Monolith Q&A: Cymbals Eat Guitars

According to Cymbals Eat Guitars 20-year-old frontman Joseph D'Agostino, Lou Reed didn't want a lot of cymbals on the first three Velvet Underground albums because "cymbals eat guitars," which explains the copious amounts of floor toms on those early discs. While that might have inspired the band's moniker, there's still a fair amount of cymbals on the band's debut, Why There Are Mountains, but they get lost the thickness of D'Agostino's J. Mascis-esque guitar tone. The band, which D'Agostino formed with drummer Matthew Miller in high school, has been creating quite the buzz since a glowing Pitchfork review last March. We spoke with D'Agostino, the band's singer, guitarist and chief songwriter, about the band's new found fame, the importance of Arcade Fire's Funeral, the Wrens' Charles Bissell and the DIY approach to releasing albums.  

Westword (Jon Solomon): How is the new found fame? There's a lot of buzz surrounding you guys these days?

Joseph D'Agostino: It is going extraordinarily well, especially since the train only left the station in March. We had that record finished for much longer than that. It's been mastered since my birthday last year, November 7. But since March, really since the Pitchfork review and WOXY in Cincinnati and KEXP and different radio stations started picking up on the music, things have been going really well. we've been getting a lot of amazing shows. This summer there has been so many life-changing opportunities like the Pitchfork Music Festival. It's funny, I was just looking on my phone before I called you at the pictures I took from the stage during M83's set. There were like 30,000 people all in front, all in that park and I was just snapping pictures of them. But yeah, it's good. It's really really good.

WW: That's really cool that things have gone so well for you as fast as they have.

JD: Yeah, we were expecting to have to kick around in New York for a lot longer. But it's nice there was national recognition right off the bat. Very encouraging.

WW: You released the record yourself and sent it out to newspapers, radio, blogs and that kind of thing, right?

JD: Yeah, we did a soft release when we first had the record. We've been doing that. We've sold through and given away probably like 3,000 copies of the record that we pressed over here, or in New Jersey, where the record plant is - Disc Makers. And so we've been doing it that way and mailing it to whoever we think of do get a copy. So we've tried to get it into some key record stores and some markets that we might do well, like Portland, LA, Chapel Hill, and here in New York we've done very well thanks to some very important record shops. We just finished figuring out our distribution for the official release. We're releasing the record officially with the help of a distributor but through our own label in the US on the 28th of the September - that's when the record comes out. We're actually on a label in the UK and Europe called Memphis Industries and they're going to be releasing the record, I think the street date is October 26.

WW: Have any labels approached you in the US?

JD: We did have some interest, but right now, as early as it is in our career, it just seemed to make more sense for us to cut out the middle man and hire what services we needed to hire, which are record label would have done anyway, like publicity and radio and booking agents and this and that. But really, the attention is starting to come now that we've already figured out our release schedule and everything. People have started to get interested in the next record and what we're going to be doing for that.

WW: Have you started writing for the next record yet?

JD: Yeah, it's a third of the way done. That's a lot since I don't write a lot of songs. I like one every three months or so if I'm lucky, and work on it a lot like constantly throughout that period. Hopefully by this time next year we'll pretty much have a finished batch of songs and we'll be working out the sequencing and getting ready to go into the studio.

WW: You and Matt have jammed since high school, were any of the songs on the current record written when you were in high school?

JD: Yeah, definitely. "Living North" is a very old song. It's one of the first songs I wrote. I guess that's apparent since it's a pretty simple song, like it's a pop song and it kind of sounds very Dinosaur Jr.-esque, I guess. I was big into Dinosaur in high school. "Wind Phoenix" is really old. I remember demoing that out summer of our junior year in high school. If you listen to the demo the structure is basically all the same and all the melodies and parts are there. It's really funny that these songs that we had when we were so young people are really enjoying at this point. It's cool. But yeah, and songs like Indiana, the structure and lyrics changed but some of the hooks are present from songs I had back then. It was a different song but some of the hooks carried over into Indiana.

WW: Speaking of Dinosaur Jr., I heard some J Mascis kind of stuff on "Some Trees."

JD: Yeah, thank you.

WW: One thing I noticed in a lot of your songs, there's a lot of dynamics. It's sort of an ebb and flow. Rather than just have a song just stay at the same level throughout. Like, "Indiana" it's got the distortion, then it mellows out and then you've got the horns and piano and everything. "And the Hazy Sea" had a similar thing.

JD: We always sort of gravitated toward the bigger musical gestures. I was just talking about how much I love Funeral by Arcade Fire, and how big a record that was for me. I almost think that any record of the new millennium has really conveyed such emotion. It's just like this heaving dark masterwork. They do similar things. There aren't songs that move in sections and movements exactly.Do you know the third song on Funeral? It's got the French name, "Une Annee Sans Lumiere. You know how at the end of that out of nowhere there's just that chugging guitar that comes in and it goes into that whole outro? A song like "Wake Up," for instance, they have that whole '50s doo-wop section at the end. That was the sort of thing that was inspiring me when I was learning how to write songs. I feel like it's a more interesting way of going about writing about a song, is how to be a complete musical thought, like nothing really repeating or being beat into the listener's head. You just have to respect people's intelligence and that will get you a long way, I think. People will put together what you're trying to do and hopefully dig it, and we're lucky enough that people have been very receptive to songs with no choruses.

WW: I was reading about you took guitar lesson with Charles Bissell from the Wrens, and I guess you learned a few things from him as far as how the music business works.

JD: Yeah, he has played a big part in my entrance into all of this. People ask a lot about DIY and how we got the record initially and that was basically Charles. I would talk about how I love Matador and Drag City, and "Oh my god, I'd love to be on this label or that label - 4AD or Sub Pop." And he was just like, "For someone like you, you should just form your own record label. It's so easy these days, and all you have to do is press your own vinyl, press your own CDs and release it to people on your own website or whatever. You can reach so many people nowadays by yourself." So that really affected the way I think about releasing music. Luckily my thoughts about that were rearranged by at the right time because the industry was changing and is changing. So it's a good way to start thinking about things. I owe Charles a lot, not just things that he's showed me on guitar. Mainly just talking to him about records and about books and poetry. He'd lend me these books like John Ashbery and all these great poets. He's really a very kind man who makes great music. I don't know if you've heard the new Wrens demos that have been coming out.

WW: No, I haven't heard those.

JD: Once you get off the phone with me you should take a second to go and Google " and Charles Bissell." They've been doing this thing called the Wrens Watch, which is semi-satirical, like, "When are the Wrens going to put out their next record?" Charles has been sending them demos on occasion and there's this one song called "The Thousand Do's" that is just like, "Oh lord." I cannot wait for the next record. It's like Beatles great.

WW: What's the story behind the name of the group?

JD: It's just a thing that Lou Reed said about the Velvet Underground records, like the first three, but I guess the third one uses cymbals sparingly. When people would ask Mo Tucker why she would only like a low floor tom or a snare drum - that primal thump that she so trademarked. He said on record, cymbals eat out guitars. It's kind of antithetical of our sound because there are a lot of big guitars, but and the cymbals don't really eat them up luckily.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon