Hip Soul,” a song inspired by a time when he was around 12 and heard about some older kids from his school broke into the Popcorn Park Zoo and beat several animals to death. “Chambers” meanwhile pushes forward to his present living situation in Staten Island, dealing with the loneliness and alienation that comes from living in that part of New York, and the anxiety of watching your family grow older.
“My grandparents are still here, my mom’s parents. We live together, my grandparents live downstairs, my parents live upstairs, I live with my parents. I still have really elderly dogs from my childhood that are hanging around since I was 10. They’re like 16 years old now, black labs. And [I'm] just worrying about when the other shoe is gonna drop … because it’s all coming down the pipe,” he says. It’s a sensation he captures near the end of the song, creating a time capsule of that pain and isolation: “Here’s what it felt like when I was 25. Still had my family.”
Taken at once, LOSE, feels like culmination of everything yet accomplished by Cymbals Eat Guitars, the moment where everything is being expressed and revealed. It’s immensely brave, and more than anything, it sounds like a beginning.
“It’s been like this dark undercurrent in everything that I’ve written in my life so far,” says D’Agostino. “And now it’s not an undercurrent, it’s totally explicit. And it’s all out there. And I do feel like I can begin to write about other things in an equally honest and forthright way. Which is really liberating. I’ve kind of said my truth at this point. So we’ll see what that becomes.”
LOSE is out 8/26 via Barsuk and 8/25 in Europe via Tough Love. Pre-order it here. Check out their tour dates below.
08/20 New Haven, CT @ Bar Night Club
08/21 Kingston, NY @ BSP Kingston
08/22 Rockville Centre, NY @ Vibe Lounge
08/24 Asbury Park, NJ @ Asbury Lanes
08/26 Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Right
09/05 Philadelphia, PA @ TLA *
09/06 Washington, DC @ 930 Club *
09/10 New York @ Bowery Ballroom *
09/11 New York @ Bowery Ballroom *
09/12 Boston, MA @ Paradise *
09/13 New York, NY @ Music Hall Of Williamsburg *
09/14 Pittsburgh, PA @ The Smiling Moose
09/15 Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom *
09/16 Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick *
09/17 Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Ballroom *
09/18 Grand Rapids, MI @ Pyramid Scheme
09/19 St Louis, MO @ Old Rock House *
09/20 Chicago, IL @ Schubas Tavern
09/23 Seattle, WA @ Neptune *
09/24 Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom *
09/26 San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore *
09/27 LA, CA @ The Roxy *
09/28 LA, CA @ The Roxy *
10/02 Visalia CA @ Cellar Door
10/03 San Diego CA @ Soda Bar
10/04 Phoenix AZ @ Last Exit
10/05 Tucson AZ @ The Flycatcher
10/07 Denton TX @ Dan’s Silver Leaf
10/08 Austin TX @ Red 7
10/10 Tallahassee FL @ Club Downunder
10/11 Orlando FL @ Will’s Pub
10/12 Atlanta GA @ The Earl
10/13 Carrboro NC @ Cat’s Cradle – Backroom
10/14 Baltimore MD @ Metro Gallery
* — With Bob Mould