Cymbals Eat Guitars on Big, Magical Music and Opening for the Flaming Lips

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If you haven’t heard of indie darlings Cymbals Eat Guitars, you haven’t been paying attention. After getting the Pitchfork seal of approval with a best new music tag for its debut album, Why There Are Mountains, playing many hyped CMJ showcases, and going on a European jaunt that included opening for the Flaming Lips, the New York group has expanded well past the Big Apple.

But don’t worry if you feel like the party started without you. That’s how lead singer and songwriter Joe D’Agostino likes it. Case-in-point: listen to the chaos that ensues from the moment opener “And the Hazy Sea” kicks off — it seems like you’re entering into an album at the climax. Flavorpill talked to D’Agostino about the band’s recent tour and finding big, magical moments inside a song.

Flavorpill: From listening to the album, it’s clear that you like loud music. One of the things that struck me is how the album starts off on a really high note, but going from song to song, within songs, you pair softer, melodic moments with visceral ones. Is that a conscious decision?

Joe D’Agostino: I guess I like stuff like that. I like big moments. I’m not really happy with songs unless they give me chills, and in that sense, big stuff like that catches me. I guess that’s sort of the way everything came together too. All of the sections of the songs were written at separate times, and later just arranged together. So it was my intention, but it all just came together in a natural way. I don’t really know how to write in a different way.

FP: With the way “And the Hazy Sea” starts off, it sets that tone, because you do get chills pretty immediately. That’s what you were going for when you opened that abruptly?

JD: Yeah, it’s just coming into something that’s already happening. I like that in a record. I love Wilco, and I love the way a lot of their records start, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is my favorite. When I play that record and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” starts out, that drone thing that just sort of pops in each channel, I just feel like something was happening before the record began, and something’s going to be happening after the record ends, and it’s just a glimpse. I just have that idea about things and I like jumping right into stuff and feeling immersed. So that song to start our record, it presents everything that the band is going to be about. If you’re not into it in the first minute-and-a-half, then you’re not going to be. You hear the electric piano in the right channel, the guitar in the left and that bass line — it just encapsulates our vibe. I guess it’s like a statement of intent. When Matt (Miller) and I were working on it, we decided we had to open the record with it, and the rest of the writing went on with that in mind.

FP: Talking about making a statement of intent and wanting to get really in to everything, that seems to describe what I’ve heard about your live shows, too. It’s just you going crazy on stage and getting sweaty after the first song.

JD: Yeah, I think it’s just a way to outlet the intense performance anxiety of playing guitar and singing at the same time. But I’m always completely drenched after the first song. I live my life wet.

FP: From a spectator’s standpoint, it probably just seems like you’re really letting loose. In terms of the live show, you guys are on tour in Europe and opening for the Flaming Lips. Both groups have very different approaches to a live show. Do you take anything from their performance?

JD: I’ve seen them a bunch before actually having played with them. I’ve been a spectator many times to that performance. They’re just magnificent. I love that band. Magic moments. Every show that I’ve seen them, they’ve opened with “Race for the Prize.” Confetti flies, and those huge, huge cannons, and those lights, and it’s beautiful. It’s the best thing… ever. And Wayne (Coyne) is such a showman. He’s so great. He has such a presence onstage, and that would be amazing for us, but I don’t even talk to the audience much. It’s not being aloof or shoegazey or whatever, but when playing music, I try to segue through songs quickly and have it be a continuous experience, like a live record. It would be nice to incorporate some kind of theatrical element to it, but we’re just starting to get a handle on how to completely bring it. Matt Whipple (bassist for the group) mentioned to me that he has a friend who does art and light installations. I would be interested in getting audio and visual involved. But maybe I should just take a cue from Wayne and try to be more personable.

FP: You mentioned magic moments, and it seems like you’re able to achieve that in a different sort of way.

JD: When you have records like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, these are modern classics of pop, basically. They’re these amazing records that have these incredibly emotional songs that are so affecting. They have the songs. They really have the songs. I think that we have songs, too. And maybe we will have the songs one day. But we do a pretty good job of it. We have a new song right now that we’re rehearsing and are going to start playing in February. It’s only the third song we have for a new record, so we need to get to work.

FP: So you’re starting to think about a next record?

JD: I’m constantly thinking about that. After we made our record, we wasted a lot of time. I should’ve been writing more. But sometimes it happens like that. I’m only doing two new songs a year, three new songs a year, which is bad. But in the same way, it’s good, because I think about it constantly. And it’s nice to have three, because you start to get a feel for the record and what aesthetic you’re moving towards. We’re doing a good job. I really like the new songs.

FP: Whipple was saying you’re going to be on tour for eight or nine of the next 12 months. Are you able to do a lot of writing when you’re on tour?

JD: No. The last time I really made great strides writing was over guitar chords and stuff. Then I had a lot of time over the summer, before we went on tour. After Pitchfork (Music Festival), I had the remainder of July and all of August, and I just sat in my room with my amp, just playing guitar all day. And I actually came up with a new song and the lyrics were kind of gestating, but it had been a while before that. On tour, I don’t really feel like writing much, but last night Whipple and I worked on a song. We haven’t really been touring forever, so I can’t really say that I won’t get much writing done on the tour. It might happen now. I feel really good about playing with Whipple. When someone joins the band and they’re learning parts on the album and they say, “Okay, this is great and it sounds amazing, but what if I do it this way?” — we just sort of sat in my room, and he had a bass and I had an acoustic and he worked out this really catchy complementary bass line, and it started turning into a song, and it’s great. I haven’t really had that experience much.

FP: So is writing with somebody a different way of approaching the song for you?

JD: Yeah, it is. I never really did that much. We had another guitarist and we worked on songs, but mostly they were my songs. We played on each other’s songs a little bit. That was how we did the original recording of “Share.” It’s very slow, like Jesus and Mary Chain and the guitars were a lot thinner and it’s kind of nice. Only Matt and me have those recordings. So I haven’t really worked with someone in a while. It’s cool.

FP: It seems like you guys have blown up really quickly in terms of playing from around the city to releasing the album and now touring in Europe. What’s that experience been like? Are things changing really quickly for you?

JD: Yeah. Not that I should equate your question to drawing people, but when we went to London in July, we did a show at the Windmill in Brixton, which is about a 120-person capacity club, and we sold that out. Then we came here again and played the Lexington and sold that out. And that’s like 250 people. So I think it’s a question of continuing touring to build an audience. It’s a word-of-mouth thing. I know a lot of people say my friend’s a fan of such and such and showed me your band, and that’s the way it should be, because you trust your friends and their musical judgment. And the live show thing, people who see us live will tell their friends, “Yeah, you should definitely come see this band next time!” And that’s just really what it’s all about.