Cymbals Eat Guitars Wanna Be Well
At their healthiest as a band, the New Jersey-via-Philly quartet have made one of the best classic-rock records of the 21st century. But will it give them the push that they need?
Standing in the middle of the crowd for Philadelphia DIY maestro Alex G’s show at Brooklyn venue Baby’s All Right, Joseph D’Agostino has a request. More of a demand, actually, as he shouts loudly and repeatedly for “Adam,” a 2013 ballad of G’s. His wry smile — half mischievous younger brother, half sassy aunt — betrays his lack of seriousness. But the sweltering heat at Baby’s has broken down pretenses, and the 27-year-old D’Agostino, still jacket-clad for fear of revealing the tightness of his leopard-print shirt underneath, isn’t letting up.
“NO, JOE!” “SHUT THE F**K UP, JOE!!” Alex and his band shout over-dramatically, returning fire to their real-life friend. The quartet on stage played a number of dates opening for D’Agostino’s band, New Jersey indie panoramists Cymbals Eat Guitars, back in 2014, and since the frontman moved to Philly earlier this year, they’re now unofficial neighbors of his as well. Despite their protestations, the band does launch into “Adam” shortly after, much to their heckler’s delight.
Perhaps the band feel they owe D’Agostino one, as Alex and his guitarist, Sam Acchione, are prominently shouted out in “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)” — the swinging, stunning centerpiece of Pretty Years, Cymbals’ magnificent fourth album, due out in September. The song, whose new video is premiered below, tells the story of Independence Day 2015 in the City of Brotherly Love, when Joe, Alex, and Sam piled in a friend’s car to go set off some fireworks, without realizing how wasted their driver was. “There were a bunch of cars already there and people were setting off sparklers and roman candles and stuff,” D’Agostino explains before the show, at a nearby Mexican restaurant with bassist Matthew Whipple. “And the person who was driving slammed it over these fireworks displays at very high speed. It was very scary.”
The incident — which D’Agostino escaped unscathed, but which saw the driver assaulted and hospitalized by an angry family member of a nearby kid — temporarily jolted Joe out of the lethargy he’d experienced following a year of heavy touring, and inspired the first song for what would eventually become Pretty Years. “I was in a little bit of a funk mentally, and I wasn’t really appreciating anything that was happening,” the singer-guitarist recalls. “And then after that I was like, ‘Alright, I’m alive. This is cool.’”
When we last heard from Cymbals Eat Guitars, in 2014, such affirmation was in fairly short supply for the Tri-State Area’s most irreproachable suburbs-shredders. At that point, the quartet was still trying to recapture the buzz they garnered a half-decade earlier with their rousing 2009 indie-prog debut, Why There Are Mountains, which earned rave reviews and got the band a supporting slot with legendary alt-rock freaks the Flaming Lips. That hype largely bled out with the more insular psychedelia of their 2011 follow-up, Lenses Alien, resulting in the band going from sold-out shows supporting Mountains to entertaining mostly empty venues for Lenses. Meanwhile, half the group left in between the two albums, with keyboardist Dan Baer and bassist Neil Berenholz replaced by Brian Hamilton and Whipple; after Lenses, longtime drummer Matthew Miller also left, his spot ultimately going to Andrew Dole.
Circumstances got tough enough that D’Agostino enrolled in cosmetology school as a backup plan. “It was very much not suited for me,” the frontman says of his abortive second career. “And I was in an extremely dark place, looking back to the past to see what had happened, and looking for inspiration.” The album that resulted from this bleak period, ‘14’s LOSE, paired brutally personal lyrics — inspired by D’Agostino’s quarter-life malaise, and memories of the 2007 death of his teenage friend, Benjamin High, from a heart-related condition — with stadium-ready sonics, and more electrifying riffs and caps-locked choruses than the first two LPs combined.
It’s an album equally equipped to be shouted along to from the front row or to be pored over endlessly in your bedroom solo, and it sounds phenomenal in either situation. What’s more, it’s one of the few rock records this decade to proudly broadcast its obvious greatness, unafraid of its own determination. “There’s this whole thing where it’s not cool to be hungry and ambitious and competitive, but we think it is,” Whipple says. “It’s the least indie-rock thing about us.”
