“Ben, for a lot of the time I knew him, he was slightly overweight. Not in an unattractive way, just a little heavy. But one day he walked in through the side door and he was looking rail-skinny — like a movie star — and he had on these mirrored aviators and he looked like Jared Leto, and my mom and I just stood there for a minute like, ‘Look at this guy. Look at this rock star.’”
The night before we met, Joseph D’Agostino watched a documentary about Jared Leto’s band 30 Seconds to Mars. Watching Leto and company deal with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with their label, he says, put into proper perspective any squabbles his band Cymbals Eat Guitars ever had with their label, Barsuk, over advances and deadlines and such.
He mentions this because we’re hanging out at the boardwalk on Coney Island for a photo shoot, and the view of the ocean, he says, reminds him of the film Requiem for a Dream, in which Leto starred, and which D’Agostino maintains doesn’t hold up that well.
We debate the idea of riding one of the roller coasters, but the gray skies look like they might unload at any moment, and we’re both too intimidated to try out the newest one which, as best as I can tell, holds a person upside-down until they vomit and cry. We talk for a few minutes about trying some of the more outré eating options available on the boardwalk; perhaps the fried chow mein on white bread sandwich might be a triumph against common sense.
“Take our picture,” says a young woman in a black bathing suit, accompanied by a fellow in trunks, to our photographer. “We’re better looking.”
“Well, that’s true,” replies D’Agostino.
D’Agostino is wearing a gray shirt, black sunglasses and a metal bracelet that looks like it was made in a high school shop class taught by goths. His arms are lined with tattoos, and after the photo shoot is over, we sit down at Nathan’s Hot Dogs and he tells me about the second-most important one: the words “Famous Times” on his left forearm. The phrase comes from a story in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, in which a character gets the same tattoo. D’Agostino fell in love with the book and had the author himself sign his copy a few years later, using Ford’s handwriting as the basis for the tattoo. Ford himself discouraged this idea.
“He told me not to. His exact words were, ‘I am your father, and I say no.’ And, uh, I disregarded him,” he says.
I ask him if he has any other famous people’s names tattooed on his body.
“No, no. That’s the only one,” he says. “It’s the only text, actually, if you don’t count numerical stuff.”
The numeric tattoo, which is the most important tattoo on his body, is the first one he ever got. It reads “1,2,3,” the name of a song by the New Jersey garage-punk group Green Arrows. This tattoo is also in someone’s handwriting: In this case, it’s that of Benjamin High, the frontman of the Green Arrows and D’Agostino’s best friend.
The two met when Joseph Ferocious, the band D’Agostino fronted in high school, played a house show in West Caldwell, New Jersey, with the Green Arrows.
“Instantly, I met him, and it was like, ‘Oh, this dude is going to be my fuckin’ best friend.’”
They exchanged emails that night, and instantly formed a friendship based on a mutual passion for music and practical jokes. “He liked to do prank phone calls. He prank-called Collins College. At the time, they had a videogame design program that was on all over the television, and he pranked the shit out of them. He had this borderline mentally-ill character he would do — it could’ve been on Crank Yankers. I was on the floor, on my back, just howling with laughter, but silently because I didn’t want to ruin the phone call. Any sort of infomercial with a call-in number — boom. He was on it.”
“So it was kind of love at first sight?” I ask him. He pauses for a moment.
“Yeah. Exactly. I haven’t described it that way,” he says. “It was like the equivalent of love at first sight for friends.”
After Green Arrows broke up, High joined Joseph Ferocious, which eventually turned into, as D’Agostino describes it, “just me and him in his basement with Edit Pro and, like, a kick drum that we’d hit with a mallet — no cymbals, no anything. So I thought Cymbals Eat Guitars was a clever name for that,” he says. High sings and plays bass on several demos of early Cymbals songs, including “Share.”
“He sings the ‘when the police bring me in’ part. That was supposed to be him. It sounded better when he did it. He had a deep, really husky — he had a really special voice.”
He turns away and removes his sunglasses, and wipes tears out of his left eye with his hand.
“I feel very scattered,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” I say. “I appreciate you being so honest about it.”
“Yeah…I just wish I could organize…I should have thought about it more.”
