Cymbals Eat Guitars: Affairs of the Heart

Music Features Cymbals Eat Guitars
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Joseph D’Agostino suffered from heart palpitations his whole teenage and adult life, though he was only recently diagnosed with AV nodal reentrant tachycardia, a dangerous condition that caused his heart to accelerate up to 220 beats per minute. He mostly avoided the condition growing up—laying down and relaxing did the trick. But the symptoms grew scarier and more intense after his band, psychedelic indie-rock outfit Cymbals Eat Guitars, found surprise success with their 2009 debut LP, Why There Are Mountains.

“I’d be onstage singing, and my heart would be like, THUMP THUMP BA-DA-DA-DA-DA!,” he says. “And I wouldn’t be able to get it to stop. It became a huge thing for me over the course of the last five years. The more people we started playing in front of, and the higher the stakes became—or at least felt like they became—professionally, I just became more and more worked up about it when it would happen.”

But after a successful procedure called an ablation (which involved burning the electrical pathway in his heart with a laser), D’Agostino is feeling cautiously optimistic about his health—and the future, in general. And the timing is appropriate: His band’s third album, LOSE, is a complete musical rebirth—focusing the stoned, proggy sprawl of 2011’s Lenses Alien with sharp riffs and shout-along choruses. Where their previous album alienated fans (and even the band itself) with its rambling poetry and math-y excess, LOSE feels inclusive—even celebratory.

“Things are looking up across the board,” D’Agostino says. “It looks like the record is gonna be a hit, which I think is really great because our last record wasn’t a hit.”

But despite the LP’s more accessible aura, its subject matter stems from buried angst and anxiety—blending cathartic ruminations on death (past, present and future) and loss of innocence with vividly strange memories from his childhood. The spirit of one figure looms largest: Ben High, D’Agostino’s best friend and former bandmate (and early Cymbals bassist) who died from his own heart-related condition in 2007.

D’Agostino took a more distant, “literary” approach on his first two albums, masking his emotions in abstractions and “five-dollar words.” But his grief eventually caught up to his art—and the seeds for this sea-change really go back to the disastrous Lenses Alien tour, which found the band playing for dwindling crowds and struggling to stay inspired by the LP’s endless complexities.

“We played maybe 200 shows for that record,” he says. “And every night was kind of an uphill climb to play those songs live. We were on tour at one point with [indie-punk acts] The Thermals and The Coathangers, and while The Coathangers were playing, Westin from The Thermals was like ‘These guys make you guys sound like Rush.’ It’s true! It’s so proggy and complex and so hard to play—and not much fun to play. So we knew if we were gonna make another record, we were have more fun with it.”

Feeling burned out and betrayed by fair-weather fans (or “hype rubberneckers”), D’Agostino took some time to figure out his future—including a brief back-up plan stint in cosmetology school and a whole lot of soul-searching. But he finally gained inspiration to make another album—a more direct, emotionally honest album—from the subject he’d been avoiding for so long: Ben.

“Lyrically, the jumping-off point was…I’m really close with my friend Ben’s parents, and I was talking with his mom probably three or four years ago, and she told me that for the last year of his life, he slept in bed between his parents,” D’Agostino says. “He’s a big guy—like 6’4”, 220 pounds. And that was an incredibly tragic image for me. I think about these people, and I think about Ben every day, and it’s such a huge part of my life. It informs so much of what I think about the world and life and death, and I thought, ‘Why have I not addressed this with my art? Why am I writing all this other five-dollar word, fanciful, psychedelic horseshit when I should be writing what’s in my heart?’”

The album is laced with reflections on their inseparable bond—a trip to Six Flags gone wrong on the opening epic “Jackson,” the smell of Ben’s musty basement (and the wasteland of his “Myspace grave”) on the rattling hobo-punk of “XR.”

The musical catalyst was “Warning,” a pummeling rock anthem with an actual chorus—something the band had literally never written before. (“If you look through the lyric sheets for the first two records, I challenge you to find anything that can be used as a proper chorus,” he says. “Any of those lyrics probably would have sounded fucking stupid if I’d repeated them.”)

The band “pussyfooted” with the track for a long time, testing out various versions and thinking “it sounds like Foo Fighters in a bad way,” but D’Agostino blames their reluctance on insecurities and inhibitions. “I wanted to see if we could write something that was more of a fucking slogan, like Japandroids’ Celebration Rock,” he says. “A big-ass haymaker chorus that people are gonna shout back at you. I wanted to see what that felt like.”

LOSE is Cymbals’ most immediate album and also their most diverse—check the fingerpicking and airy strings on “Child Bride,” the whiplash synth-psych of “Laramie.” But it’s defined by the artful way D’Agostino evokes a time and place through his words—his knack for making grief and sorrow feel both intimate and universal.

The reflective, backward-looking “Ben songs” are mostly packaged on the first side, with the second half often peering into an uncertain future. The LP’s emotive centerpiece is “Chambers,” a gleaming, new wave-tinged rocker that finds the frontman mourning his 16-year-old black lab while she was still alive.

“I’ve had two black labs, Nina and Baby, since 1999,” D’Agostino says. “We just had to put Nina down a few weeks ago because her hips were failing for months, and we were carrying her up and down the stairs to pee, and she couldn’t walk. But I actually wrote the song before that happened, obviously. And the song is about that anticipation of loss—it can be a crippling anxiety, and there’s a lot of guilt that ties into it, too. I’m 25, and I live with my parents and my childhood animals—I have a cat who’s 20 years old. It’s crazy. I’m doing everything I can, and every fiber of my being is working toward getting out, moving out, and having a life. And then I think, ‘I should be here. I should be here now while I can and be enjoying this because it’s not gonna be there…and then…I don’t know.’

“Ben’s loss stuck with me so much because—and anybody who loses a peer really young can understand this—everything snaps into focus. You really understand that everything is disappearing, however slowly or quickly.”

Making LOSE was a personal exorcism for D’Agostino. He thinks of these songs as “time capsules” marking specific periods of his life, “like that mysterious thing you get when you’ll be somewhere, and then something sensory or multi-sensory like a taste that reminds you, ‘That’s what I was like at this age.” But it was also a creative exorcism in a way—a conscious attempt to re-open the commercial door that closed after Lenses Alien.

“Part of it was also that we hadn’t done choruses or traditional pop song structures before, and we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could do it,” he says. “Music is a vehicle for the lyrics, and I’ve always been a very ambitious person. Music is my way to see the world and interact with people and live an extraordinary life, and I just wanted to be able to do that on the same sort of scale that I was doing it in 2009 and 2010, when I couldn’t really appreciate it. Hindsight’s 20/20, and I realized what I had when I didn’t really have it anymore.”

It’s unclear whether LOSE is the “hit” D’Agostino envisions—but more importantly, it’s exactly the album he wanted to make, marking a new chapter in his life as a songwriter (and a human being).

“I forget who said it, but someone said, ‘It’s easy to write a sad song, but it’s 100 times harder to write a song about happy things.’ Being truthful and being direct and not using a bunch of five-dollar words and speaking plainly and saying what I want to say is going to translate to future material. I feel like I have a voice now, rather than just this pastiche of other voices of people that I love. There’s a lot more life to live and a lot more stuff to write about. For the first time in a long time, I have a girlfriend now who I really care about. I almost feel like, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time write a love song that doesn’t suck.’

“Who knows where we can go from here?” he says. “It seems like there are a lot of possibilities now.”