Cymbals Eat Guitars talk powerful new album ‘Pretty Years,’ working with Brand New & more ++ LP stream
Cymbals Eat Guitars came out swinging back in 2009, with their instantly-loved debut album Why There Are Mountains and some real solid buzz -- they were one of the sure winners of CMJ '09. They then retreated from the spotlight a bit, but only got better as a band. 2011 brought the "difficult sophomore album" Lenses Alien and 2014 brought LOSE. It was one of the very best indie rock albums of that year and the band's best album to date... even if it was overlooked in certain circles. This week they'll follow LOSE with Pretty Years, their first album for Sinderlyn (a new-ish label run by Captured Tracks head Mike Sniper) and first with producer John Congleton (Cloud Nothings, St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, Swans). Sometimes it picks up where LOSE left off, and other times it goes in entirely other directions. And it's at least as good of an album.
There's an E Street Band-style stomp on "Wish," grade-A anthemic indie rock on "Finally" and "Have A Heart," a slower, more experimental side on "Dancing Days" and "Mallwalking," straight-up punk on "Beam," and still more. Congleton's influence is felt too. It's the band's biggest and cleanest sounding record yet, the drums are louder than ever before, and Congleton threw a few studio tricks in. "He fuzzed the fuck out of '4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)' after we recorded it," says singer Joe D'Agostino. It's also lyrically powerful. Joe opened up about a high school friend's untimely death on LOSE, and Pretty Years closer "Shrine" takes on that same story with a new perspective. Elsewhere on the record he's tackling anxiety and depression, reveling in new love, and telling a very true story where he feared for his own life ("4th of July").
Ahead of the album's 9/16 release, I caught up with Joe and bassist Matt Whipple to discuss the new record, their recently-formed relationship with Brand New, and what exactly went down in Philly last Fourth of July. Read on for that interview, and click play on the new album, available a week early via NPR, right here:
BV: It feels to me like you guys always do the unexpected - LOSE got this devoted following of people who like louder rock... you toured with Brand New and Say Anything behind it. So when I first heard Pretty Years I was almost taken aback at how different it was from that. Would you say it's a goal of yours to challenge the listener from record to record?
Joe: I think it's kind of more about challenging ourselves. I think we have good filters and good taste as a band and we just want to try doing things we haven't done yet to keep it interesting for ourselves. Like with Lenses Alien we were going for a very particular thing, songs that were super intricate, but I'd be lying if I said we weren't considering the audience at all. Opening up the songs a little and having the formats be a little more poppy was kind of a conscious decision for this one too.
Matt: I think we always want to avoid what's immediately expected of us based on what we just did. Like we did a song ["Aerobed"] that was pretty emo/post-hardcore style that we literally recorded with Jesse from Brand New, and then the next thing we put out sounded like the E-Street Band. It's just kind of fun and funny for us to pull moves like that, just mess with people's expectations of what we are as a band.
Joe: Constantly alienating people and gaining -- hopefully -- the same number of fans. [laughs]
BV: What came first, the new record or the song with Jesse?
Joe: "Aerobed" came first. That was the first song I wrote after we finished LOSE. It was like a year later -- I didn't write anything for like a year after LOSE.
BV: Was that song intended as a one-off?
Joe: We toyed with putting it on something else.
Matt: I feel like it happened pretty quickly. It was mostly unformed when we went into the studio with Jesse and he kind of made Joe rewrite it on the spot.
Joe: Yeah he made me write a chorus. That whole "pull me in, don't think of who you're hurting" part I had to write within an hour because Jesse was like 'Yeah you've got the hook and I think you need to write a chorus that matches the melody with the main hook," and I did it.
Matt: It was kind of uncomfortable for a minute.
Joe: It was really uncomfortable! Because I didn't have anything for ten minutes. I don't write anything that quickly really, but he forced us into it and I think it brought about a change in my attitude about how you can write things. I think it influenced how we wrote Pretty Years.
BV: What else did you guys learn from being out on the road wth Brand New and hanging out with Jesse?
Matt: Those guys put on an amazing show. Even if you're not someone who, like, on paper or in your mind, likes quote-unquote "that kind of rock music," their show is pretty undeniable. I think the best thing we learned from them was just like, have fun putting on a show. Don't stress about it. The audience can tell when you're having fun and if you're telegraphing that to the audience then they're gonna perceive it as a great show. I think all the best live rock bands do that. Even the most quote-unquote "serious" bands do that, like Radiohead does that. They make fun of themselves on stage all the time, they don't take it 100% seriously -- which we've definitely been guilty of in the past.
