Joseph D’Agostino keeps apologizing for all the negativity. Reclining on couches in a Brooklyn Heights bar that, for whatever reason, has a bocce court in the back, he and Matt Whipple are musing on the status of their band, Cymbals Eat Guitars. This has recently been a recurring conversation for them: the feeling like they were always on the precipice of really breaking through to the next level, of finding sustainable growth out of early blog buzz, yet never quite hitting that mark. Their fourth album came out this year, and in some ways it feels like they’re starting the uphill fight all over again. The thing is: They’re just being honest about what it’s like to be an indie band at their level in 2016.
Cymbals Eat Guitars have had a strange and, at times, stunted trajectory. Back in 2009, when D’Agostino was just in his late teens — and still surrounded by different bandmates — Cymbals Eat Guitars’ debut, Why There Are Mountains, garnered them that blog buzz, and that in turn translated to some high profile gigs. Its followup, 2011’s Lenses Alien is remembered as a faltering step, that sophomore slump, despite the fact that it didn’t get negative reviews; it just didn’t exactly further ignite their career. Feeling as if they’d lost some ground, the group took some time for its third album, 2014’s excellent LOSE. And, sure enough, it seemed to work — LOSE earned them plenty of accolades and renewed fascination. Surely, their moment had arrived this time. Except, it didn’t. Not the way they expected. Instead, there were moments of frustration, confusion, and ultimately the resolution to keep swinging.
That’s where their new album Pretty Years comes in. Even if LOSE didn’t solidify their standing as much as they would’ve liked, it does scan as something of a turning point when they speak about that time. It was the first album with Cymbals’ current lineup all in place — keyboardist Brian Hamilton had been around for a while, but drummer Andrew Dole was new to the mix. “LOSE brought up the question of ‘Who are we as a band?,’” Dole says. “What kinds of songs can we play?” They found fulfillment and enough success in that: doing what they felt was best, what they thought sounded good, what felt right. “With Pretty Years,” he continues. “We didn’t have that baggage of, ‘Does it matter what kind of song we write?’”
The artistic confidence partially came from how they’d grown together as a band with LOSE, but it also has some roots in the same things that might sometimes drive the band’s dissatisfaction. Though they appear to perpetually be underdogs, they aren’t young upstarts. D’Agostino is in his late 20s and the baby of the group; everyone else is in their mid-30s. They all maintain other lives: D’Agostino works at a moving company in Philly, Whipple works an admin job at a law firm in Jersey (and uses his hour-and-20-minute commute each way to work on music ideas on his iPad), Hamilton has a respected effects-pedal business, and Dole has often supplemented the life of touring musician with that of a working musician, playing in wedding bands and the like. As a result, the sound of Pretty Years mingles the steady confidence of people who have some years and experiences under their belt with the hunger of being that many years in and still striving to get away from those day jobs.
That hunger can teeter from creative engine to dispiriting force on occasion. “At our level, it feels like every record is starting over,” D’Agostino says. “It is just so hard to retain people, so you’re building it from the beginning basically. It’s like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill.”
For D’Agostino in particular, it can feel like the band is bogged down by narrative, or held back by lack of one. Part of the reason LOSE caught on the way it did was that D’Agostino found himself writing about the death of a best friend from high school — it happened many years earlier, but he had just begun to be able to write about it. Given that only some of the songs on LOSE were actually about that, it’s a part of that era that still bothers D’Agostino, to some extent. “I’m narrative-averse,” he explains. “I just want to think about music. It’s idealistic, I guess.”
And, of course, the “narrative” behind a band is fairly inextricably linked to the nature of contemporary internet journalism. That’s another factor that D’Agostino has conflicted feelings on with regards to how it’s impacted his band. “I just have a complicated relationship with the internet when it comes to music, because obviously nobody would know about my band if it wasn’t for the internet, but it also makes it impossible,” he explains. “Everybody can get everything they want at any time. I think that less value is placed on music.”
