Cymbals Eat Guitars: Get to the Chorus
Post-indie, post-rock, post-shoegaze – try as you might to affix a pat label onto New York four-piece Cymbals Eat Guitars, somehow nothing quite fits. It seems appropriate enough for a band hailing from the relatively sleepy Staten Island: CEG cannot be lumped in with Brooklyn acts like Gang Gang Dance or Dirty Projectors, although they share with both a taste for elliptical lyrics and audaciously complex song structures.
Speaking from his native territory, singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Joseph D’Agostino affirms that he doesn’t feel “like our music is part of any greater New York scene.” Ahead of a planned UK tour in January, featuring dates in London, Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow (ABC2, 8 Jan), D’Agostino sounds relaxed; he’s comfortable with the way last year’s critically-acclaimed second LP Lenses Alien has worked in the live context so far.
“This record was written in a different way,” he explains. The band's first LP, 2009’s Why There Are Mountains, was “more of a studio album, with lots of layering and lots of parts that couldn’t be played at once.” As a consequence, the band experienced difficulties when they took the record on the road. As he puts it, “we weren’t very well-prepared for what we were put up against in the first year and a half of our careers” – hardly surprising, considering the two core members, D’Agostino and drummer Matthew Miller, only graduated from high school in 2006. Ironically, however, it was precisely the maturity of Mountains as a record – its dense lyricism and complex structuring – that led to unforeseen issues when they took it on the road.
Any teething problems in that respect have been sidestepped with Lenses Alien, which retains the core sound of the first album, but was written with live performance, to some extent, in mind. The band ensured they could play the tracks live together as part of the songwriting process, and as a result, D’Agostino explains, “it was very easy to make the transition from the studio to a live setting, because we’d already done the hard part – all the parts sounded good when we played them together in a room. So our live act has come along in leaps and bounds since we were first playing shows two years ago.” Listening to a song like Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name), an eight-minute epic that conjoins angular math-rock with vortices of ambient noise, it’s easy to understand the groundwork that needed to be laid for CEG to gel on the stage.
That they’ve managed it so quickly is all the more remarkable given that two members, Dan Baer (keyboards) and Neil Berenholz (bass), were replaced in 2009 by, respectively, Brian Hamilton and Matthew Whipple. Although neither departure was acrimonious, such changes could still be expected to upset the band’s equilibrium, or have a significant effect on their sound. D’Agostino agrees: “Most bands, if they make that kind of jump, the record sounds totally different. But I guess we have a unifying creative vision, and we’re cautious that we want our catalogue to sound a certain way.” With Lenses Alien, the band made a conscious effort to build on the complexity of Mountains, its absence of repetition or formal choruses: “We just decided to run with that,” D’Agostino explains, “and see how far it could take us.”
In some respects, in fact, the personnel changes in the band helped with the writing and recording of the LP. D’Agostino wrote “all the parts” on the first record, and as a consequence tended to find himself “going over everything endlessly by myself and then bringing the finished product to the band, and dictating parts to them.” On this album, conversely, both Hamilton and Whipple had plenty of input: “All I had to do was just formulate my own parts,” D’Agostino says,“and then bring it to the band, and they would write their own parts, and flesh everything out.” Not only did this make the songwriting process less dysfunctional, he suggests; it also brought new dimensions to the band’s sound, since their music is “filtered through several different lenses now.” Whipple, moreover, co-wrote two songs – Keep Me Waiting and The Current – and D’Agostino expects future records to continue with the sharing of songwriting duties.
Another crucial new element on Lenses Alien is the record’s producer, John Agnello. Known for work with several of the avant-rock outfits that have influenced CEG, such as Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, Agnello is well-situated to help a band push that aesthetic in new directions. The album does so by emphasising clarity and sharpness: “Everything is very well-defined,” as D’Agostino puts it, “the guitars are very powerful, and everything really has an impact in the speakers. It’s really well-focused, and that was because he was on board.” Agnello also helped with the structures of several songs – on Definite Darkness, “he suggested a structure shift that pretty much changed the whole song. He had a way of having us take these changes and implement them, and he made us feel like it was our idea, which I guess is what a good producer does.”
Again, perhaps the most remarkable quality of Lenses Alien, given these disparate new elements in the record’s creation, is the sense of continuity with Mountains. That sense affirms, above all, that CEG have a definite vision of where they want to take things from here. It will no doubt encompass the angularity, complexity and dissonance they’ve specialised in so far; but, as D’Agostino hints, the next album may be a little bit poppier. “We’ve been experimenting with some more traditional pop structures, like in Wavelengths, the eighth song on Lenses Alien – it kind of has a chorus, but not really! But we’re talking about moving in that direction,” he laughs. “Our newer songs, now, are gonna have some choruses!”
As he points out, writing a pop song which avoids a sense of cliché can be deceptively difficult – more so, in some ways, than constructing labyrinthine post-rock compositions. On this, D’Agostino is characteristically insightful: “It’s a hard thing to do – it’s one thing to write lyrics which look good as a poem, and sound good to the ear, but it’s another to make a chorus that repeats, but doesn’t sound contrived or bubblegum. That’s a challenge for us.” Given the confidence and dexterity with which they’ve developed as an outfit so far, it’s a challenge you fully expect CEG to rise to.