Critics were suitably impressed, and LOSE’s highlights — including the soaring climax “Chambers,” which recently passed one million plays on Spotify — became some of the band’s most popular songs. But the record still failed to replicate the push forward they’d been given by Mountains. “We did some amazing tours,” D’Agostino remembers of that bittersweet time. “We toured with the f**king legendary Bob Mould for the second time, which is a huge co-sign. And then on that same tour we played with Brand New for three weeks, which was a crazy-unbelievable live show. Somehow Alex G opened for us, you know? Everything that we did [to support LOSE] was really great. But the general level of, uh… how would you put it?” He turns to Whipple to finish his thought.
“It didn’t sell?” Whipple offers.
“It didn’t sell,” D’Agostino concurs. The group cites a number of explanations for LOSE apparently moving about one-fifth of the copies that Mountains has, including declining CD sales across the industry, and are careful not to sound ungrateful for the opportunities provided by the level of success the album did have. “Basically, the reaction to LOSE was really good, and we knew that it was really good,” Whipple attests.
But was it as good as you hoped it would be?
D’Agostino and Whipple both respond flatly: “No.”
The one positive impact of the muted commercial response to LOSE was that it encouraged the band to hustle to make its follow-up. “I told Joe we had to put out an album this fall,” Whipple says. “Until [Pretty Years], every time we’ve put out a record it feels like we’re starting from nothing — in terms of touring, in terms of sales, in terms of fans… I had a sense that if we didn’t put out another record that was just as good [as LOSE] as soon as we possibly could, then the boulder was gonna roll back down the hill.”
So despite taking multiple years to write each of the band’s first three albums, D’Agostino burned through Pretty Years in just six months. It helped that he had assistance this time: The 32-year-old Whipple, who’d penned songs before but never specifically for Cymbals, co-wrote on half of the album’s ten tracks, and keyboardist Hamilton is credited on two songs as well. And unlike the heavy reflection and deep consideration D’Agostino poured into Years’ predecessor, the band’s principal scribe took a lighter touch this time out. “I was thinking about the subject matter of LOSE every day, and so I wrote about it,” he explains. “This one was a little more along the lines of ‘If you’re thinking, you’re stinking.’”
The resulting album — recorded in Dallas over a brief eight-day jaunt with modern-rock magic-maker John Congleton behind the boards (previous credits include St. Vincent, War on Drugs, and Cloud Nothings) — is easily the group’s most fun full-length yet. Years’ tone is clearly set by advance single “4th of July”: Not just because its shock-to-the-system urgency reverberates throughout Pretty Years, but because for the most part, the album’s 41 minutes make for a goddamn great cookout record. The guitars in majestic opener “Finally” shoot off like streamers, the skronking sax on the E-Street strut of “Wish” sizzles like a plate of fresh-off-the-grill hot dogs, and the singalong ending to swaying closer “Shrine” fades out slowly like a setting sun. It’s an LP that demands a summer holiday to be properly appreciated.
“I think it’s the most representative [album] of the formative influences that we all had collectively, growing up as musical minds in New Jersey.” Whipple says. And yes, those influences include the Garden State legend known by one shouted name. “Big fan, obviously — who isn’t?” testifies D’Agostino. “He was always a big part of my life. One of my first big rock concerts was Bruce at Giants Stadium. At that show — ”
“For the Rising tour?” interrupts Whipple.
“I was at that show.”
“You were at that show? That’s so weird!”
Though Pretty Years bears the strongest classic-rock thumbprint of any Cymbals album to date — and it’s certainly strong enough to stand alongside the canonized records it looks to for inspiration — the band and Congleton were careful to keep their arrangements weird enough to prevent anyone from potentially mixing it up with a Foghat LP. The jaw-droppingly discordant sax on the 105.7 The Hawk-ready “Wish” is the most exhilarating example, but Hamilton’s pulsing keyboards and Dole’s motorik drums also push “Close” into near-krautrock territory, while D’Agostino’s Pixies-inspired howling over the thrashing punk of “Beam” is chilling enough to freeze a case of Yuenglings. “When we did do a really big classic-rock gesture it had to be just right and just f**ked-up enough, and f**ked-with enough,” the frontman explains.