Whipple is sympathetic to that line of thinking, too. “I think LOSE is a record where the proscribed narrative took over,” he reflects. “Because of the title and that so many of the other songs deal with different kinds of loss, that became the central idea.” But he also counters the more negative outlook you could take here: He thinks it served the record really well. It allowed people to latch onto it. He alludes to the incredible amount of times people approached D’Agostino and told him their own personal stories that allowed them to connect with LOSE. As much as impatience or disillusionment could creep in on the business level, on the career arc level, those interactions on a human-to-human level remain inspiring.
Pretty Years is where they try to carve out their territory, once and for all, without any frills, or fuss, or big stories. This is a band where it’s never been easy to tell where exactly they should live: they’re an indie rock outfit sidelined with retro-classifiers, booked on tours with veteran pop-punk groups, who have recently tried their hand at mutating classic rock influences. They aren’t tied to any specific geographical or genre-based scene. That’s one way you can get lost in the mix, and that means you might have to fight that much harder to get heard.
And here, they’re less apologetic about the negativity, because it isn’t really negativity: it’s real talk about the hustle of being a touring band these days. “We’re a working band and we’re living through being underrated in our time,” D’Agostino says. “That’s just the way it is.” Whipple thinks talking about it any other way would be disingenuous, not just for the kids who might want to start bands in the 21st century, but also in describing Cymbals Eat Guitars. “We’re really not super dejected. This is our favorite record we’ve ever done,” he says. “You can’t really talk about our process creatively without talking about it being hard work with very little reward, which is what informs every creative decision we make.”
The next day, I meet up with the band again, this time at Music Hall Of Williamsburg, where they have a show later. D’Agostino is in a better, more jocular mood – maybe because he has a big show boasting many new Pretty Years songs he’s excited about, maybe because we wind up talking much more about Cymbals Eat Guitars’ artist development, a distinctly upward trajectory versus their zig-zagging career status. There’s been a transition over the course of Cymbals Eat Guitars’ four records. D’Agostino doesn’t consider Why There Are Mountains a solo record, exactly, but back then he was the single creative force behind the project. He wrote absolutely everything, and dictated the parts to his band members. But that has subtle shifted as this lineup came together, with he and Whipple collaborating more, or with Whipple shouldering some of the songwriting duties.
“When you get people you trust, you want to let go and just let them do their thing,” D’Agostino explains. “I think everybody in this band right now is super unique and nobody really plays like them.” Once, Cymbals Eat Guitars was his band even if it wasn’t a full-blown solo act; now, Cymbals Eat Guitars is the work of these specific four individuals.
That dynamic developed over the course of LOSE and touring behind that record. When they wrapped that up, they were feeling some degree of creative momentum. “With LOSE, it felt like we arrived at a sound we could operate in for a while,” Whipple says. “It retained some of the sprawl of our older records, but we wanted to do something that went deeper into that sound but also did it in a tighter and leaner way.”
That meant delving into classic rock influences. Whipple characterizes Pretty Years as “damaged classic rock,” imagining the goal as “E Street Band songs played by a punk band.” The idea was to draw on icons of the past, and channel into this frazzled, overdriven thing. “I think the idea of doing what’s cool culturally at the time is anathema to us,” Whipple says. “Making a big, bombastic classic rock record is the least cool thing you can do in 2016 and that, I think, is a big part of why it appealed to us.”
Dole reflects on David Bowie’s death, and how everyone in the band started revisiting his music and mulling over how fearless he was with his decisions. That, on some level, emboldened and influenced them. “[We decided], ‘We’re gonna make it sound like this,’” he recalls. “And it’s different from what the last thing sounded like, and that’s okay.” “We definitely just wanted to try something new,” Whipple says. “We finally hit on ‘This is the sound, this is the band, let’s see what we can do if we don’t stop.’”
They decided they’d finish the album in six months, and they wanted to work with producer John Congleton to make that happen. Whipple credits Congleton with challenging the band to drop some of the “intense fussiness we’ve had in the past about production and performance and getting everything just so.” They wanted to knock it out and capture the feeling of a live band; what Congleton liked about them in the first place was the moments where they were raw, when D’Agostino’s vocals seemed to be racing and raging against the limits of a human voice.
For D’Agostino, building towards a record always involves a process of finding certain archetypes: the slow-burner, the epic closer, the ragged epic. They all have to be present. This time, he still checked some of those boxes, and he let some go; when he did return to established territory, he pushed himself within those confines. Pretty Years standout (and overtly Springsteen-referencing) “4th Of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)” was his attempt at being more directly narrative in his lyrics. “I wanted that to be like, ‘Here’s a thing that happened, here’s how I feel about it,’” he says. “In and out, kind of.” Another notable song from the album, “Have A Heart,” was a conscious effort to write a straight-up love song. One of the most significant goals for D’Agostino, however, was to write lyrics that “repeat and sound good when you repeat them.” “Good choruses just to prove that we could do it,” he says. “Most of the songs have a chorus I am not embarrassed to sing again and again.”
While the themes may vary song-to-song, the overall meaning of the title correlates to many of the other stresses the band have countered over the years. “Pretty years” began as a “dark joke” while on tour — D’Agostino talking to his bandmates about wasting the supposedly best years of your life while taking awful care of yourself on the road. Dovetailing with their general interest in making a more fun record following LOSE’s fixation on death and loss, there’s also a sly wink to the title of Pretty Years. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek response to how people always talk about our band in reference to the ‘90s and stuff of the past and a sense of nostalgia,” Whipple says. “Calling it Pretty Years was like, ‘OK, here’s your nostalgia.’”
But that also comes with some gravity. With the band’s youngest member and frontman closing in on 30, they all feel those questions that come up when you’ve been at this for a while, and you might be aging out of the scene, and might be wondering how long you’re going to pile into a cramped touring van. Tracing the country over and over on shitty tours can age you prematurely, can make you world-weary before your time. The fact that Cymbals Eat Guitars continue to feel like they still have to fight to get attention must only compound that fact.
The name appears in a core lyric on the album, as a manifesto in the chorus of “Dancing Days.” “Goodbye to my dancing days/Goodbye to the friends who fell away/Goodbye to my pretty years,” D’Agostino sings. There’s a lot of reckoning going on there, in the title and the lyric – guys who’ve spent a good amount of years doing this, looking back at what those years might’ve meant. The words were Whipple’s, marking the first time anyone has contributed lyrics to a Cymbals Eat Guitars song besides D’Agostino. He didn’t have any problem singing Whipple’s words though: he felt them, too.
The passage of time isn’t a bunch of regrets and reminiscing. Whipple talks about the growth he’s seen in D’Agostino as a writer from album to album. “Each time he writes a batch of songs,” he begins, “I can tell he’s a different, more mature, more thoughtful person than last time.” Early in the making of Pretty Years, D’Agostino was struggling with a bout of writer’s block. His tendency to write more directly about his own life on Pretty Years is partially a result of a conversation he and Whipple had in that moment. “I told him, ‘You deserve songs, too,’” Whipple remembers. “Songs that are just about you and where you are at with any number of things in your life.”
Pretty Years maybe needed to be that for this band: the one that’s for them, doing their thing, shrugging off narrative or lack thereof or whatever critical rise-and-fall there might be in their career. Sure, they are challenging themselves: grasping for bigger, more anthemic music and trying to reach as many people as possible. But you also get the sense that, at this point, Cymbals Eat Guitars are going to do whatever they want and make people come to them by, as D’Agostino puts it, “writing better songs than anybody.”
With all the talk of classic rock and big sounds, the last thing D’Agostino and I wind up discussing is our mutual admiration for sprawling double albums, or the haphazard and messy follow-ups to the revered masterpiece. “It’s more fun that way, when somebody clearly doesn’t give a fuck,” he says enthusiastically. “You hear the abandon.” His mood’s totally different, his tone’s totally different. None of that depletion. Just giddiness about music.
“Those are the interviews, though,” he says of those moodier moments. Then he cracks a grin. “At the end of the day, I am still going to go home and write another fucking record.”