Indie rockers Cymbals Eat Guitars were first thrust into the spotlight with their self-released 2009 debut Why There Are Mountains. The project started when high school friends Joe D’Agostino (vocals, guitar) and Matthew Miller (drums) found musicians through Craigslist, got together and recorded an album — one that was then recognized as “Best New Music” on Pitchfork and continued to gain buzz very quickly. Not anticipating the immediate attention, D’Agostino and Miller initially struggled with touring but soon found a line-up that worked, with bassist Matt Whipple and keyboardist Brian Hamilton. In their most recent release, Lenses Alien, the band’s maturation is audible. F Newsmagazine’s Becky Frass sat down with bassist Matt Whipple and drummer Matt Miller before they opened for Cursive at Lincoln Hall last Sunday to talk about the production of Lenses Alien, cat videos and plans for the immediate future.
Becky Frass: What was it like when Why There Are Mountains first blew up, and what was the reaction to that immediate fame?
Matt Whipple: Well, I wasn’t around for the immediate reaction…
Matt Miller: But he was kind of the solution to the immediate reaction, one of them anyway. It was just Joe and I, and we had recorded it with some band members we had originally found off of Craigslist. That got us through what we needed but then we started getting shows and we couldn’t play well at all. We were pretty terrible.
MW: It was a classic case of a band not being ready to be thrust into the spotlight, at least based on the live show. The band wasn’t really together yet — the record was out but the band was still sort of forming. So it was kind of crazy. We played catch-up for a year and a half.
BF: So you’ve just started touring with Cursive. What’s this like compared to previous tours?
MW: We don’t really have a sense of what it’s going to be like yet. There’s definitely a strong family vibe because both Cursive and Conduits, the other bands we’re on tour with, are from Omaha. It really seems like everybody in both bands has sort of known each other for quite some time now, and we’re sort of like the middle band who doesn’t really know anybody yet. Still, everybody has been really friendly and welcoming, just like most tours we have been on.
MM: It’s great too, because they have a very large fan-base and we’re getting to play lots of areas we’ve never played before. We’ve played a lot of places before, but it’s cool that this time we get to finally change it up a little bit and go to some fun new places. Well, hopefully fun.
BF: Lenses Alien was the first record officially released on a label. What was the difference recording with a label as opposed to recording independently?
MW: There wasn’t really much label involvement other then behind the scenes logistical stuff. We didn’t submit demos to them — we basically just submitted them a finished record once we were done recording. So I imagine it wasn’t that different from recording the first album. I mean, it was the four of us doing it together, which was remarkably different, but…
MM: It was nice being able to work with [producer] John Agnello as well — that made it a whole different kind of process. He definitely sped up the learning curve.
MW: Working with a more seasoned producer at the helm kept things moving and kept things organized.
BF: With all of the changes and expectations after the success the first album, what was the difference in the writing and development process of Lenses Alien?
MM: The first record was mostly like a bedroom project of [singer and guitarist] Joe D’Agostino, and with very little structural or melodic input from anybody else. This time it was everybody — we all wrote the songs together and there wasn’t anything pre-written years prior to recording or anything, this was all done with the band.
MW: Yeah, everybody has their job to write their part on their instrument. Then above and beyond that, everybody is sort of welcome to throw out changes to parts, changes to melodies or structures of the song, or even to just write songs themselves and introduce an entire song structure to the band. It’s very open.
BF: So your official website is a Tumblr. What effect would you say social media has on the development of the band? Do you like being able to communicate with fans that way?
MW: It is nice to be able to have that immediate outlet to talk to fans directly when they want to ask us questions, or even just talk to us about cat videos or whatever. It’s useful to an extent, but I still think that having a publicist and having coverage from sites like Pitchfork are the best ways to get news out there. For the most part fans like you and they like your music, but with social media they’re most interested in you being funny and entertaining in that realm. If you post a new song, maybe four or five people will be like, “oh that’s great,” but if you post something like a cute dog video, 35 people will be like “oh, you guys are amazing!” [laughs]
MW: Tweeting is mostly by me, and a little bit by Joe. We haven’t really done stuff on the Tumblr. That was more of a project leading up to the record release — populating it with weird imagery that would get people thinking about what the record would be like.
