The recording studio might be the least exciting place on the planet. Band members sit around, engineers continually tweak knobs and wires, unexpected buzzes reap havoc on productivity. It can be a maddening process. Still, there's that moment, when it all comes together, the song is born, the band is happy. Staten Island rockers, Cymbals Eat Guitars take you through the process, laying "Hawk Highway" down, with the cameras rolling for the "Masters From Their Day" video series. Have a look.
"We were at Barnes & Noble today and I was so excited to see Maximum Rock'n'Roll's still publishing," says Cymbals Eat Guitars bassist Neil Berenholz, his eyes widening at the very thought. "Joe was just like, 'What's that?'"
Welcome to one of the many contradictions that have shaped Cymbals since the spring of 2008. First, there's that age thing, with 32-year-old Berenholz hailing from the golden age of bedroom recordings, screen-printed T-shirts and Kinko'd zines, and the rest of the group reared on genre-jumping iPods and Web sites that can propel or pulverize an artist's entire career with a single review. As frontman Joseph D'Agostinothe band's co-founder along with drummer Matthew Milleris quick to admit, "I've been reading Pitchfork since I was in ninth grade." Which was also when he discovered "Shady Lane" and started shedding the alt-rock influences that informed the cover songs he and Miller hammered out in high school.
The duo's in college now, so it seems rather fitting that their full circle moment didn't involve a capsule review in a print magazine; it happened when Pitchfork bestowed the band's DIY debut, Why There Are Mountains, with a "Best New Music" stamp soon after its soft release. And we do mean soft. While many buzz-minded new artists dive straight into Brooklyn's bustling music scene, Cymbals Eat Guitars were happy fine-tuning tracks from the outside, looking infirst in elaborate demos with the Wrens' Charles Bissel (starting way back in the summer of 2007, before the group even had a name), and finally in a proper studio with Kyle "Slick" Johnson (Modest Mouse, The Hives). Like many other early fans, Johnson inadvertently discovered Cymbals Eat Guitars on New York's Lower East Side circuit, playing the kind of early sets that come with being spread between Staten Island, Manhattan and Queens.
"We didn't know anybody in the beginning," says D'Agostino, "So it was hard to get any shows."
"And since no one was pursuing us," continues Berenholz, "We had to pursue opportunities ourselves."
On a practical level, this has led the band to physically call the country's most popular record shops and ask them to carry Mountains' initial pressings. Lucky for them, the record sold itself, generating interest as far away as the UK's influential Rough Trade shop and the NME, who wrote, "Why There Are Mountains may be one of the best 'indie' (the album is self-released, so, y'know, actually 'indie') albums of the year. And with the major label skyline being obliterated like something out of Independence Day, it's time to batten down the hatches."
Hype-raking reviews aside, there's this important detail: Why There Are Mountains is a real album, a 'grower' that dishes out simple pleasures with every spin. Aside from obvious recurring elements (D'Agostino's restless yelp and sinuous riffs, Miller's Wire-y rhythms paired with Berenholz's melodic bass style, and the orchestral layers of keyboard), there are shades of shoegaze (the patient, feedback-bathed passages of "Share"), Motown (the buoyant bass lines of "Cold Spring"), and Technicolor-tinged pop (the breezy horns and schizo synths of "Indiana"). Not to mention pure chaos, as explored in the gate-crashing "And the Hazy Sea," the tension-ratcheting "Like Blood Does," and the final, throat-tearing moments of "Wind Phoenix (Proper Name)."
As for what's next, well, one new song already has a "lazy guitar line" that's indebted to indie pop, floating over a disco inspired rhythm section.
"You guys are laughing," says Berenholz (and they are), "but that's what I'm talking about herepeople bringing different influences to the table, until my chocolate's clearly in your peanut butter."
"We aren't shying away from the dance beats," adds D'Agostino.
"Sometimes," says Miller, smiling, "they are appropriate."