2019 American Music Awards

The End of Cymbals Eat Guitars, The Beginning of Empty Country, and Everything That Happened In Between

Rachel Browne 
Joe D'Agostino of Empty Country 

Joe D’Agostino talks about his new solo album and why his former band decided to call it quits, and debuts the album opener "Marian."

How do you dissolve a beloved band you’ve devoted your life to since the age of 18?

If you are Joe D’Agostino, frontman of Cymbals Eat Guitars, you do so as quietly and tastefully as possible. In late 2017, the New Jersey-bred indie heroes performed three farewell shows, including a raucous gig at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, which was packed with fans who had no idea it was a farewell. They shared the stage with home-state idol Charles Bissell, of elusive Jersey favorites The Wrens fame, and dusted off early-career gems like “Indiana” and “Some Trees.” 

And then, without a word, one of the decade’s most rewarding and emotionally searing rock bands simply ceased to exist. There was no announcement. (Consequently, many fans have continued hoping for a new album)

“We wanted to quietly deep-six it,” D’Agostino explains two years later. “We could have told everybody that our December 2017 shows were gonna be our final shows, but -- I dunno. It just seemed a little gaudy to do so. We were never people to draw attention to ourselves in that way.”

Causes of the breakup included deep exhaustion with touring, bassist Matt Whipple’s decision to return to school for interior design, and a brooding sense that -- despite consistent acclaim and a committed cadre of fans -- “there was nowhere else for us to go.” During that grueling final year, the band toured with alt-rock legends the Pixies, “which was just crazy -- like, dream scenario stuff,” the singer says. “And then we went back to the same cities that we played with Pixies in to headline, three months later. And nobody came.”

It was bleak, the bleakness compounded by brutal summer temperatures and self-destructive patterns that had emerged across lengthy touring cycles. “It was over many years,” D’Agostino says. “And it was like, I had to drink to perform. Especially towards the end.” 

Eventually, the band updated its Twitter bio to resemble a tombstone: “2007–2017.” If that suggests an untimely demise, the subsequent years, 2018–2019, signify rebirth. D’Agostino has spent them carving out some semblance of domestic bliss with his wife, Rachel Browne (singer of Philly indie band Field Mouse), in their adopted hometown of Philadelphia and figuring out what it means to make music post-Cymbals. For much of 2018, he was cooped up on the first floor of an old Victorian in West Philly -- the couple’s home of two years -- writing, arranging, and self-producing an ambitious set of solo songs. (Kyle Gilbride, Swearin' member and prolific indie engineer, co-produced and engineered.)

The result is his new project, Empty Country, whose self-titled album will be released by Tiny Engines (The Hotelier, Somos) next February. The title comes from a Cymbals deep cut, “Wavelengths.” (At Browne’s suggestion, D’Agostino scoured his band’s old lyrics when stuck on a name: “For whatever reason, those two words jumped out at me.”) The album combines D’Agostino’s knack for vivid, impressionistic imagery -- capable of summoning a romantic LSD trip or a nightmarish cancer scare -- with arrangements more ornate than anything from his former band: “Untitled” is a bleary-eyed excursion into acoustic psychedelia, while “Swim” closes the album with a gorgeous reverie of string swells. 

Though billed as a solo album, it’s very much a family affair, inhabited by loved ones both alive and dead. Anne Dole, Cymbals’ former drummer, performed drums; her twin brother, Pat, handled bass. Browne and her sister Zoë contributed backing vocals. “Chance,” with its gushing a cappella break, is an affectionate tribute to the sisters’ dad -- D’Agostino’s father-in-law -- the longtime cartoonist Robert "Chance" Browne. And the opening track, “Marian,” is named after D’Agostino’s grandmother, who was killed by a drunk driver in 1983. It’s an expansive epic that coaxes unexpected sunlight from one of the singer’s most generous falsetto hooks. Lyrically, it’s sung from the perspective of a clairvoyant miner who foresees his own death in 1960s West Virginia: “The mine collapses in spring of ʼ67/ I was a bastard anyway.” (Listen to an exclusive premiere of the song below.)

Meanwhile, the intensity that once landed Cymbals a tour with emo stalwarts Say Anything roars to life on “Ultrasound,” home to the record’s most screamable chorus. The song, with its mortified reference to “a shadow on the ultrasound,” is about a cancer scare. Browne’s sister is a survivor of metastatic breast cancer, so Browne goes in semi-regularly for routine imaging. In early 2018, doctors found “what looked like something that could be very serious,” D’Agostino says. “I was with her at the doctor, and -- I mean, the doctor just scared the shit out of us.” 

The song describes the nightmarish week that followed: waiting for the biopsy report, collapsing into fits of crying every hour. “I wrote the lyrics over the course of like two or three hours,” the singer says, “and I was just weeping the entire time.” (The health scare, fortunately, turned out to be a false alarm.)

Tragedy struck anew the day “Ultrasound” was issued as Empty Country’s first-ever single: August 7, 2019. D’Agostino was full of nervous energy about debuting the project. He was also due to open for Purple Mountains -- the new project of Silver Jews songwriter and veteran rock cult hero David Berman -- in three days, so he went to get a haircut. D’Agostino was to join Purple Mountains for two dates, in Jersey City and Philadelphia. He had extensively rehearsed a six-piece band, which included Browne and her sister, for the occasion. He was leaving the barber when Browne called with news: Berman was dead

“[It was] just utterly devastating,” D’Agostino says. He gets choked up recalling how much Berman meant to him. As a teenager, he blasted Silver Jews records on roadtrips. A decade later, he met Berman by chance during the LOSE tour in 2015. Cymbals had just played a sparsely attended show at a Nashville dive bar. 