In any event, the album still features enough of the band’s obvious hallmarks — particularly D’Agostino’s raspy wail and wall-bouncing riffs, and Hamilton’s queasy, aqueous synths — that, at the end of the three-day weekend, it’s still gonna sound like a Cymbals Eat Guitars record. “If that’s how people think about this record, to me that’s a successful record,” Whipple says. “If people can hear this record and say, ‘Oh wow… They made a record that sounds like classic rock, but it sounds like [Cymbals],’ then that’s exactly what we set out to do.”
Aside from its barbecue-friendly musical DNA, the clear-skies sound of Pretty Years is equally attributable to the fact that the band’s disposition is a good deal sunnier these days. Whatever place Cymbals Eat Guitars are in with the music-listening public, they’re in the best place of their career with each other — the album marks the first time in the group’s history that they’ve made consecutive LPs with an unchanged lineup, and Whipple says that “inter-band relations have never been better.”
That newfound steadiness also carries over to the members’ personal lives — particularly their leader, who is now renting a house in Kensington, Pennsylvania with girlfriend (and longtime friend) Rachel Browne, frontwoman of local underground favorites Field Mouse. “We only started dating fairly recently — so recently, in fact, that you’d be like, ‘You’re moving in together?’” D’Agostino says. “But it works, and I am happier and more content and more confident than I’ve ever been. And it’s great to wake up every day and feel that support and love.”
Browne’s importance can be felt all throughout Pretty Years. “Close” was inspired by a connection the couple forged during a mutual acid trip, and though D’Agostino started writing “Have a Heart,” the record’s most traditional love song, before their relationship began, he still swears it’s about her. Judging from the leap-of-faith vulnerability of the lyrics (“Can’t believe the s**t that we were promised / Really might exist”), it’s not hard to believe him.
Even if not for Browne’s stabilizing influence, D’Agostino’s personal development may still have come about naturally, with time and maturity. “I think he was a little bit miserable when we first met, for sure,” Browne, speaking over the phone, recalls of her partner. “I mean, when I was 24, I was miserable too. The early- and mid-20s are really hard, and I think if you’re someone who works in any creative field, you might be struggling extra during those years to figure out who you actually are, and what you’re putting in the world and why.”
Browne adds that D’Agostino is “someone that’s really confident in the work that he does, but that used to be balanced with way more crushing doubt than it maybe is now. It’s still there, but less so… I really think that’s just part of growing up.” Whipple, who’s a little older and has lived with his boyfriend in Brooklyn for nearly three years, agrees. “You start to realize that your hangups and your various sources of sadness, they’re not unique to you and they’re not going to last forever,” he says. “I was in the closet until I was 24. And that was a source of extreme darkness in my life. But now I’m 32 and I’ve moved well past it.”
Of course, just because the band’s lyrics aren’t quite so gray anymore doesn’t mean they’ve gone full Coloring Book. D’Agostino is haunted by post-Columbine dreams on “Mallwalking” and memories of the dearly departed on “Shrine.” Side-one closer “Dancing Days” gives the record its title with its mourned-youth cries of “Goodbye to my pretty years.” Even the treasure-every-moment conclusion of “4th of July” comes with its own undermining coda: “Later the feeling faded / I couldn’t help it.”
But at the very least, D’Agostino & Co. are trying. Even the most despairing cuts on Pretty Years can see the light at the end of the Holland Tunnel, as best exemplified by the penultimate track, “WELL,” whose heartland-rock chug and Born in the U.S.A. keys up the ante for the War on Drugs’ next album. “Think I need help / Wanna get well,” D’Agostino confesses on the chorus, evolving into the Joey Ramone-esque plea of “Wanna be well” by the song’s end. It’s a testament to the struggle for satisfaction that he hasn’t yet won, but whose halfway point he’s likely passed.
Whipple summarizes the band’s new outlook succinctly: “There’s a whole lot more hope, and a whole lot less nope.”
Between sets back at Baby’s All Right, Whipple and D’Agostino run into a couple of guys from Alex G’s band by the bar in front, including guitarist Sam Acchione. He and D’Agostino embrace, already smiling, and Acchione asks him the obvious question:
“So, what are we doing this Fourth of July?”