MM: Yeah, it’s mostly [Matt and Joe]. Brian and I … if we find an extra funny cat video we’ll post it. [laughs]
MW: Matt tweets rarely enough that if he does, I’ll hop on right afterwards and be like, “Hey guys, that was Matt Miller!”
BF: What should we expect from you coming up? Are you playing any festivals this summer?
MW: I don’t think we have any festivals lined up, we’re kind of coming to the end of the cycle for this record. We did our headlining tour already and it went really well, we went out with Hooray for Earth supporting us and that was awesome. We went to Europe in January, and now we’re doing our “support lap” around the country. At this point we’re very wary of over-touring or doing the same thing twice on one record, so we might hold off a little bit and just sort of take a break from touring.
Of all the psych/garage revival acts around today, I would venture to say that Ty Segall is my favorite, not because he necessarily executes his music in a way that is exceptionally scuzzy — though it is plenty filthy — but because Segall is a songwriter that is perpetually inching towards refining his sound and mastering his craft. Other similar acts value the ethos of drunken swagger and brash teenage energy above all, but Segall knows well enough about the subtlety that lies underneath the guttural growl of fuzzboxes and cascading torrents of spring reverb.
2010′s Melted was a good mark of Segall’s talent with melody and chord progression — without sacrificing the need to bash his guitar and vocals into a bleeding pulp. Generally speaking, the album is full of nasty sounds and demented solos, but it’s also just as packed with hooks and sing-along moments and plain old craftsmanship. That latter dimension of the record tends to get drowned out by the crunch of the former, but that’s what the grandma/lizard/clown figure on the front is for — just in case you lost focus on how that thing is going to be hiding under your bed for the rest of your life.
“Imaginary Person” exemplifies speed and look of Melted with the band charging at full steam, chugging itself into a bloodlust seemingly satiated only by slapback delay in Segall’s vocal. The cherry on top of this LSD sundae is the constant double snare hit, which provides just the right amount of drive to get the toes tapping and the hair flying. Still, for all the energy expended in the track, there’s a distinct absence of distortion in the guitar sound, save for a slight snarl underneath the pulsing bassline. There is a clarity and intensity in the sound that looms like the freakish scaly monster on the cover of the album — the imaginary person. And when the bridge hits, the lack of distortion explodes into a clean riff worthy of any magic bus excursion — the kind that turns the world into the colors of rainbow sherbet.
For a less subtle, but just as effective approach, check out the subsequent track on the album, “My Sunshine”, which holds nothing back in its representation of garage grime. Though this number might be louder and messier and a more raw portrait of the cover art, Segall’s songwriter sensibilities are no less present. The stop/start-slash-quiet/loud dynamic is an artform that many current songwriters forget about (it was good enough for the Smashing Pumpkins and Pixies), but Segall uses it with maximum efficiency to leave a jagged edge on an already noisy song.
The first thing you’ll hear about 2011′s Goodbye Bread is that Segall slowed things down a bit, and the first thing you’ll see is the droopy bloodhound on the cover. This is one of those album covers that keeps it unapologetically weird without a hint of explanation, and while Melted‘s cover is arguably just as strange, Goodbye Bread’s makes a point of being strange without being surreal.
For me, that’s the main point of difference between these two records — yes, Segall dialed the fuzzbox down a bit, and yes, there is a song about a couch that goes, “She. Says. She. Wants. To. Buy. A. Couch. / I. Said. Why do we. Have. To. Buy. The. Couch,” but overall it seems less important that Segall has calmed down and more poignant that he’s got a keener edge to his technique. The sound is more refined and its presentation is such that every bit of effort he’s put into them is front and center, with shining guitar lines and timbres that recall 1970s power pop.
The trebly twang of Segall’s guitar was what stood out to me first, sounding like either a 12-string or dobro — both of which I would have never expected from a Ty Segall record. Regardless, the track builds slowly using a simple sung melody until the rest of the band kicks in and Segall starts getting into the meat of the lyrics. Sick of this, sick of that, Segall rants about everything left and right while the pace keeps building. Things get a little heavier after about 1:30, when the track transforms into a shaggy-haired sing-along, and it continues this way until about 2:30 when the structure changes yet again and starts to speed up at a harrowing pace. In Melted, this is when the band would hand control of the song over to the waves of feedback, but just when it seems like the Segall of Melted is about make a comeback, he throws in yet another shift, stopping and started again with a slow motion solo that tears across the speakers with a drippy crunch.