“I was loading up a van after that show, kind of dejected but whatever,” D’Agostino recalls. “He walked up to the back of the van. He asked if the music was over. I recognized his voice immediately. I was like, ‘You’re David Berman.’ He was like, ‘Yep.’ And we talked for a long time that night… I left town feeling like, whatever this career is or isn’t, it brought me to this exact moment in time where this person -- this idol, this hero of mine -- and I could just cross paths in this way.”

A year later, D’Agostino received an email from Berman, which he describes as “long and free-associative and beautiful.” The two began corresponding regularly. Berman told D’Agostino he could be a poet and attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on the strength of the LOSE lyrics. Before his death, Berman listened to Empty Country demos and was quick to offer encouragement. “He was just such a brilliant and kind man,” D’Agostino says. “I will forever hold memories and correspondences that I have of him. But I haven’t listened to his music since he passed.”

Ten years ago, D’Agostino was in the eye of the hurricane that was Cymbals Eat Guitars’ sudden ascent. “I was blown out of the cannon at age 19 and 20,” he says, “with all of this praise -- the indie-rock bubble, the hype.”

It was 2009, the golden age of “blog rock,” when guitar music still reigned and a few impressive songs on a MySpace page could, and did, earn a band like Cymbals a glowing Pitchfork review and major festival slots seemingly overnight. The band’s debut, the impressively expansive Why There Are Mountains, drew raves despite being self-released: “Are Staten Island's Cymbals Eat Guitars indie rock's next big thing?” blared one headline from a local outlet. Suddenly, D’Agostino and his bandmates found themselves in London opening for The Flaming Lips, and being courted by managers and agents.

He’d been a nerd at his Central Jersey high school. Now he reveled in the sudden validation -- behaving callously, abusing prescription meds. “It went to my head,” he admits. Now 30, he barely seems to recognize that kid. “I concentrated on one thing for so long. All I wanted from when I was 15 to when I was 20 -- and I got it! And I don’t think I knew how to handle it, emotionally or ego-wise or physically. I was always just destroying my body, getting sick on the road.” 

Alcohol became a problem. It got worse near the end, when D’Agostino found himself needing three or four drinks just to go onstage -- especially in places like Oklahoma City, where only five people would show. How else could he summon the vigor to obliterate the scream in signature anthem “...And the Hazy Sea?” His health became compromised, his blood pressure unusually high. “I was just utterly consumed with anxiety and deep depression, and it was compounded by the lifestyle of touring,” he says. “There’s a bottle of fucking booze and a case of beer in your green room every night.” 

Since the band’s breakup, D’Agostino has been in treatment for Bipolar II disorder and on psychiatric medication. (He no longer self-medicates with alcohol, though he does use pot and hesitates to identify as sober.) He has a day job in customer service, which lets him work from home and eases the financial precarity of a career in music. The end of Cymbals seems to have delivered some relief from the nonstop jockeying for status and success. “I didn’t make this [solo] record to be famous or to be a career musician, though that was my ambition as a younger man,” he texts me after our interview. “I made it to document and honor my human experience and that of my family.” 

Ten years removed from indie fame is a weird place to be. D’Agostino sometimes jokes that Cymbals will reunite at Riot Fest in 2039 for the 30th anniversary of Mountains. When asked if he feels proud of what Cymbals accomplished, he lets out a long, heavy sigh. “I do,” he says finally. “I feel very proud of the four records we made together. And incredibly proud of a lot of the shows that we did. I have beautiful memories of each of my bandmates and all of us together.”

He is careful not to seem bitter about the fact that none of Cymbals’ other albums matched that level of commercial success. Yet some bitterness might be warranted, especially considering the band’s real masterpiece, LOSE, a sweeping and cathartic excavation of adolescent grief, did not arrive until 2014. That was the album that established D’Agostino’s astonishing eye for lyrical detail, set in a world of failed drug deals and deceased friends’ MySpace pages. Pretty Years, the 2016 follow-up, proved it wasn’t a fluke and even teased out some stadium-ready hooks. But the mercurial engine of hype no longer seemed to be on the band’s side. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the band’s ambition often brushed up against the impatient expectations of the market (or of a manager who pressured them to write “their ‘Two Weeks’”).

Much of the Empty Country album is inspired by D’Agostino’s reckoning with things he’s ashamed of from his past life. You could trace this reflective gene back to 2016’s “Have a Heart,” a song about falling in love and finding a new capacity for empathy. On “Swim,” the new album’s elegiac finale, he sings: “I was a blue-eyed sociopath / Black out, often / Not sure / Think I might have hurt someone.” Though the song describes a fictional character -- the singer is neither blue-eyed nor a sociopath, he assures me -- who has a 9/11 tattoo, it clearly carries personal resonance. 

“Come and live it down with me,” D’Agostino sings at the song’s climax, luxuriating in a mournful string refrain that seems to echo long after the song has faded away. It’s the record’s emotional peak. As for the string players, “I didn’t even have charts for them,” D’Agostino texts me when I ask. “I just sang them the parts five minutes beforehand, and what you hear is what they delivered.” He sobbed when the violin took the lead for the final refrain. “You might actually be able to hear me,” he adds. I can’t hear it, but I trust that it’s there.

Throughout Cymbals’ career, D’Agostino’s songwriting was remarkably adept at capturing dimensions of loss -- loss of a friend (“XR”), of youth (“Dancing Days”), even loss of a family dog (“Chambers”). Empty Country retains this talent. Except here, the songwriter also takes profound stock of what he’s gained.

That includes wisdom, and a new sense of purpose in music-making. “It’s not a vehicle for your ego, or so you can get somewhere in life or get tours or get whatever the fuck you want,” he says. “It’s the moment of creation -- when you make something that’s true to you and to the people that you love.”

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