Cymbals Eat Guitars might be the most famous truly â€œindependentâ€ band in America right now (if you leave out Radiohead, of course). The Staten Island-based group charged into the blogosphere in early 2009 with the self-release of their highly acclaimed debut album Why There Are Mountains. The record drew relentless comparisons to 90â€™s indie guitar rock, and received a gigantic push into indie rock consciousness when Pitchfork gave it their coveted â€œBest New Musicâ€ label. Since then, the band has toured the country and found their way onto musical festival bills around the world, all without the support of a domestic record label.
Bassist Matthew Whipple recently agreed to talk with Each Note Secure about the Cymbals Eat Guitarsâ€™ escalating success and plans for the future. They will perform with Los Campesinos! at the Mad Hatter in Covington on April 28th.
[Each Note Secure] What has the last year been like as a band? Has the barrage of press and touring been a shock to the system?
[Matthew Whipple] The past year has been very surreal but we have been touring for so long it has pretty much become the norm in terms of what we expect to spend most of our time doing. Doing press doesn’t feel very much like a barrage, though. It is funny to us when there are four or five photographers in the front row at some shows snapping away, and then bloggers or magazines still use stock photos of the band from like 2 years ago, before Brian and I even joined.
[ENS] How did Cymbals Eat Guitars start? Did you all grow up together, or did you meet later on?
[MW] Cymbals Eat Guitars started with Joe [Dâ€™Agostino] and Matt [Miller] in high school in New Jersey. They started playing together when they were still learning guitar and drums respectively, learning Weezer covers and the like. The band evolved from that into writing original songs and recruiting members for the studio project that became Why There Are Mountains. Joe had written all the guitar, keys, and bass parts and he and Matt basically rounded up a group of players for the record via Craigslist. Those members all eventually flaked out over that year-and-change gestation period. Brian, our keys player, joined in May, 2009 and I joined to play bass in October, 2009. The band as it is now is most certainly “the band”.
[ENS] Has the band â€œbecome your jobâ€ yet, or do you still maintain day jobs?
[MW] The band is definitely full-time for everybody. We’re on the road way too often to keep day jobs. This unfortunately means none of us are really financially independent. Three of us live at home with our parents when we are not on the road, which has actually worked out, because that has been for maybe a cumulative two weeks since the beginning of the year. Brian has his own business building boutique effects pedals, called â€œsmallsound/bigsound.â€ He makes a really amazing bass fuzz pedal that I myself use. Buy one!
[ENS] Your recorded material sounds very full in terms of instrumentation, melody, and harmony. Is it difficult to recreate this feeling live as a four piece?
[MW] Our approach to recreating the feel of the songs on the record as a four-piece live band is slightly impressionistic. It would take a much bigger band to reproduce all the sounds, so we try to just reproduce the emotions and the drama. The approach is still maximalist, but in the sense that it’s four people trying to do as many different things as possible all at once, and well. No one in the band has an easy job on stage at any given moment. We also try to play as loudly as we possibly can within the limits of still sounding good in a given venue. It just sounds better when it’s loud.
[ENS] What is your songwriting process like? Is there a principal songwriter, or do you compose as a band?
[MW] Joe is the principal songwriter. He writes the chord changes, melodies, and lyrics and usually has a general structure in mind, and then we get together and put individual parts together and focus on transitions and how everything fits together. The writing process as a band involves a considerable amount of editing and trying out different arrangements before we arrive at a final version.
We’ve been accused of being a “jam band” occasionally, which is funny to us because everything is so deliberately composed.
[ENS] Cymbals Eat Guitars is often pegged with a lot of 90â€™s indie comparisons, like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. Have these types of bands influenced you? How do you feel about these types of comparisons?
[MW] Those bands are certainly influences, as are a lot of other very guitar-centric indie bands, whether it’s The Wrens or Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine or Bedhead. Comparisons to Modest Mouse and Built to Spill are a lot less flattering, however, when it is really apparent that they are just lazy references parroted from what other people have written about us. The comparisons are very rarely accompanied by actual insight into what elements of our music actually sound like musical elements of those bands.
[ENS] Has your touring schedule led you to any cities or areas of the world youâ€™ve particularly loved? Are there any stops on your spring and summer tours that are particularly exciting?
[MW] This headlining tour we are now in the home stretch of has been the first time I have seen most of the cities we have been to. I had never been to the West Coast before, so California was lovely. We got to spend some time at a campsite our tour mates Bear in Heaven stopped at in the Redwoods National Forest, which was amazing. This summer we are doing the Oya and Way Out West festivals, so we’re particularly excited to go to Norway and Sweden for the first time.
[ENS] Whatâ€™s the future of Cymbals Eat Guitars? Do you have any plans for a new album? How about finally finding a label?
[MW] In the UK and Europe, we do have a label: the wonderful Memphis Industries. For our second record we will definitely be finding a label home on both sides of the Atlantic. We are trying to use as much time as possible at home to work on writing [new songs]. We have four new songs that we have been road testing on this tour and a fifth in the works that we’ll likely be debuting relatively soon.
It takes us a long time to write a single song, though, usually about three months, and we rarely work on more than one new song at a time, so it will be a little while before we have a new record written and studio-ready. We’re plugging away though. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Interview by John Crowell