Benjamin High died in 2007 of a heart-related condition, a year and a half after he and D’Agostino met. He was 19. D’Agostino got the “1,2,3″ tattoo two months later.
High was a “big, big guy. 6’4″, 220. Handsome like Jared Leto,” D’Agostino remembers. “He loved video games and wrote for 1UP and a couple of other gaming websites. He had an amazing singing voice. Deep and sonorous and wounded and smoke scarred. A natural, in every sense of the word. Great songwriter. Incredibly gifted.”
Two days before he died, D’Agostino, High and drummer Matthew Miller finished basic tracking for what would become Cymbals Eat Guitars’ first album, Why There Are Mountains with producer Charles Bissell of reclusive New Jersey indie-rock legends the Wrens. (“Which was a thrill for all of us, because the Wrens were the fucking Beatles to us. New Jersey pride.”)
“[Ben's] guitar was still at Charles’s place, and Charles ended up coming to the funeral with Ben’s guitar because we needed to put it on the stand next to the photo board at the wake,” D’Agostino says. “So he came in a suit. I’d never seen him in a suit before.”
“I go back to see Ben’s mom sometimes, they still live in the same house,” D’Agostino says. “I don’t know how they do that. The smell alone when I walked in the door…it just hits you in the face. It [reminds me of] that time in my life that’s — I don’t know how to describe it.”
Before any of that, D’Agostino was a teenager growing up in Watertown, New Jersey. “It was my understanding that it was founded by the KKK. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m pretty sure someone told me that when I was in school there.” There were, I am assured, Carhartt jackets and John Deere hats as far as the eye could see, but at least it was near a beach (D’Agostino was a lifeguard in training for a while). He studied comparative literature for two and a half years at Fordham College at Lincoln Center before dropping out to tour; his parents were actually fine with this decision. They later joined him on a European tour and got to watch their son open shows for the Flaming Lips and Wilco. His parents eventually moved to Staten Island, and he currently lives with them and his grandparents in the same house.
Why There Are Mountains was a shrewd amalgamation of his favorite influences and the lyrics, written when “I didn’t have any life experience,” were in a similar vein. “I was sort of grabbing from other people’s experiences and things I was reading and poetry I was reading. I was really into John Ashbery at the time, and Denis Johnson and Elizabeth Bishop and things.” The result was a smart collection of barbed pop that would have fit right next to Pavement and Weezer on a college radio playlist in 1998, an garnered rave reviews from Pitchfork and NME.
“There’s just a youthful feeling to it, and I had a lot that I thought I wanted to express, but they weren’t my own thoughts,” he says.
Bissell was unable to continue working on the album after High’s death, so D’Agostino recruited musicians from Craigslist to help him finish the record and to accompany him on the subsequent tour.
“I never thought about quitting. I had absolute conviction with that first record,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong — I’ve thought about quitting since then. I don’t really believe in an afterlife per se, but I felt as though I had to carry on the work [Ben and I] had begun together.”
Most of the musicians he met with about joining his band were, on average, a decade older than him, but, “I was persuasive. I was like, ‘This is going to be a big record, and a lot of people are going to hear this and are going to love it, and we’re going to be touring for the next two or three years on this.’ I was very confident. And it ended up happening, which is, y’know, icing on the cake. I just believed in the material. I thought they were good songs.”
He was correct on all accounts, but it didn’t quite work out the way he planned. Their early tours were “harrowing,” he says. “We were a totally unprepared, terrible live band. I couldn’t sing at all, I was gasping for air, I had no breath control, we couldn’t play in time — it was a fucking mess.”
During the tour, both the keyboard player and the bassist D’Agostino hired through Craigslist left, and he found Brian Hamilton and Matthew Whipple to replace them (they remain in the band to this day). For their sophomore album Lenses Alien, the band signed to Barsuk, home of Nada Surf and, at one time, Death Cab for Cutie. The band felt immediate pressure to capitalize on the success of Why There Are Mountains with an album full of undeniable pop appeal — preferably one recorded as soon as possible. Their manager at the time told them that they needed to write “their ‘Two Weeks.’” But rather than ape Grizzly Bear, the band released Lenses Alien, a knotty album informed by math rock and notably devoid of whimsical harmonies. Needless to say, there’s no “Two Weeks” on there.