Melted is about losing control to the rock gods at the altar of fuzz — being driven into fits and seizures in the presence of its almighty power and ending up like lizard-face. But if there’s anything “I Am With You” and its neighboring tracks have to say, it’s that Goodbye Bread is about channeling that energy into a focused point. About losing control — but in a controlled environment. You’ll never look at bloodhounds in the same way again.
For several decades the Empty Bottle has been Chicago’s best place — and often the last chance — to see up-and-coming bands before they get huge. Usually for the price of the wadded up contents of your pocket you can catch bands in an intimate, if loud and seedy, rock’n'roll venue. On Thursday evening a near-capacity crowd turned out to see Yellow Ostrich, the latest band on the verge of indie-stardom to take the hallowed Empty Bottle stage.
The core of the Yellow Ostrich sound springs from the imagination of guitarist and lead singer Alex Schaaf. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Schaaf attended the prestigious music conservatory at Lawrence University. In his spare time he created Yellow Ostrich as a bedroom pop project, writing and recording all the music himself. Buoyed by the underground acclaim surrounding a series of EP’s, Schaaf moved to Brooklyn where he put the finishing touches on The Mistress, his first album as Yellow Ostrich. For his next album Schaaf assembled a band and went to work. The life-long Wisconsin native was inspired by his “stranger in a strange land” mentality and included input from new band mates Michael Tapper and Jon Natchez. The resulting LP, Strange Land, is a fully fleshed out indie pop record that has been rightfully earning hype across the blogosphere.
At Empty Bottle, Schaaf (on guitar) was joined by his new band members — Tapper on drums and Natchez taking up a variety of instruments, including bass, keyboards, trumpet and saxophone. On the record Yellow Ostrich creates a complicated mix of sounds with structural variety, sudden tempo shifts, complicated bridges and other hallmarks of talented songwriting. When performing live, the trio effortlessly recreates this diverse sound. Schaaf is a competent guitar player who has no problem often carrying the melody alone. Natchez uses his multiple talents to keep the sound fresh, and Tapper provides a reliable backbeat with percussive accents that emphasize powerful crescendos.
Photo by Kris Lenz
Their only flaw as a live band is the peculiar nature of Schaaf’s voice. While competent technically, rarely missing a note, he swings pretty far to the nasal side of the spectrum and is a bit of an acquired taste. Further complicating things is his refusal to vary tone or delivery— it’s a love/hate scenario. On record I had never noticed it, but live I found his repetitive tone grating.
Yellow Ostrich performed a set heavy on tracks from Strange Land. The band’s familiarity with these songs was clear as they moved quickly and easily between some complicated musical passages. Their mid-set cover of “Heaven” by the Talking Heads was especially a treat.
Yellow Ostrich are a new band just starting to turn heads in the indie world. They are sure to be omnipresent on the summer festival circuit and will likely be headlining bigger venues within the next year. Despite some misgivings with their live show, it was a treat catching this group before having to pay two to three times as much at less a welcoming venue.
Garage rock exploded in the U.S. in the mid-1960s. Instrumental surf music, psychedelic rock, folk, rockabilly and girl group music were equally influential to the “DIY raw power” genre. Now in 2012, the music won’t die; it’s like a beautiful, feral rock’n'roll corpse that haunts popular music with constant revivals. So when it comes to garage bands today, you’ve really got to pick your battles — there’s simply a surplus of retro-leaning punks out there. That said, Hunx is one of the best.
With His Punx, Seth Bogart plays the leader of the pack. (He’s like a flamboyantly gay and bratty version of Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las.) Bogart’s 2011 effort Too Young to Be in Love is a grimy collection of girl group influenced rock’n'roll, complete with the trashy guitars, Farfisa organs and song titles like “Lovers Lane,” and “The Curse of Being Young.” On the new Seth Bogart album (Hunx, no Punx), Bogart backs a bit off the referential kitsch of Too Young but keeps in touch with his chosen era of bubblegum pop and rattling tambourines, stepping into the spotlight alone for the proverbial introspective solo album.
One of the first noticeable differences on Hairdresser Blues is the acoustic guitar. “Your Love is Here to Stay” begins with two voices and two guitars, sonically similar to the work of the late-great Jay Reatard, a rock’n'roll paragon, who died at the age of 29 in 2010. Hunx commemorates Jay Reatard with album highlight “Say Goodbye Before You Leave.” He mournfully howls, “It’s been over a year and I’m still sad / I will never forget you.” There’s an almost improvisational or unrehearsed element to the song that seemingly places the listener in the voyeuristic position of overhearing Hunx playing guitar alone in his room.
“Always Forever” is an obvious choice for a lead single. It’s a melodic and driving surf rave up, with big drums and a noticeable improvement in production. Hunx’s vocal delivery is sincere. He’s no longer role-playing as the wasted frontman of a long lost gender-bending girl group. The perfect amount of reverb is put to use here — Hunx doesn’t sound as blown out as the Jesus & Mary Chain’s noise pop, but it’s great to hear his vocals given some room to breathe outside of the typically immediate lo-fi sound. Hunx’s bratty whine mostly sits this one out, and instead the listener is given a more natural performance in which Hunx takes on both parts of a harmony without his back-up singers.
Still, there are “leftovers” of a sort from his main gig with the Punx. “Private Room” and “Let Me In” don’t stray too far from the paint-by-numbers simplicity of various garage rock revivals. You can sing along to “Let Me In” on a first listen before the track ends. “Hairdresser Blues” is a better album title than it is a song — the special charm of the “title track” is lacking an emotional punch, and the real blues of the album come later with “I’m Not the One You Were Looking For” and “When You’re Gone.” Hunx is skilled at communicating loneliness, and he’s proven it before. On previously released songs like “Keep Away From Johnny,” the sadness felt borrowed, like a well-executed ode to another era, but on Hairdresser Blues, the sadness is his own.
At it’s best, Hairdresser Blues shows a new dimension of Hunx as a performer and songwriter, but there’s the joy of an inherently teenage energy throughout all of his work. Everything Hunx touches still turns to nuggets.
Listening to Andrew Bird can be compared to listening to an intelligent and verbose uncle telling tales of tribulation from years of past experiences and mistakes — but through magnificent harmonies and orchestrations as opposed to over a few beers at a family gathering. Content with where the world has left him but subtly torn by fragile regrets; yearning for missed opportunities best expressed through whistles and lush melodies; elegantly refining arrangements of pop and folk to complement his soft-spoken but stern voice.
After over 15 years of producing music, it is safe to say that Bird has mastered a form of sophisticated beauty — when you put on an Andrew Bird album, you know what to expect. It will be brilliant. It will be dashing and majestic, maybe even transformative. Everything this man has ever produced has a magical touch to it. But is it almost too baroque? Bird’s new album, Break It Yourself, seems to take a step back from some of the experimentation Bird was prone to early on with albums like The Mysterious Production of Eggs and even in Armchair Apocrypha. But playing some more with experimentation help differentiate Break it Yourself from the rest of Bird’s catalogue. Albeit beautiful, the album is almost too traditional and too accessible to be enjoyed for much more than just pretty tunes.
“Eyeoneye” has some rock flair to it, whereas the song “Danse Carribe” has a bit of tropical beats thrown in, and these tracks seem to stand out on the album as the more exciting works — Bird seems to do his best when he is on the edge of his comfort zone, but if he were to expand even more on that than this album could have extended to even greater realms. “Near Death Experience Experience” seems to be most reminiscent of his earlier works, and is also one of the more enjoyable tracks on the album. Beginning with a strange, spiraling sound and a build-up of guitar chords, violin picking, light humming and xylophone to the chorus of “we’ll dance like cancer survivors,” it’s a hit — but he’s proven to us that this kind of hit is easy for him to do. More interesting is the eight minute “Hole in the Ocean Floor”, consisting of layers of looped violins and strings with few words — a fascinating orchestral piece that reads as authentic Andrew Bird.
The album does not disappoint, but it could be more impressive. We already know that Andrew Bird is a great lyricist and composer, so it would be nice to see him expand upon what he is doing. Break It Yourself is one of the stronger albums to come out so far this year; it flows enticingly and is worth a listen (multiple listens!) the whole way through. But knowing Bird is capable of such dynamic crafting, I find myself craving more from him.
