In today’s vast, competitive music industry, it is a rare accomplishment for an indie band to thrive and remain financially stable acting as musicians alone. Many artists, in fact, live double lives consisting of a few weeks on tour, and a few months holding down a steady job, hoping to rebuild their lives on a stable foundation.
This is a predicament the men of Cymbals Eat Guitars have faced since the band’s inception. Joseph D’Agostino (lead vocals/guitar), Matt Whipple (bass/vocals), Brian Hamilton (keyboards/vocals), and Matthew Miller (drums) have received shining reviews on their two full-length albums, toured venues worldwide and performed at coveted music fests such as SXSW.
The band has been recognized as a leader in the ‘90s indie revival. Beneath the passionate rock and roll surface, and obscure, enthralling tracks, the four-piece is just developing itself as a unit and individual human beings. But what will the future hold? This is the daunting question on the lips of D’Agostino, Whipple, Hamilton, and Miller.
Whipple took time out of his schedule to discuss the band’s blossoming career, their involvement with The Project Matters, and the creative process behind Why There Are Mountains (2009) and Lenses Alien (2011). Want to know why the band’s future has a big question mark above it? Read the transcription below.
You guys have been getting a lot of attention from music bloggers and critics recently. How does it feel to really build yourselves in the scene and be recognized?
It feels wonderful. We couldn’t really ask for very much more in terms of press and praise for our music. It’s a really nice thing to have happen to us. It’s definitely not a guarantee that any sort of relevant music people will respond to us. For people to show interest in us in general is just a blessing.
I actually got to see Cymbals Eat Guitars about a year back at The Project Matters benefit at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Can you discuss your relationship with the foundation and what that night was like?
The Project Matters is very near and dear to us as a band. It was developed in the memory of Joe’s friend from high school who passed away a few years ago [Ben High], whom Joe actually started the original Cymbals Eat Guitars with. They both had other bands, so that’s how they met. They were in the scene and playing shows at the same time and decided to get together and do this project. Very shortly after, Ben passed away. The Project Matters was developed by Ben’s mother in his memory, along with other friends and family members, so pretty much anytime we’re asked to do anything for them we’re always happy to do so.
The cause of The Project Matters, to provide guidance and care for developing artists, is just an incredible concept. It was amazing to see all these bands come together for that one cause in mind.
Yeah, it’s a very interesting concept. For an organization to not only reach out to young artists, but also to help bands, is something that isn’t really seen—especially in the realm of pop music. Most of the time, these organizations cater to young musicians in the classical and jazz realms, so it’s pretty unique to see something created specifically for kids who want to start bands.
Well, it seems like it’s needed, especially with so many young musicians wanting to “make it.” But in retrospect, they don’t really know how to tackle this task and really become successful. Do you think this is providing developing bands with a new opportunity and a sense of enlightenment?
I think it’s important for young bands to realize you have to have some sort of business sense to make the right decisions in the right way, and really trust the people around you. It’s also important to realize that while some people have had a lot of success navigating the business side of things, there’s really no successful model altogether, without any sort of issues or hitches. I guess that goes for any business venture, really. Things come up; you just have to be equipped to deal with it.
Is there any advice you’d personally share with aspiring musicians and bands on the rise?
Definitely. I think it’s important for people to determine whether they truly believe in the music, and whether it’s music they’d listen to and/or recommend to their friends. Most importantly, though, before you try to pitch to any media, reach out to any blogs, or anything like that, you should play as many shows as possible to get good live. That’s equally as important as having great recorded music, and is often overlooked nowadays. I think it’s being undervalued because the ease of production is pretty amazing now. People literally can make records in their bedroom. But you can’t perform in your bedroom, and you can’t get good at playing live in your bedroom, so I think that’s an important first step.
With that, how does it feel to really see Cymbals Eat Guitars build up and see that you guys are on the road to “making it?” Do you guys feel like you’re there yet?
It’s all relative, I think. Cymbals Eat Guitars is not a source of income for anyone in the band yet. That makes it tough to have perspective on the success we have had and just how lucky we’ve been. I guess you just have to stay grounded, and we have to keep acknowledging how fortunate we’ve been already. You can’t really hope for more, but you can keep pushing and working hard to make things keep working out, which is what we do. It’s all we can do, really.
