Cymbals Eat Guitars don’t sound anything like Taylor Swift. All the same, bassist Matt Whipple felt compelled to introduce the rest of his progressive rock band to Swift’s 1989 after he heard it on Apple Music. “I will never be the same after hearing that record,” Whipple says. “It definitely unlocked something in me creatively.”
What it unlocked was collaboration. Staten Island–based frontman Joe D’Agostino started Cymbals Eat Guitars back in 2007, and he says the band’s first two albums, Why There Are Mountains and Lenses Alien, were largely the result of his “vomiting” his ideas onto the page. He wrote all the parts, including lyrics; the band seemed to exist only to live out his vision. The process used to consist of D’Agostino, acoustic guitar in hand, carving songs out of his poetry. Now the group — including drummer Andrew Dole and keyboardist Brian Hamilton — make fully formed demos, with D’Agostino singing “nonsense until the nonsense coalesces into something that can be the center of a song.” For LOSE, released in late 2014, and especially for their upcoming, as yet untitled record, something has changed. D’Agostino’s favorite new material is a track he wrote with Whipple to which he contributed the chorus and Whipple the verse — maybe that’s where Swift’s influence will be felt the most.
It’s been a big year for Cymbals Eat Guitars. They recently released a single, “Aerobed,” as part of Kevin Devine’s Devinyl Splits. They’ve toured more or less nonstop since the release of LOSE, but weirdly enough, they didn’t break out on a headlining tour of their own. Instead, they’ve been opening for musicians like Bob Mould and Brand New, some of their favorite bands and acts that have shaped the way they perform live.
“By the end of that tour I was standing on the subs,” D’Agostino says, “doing guitar solos and high kicks and shit, because you’ve got to play to the people in the back.” “We got better on that tour because we were playing our best shows and the crowd did not care,” Whipple adds. “Brand New is like the only thing they think is cool in the world, but you have to put on a show regardless of what the crowd is giving back to you.”
Now the loud, bombastic performances have stuck, even when Cymbals are playing for nine people in Oklahoma City. It’s still the same show. In keeping with the Swift parallel, it’s worth noting that D’Agostino was also young when he started Cymbals Eat Guitars, a band that has been both critically acclaimed (they’ve been given consistently high album ratings by Pitchfork) and occasionally panned by consumers. The demand wasn’t there for them to tour after Lenses Alien: “The world was just coming off chillwave. They weren’t ready for a prog rock record,” Whipple says. Still, they haven’t been immune from growing pains, and D’Agostino notes that maybe he was too young to break into rock ‘n’ roll. He mentions playing more than 200 shows a year and getting sick, not knowing how to preserve his voice, not realizing he couldn’t get hammered or smoke a bunch of cigarettes whenever he felt like it.
“There was a lot of scary stuff in the beginning where I’d get really sick with a 104-degree fever and have to play some festival or we wouldn’t get the money and the tour would go way into the red,” D’Agostino says. “But then you live and you learn, obviously.”
Now nearly a decade and four albums into the business, Cymbals Eat Guitars’ next goal is to be a songs band, as opposed to a band people like for its vibe. “What do people consider us? A sounds band, like a shoegaze band?” D’Agostino asks. “I don’t really wanna be that. I want people to be like, ‘Oh shit, they have the best songs.’ ” Another Swift parallel? “Jeez, I’m afraid we came off too poptimist,” D’Agostino laughs. “People are gonna hear the record and be like, ‘This is not what you guys said it would be.’ We can’t help but make really weird music. We’re never gonna be Taylor Swift, unfortunately.”
Cymbals Eat Guitars play Rough Trade NYC November 7. The band will also be raffling off equipment and collecting donations to go towards their friend Thomas Fekete from Surfer Blood’s cancer treatment GoFundMe. For ticket information, click here.