Joseph D’Agostino: Cymbals Eat Guitars Frontman Talks About New Album, Living at Home
Joseph D’Agostino is not a typical indie rock star. He’s clean-shaven, baby-faced, and lives in his parents’ house in Staten Island. But on stage, D’Agostino leads the bleacher-swinging, Lou Reed-quoting Cymbals Eat Guitars, whose melodic, strident bursts of noise and winding, philosophical lyrics have garnered comparisons to the likes of Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and Pavement. Their first album, 2009’s “Why Are There Mountains” was a loud, triumphant patchwork of spiraling guitars, sprawling compositions, and incomprehensible lyrical outbursts. Their manic, intense sound earned the New York four-piece widespread critical acclaim, shows at Lollapolooza, and opening for the Flaming Lips. Hell, their tour even took them to Eclectic in October of 2009. Earlier this month, Cymbals Eat Guitars released their sophomore follow-up to “Mountains, Lenses Alien,” adding darker and moodier colors to their chaotic sonic canvas. But just because they’ve matured doesn’t mean they’ve settled. The frenzied guitar freakouts, the triumphant crescendos, D’Agostino’s deliriously heady wails—it’s all there, in its finest form. And critics have noticed, praising it as a “high creative watermark” and “one of the year’s most surprisingly transcendental sophomore albums.” So what’s D’Agostino, who graduated from high school in 2006, to make of all this?
The Argus spoke with D’Agostino, who called in from his bedroom in his parent’s house, to talk recording on a budget, new tunes, and the joys of supportive parents.
Argus: So I’ve been listening to the new album, and I really like it. I was wondering if you could tell me what were some of the influences and artists that went into this, as opposed to [Cymbals Eat Guitars’ 2009 debut] “Why There Are Mountains?”
Joseph D’Agostino: Well, there was a time in my life when I listened to Wilco every day for about five years. Not much is different now—I still listen to a lot of Wilco now. I’m modeling myself, at least lyrics-wise, after [Wilco frontman] Jeff Tweedy. I love him; he’s my favorite. So that’s probably my primary influence at this point. I also really love Sonic Youth—I love the squall, and a lot of the more strident passages [on the new album] were really heavily influenced by them.
A: So John Agnello produced this new record, and he’s worked with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. and a lot of other artists who’ve influenced you—what was that like?
JD: It was humbling. We were rehearsing and writing in [bassist Matt] Whipple’s parents’ basement in Morristown [N.J.], and to just have Agnello come out to your parents’ house for a pre-production session is pretty crazy. I got a kick out of it—we all did. Our personalities as musicians gelled really well with John’s producing style. We were very efficient and it was really easy, sort of uncomplicated, spending 15 days in the studio with him. It was really enjoyable. He pushed us to make our songs more song-y—for instance, the song “Definite Darkness,” there’s an early version of that floating around from a BBC6 session we did last September with a whole other up-and-down section and a whole outro. He just had us cut that and ride out the, what he called, “Teenage Fanclub” part, which benefited the song, I think, immensely. With another song, “Another Tunguska”, he had us cut a whole acoustic intro we had on early versions, and again, I think the song is much better now.
A: You recorded this album in only two weeks, is that right?
JD: We recorded and mixed it in 15 days. We allotted five days for basic tracking, five days for overdubs, and the last five for mixing. We got it all done, but it came down to the wire. The mixing was going to four or five in the morning the last night.
A: That’s crazy. What motivated you to get through it so quickly?
JD: Monetary concerns—paying for a studio, paying for John’s services, we just looked to find the most efficient way to get it all done.
A: Do you think that impacted the sound on the record or the way it was recorded?
JD: I don’t think so—I’m very happy with the result. All the parts have breathing room, and nothing’s too densely packed, maybe as our last record might have been. But I do think that if we had, say, 30 days to throw more ideas around, who knows what could have changed?
A: So, there have also been a few lineup changes in the band since the first record.
JD: Yeah, our original keyboardist fell ill in March 2009, right around when our first album was garnering some attention from the press. We were slated to open for the Walkmen and Beach House at Webster Hall in New York, and we ended up not being able to do it—we had to get a fill-in really quickly. It just so happened that when we held during auditions, Brian Hamilton fell into our laps. He’s a creative genius and an asset on so many levels. He had the technical know-how that none of us in the band had. He’s really good at problem solving and fixing things on the fly on stage—he’s a tremendous asset. He’s also the only trained musician in the band; he went to Berklee.
Shortly after our first year of touring, Neil [Berenholz], our original bassist, quit, because he couldn’t handle touring. So we held auditions again, and Matt fell into our laps. He’s a fantastic bassist and has become one of my best friends. He’s the best. We’ve really solidified our lineup at this point.
A: Do you think the new members have affected the sound of the band at all?
JD: Yes, in a very big way. The last record was mainly me writing all of the parts—the bass and the keyboards and the guitar bits. This time around, I’d sit in my room for hours and come up with some melody or lyric I was really happy with, and I’d bring it to the guys and we’d develop it together. It was a welcome change to the way the last record played out. I really respect all of them as musicians, so I was in very good hands.
A: So I read in an interview that after you guys came back from touring “Why There Are Mountains” you were living in your parents’ house again. Is that still the case?
JD: [Laughs], Yeah, it’s still the case—I’m sitting in my room right now actually.
A: What’s that like, after touring and then coming back to the house you grew up in?
JD: Well, I didn’t grow up here, my parents moved back to Staten Island four years ago after I went to college at Fordham-Lincon Center. My parents have always been, obviously, very supportive of all my endeavors. They’re at every show within a 150-mile radius. I get along with them really well, but I’m sure they foresee my career yielding a more independent lifestyle at some point [laughs]. Hopefully that will come this time around, and if not, well, I’ll figure something out.
A: Are the other members still living in Staten Island?
JD: No, the drummer and the keyboardist, Matt [Miller] and Brian, are living in Philadelphia and our bassist, Whipple, lives in Morristown, N.J., also with his parents [laughs].
A: How does everyone feel about going on tour again? Are you excited to play the new songs?
JD: Yeah, we’ve only gotten a little taste of that. We played two New York-area shows in the past year, so that’s been the only opportunity we’ve had to play the new songs. It’s a really exciting prospect to be blasting these huge jams through the PA at the Music Hall Williamsburg or the Black Tap in DC, and all these great, great rock bars—I’m excited for that.
A: How does this feel different from embarking on the last tour, now that you guys have had a taste of success and recognition?
JD: Well, the success and recognition part, we had a pretty good thing going for us when we left to tour the last time, but we probably felt some of the praise was undue on some level, because we were not a very good live band when we started out. You can chalk that up to the shifting lineup or the fact that I had never really received vocal instruction, which I’ve had now. It’s much easier to manage now night to night, I don’t need to worry about saving my voice. Really, given the fact that we’ve played together now for a year and a half, it’s just going to be a lot more smooth and seamless—we can just hit the ground running. I’m very excited for this stage.