Name: Cymbals Eat Guitars
Progress Report: Psych-pop freakologists go for an even bigger sound on sophomore release, Lenses Alien.
When Cymbals Eat Guitars released Why There Are Mountains back in 2009, much was written about the band’s epic sound and their seemingly uncanny ability to craft densely psychedelic pop songs that often stretched on well past the seven minute mark without ever getting overly noodly or—even worse—boring. Not bad work for a self-released album made by a bunch of young kids from around New York and New Jersey who are the first to admit that they didn’t really know entirely what exactly they were doing. For the band’s follow up—the soon to be released Lenses Alien—everything got even bigger. The new album has longer songs, more expansive production (courtesy of producer John Agnello) and increasingly weirder, increasingly indecipherable, subject matter.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting band members Joseph D’Agostino (singer/songwriter, guitarist) and new member Matthew Whipple (bass) in a Brooklyn studio to listen to a playback of the recently-mastered new album and have a quick chat about just how Lenses Alien came together.
Tell me about how things have gone since the release of Why There Are Mountains back in 2009?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: That whole crazy run that we had got started…well, the first big thing we did was The Pitchfork Music Festival and then on and out to Lollapalooza. I don’t know, making that record I thought that we had something really good but you can’t really expect for that kind of thing to happen. And since Matthew joined the band, things have been even busier….
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: It seems like I didn’t join the band a very long time ago, but it was over a year.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Right in the thick of it though.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: You guys got back from your first national tour and then I joined.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: And then all of a sudden you were looking sidestage at Wayne Coyne
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Yeah, I joined the band and then ten days later we were opening for The Flaming Lips in London.
Did you do an entire tour with them?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: No, we only did two dates with them.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Just two shows in London. I turned around to make feedback during a song and Wayne Coyne was watching me, going “Yeah! Good feedback!”
I’m from Oklahoma. Weirdly enough, Wayne is friends with my dad.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Wow! He was a real gentleman. Really genuine and kind.
So how long did you actually tour the last record?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: A long, long time. We did our first tour in September of 2009 with The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and that extended through the next year, through the next fall and that included two other US runs in between the two and a bunch of European spots, two week long tours and stuff. It was a lot of flying back and forth
Are all of you living in New York now?
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: No, no one is. That’s the kind of funny thing about our band now. It’s kind of a misnomer about us being a New York band. Matt, our drummer, and Bryan, our keyboard player, live in Philly and I live in Morristown, New Jersey
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: You’re Hoping to move to Philly.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Yes, hoping to move to Philly. We’re kind of transitioning into all living in Philadelphia. Just because we can all afford it and it’s easier because two of us already live there.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: And at the moment I live on Staten Island. Living the dream at my parent’s house after coming home from tour.
How have your parents been about your nomadic lifestyle? Obviously they’ve been supportive.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: They are the most supportive, loving, perfect people. I mean, I get to have full use of the car to drive to rehearsal! (laughs).
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Yea, they’re like indie rock soccer parents. They come to all the shows.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Yeah, they come to all the shows within a 150 mile radius. They actually flew to London when we played with the Lips. We went to Ireland and they came out there. We played a festival in Germany called The Rolling Stone Weekender and they came out to that. It was my birthday so it was really cool to have them there.
That is pretty cool. And sweet of them.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: I don’t think they’ll continue to follow the band to Europe.
Joseph D’Agostino : Oh no, next time we go to Italy my mom is like, “I am going and I’m not coming back!”
So for this record, where was everything recorded?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Here in Brooklyn. We did five days at Headgear doing basic tracking but we also ended up getting a lot of overdub stuff done there. We recorded vocals and a lot of keyboard overdubs and then mixed for another five days. Fifteen days total.
Wow, that’s a lot to get done in a short period of time.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Yea fifteen days, we could have spent a whole lot longer. It was really compressed for what it is.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: John Agnello was really good about directing work flow. I mean, we worked really quickly but it didn’t seem stressful or rushed.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: We had a round robin thing, he calls it, where we’d have the keyboard rig set up and the guitars set up. I’d go in and do something and then Brian would go in, on the same song, and it went really quickly.
I guess you guys came in with all the songs written and ready to go then?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Yeah, we were just finishing up. There was one track that’s mostly instrumental with the vocals at the end. We were just finishing that as we were starting to record. But everything else was meticulously prepared.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Well, that was meticulously prepared too. It was just the last thing.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Yeah, and Brian played guitar.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Oh yeah, Brian–our keyboard player who doesn’t play guitar–played guitar on that song.
The sound of this record seems to have a much larger sonic breadth to it than the other one did—which is saying something, because so much of what was written about that record had to do with how “big” it sounded.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: It’s weird because with John–not to asskiss or anything–the other record I had worked out all the songs over the course of three years or whatever and I had parts and parts and guitar parts to layer on. On this album, pretty much all you hear is one guitar part doubled. It’s like more of a live band kind of thing. We tracked most of it live. I mean, we ended up using all of the live tracks. Drums, bass, a lot of live guitar, a lot of live keyboards, so I don’t know why a lot of the songs have that sound…what would you attribute it to?
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: I think there are some songs where we sort of stretched out on purpose to see how expansive we could get something to be. I think as John said, something we sort of developed over this record is not shying away from taking something where in its early forms it was really stretched out and like tightening it up into something that was more of a conventional song structure and having it still sound like us.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: We wanted to do less of section, section, section….no repeats. I just wanted to have more continuity, more pop song structures…a little bit more. I’m don’t know if it comes off like that.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: There’s still not a lot of conventional choruses.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Yeah, none of the lyrics repeat or anything.
