Brooklyn-born Cymbals Eat Guitars take their name from something Lou Reed once said about The Velvet Underground. Yet, it wasn’t an overly whimsical metaphor like “my band sounds like cymbals eating guitars,” but instead something more musically technical. Reed was asked why the drummer, Moe Trucker, didn’t crash down on the cymbals a lot on their records. Reed responded that it was because the noise of cymbals eats (or drowns out) the guitar, and he was apparently concerned about a purer tone from the instrument.
When explained like this, it sort of drains all the magic out of what a listener imagines when the phrase is plucked out of context. Like a swarm of floating cymbals, roving around a trashed underground nightclub savannah in search of its prey, a centrifugal hum reverberates around the metal of the crash cymbal pack leaders as the muted high-hats let out a few taunting chatters. A guitar is spotted through the reeds of the tall amplifiers and a vicious, bloody onslaught ensues on the concealed pack of instruments. The cymbals mercilessly shred through fret boards and splinter hollow bodies easily. The stage becomes an out-of-focus mess of flying scraps of wood and metal. As the violence reaches its end, pick-ups are tossed into the air and swallowed whole into invisible stomachs and guitar strings are used to floss the remaining flecks of flesh from their teeth. Lou Reed might not have used the phrase to describe his band, but as for Cymbals Eat Guitars, the image represents their music pretty well.
There are more concrete ways to describe the band’s sound. Some bands wait until the end of one of their songs on a record to play with guitar effects and feedback to produce a random musical experiment for about thirty seconds. Maybe it’s at the very end of a show when they’re smashing their guitars on stage and they just go nuts, shouting and playing whatever. Well, for Cymbals Eat Guitars, those moments are present all throughout their music and are joined together by catchy hooks, sleazy keyboards and straightforward rock.
None of their songs have a conventional song structure or even chorus, as the lyrics hardly ever repeat. Singer and guitarist Joe D’Agostino says that it wasn’t something the band had set out to do. “A lot of my early songwriting efforts (like ‘And the Hazy Sea’ or ‘Share’) involved writing lots of parts and hooks and stringing them together in a way that was interesting to me,” says D’Agostino. Their only guiding principal was to make “thrilling rock music.”
The group’s first album Why There Are Mountains sets the tone for their random and spontaneous music well with the opener “And the Hazy Sea.” It starts with thirty seconds of what D’Agostino calls “WAH-OOH!”s. Even at the moments when he is screaming, it’s still catchy.
Similar to their simple goal of making rock music, their lyrics capture basic moments of youth. Drinking at house parties and getting high in a friend’s car and driving all over town with nothing to do really. Yet, the façade is pregnant with meaning, like how maturity and reality inevitably creeps up on everyone, sometimes in dark and tragic ways. The lyrics also contain serial killers and sinks overflowing with blood during a séance. It’s sort of like the music’s juxtaposition of heavy distorted guitar riffs with playful keyboards…somehow simultaneously set in a dusty underground rock club and a plush lounge bar.
Watch the video for “Keep Me Waiting” from Lenses Alien below:
The first album covers a lot of territory with regards to experimentation and instrumentation, also incorporating horns and orchestral strings. However, D’Agostino says, “Bringing our first record into a live setting was difficult because I did a million overdubs.”
When it came to recording their follow up, Lenses Alien, the group tried to write something they could reproduce a bit more easily live. “We wrote the record from the ground up, taking particular care to write parts that were full and ornate and interlocking so that we could replicate everything pretty faithfully live,” D’Agostino says. After their first album which featured layers of guitar parts that surely he had been collecting since he picked up a guitar, their second record was a more collaborative effort. “I had lots of help with transitions and arrangement,” D’Agostino explains. “In my opinion the resulting material was somewhat similar to Why There Are Mountains’ songs, structurally.”
For Lenses Alien, D’Agostino also says, “we ditched the bells and whistles from our first album (the horns and strings).” It’s one of the things that makes the record seem a bit darker and mysterious of a journey. To describe the album title, he says, “It is about being awed by the physical world and seeing everything through a paranoid hallucinogenic lens. Or through somebody else’s eyes.” Just the fact that it’s called Lenses Alien and not “Alien Lenses” shows that the album is thoroughly invested in seeing things from alternate perspectives.
The original cover for the album was a good visual demonstration of unique and distorted perceptions. Photographs of people’s faces and a treetop skyline were cut up into diamonds and woven together in a different order. It’s a style that was based on an actual artist that the band admired, but the artist wasn’t happy with what the band had done and made them change the cover. Apparently there was a heated twitter battle, but D’Agostino says the band and the artist are all good now.