Well, again, the recognition you’ve received for your newest album, Lenses Alien, is sort of undeniable. Can you discuss the overall growth the band has experienced between Why There Are Mountains and your latest release?
This was a new concept for Cymbals Eat Guitars, because it was the first time we were all in a room together writing. Joe wrote the majority of the basic song structures, and I wrote a few as well. But for the most part, the bulk of the work was done with the four of us, in our practice room, working out parts and looping songs constantly, making little changes here and there, and trying to create a total sound that was representative of the four of us versus just Joe, which was what the first record was like. It was pretty painstaking. A lot of the songs were pretty complex in structure and took a lot of rehearsal time, repetition and thinking (laughs). It was great to be able to do a record like that. I don’t know if we’ll be equipped to do the next one the same way. A lot of the time it also was pretty frustrating. For example, not being able to come to a full conclusion about a certain part or full song right away. It’s definitely not our standard mode of work, but that’s how it was for this record.
Is there a typical model for how you guys go about writing and orchestrating?
I think we all have our own particular style of how we like to work creatively. We have our own pace. I guess how that comes together as a group forms a lot of how the song sounds in the finished product. A lot of times, Joe and I will work together on a basic song structure, or he’ll bounce ideas off of me, and I’ll give him feedback or something like that. Our sound is very dense and I personally have trouble hearing everything all at once and understanding where my part fits in. So I just tend to work with Joe early on to develop my part first (laughs), and they can work off of what we create. A little self-serving, but that’s what works for me.
Some of our practices when we’re writing a song can sound pretty terrible and be pretty demoralizing. But once we solidify our parts after a bit of thought, it’s amazing. Brian, our keyboard player, illustrates a different mode. Sometimes when we’re putting a song together, he’ll go two or three practices in a row not playing and just listening to what Joe, Matt and I are doing, and he’ll come up with his part that way. We all try to do our best with our bare minimum within the band, which is to create our sole parts for each song.
How are you guys preparing to hit the road? You’re hitting up SXSW and performing with Cursive on tour, which is huge.
It’s definitely the longest tour we’ve ever been on; a little more than six weeks. I can’t really speak for how everyone else is preparing. I’m just trying to get my life in order and organized. Trying to get everything ready just so you can walk away from it for six weeks is a bit daunting; at least for me it is. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. Trying to do errands, see people I’m going to miss terribly. In terms of rehearsal, we actually haven’t rehearsed yet for this tour, if you could believe it. Once we released the new album, and had a tour lined up, all last summer was basically full of rehearsals. We rehearsed three times a week for about eight or nine weeks. Now that we’ve done that, we kind of have it in the bank, just because of repetition. Once you’re on your second or third tour and you’re performing the same songs and doing the same kind of show, it doesn’t take you much preparation.
What about emotionally? It seems like the pressure of being on tour and seeing the same people every day can really break a band.
There’s some truth to that. Fortunately, we really enjoy each other’s company as friends and that makes it a lot easier. There’s definitely still tension and just overall weird moments interpersonally, but for the most part, it’s basically getting to spend a fun time with your friends. But, you know, it’s also a fun time with your friends 24 hours a day for 35 days (laughs). It can be a bit overwhelming to be in such close quarters, but we’re also learning how to successfully navigate that. Whenever you can get a little time alone, take it. You’re not going to offend anyone by not hanging out with them before a show. Sometimes stress levels blow over, but it’s always resolved.
Once Cymbals Eat Guitars finishes touring, what’s the next step?
We don’t really have a plan. There’s no tour on the horizon after this, which we’re totally okay with. I think a few of us are eager to immerse ourselves in non-band life for a while, continue to work jobs, things like that. I plan to move to New York after this tour, so I’ll be on an apartment hunt, which is stressful in itself. I think we’re just going to enjoy not being on tour for a while, and we’re not really going to rush into making a new record. But we’ll be working together on songs as ideas come. I don’t know. Other than that, it’s a big question mark, as it usually is.
Cymbals Eat Guitars will play at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC on April 3 and 4. The band also hits Philadelphia on April 5 to perform at Union Transfer. Lenses Alien is out now. For more information, go to cymbalseatguitars.com.