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- Posted on Sep 8th 2011 3:00PM by Cameron Matthews
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'Lenses Alien,' the band's sophomore release, sees Cymbals gain a couple of members while a new-found sense of cohesion is brought on by producer extraordinaire John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Kurt Vile).
Spinner caught up with frontman and Cymbals Eat Guitars mastermind Joseph D'Agostino to discuss the band's big-as-a-house tone, the inspiration behind their latest album and, of course, the possibility of extraterrestrials.
How was working with John Agnello on 'Lenses Alien?'
Our relationship with John started the March before last. He came to our show at [Brooklyn, N.Y.'s] Music Hall of Williamsburg that closed out our first US headlining tour. And he was like "Hey! Let's make a record." At that point, I had contracted this horrible illness on tour and was too busy heaving in the hallway outside of our green room to really pay too much attention.
We wrote the rest of the record and then he started coming in for pre-production during January of this year. We were writing the record in [bassist Matt] Whipple's parents' basement in Morristown, N.J. John came out about four times and sat in on our rehearsals and just gave little pointers and little alterations to the songs that would make them tighter and more "songy." The big changes came in 'Definite Darkness' and 'Tunguska' -- those two songs are pretty different from what they were.
But mainly he just let us do our thing, and once we got in the studio his approach was to have us set up the keyboard rig and the guitar rig and everything all at once and attack it like a round robin. There were very few hitches [even though] we only had 10 days to record it and five days to mix it. But in spite of the time constraints we just banged it out.
On a personal level, we're all pretty close with John at this point. He's like Uncle John now. We went over to his house for a barbeque at the end of July. It was wonderful. Love him. Love his family.
'Keep Me Waiting' is such a sonically complicated tune. What's the inspiration behind it?
That song is based on a classic disco song. I'm not going to tell you which one [laughs]. We just tried to put some heavy shoegaze pop elements into it. I do a lot of [My Bloody Valentine] 'Glider'/'Tremolo' stuff with my tremolo arm -- that's a big part of my guitar playing. And the song itself, Whipple wrote the music for.
The melody is actually based on a song by a dear friend of mine who passed away about six months before we finished 'Why There Are Mountains.' The last bit of lyrics we took from one of his songs because his mom gave me permission. It's really meaningful to me.
You have really complicated melodies throughout all of your material. What kind of music education did you have growing up?
My mom forced me into piano lessons when I was in the third grade. I played piano for six or seven years before I ever touched a guitar. I took a couple guitar lessons when I was much younger and still living in New Jersey but that was the extent of it until I took some guitar lessons for Charles Thistle of the Wrens in my freshmen year of college.
And that was pretty eye-opening. We didn't really do much guitar instruction but he gave me a lot of different books of poetry and kind of got me started on my John Ashbury kick. So that was really valuable. [Keyboardist] Brian [Hamilton] went to Berklee, so he is a real musician, unlike the rest of us. And Matt Miller was in drum line and marching band and all that goofy s--- in high school. That's where he learned his snare buzzing and all that stuff. I don't know -- whatever they do in drum line.
The album's opener 'Rifle Eyesight' clocks in at eight and a half minutes. How long did it take to write?
'Rifle Eyesight' was the hardest song to write on the record, by far. We worked on it for eight months. And that's not on and off -- it's the only thing we worked on for eight months. The structure and how the song was supposed to come off largely eluded us for most of that time. We weren't able to come up with something that we liked and I think after we decided that we were going to really draw out the noise break the rest of the song kind of came together. I think it's a really dramatic moment when that kind of chiming riff comes out of the delay trail at the end of the noise. One of my favorite moments on the album.
I think it serves the same purpose as 'As the Hazy Sea' did on the first record in that it kind of defines what the rest of the record is going to be like. It contains all of the elements that crop up in the rest of the songs. So it serves as a mission statement. And we released it as the internet single so that we could throw down the gauntlet and say "Hey. If you like this, then you're probably gonna dig the rest of the record." We like to start things off in a difficult or long-winded way. Not that I think it's really long winded. I think that we get a lot down in eight and a half minutes.
Is the art of making a full album important to you?
Yeah, we think about how a record is going to play all the way through. I obsess over that kind of thing. We really collaborated on that with John Agnello when we were finishing up the record. We hadn't really arrived at a set sequence, we just knew that 'Rifle Eyesight' had to be first, 'Shore Points' had to be second and 'Gary Condit' had to be last. Everything else in between was up in the air. But for instance 'Definite Darkness' is number five and it opens up the second side of the record and we knew that it was either gonna be that to open the record or 'Rifle Eyesight.' And we knew that 'Definite Darkness' had to open something.
I think a lot of bands do the "every song is a single" thing pretty well, but I think our records will reward repeated listening.
Have you been abducted by aliens?
[Laughs] No ... no, no. I don't believe in that s---. I mean, of course there's something else out there ... but I don't know. Nobody here says that they were taken on board the beautiful ship and saw the world of whatever Thom Yorke said. You can't take anybody like that seriously. [Sings] "I'd tell all my friends but they'd never believe me."