As for the hallucinogenic part, there’s a line in “Plainclothes” that goes, “dry mushrooms taste a lot like communion wafers.” D’Agostino comments, “‘Plainclothes’ was written after a particularly mind-expanding experience.” The sometimes bizarre and rambling lyrics that never repeat could be seen as some kind of stream of consciousness from a wild 39-minute drug trip. It’s an idea that evokes William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch and while not a direct influence, D’Agostino says, “I did read it in college. I enjoyed it. I found it to be disturbing and bleak and free-wheeling and poetic. The end is very haunting. I try to make all my endings haunting too, I guess.” Another reason for why the record could seem a bit more haunting is because D’Agostino says that everything he has written since 2007 has been inspired by a great personal loss he experienced.
Regarding their future material, D’Agostino says, “We’ll definitely be exploring more traditional pop formats on our next record.” In reference to the Lenses Alien opener “Rifle Hindsight (Proper Name),” he says, “you can only make 9-minute multi-part epics with two minute noise breaks for so long before wondering what you might accomplish if you stopped trying to show everyone how smart you are.” He’s hoping that the record will be out by spring of 2013 and says, “It will be better than our first two. Probably.”
Read the interview below:
The Bomber Jacket: Your songs completely abandon conventional song structures. Was that a conscious choice when the band started?
Joe D’Agostino: Not really. A lot of my early songwriting efforts (like “And the Hazy Sea” or “Share”) involved writing lots of parts and hooks and stringing them together in a way that was interesting to me. Lenses Alien was more collaborative so I had lots of help with transitions and arrangement, but in my opinion the resulting material was somewhat similar to Why There Are Mountains songs, structurally. I think the only conscious choice or guiding principal in this band is to make thrilling rock music. We’ll definitely be exploring more traditional pop formats on our next record, as you can only make 9-minute multi-part epics with two minute noise breaks for so long before wondering what you might accomplish if you stopped trying to show everyone how smart you are. We’re learning how to be a little less fussy.
Your first record came out as a self-release. Were you considering releasing Lenses Alien yourselves at any point?
No, we knew we were going to sign with a label. We arrived at a decision after many months of meetings and deliberation. We’re very happy with our decision so far. <3 u Barsuk!
What are these alien lenses of which you speak?
It is about being awed by the physical world and seeing everything through a paranoid hallucinogenic lens. Or through somebody else’s eyes.
Was there anything musically new or different that you did on the new record?
We wrote the record from the ground up, taking particular care to write parts that were full and ornate and interlocking so that we could replicate everything pretty faithfully live. I used a lot of open tunings so I could play rhythm and lead simultaneously. That sort of thing. Bringing our first record into a live setting was difficult because I did a million overdubs. We wanted to avoid having to work backwards. Also we ditched the bells and whistles from our first album (the horns and strings).
What is this “proper name” nonsense parenthesized in a couple of your songs?
Oh you know, just nonsense.
After listening to “Plainclothes,” it clicked for me that the album could be one long stream of consciousness drug trip. Is there any of that going on?
Yes, plainclothes was written after a particularly mind-expanding experience.
For me, the lyrics really evoked “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs. Have you read it?
I did read it in college. I enjoyed it. I found it to be disturbing and bleak and free-wheeling and poetic. The end is very haunting. I try to make all my endings haunting too, I guess.
To me, the lyrics seem a little buried or that there are fewer hooks. Were you going for that at all?
No, in fact the vocals on Lenses Alien are mixed higher than on Why There Are Mountains. I am a more confident vocalist now. I kind of disagree that there are fewer vocal hooks, there are just 100% less “wah ooh”s. Sorry folks!
You said in an interview that “Cold Spring” was about a specific event that also influenced Lenses Alien, but you didn’t want to say more. I’m curious as hell, do you mind elaborating?
Pretty much everything I’ve written since 2007 has been inspired by the death of a close friend. “Cold Spring” is a fantasy about taking an imaginary trip with that person.
You’ve cited Sonic Youth as a big influence. They have a really dense discography. Can you explain how you navigated their music? What are your favorite albums and what makes them distinct from others for you?
Whipple is really the Sonic Youth guy in this band, but I love Daydream Nation, Goo, Murray Street, Rather Ripped, and The Eternal. I like the melodic jangly guitar interplay.
You did a cover of Elliott Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing” as the B-side to a single. It’s a really unique cover because your band has such a contrasting sound, particularly for that song. How did Elliott Smith influence your music?
He’s in my top-ten of all-time favorites. Perfect melodies, lots and lots of chords, achingly beautiful sad lyrics.
What’s in the future? Is there another album coming soon?
We’ll make another record in spring 2013 probably. It will be better than our first two. Probably.