Joe: Oh yeah definitely, I mean, when we first started as a band we were touring behind Why There Are Mountains, I wouldn't like address the audience, just not talk at all... but I think that's because I was so uncomfortable with performing at that stage of my life. I would like sweat buckets, and be really tense. But I think for me personally on that tour I learned how to relax on stage. There's no other way to go in front of an audience of 3500 people or like, a hockey stadium full of people in Houston.
BV: What were the crowds like as the opening band on a Brand New tour?
Joe: Not great... They were really good for Foxing. [laughs]
Matt: We were in between Foxing and Brand new and I think there were a lot of people who were emo-scene people who had awareness of Foxing and those same people had zero awareness of who we were.
Joe: And then we got up there and played "Chambers."
Matt: I think we won some people over but it didn't seem like it when we were up on stage playing sets. Brand New's crowd is a lot of people who think Brand New is like, the only good band.
Joe I mean it wasn't like opening for Quicksand! Nobody turned around.
BV: That happened?
Joe: Nobody clapped for two shows at Webster Hall.
Matt: Walter [Schreifels] liked our records so he asked us to open a couple shows, and you know, Quicksand are like these legends of post-hardcore and we were up there playing like proggy Beatles-y stuff. It was a strange pairing. He asked the crowd to give it up for Cymbals Eat Guitars and they booed. And he was like "Shut up, fuck you, I asked those guys to come on the shows."
BV: Well at least you got Walter Schreifels on your side.
BV: I remember when I saw you guys at the Say Anything show in New York. I definitely felt like a lot of people were like "I don't know who this is or what to think" and by the end there were a lot more people bobbing their heads and cheering loudly.
Joe: Yeah that was a fun one.
Matt: The Say Anything tour was a little more fun than Brand New because I think we had an opportunity to be the most confrontational band on the bill.
BV: It definitely came off that way.
Matt: In different ways, like whether it was through noise, or whether it was through a song like "Chambers" which is super poppy and '80s-sounding. It was more enjoyable to mess wth that crowd's expectations.
Joe I think that crowd was also slightly younger, especially combined with Modern Baseball's crowd, and they're like open-minded and impressionable. God bless 'em. So we had a good time doing that tour, just being weirdos.
BV: Pretty Years is your first album with John Congleton. How much did he influence the sound of it?
Joe: Basically his job was to prevent [keyboardist] Brian [Hamilton] and I from overdubbing all over the whole album as we are wont to do. So where I might have doubletracked my guitar or Brian might have done another synth, John was just like 'nah okay that sounds good.' What he imparted most was a sense of danger, which is what I really wanted for our music. It's like teetering on the edge of falling apart but also really tight.
BV: How'd you end up working with him?
Matt: John reached out to us over Twitter -- he slid into our DMs -- and it just kind of got us excited to work with someone else for a different creative vibe. We had done two records with John Agnello and we love those records, but we can't do the same thing forever.
BV: On LOSE you're really opening up about a friend that passed away. On the new record am I wrong to hear a lot of that still coming through -- on "Wish" and "Shrine" or is that something else?
Joe: No you're right on "Shrine" definitely. "Wish" is kind of a little more vague and not as pointed but "Shrine" is super specific, definitely exactly what that is. I just kinda set out to write a song that summarized what I was saying across LOSE but following a really... I mean it's in the song, but my mom and I had dinner with Ben's parents and aunt in Red Bank on his birthday and went record shopping at Jack's Music and stuff and kind of had a nice little time in honor of him and I just had the idea to write a song from an outside perspective that's just like, I'm addressing somebody and then it's revealed the person I'm talking to isn't there. That's kind of how the concept for the song came about. I wrote it 5 days after that in September. And "Wish" is kind of a composite of a bunch of different people I've lost in one way or another-- friends who've orbited out of my life or people who are no longer living. We lost Dan Baer who played on our first album and was our keyboardist for a little bit. So you know, it's just talking to a bunch of different people. It's just a generalized song about regret about things left unsaid. Paired with a really fun, upbeat funky kind of thing.
BV: There's a line on "Have a Heart" where you sing 'I know you heard that I'm a psycho with a history of instability' and there are other references on the album to anxiety and depression. Is that something that you were really like, 'I'm gonna open up about this on this record?'
