Indie

How Empty Country Went To Hell And Back To Make One Of 2020’s Best Indie Albums

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In an alternate timeline, Joseph D’Agostino is on the road right now, promoting the excellent self-titled debut album from his new project, Empty Country. A vividly cinematic songwriter who garnered acclaim as the frontman of the intense, ’10s-era emo band Cymbals Eat Guitars, D’Agostino spent more than a year crafting the LP, which he released via Bandcamp last month. Artistically, it’s a triumph — you simply can’t find a better-written rock record at the moment. But, as is the case for nearly all indie artists, this fraught period has inevitably hurt his career.

It would be understandable if D’Agostino allowed the current pandemic to discourage him, given how it’s taken him out of commission as a touring act for the foreseeable future, right at the moment when he’s trying to get Empty Country in as many ears as possible without the benefit of a PR machine. But when reached recently at home in Philadelphia, he seemed pleased by how the album — which ranks among the very best indie releases to come out in the first quarter of 2020 — has done so far, due almost entirely to positive word of mouth.

“I think there was a really beautiful wave of support where a lot of people just kind of woke up and were like, ‘Oh my God, these people, whose sources of income is playing live shows, now can no longer even do that and you have to help them in some way,'” D’Agostino said. “So I definitely was able to ride that nice wave of goodwill and get the record out in the early days of quarantine and social distancing.”

Of course, D’Agostino by now is used to managing disasters, both universal and personal. In spite of how great the album is, Empty Country has marked a long, bad stretch of horrendous professional luck for him. Work on the album dates back to late 2017, right when Cymbals Eat Guitars was about to wrap a rocky, decade-long career marked by early indie fame and prolonged, post-buzz band disappointment. For his new group, D’Agostino resolved to move in a direction that was musically simpler and more focused on his highly visual storytelling lyrics. In Cymbals, he was already well-regarded for spinning narratives that mixed closely observed scenes taken from his own life with heavy doses of surrealism, an evocative if disorienting approach that made his songs feel like five-minute movies directed by David Lynch or Richard Kelly.

With Empty Country, he pared back his former band’s grandiosity and complicated song structures in favor of a highly stylized, alt-rock version of Americana, emphasizing sonic elements like Zena Kay’s pedal steel guitar to accentuate the anxious drama of his lyrics. The results are frequently stunning, like an early ’80s Springsteen record goosed with the extreme dynamics of prime-era Bright Eyes, with scores of deep and generous songs that demand dozens of close listens to decipher the myriad details that D’Agostino carefully places throughout, whether it’s the medium who sees her own death in “Marian” or the hollow-faced self-described sociopath with the unseemly 9/11 tattoo who narrates “Swim.”

Upon finishing the album in early 2019, D’Agostino “was ecstatic with it. I thought it was the best thing I ever did,” he said. That feeling is justified — along with 2014’s LOSE, Cymbals’ high-water creative mark, Empty Country is his richest work. However, many in D’Agostino’s professional circle didn’t agree. His manager and booking agent dropped him within 24 hours of hearing Empty Country. His attempts at shopping the album to top indie record labels also came up empty. The LP languished, and so did D’Agostino, who was already being treated for Bipolar II disorder. The shabby treatment of Empty Country sunk him even lower.

He eventually found a taker in the once well-regarded indie Tiny Engines, but that label collapsed before they could put out Empty Country amid accusations of financial impropriety from artists. D’Agostino now felt truly adrift, a feeling compounded from being prescribed an improper dose of his psychiatric medication. He even contemplated suicide, he admits.

And then came perhaps the worst blow of all: His songwriting idol David Berman, who had become a personal and artistic confidant while D’Agostino worked on Empty Country, took his own life in August of 2019, on the eve of a Purple Mountains tour that D’Agostino was set to join on select dates. To say that Berman’s death crushed him would be an understatement.

“I mean, I’ve been in therapy and everything, but I shared a lot of that with Dave, as well, deepest, darkest type stuff, and he was always very helpful,” he said. “So when he committed suicide … Just thinking about that song on the Purple Mountains record. All of them are just impossibly difficult to listen to now. But just like, ‘I Love Being My Mother’s Son.’ Because when he committed suicide, I just thought about how he must’ve just felt like a lost child. His mother was gone, and his father was a demon.”

And yet, in spite of all the adversity, the quality of Empty Country is undeniable. Thankfully it has seen the light of day, so that the rest of us can appreciate its brilliance. I talked to D’Agostino about the album, his personal and professional struggles, and his resolve to keep going.

When you were working on these songs, did you have a conceptual idea of what you wanted Empty Country to be? Did you define it against like what Cymbals Eat Guitars was?

I knew that for the new project I wanted to assume a little bit more responsibility over the whole proceeding. So I made it a point to write for every instrument and really work hard to make sure that everything was thought out pretty well. It was actually more akin to writing the first Cymbals albums than any of the ones that followed.