Has the backing band become a relic of the analog age? Technological advances in both home recording and on-stage loops and effects have made it easier than ever for the talented multi-instrumentalist to eschew supporting bandmates and take the stage alone. Sure, singer-songwriters have performed solo for a long time, but this new sound is not your grandfather’s plaintive, acoustic warbling. Today, armed only with pedals, sequencers, samplers and a couple guitars, artists are creating a rich, complex sound with only a couple instruments and their own ingenuity. Bradford Cox, a.k.a. Atlas Sound, made a strong argument for the superfluity of the backing band last Saturday at Lincoln Hall. By his lonesome self he wove a rich, sensual web of psychedelic voodoo that enraptured the sold-out crowd.
The process of creating a rich live sound via looping pedals requires some patience on the crowd’s part, waiting for the artist to put all his notes in a row. Cox’s performance was like a “How-To” guide for an aspiring musician looking to follow in his footsteps. For the first song “Parallax” (also the title track from his latest album), Cox effortlessly built a swirling sonic stew, layer by delicious layer. That stew became source for an entire evening’s performance that made the entire performance seem like a single song as Cox drifted in and out of melodic structures.
Cox is also well known as the front man for indie-rock royalty Deerhunter. While Deerhunter may pay the bills, it’s unfair to term Atlas Sound as a “side-project.” In fact, Atlas Sound predates Deerhunter by a decade or so, as Cox began using the moniker Atlas Sound when he experimented with sound in his bedroom as a teenager. The term “side-project” would also demean the thought and quality of the music he produces. Atlas Sound is really the purest distillation of Cox’s creative mind. Cox has an easily identifiable songwriting touch: a good example being the sugar-sweet haziness of Deerhunter’s “Helicopter.” Atlas Sound takes that aesthetic to a logical extreme where lovely melodies float on a cotton-candy haze that blurs an undercurrent of personal loss or desperation.
Photo by Kris Lenz
Cox is amazingly at ease creating music in this solitary manner. He transitions effortlessly from one song to the next, taking his time getting the loops right before digging into the meat of the performance. He stuck mostly to songs from Parallax, and pointedly did not play any Deerhunter songs. Perhaps the only low point came during one of his certifiable indie hits “Walkabout.” On record, a catchy sample (taken from the Dovers’ “What Am I Going to Do?”) bears the light pop singing of Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear). The live version attempted to keep the jaunty beat sans sample or the higher-pitched singing of Lennox. Cox has a great voice, but he’s pretty limited in range. His attempt to sing the Lennox part fell flat. Fortunately he followed with a rousing version of “Sheila” that brought the crowd’s energy to a new height.
Cox’s gaunt frame (he suffers from Marfan syndrome) and shy on-stage demeanor had me convinced he was of the shrinking-violet school of performers. During the first hour of his set he barely acknowledged the audience at all, seemingly content brewing musical magic. But after the hour ended, the lights went up and Cox let his charming, affable personality shine through. He opened his comments with the remark “Last night I played ‘My Sharona’ for 55 minutes and the audience didn’t care for it, which is weird since they requested it.” From there he launched into a meandering speech that covered the shittiness of Aragon Ballroom, the prevalence of drugs in creating and enjoying 1970s rock and whether or not Cox himself was “avant-garde” (“I’m VERY avant-garde,” Cox remarked jokingly again and again). More than ranting diatribe, Cox questioned the audience and reacted with crafty aplomb to shouted responses. The sequence culminated later when a fan passed up a poster to be signed. Cox willingly accepted and upon sniffing the heavy-duty marker remarked, “This reminds me of middle-school. Let’s get fucked up and listen to the Ramones… in a Volvo.”
I was a little reluctant to see Atlas Sound because I feared Cox’s solo performance might be boring and self-indulgent. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I (and presumably the rest of the quiet, attentive crowd) was pulled in from the very first song. The music was beautiful in a glacial, ambient way. The compositions were more engaging when I could watch Cox create the soundscapes rather than while listening passively on record. He varied the pace of songs and kept the show interesting throughout. Time flew by and Cox’s hilarious stage banter as the show closed was the icing on the cake of an altogether excellent performance.