Joe: Yeah, I feel like I'm in a safe place now in my current situation with the people that I'm friends with and my significant other, I know that they're sure things and they're the people I trust most. You reach a point in your mid or late 20s, hopefully earlier if you're more mature, where you realize you want to be better and not lead such a sordid existence. Be better and be kinder and live in an upright fashion and be a good person. That's kinda what that song is about, being newly in love and letting go of everything from the past.
BV: Not that this is anything new, but it feels like there's a very current trend of rock bands opening up about depression. Were you at all thinking like, 'I hope this helps someone,' when writing these songs?
Matt: I think there's a trend in this kind of music with songs being more, like, instructive of how to process these kinds of things, but I also think if you grew up in the '90s and were listening to rock music at the time you're obviously steeped in music that's very obviously about intense mental turmoil, and it's almost natural to go to that place when you're writing a song for people who grew up during that time because that's what was hugely popular.
BV: Is "4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)" a true story?
Joe: Yeah. Last Fourth of July we were on that Say Anything tour and we had a night off between Baltimore and New Jersey and we were in Philly because Brian lived there at the time and wanted to go home and see his fiancé and sleep in his own bed. [Drummer] Andy [Dole] and I were staying at Jake from Modern Baseball's apartment. I hit up Alex [G] and Sam because we had toured in 2014 and was just like 'What's up tonight? You're kind of the only people in the city that I know right now...' and they invited me out and what I describe in the song is basically what happened. It's like getting into the car with someone you don't know is as intoxicated as they are and some really reckless things happening while you're helpless in the backseat. John from Alex's band and Sam and me just being thrown to the ground by dudes with a gun and a 2x4 because the car that we were in had come really close to hitting their kids.
Matt: I almost wish you had included a verse about what happened to Andy, like totally separate from that.
Joe: Yeah that same night...
Matt: Andy got lost, he got drunk at some festival...
Joe: I think he was at the Roots Picnic.
Matt: Yeah and he was like "I'm just gonna walk home."
Joe: He went west instead of east.
Matt: He walked through one of the most dangerous parts of Philly.
Joe: Strawberry Mansion.
Matt: And he was like 'ohhh this is bad.' Kids were like following him and throwing firecrackers at him and then eventually he walked passed a trashcan and someone dropped an M80 into it while he was standing next to it and it blew up and knocked him across the road.
Joe: Yeah that was a tough night last year. So Andy and I both got back to Jake's house after these separate trips and I was like 'dude I had some fuckin' night tonight, let me tell you about it,' and he was like 'ah couldn't have been worse than my night dude!' And I was like, 'wait and see.' So we were both really shaken. I thought there was a possibility that I might die at one point -- like, you know, these things happen all the time. So that's definitely where the emotion behind the song comes from.
The band is on tour now, and they'll play NYC the day before the album comes out at Music Hall of Williamsburg (9/15). That show has support from Field Mouse and Wildhoney, which is a great triple bill. Tickets for it are still available. All remaining tour dates are listed below:
Cymbals Eat Guitars -- 2016 Tour Dates
Sep 15 Music Hall of Williamsburg Brooklyn, NY
Sep 16 Great Scott Allston, MA
Sep 17 The Parlour Providence, RI
Sep 18 DC9 Washington, DC
Sep 19 Kings Raleigh, NC
Sep 20 Drunken Unicorn Atlanta, GA
Sep 21 Will's Pub Orlando, FL
Sep 22 Club Downunder Tallahassee, FL
Sep 23 The Parish - House of Blues New Orleans, LA
Sep 24 Three Links Dallas, TX
Sep 25 The Sidewinder Austin, TX
Sep 27 The Rebel Lounge Phoenix, AZ
Sep 28 Soda Bar San Diego, CA
Sep 29 The Echo Los Angeles, CA
Sep 30 Acerogami Pomona, CA
Oct 01 Swedish American Hall San Francisco, CA
Oct 03 Doug Fir Portland, OR
Oct 04 The Cobalt Vancouver, Canada
Oct 05 Barboza Seattle, WA
Oct 07 Metro Bar Salt Lake City, UT
Oct 08 Larimer Lounge Denver, CO
Oct 09 Reverb Lounge Omaha, NE
Oct 10 7th Street Entry Minneapolis, MN
Oct 11 Empty Bottle Chicago, IL
Oct 12 The Loving Touch Ferndale, MI
Oct 13 The Garrison Toronto, Canada
Oct 14 La Vitrola Montréal, Canada
Oct 16 Johnny Brenda's Philadelphia, PA