Show Review & Interview: Cymbals Eat Guitars

Cymbals Eat Guitars – Live @ The Earl 09/27/11

Traditionally, a relationship has existed between the processes of writing and recording songs in a studio, and then touring and playing those songs live, that was, in a word, synergistic. More often than not, bands, at one point in time, gained recognition and record contracts through the power of their live shows as well as the actual strength of their song writing. With the so-called democratization of the Internet, however, the landscape of the industry has shifted dramatically, and that concept is no longer as true as it was once.

Cymbals Eat Guitars perform at The Earl in Atlanta, GA on March 11, 2010.Now that bands and artists are able to easily disseminate their music themselves by offering it up for download, the ability to play live is not necessarily a requisite for getting discovered anymore. “You’re seeing more and more bands getting massive Internet hype before they’ve played 20 shows,” said bassist Matt Whipple of noise rock quartet Cymbals Eat Guitars. “There are a lot of bands touring right now that just aren’t ready to put on a kick ass show every night. We definitely weren’t.”

Admittedly, I had heard mixed opinions about CEG’s live show from people who had seen them touring in support of their debut album, Why There Are Mountains. So when I got the chance to sit down with them before Tuesday’s show at The Earl, I was relieved to hear such frank self-awareness about their initial shortcomings. Granted, the band has had their own range of mountains to climb since frontman Joe D’Agostino first assembled the project, beginning when the self-released WTAM received a Best New Music nod from indie tastemakers Pitchfork Media. As positive press mounted and the band’s fan base grew accordingly, their capacity tour at a national level increased exponentially, despite their relative lack of experience and assurance as a live act.

Before long, the band’s original lineup began to disintegrate, leaving only D’Agostino and drummer Matthew Miller to keep the band climbing. Whipple and Brian Hamilton were inducted into the band in 2009, on bass and keys respectively, but with rising expectations and limited practice as a cohesive live unit, CEG has little choice but to learn on the fly. “Brian and I joined the band at really weird times, where we were thrown into tours right away,” said Whipple. “Touring for the last album, the first three or four shows honestly felt like glorified rehearsals.”

Despite his bands shaky beginnings, D’Agostino is confident that, through the production of their new album, Lenses Alien – during which they took a purposefully more unified approach to writing and composition, as well as a little time to rehearse – CEG has pulled their act together. “We were really under-rehearsed for a lot of our previous album’s cycle, but this time around, we’re a well oiled machine,” said D’Agostino. “To go out and play and feel tight and together right away – that’s something we haven’t really gotten to do as a band until now.”

Cymbals Eat Guitars perform at The Earl in Atlanta, GA on March 11, 2010.Driving to the venue Tuesday night, I believe I was rightfully skeptical of how effectively CEG would manage to translate their songs live. After all, the band’s sound – which lands in a stratosphere situated squarely between the garage psychedelia of Clouds Taste Metallic, the boisterous caterwauling of The Moon and Antarctica, and the slacker-pop hooks of Wowee Zowee – is compelling in the way it creates the feeling that, at any moment, the whole thing could just fall apart. Lyrically, D’Agostino’s work is largely impressionistic, jammed with free associations and arresting images, emotionally resonant though occasionally inaccessible. So it’s not surprising that their music is somewhat hard to grasp as well. On record, CEG’s songs are as dynamic as they are epic, submerging listeners into languid pools of atmospheric distortion, then throttling them without warning in torrents of horns, screams, and feedback. The band simultaneously bucks and embraces pop song conventions; their albums are by turns dazzling, frustrating, exciting, annoying, imitative, and original; and to the uninitiated, the whole package probably seems a bit intimidating, if not overwhelming.

So, the question remained – how do a bunch of ambitious early-20-somethings perform their shiftingly ramshackle rock-music-cum-philosophic-treatise live? Pretty darn well, actually.

In the spirit of keeping things unexpected, the band moved from sound checking to performing with much force and without so much as greeting or acknowledgement, such that after finishing their opening song, the WTAM cut “Indiana,” it became apparent that the sound operator had forgotten to turn the ambient music off. The situation was quickly righted however, and no sooner was the song cut off than the band was back into the thick and heavy of their set. Despite that CEG kicked the night off with a song from their heralded debut, though, selections from Lenses Alien dominated the night’s set list, with the band performing nine of the ten total tracks from their new album.

To an impressive extent, CEG keep their work in the studio and on the stage largely convergent, occasionally altering an introduction or adding a transition to maintain the flow of their live show – for example, they mentioned that the intro to “Plainclothes” now sounds like a Wild Beasts song, or on a bad night, “Eye of the Tiger” – but other wise playing pretty closely to their original arrangements. Which, as much as anything, is a testament to how strong the band’s writing actually is, as well as how far they’ve come as a live act. “Definite Darkness,” with its descending bass line punching and plodding beneath paranoid lyrics about dirty hypodermic needles couched between seat cushions, is still oddly arresting. And their rendition of the tunefully infectious “Wind Phoenix” was everything it should’ve been, guiding the audience towards a raucous and emotional climax, spilling them into a raggedy, drug-induced haze of distortion, and then waltzing them back through the song’s jubilant opening section.

The performance was not without a few blemishes, however. The guys told me over dinner that they had been disappointed with their show the night before due to its paltry turnout. And from I could gather, Tuesday night wasn’t any better. A few songs deep into the set, Whipple gave an obligatory “thanks for coming, we’re glad to be back,” his tone akin to someone thanking their grandmother for the beautiful sweater she knitted them for Christmas. And before their last song, Lenses closer “Gary Condit,” he mentioned that CEG is now listed on former-Representative Condit’s Wikipedia page, under the header Popular Culture. “I’m not sure that’s very accurate, though,” he immediately quipped. While Whipple and the rest of CEG can’t be disappointed with the critical reception they’ve received, their acceptance by the music community at large must seem a bit underwhelming by comparison, incongruous to their album’s glowing reviews. And unfortunately, on Tuesday night, the band allowed their discouragement to seep through their technical proficiency. Their performance was by no means dialed-in, but a general lack of enthusiasm did tinge an otherwise fine show.

At one point during our conversation, D’Agostino lamented an effect that he believes digitalization is having on people’s relationship to music. “When you go out to a record store to buy an album, you make an investment and in a sense, you feel compelled to spend a requisite amount of time with it. That doesn’t really happen any more; I just wish that the disposability wasn’t there.” If there is one thing that albums like Lenses Alien demands of its listeners, it’s their concentration, and preferably a decent set of headphones. I’m prone to agree with D’Agostino, though, that services like Spotify and the ability to easily download albums and single songs probably does make us feel less compelled to spend time analyzing music. So at risk of overstating my point – regardless of the terabytes of hard drive space to which we have access, I truly hope we still have room for bands like Cymbals Eat Guitars.

Set List

  1. Indiana
  2. Plainclothes
  3. Shore Points
  4. Definite Dark
  5. Another Tunguska
  6. Rifle Eyesight
  7. Keep Me Waiting
  8. Cold Spring
  9. Secret Family
  10. Wavelengths
  11. Wind Pheonix
  12. Gary Condit