“I think when some people heard [our new music] for the first time, they thought that it was too slick of a pop thing for us to be trying,” Cymbals Eat Guitars bassist Matthew Whipple tells me over the phone. “I think now that we’re playing them live, it’s very clear they’re a bit more unruly; a little bit more frenzied and frazzled then they are on the record.” The band are in Washington State and only a few days into their fall tour. Battling intermittent bursts of static and bad phone reception as they drive through the state, Whipple and I discuss their new album Pretty Years and everything that led to its creation.
Early worries surrounding a supposed ‘pop’ sound almost make sense; Pretty Years does sound slick and joyful for a Cymbals Eat Guitars record. But then again, they’re a much different band these days.
The group that appeared on 2009 debut Why There Are Mountains were indebted to noisy ‘90s slacker rock, and in a position to benefit from the almighty power of the indie blogosphere. But by the time 2011’s Lens Alien arrived, the hype had died down and Cymbals Eat Guitars were just another band again, all the while trying to navigate a series of lineup changes. Eventually, guitarist/vocalist Joe D’Agostino, Whipple, keyboardist Brian Hamilton and drummer Andrew Doyle emerged as the final lineup. Now it was time to record their next record, 2014’s LOSE.
With LOSE, the band found themselves embracing their inner classic rock tendencies; something which appeared to spark a career resurgence. LOSE was met with plenty of or acclaim from critics and fans alike, who seemed to fall in love with its ambition and sense of grandeur. The success opened up the band to new audiences, as they embarked upon tours with Say Anything, Brand New, Modern Baseball and Bob Mould. Yet it stalled on a commercial level, failing to reach the numbers they managed to hit with their debut. In hindsight, would they have done anything differently? Not much, according to Whipple.
“We did better than the one before it but I don’t know if the sales aspect put any kind of pressure on how we felt about making a record,” he says. “It was something we had hoped, for the sake of our business… being able to do it more efficiently, have better shows, have the tours be more comfortable, less stressful. It would be pretty satisfying to have Pretty Years connect with people in the long run like LOSE has.”
Pretty Years is far removed from the darkness that clouded much of LOSE. In fact, it’s a glossy, energetic distillation of everything great about the band. Recorded with John Congleton, it evokes Cymbal Eat Guitar’s indie rock roots but nods to their growing pop instincts. ‘Have a Heart’ sounds joyous with its chiming guitars and cooing chorus. Meanwhile, ‘Wish’ sounds like the band’s best Springsteen-indebted jam, complete with a wild and raucous saxophone part to match.
“We knew we wanted to have horns on that song. We had a sax player come into the studio and he started doing pretty standard R&B groove stuff that we weren’t really looking for. John gave him some pretty keen notes in terms of playing it weird, not necessarily in the key of the song.” Whipple says. “Wanting to have sax on the song is sort of a nod to the roots of where a song like that comes from, but also wanting something disorienting and off-putting.”
When the band completed touring for LOSE, rather than take a year or two off, they doubled down and set a goal to write Pretty Years in six months. The result was a more collaborative approach to the songwriting – an inevitable side-effect of needing all hands on deck. It wasn’t the easiest of processes, but it resulted in an album which may be the best of their career to date.
“Collaboration takes effort and compromise and a deeper sense of what everyone’s coming from and everyone’s trying to do… it definitely caused some tension. It wasn’t easy at all, but led to some great songs.”