“It doesn’t bear fruit until 15 listens, probably,” he says. “I thought what people liked about the band was the unconventional, through-composed, song structures and the weirdness and the psychedelia, but I think in retrospect what people really liked about Mountains was the accidental pop moments.”
The reviews were nearly as enthusiastic, but, “we were playing to nobody on our headlining tour.”
After the tour for Lenses ended, D’Agostino went to cosmetology school, where he studied hair coloring, just to get out of the house and to get some money between tours and to keep his spirits up.
This approach was only intermittently successful. Earlier this year he started having anxiety attacks, which he fought by smoking pot “constantly, all day long until I went to bed. [I was] waking up feeling like a husk — no soul,” he says. “So I needed a change.”
He started studying transcendental meditation, which he allows sounds kind of “culty,” but which he insists actually works quite well. “They teach you how to levitate and stuff. It’s like butt-popping. It’s crazy,” he says. “But the [meditation] itself is really useful. It’s a really ingenious way of getting past that internal monologue that kind of rules your life when you can’t shake it. You know, just the constant self-doubt that goes on and on, and you can’t break it, even if you’re miserable. So the meditation helps.”
The meditation helped him get past the panic attacks he’d been having, but he still felt discouraged. He worried that his band had run its course, that maybe they didn’t mean anything to people now that they weren’t a hotly-tipped breakout act anymore, and he’d grown tired of making art that said a lot about what he liked, but very little about who he was. He’d spent years not talking about the most important part of his young life, and he was exhausted.
After the relationship with founding drummer Miller deteriorated (“I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I thought somebody was less committed than the rest of us”), D’Agostino hired new drummer Andrew Dole. The group felt deflated and directionless, but Dole’s enthusiasm helped them to keep trying. (“He’s always up. On tour, he’s like, ‘Oh man, guys, we’re playing fuckin’ Columbus, Ohio, tonight! We’re on tour!’) In spite of this, they still felt lost, says Whipple (calling during a lunch break from his day job with a Morristown, New Jersey, law firm) until they wrote “Jackson,” which became a foundational moment in the creation of LOSE.
“We kind of floundered a little bit in terms of songwriting. There wasn’t a clear agenda in terms of what kind of songs we wanted to write,” Whipple says. “Finally having a song that made us all giddy after we played it the first couple of times…it was like, ‘We’re going to write simpler songs, we’re not going to be afraid of making certain moves that might stand as quote-unquote ‘standard rock’ to people.”
Once that song came together, the rest of the songs flowed more naturally, and the result is LOSE, the band’s best album, and one that puts them in a position similar to Jimmy Eat World circa Clarity or Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism, where open-hearted lyrics merge with tour-hardened muscle and restless curiosity for an album that makes the artist’s previous, quite fine, work seem like throat clearing.
“People have been effusive about it,” says producer John Agnello, who produced both LOSE and Lenses Alien and has also worked with the Hold Steady, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. “If this record doesn’t happen, I’m gonna fire myself. Because they are not the problem. Pop, rock, prog, shoegaze — they have all the elements of a wonderful stew. And when Joe sings, he proves to be a wonderful young singer.”
“Jackson,” one of the year’s best singles, revolves around the lines “Now I dream in color of your face/ And I see the coast in your mirror shades” and tells the story of the time D’Agostino and High and an ex-girlfriend went to the Six Flags in Jackson, New Jersey, and got sick and scared and eventually got into a dumb fight. The song delicately captures an incident that doesn’t seem “Capital-’I’ Important” when looking back on a life, but it’s one of the last moments of innocence before everything changed; a time and a place to which D’Agostino knows he can never return. It also just out of the speakers, unapologetically anthemic, yet suffused with wounded grace. “I was listening to a ton of Elliott Smith as I always sort of have,” D’Agostino says. “[That song] is me rewriting “Stupidity Tries.”