Every song has some really discernible melody to it even all the discordant guitar sounds are all kind of wrapped around it. At the core, it’s very melodic.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: I feel like I was doing that a lot last time too. It’s just taking a hook and reappropriating it in a different setting
Sound and production-wise, are there certain records that were sort of touchstones for you?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: For me, I was listening to a lot of Bedhead, 90′s slowcore stuff, a lot of baritone guitar stuff, we only used baritone on one song though. I guess that sort of thing. What else were we listening to? A lot of Spiritualized.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Yes, a lot of Spiritualized. There’s a lot of stuff that I think sounds Beatles-y or like Fleetwood Mac.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Totally.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Sort of 70′s classic pop sounds.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: That’s sort of becoming a thing now isn’t it? Like “the Fleetwood Mac” thing.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: I don’t know, is it? Fleetwood Mac is very now….to be able to say, “yeah, Fleetwood Mac is cool.”
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: I mean….they are a cool band.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m supposed to interview Stevie Nicks in a few days. I have a lifelong obsession with Fleetwood Mac, so I’m glad it comes up so much now.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: No way. Stevie? Really? There’s a YouTube video I’ve been obsessing over of her singing backstage….
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: In the mirror?
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Kind of….it’s her singing one of her solo singles like backstage with people standing around her. It’s amazing. She does this amazing performance of the song just accappella in the dressing room while people put her makeup on. Wait, what other production touchstones….Joseph, you were listening to a lot of Sonic Youth
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: I always listen to a lot of Sonic Youth. I was also listening to a lot of Sigur Ros because I met Jonsi and he was just wonderful.
How did you guys meet each other? Matthew, how did you come to join the band?
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: I auditioned to replace the bassist who played on the last record.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: He quit pretty unceremoniously after our first US tour.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: I was in a band that had done a bunch of recording here actually and somebody forwarded me an email, “bass player wanted” and I responded.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: It was like two weeks before CMJ or something. He came in, did seven CMJ shows and then went on tour in with us in Europe. He nailed it. He came in, we had only asked people to learn three songs and he learned all the songs on the album and a couple of the new ones we hadn’t recorded yet from watching Youtube videos of them.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: Did I really do that?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Yeah man, above and beyond.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: It was pragmatic. I saw the touring schedule and was like, “I don’t want to learn six of these songs in a day. So I might as well do em all now.”
Lenses Alien. Ten tracks….40 minutes….and the first track is how long?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: 8 and a half minutes. (laughs) We really trimmed it down.
So what will happen next? There’s always that weird time between when the record is done and waiting for it to come out and the artwork and all of that. What are you guys doing in the interim?
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: Well, we’re doing one show and we’re rehearsing a lot and hopefully we’re going to prepare a few new songs too throughout the summer.
MATTHEW WHIPPLE: If we get together in a room there’s always new music that happens. I’ve been doing cover art for the past couple of days and I think other than that just working.
Now that the record is done and you’ve had time to think about it—what do you think this record is really all about? I’ve only heard it this one time, but it’s pretty cosmic stuff.
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: That’s hard. I don’t know that I could even say. There was a really significant event that sort of happened right around the time we were finishing up the last record and I wrote “Cold Spring” sort of about that; and I feel like everything that I’ve done since then has kind of been informed by that, but I don’t really talk about it because it doesn’t seem appropriate. I mean, when I look at the lyrics and the sounds and textures, it sort of just strikes me as about being a certain age, in your early twenties or even late teens and just reacting to things and realizing harsh realities about the world and finding out about things that happen in your life ….all of that offset by wonderment with the musical world, the universe…and like the universe man…that should have been the title of the record. “And Like… The Universe man”
Take a listen to “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”:
Cymbals Eat Guitars’ Lenses Alien is out 8/30 via Barsuk. They’re touring the states this fall:
09/20/11 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall *#
09/21/11 – Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg *#
09/22/11 – Hamden, CT – The Space *#
09/24/11 – Washington, DC – Black Cat *#
09/26/11 – Chapel Hill, NC – Local 506 *
09/27/11 – Atlanta, GA – The Earl *
09/29/11 – New Orleans LA – One Eyed Jacks *
09/30/11 – Houston, TX – Fitzgerald’s (Upstairs) *
10/01/11 – Austin, TX – Emos *
10/02/11 – Denton, TX – Dan’s Silverleaf *
10/04/11 – Tucson, AZ – Hotel Congress *
10/05/11 - San Diego, CA – Casbah *
10/06/11 – Long Beach, CA – Alex’s Bar *
10/07/11 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo *
10/08/11 – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill *
10/10/11 - Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios *
10/11/11 - Seattle, WA – Crocodile *
10/13/11 – Boise, ID – Neurolux *
10/14/11 – Salt Lake City, UT – Kilby *
10/15/11 – Denver, CO – Hi Dive *
10/17/11 – Omaha, NE – Slowdown Jr *
10/19/11 – Minneapolis, MN – 7th Street *
10/20/11 – Madison, WI – High Noon *
10/21/11 – Chicago, IL – Lincoln Hall *
10/22/11 – MOKB Presents: White Rabbit Cabaret Indianapolis, IN *
10/23/11 – Cleveland, OH – Beachland Tavern *
10/25/11 – First Unitarian Church Philadelphia, PA *#
10/27/11 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom *#
* With Hooray For Earth
# With Beige