High is, in fact, all over LOSE. “On ‘Laramie’ D’Agostino remembers how the two would duet on Wrens songs (“In your car had ‘I Guess We’re Done’ duels/ I’ll do the Kev and you can do the Charles/ We were both in need of rescue/ So who saved whom?”) before abruptly moving on (“Forward 13 months/ The innocence ended when I got the call/ Your street’s just a place/ it has no memory at all.”) On “XR,” a song D’Agostino calls the album’s thesis, he talks about feeling numb and joyless in the wake of High’s death (“Wanna wake up wanting to listen to records/ But those old feelings elude me”).
“All the exercises with words and all the crap writing Lenses Alien…I was very tired of that. I just wanted to say something true about myself and about my life so far. I felt like it was important to say something. I think about him every day — every day for seven years now. Why shouldn’t that be addressed in my art?”
“It’s a little strange,” he says, “that I’m just now getting around to addressing it directly.”
“Why do you think that is?” I ask.
“I think it takes a while,” he says. “Getting that call when your friend passes…it was the biggest shock of my life up to that point.”
“And I’m sure that for several years you were grieving,” I say, “if not still in shock.”
“Yeah. For sure,” he looks down and taps on the picnic table for a few second. “I don’t know what to say about it. Sorry.”
The entire album isn’t about High. “Chambers” worries over the death of one’s parents and dog; “Child Bride” tells the story of the time D’Agostino played a show in Orlando and saw his best friend from the eighth grade in the crowd. “His mother was a fall-down drunk and she would beat him,” he says. “And one day I went down to his house, which was five houses down from mine, and I rang the bell and nobody was there. And I’m looking in the window — a classic, ridiculous scenario — I’m looking in the window and there’s no fucking furniture in the house,” he says. “When I saw him at that show in Orlando, he wasn’t looking so well. He was looking kind of strung out.” And then there’s “2 Hip Soul (Floyd’s Tomb)” which relays the true (and disturbing) story of the time some kids D’Agostino knew broke into the Popcorn Park Zoo and beat several animals to death with PVC pipes.
As he began to open up in his lyrics, the music he was writing grew as well. He says he’s proud of his first two albums, but admits Mountains sounds like the work of a band with good taste (Pavement, Built to Spill, Superchunk) that hadn’t quite worked out an identity of their own yet. LOSE glides from minimal balladry to maximal take-the-skies wailing while still feeling like a singular piece of work.
“I think, especially with Lenses Alien, we got lost in the weeds with making things overly ornate and complex. We joked in practice, that once we learned to stop trying to be Grizzly Bear, we got to actually be a good rock band,” says Whipple. “There’s just a lot of anti-rock voices that you hear now. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we were really self-conscious about being a rock band and we started writing better songs when we got over that.”
A few years ago, when tickets and albums sales were slow and the buzz had died down, D’Agostino decided to cheer himself up by getting that Richard Ford tattoo. “After our last record cycle, I thought it might be over. You never know when people are going to stop giving a shit about your music. It just kind of spoke to me, so I got it on my arm,” he says. “You know, like ‘famous times!’ these past five years.”
He’s feeling much better these days. Less weed, more meditation, more honesty and more inter-band camaraderie has brought him much needed perspective.
“I had many crises out there. Nobody was coming to the shows, but I didn’t have any context for it. I was a spoiled brat when it came to playing music in front of people, because our first record exploded, and we were playing festivals and in front of sold-out crowds and clubs every night. I just thought that’s just the way it was going to be forever. But it’s really not that way.
“I did get discouraged for a while, but I realized that the trick is to let that hype die down, and to rebuild with people who really, really care. Because that’s your base.”
Though he jokes that he basically auditioned his friends, Cymbals Eat Guitars have grown close as musicians and comrades over the years. But D’Agostino admits he still thinks about the beautiful rock star with the mirror shades every single day, the beautiful man he met one night at a house show.
“I have really nice, close friends now but I don’t think it’s ever been that immediate,” he says. “I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again. I don’t think it happens when you get into adulthood.”
I tell him sometimes it does happen, occasionally. It did to me once, anyway, though it’s rare.
“Yeah, it’s hard for everything to align like that. Where you can talk every day. The older you get, your friends are married or your friends have steady girlfriends and you don’t talk every day.
“I’m glad I got to have that at least once.”