Cymbals had fallen into this [scene]. We did a lot of tours with bands like Say Anything and Brand New, pop-punk tours and things like that. I think that the sound of the band was influenced by the types of tours we were doing and the types of crowds we were playing in front of, and the types of career or success that we envisioned or hoped for ourselves. So with the new project, I had a resolve to not have that stuff figure into it.

This is sort of a vague comment, but Empty Country seems less bombastic and melodramatic than Cymbals. This is another dreadful term but “grown up” also comes to mind.

I think there was a conscious effort to not mellow it out and be a middle-aged guy in adult-contemporary music. But I definitely was trying to make a conscious decision to not have there be a lot of signature Cymbals moves, I guess you would call them, which are the signature Modest Mouse moves, or whatever else, that early Cymbals stuff was derived from. Just extreme loud, intense, screaming stuff, and intense bombast. I wanted this to be a little more laidback in the approach, and fewer parts, and just a little more easy-going in the song structures. Like the song “Becca,” for instance, it’s just three chords, except the bridge. Where in Cymbals I may have really tried to get 40 chords in there.

Was that motivated at all by a desire to bring the lyrics out more? Because as good as your words are, they could be hard to pick out in Cymbals Eat Guitars’ songs.

For sure. Especially on the songs that are more narrative driven like “Becca,” like “Swim,” like “Marian,” although you can still only hear 80 or 85 percent of it, if I’m being honest with myself. I always have been proud of the lyrics for most of the Cymbals stuff, so I did want them to be a little more audible, and just have the vocals fit in a way that accentuated more of what was going on lyrically rather than the wall-of-sound type approach.

I’m curious about your songwriting method, because you have lines in your songs that are so visual that they could also work in a short story or even a screenplay. For instance, the image in “Swim” of the guy with a tattoo of an airplane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11. Have you ever considered writing in a different format?

I’ve never really written a short story outside of the time that I spent in primary school, and a little bit of college. I used to write poetry, but now rather than thinking about what I write as poetry, I just think about it as free verse to eventually be paired and shaped into lyrics for songs, for better or worse. That’s my medium, my niche, just the thing that I feel is the best vehicle for what I do.

With “Swim,” I actually got the idea of that song from my wife Rachel. When we were living in Kensington [a neighborhood in Philadelphia], she made the observation one day when we were sitting outside on our stoop that the family across the street, our neighbors, had old faces. Not in the sense of prematurely aged, but they looked like Dust Bowl era farmers, and from that, which I thought was true, I just started dreaming up the various characters. But there’s one that stuck out, that ended up the main character person in “Swim.”

I interviewed David Berman not long before he passed last year, and he brought you up, unprompted, in our conversation, singling you out as a “very good writer.”

Wow.

I know you two had a friendship, and of course you were set to open up a few dates of the Purple Mountains tour that never occurred. How did he influence you?

He’s my idol since I was 16. I fell in love with Starlite Walker and American Water and Natural Bridge, and to a slightly lesser extent, Bright Flight, which I told him, and he understood. [Laughs.] But when I was learning to drive, and driving by myself for the first time where I lived in South Jersey to Vintage Vinyl up in Fords, New Jersey to buy records, I was listening to his music, and his lyrics were everything that I wanted to ever come close to accomplishing. At the time I also had Actual Air, and I lived and breathed his music. It was a huge deal when Tanglewood Numbers came out. I was still in high school at the time, so I was really sucked in and I was this huge fan. Everything I ever did, everything I’ve ever done, is to some degree because of, or inspired by, or just filled with the energy that he kindled in me as a teenager and young adult. So yeah, his influence can’t be overstated.

I randomly met him in Nashville at two in the morning after a show that Cymbals played in 2015 to nobody. And he just walked up, and he was just so gracious, right from the very beginning. For all the Empty Country songs, each one, he was one of maybe four or five people I would send my demos to. And Dave Berman would always be the first to respond, and he would always say something A) encouraging, but B) that would turn me on my ear, in a helpful way. I think he was a natural teacher. I do feel, for a precious couple of years, I was able to have this masterclass. But he didn’t try to exert anything, any kind of influence, to whatever I was doing, although I remember once he said to me, “You should try singing in a lower register.”

When I interviewed Berman, he specifically praised the Empty Country album, which you hadn’t announced yet. And he mentioned how good of a writer you are while also complaining that he couldn’t understand all the lyrics.

Yeah, he was like, “There’s been a lot of these helium boy, like Mercury Rev-type singers,” and I was like, Dave, my voice isn’t low. [Laughs.] I sing the way I sing because it’s how I sing. So he was able to get with that eventually. He realized I couldn’t change, it’s a physical thing in my throat.

You had a terrible run of bad career luck with this album before it came out. You’ve said it eventually culminated with a mental breakdown. Do you want to talk about that?

I was undiagnosed Bipolar II for my entire life, up until I was 28, and the doctor I was seeing at the time, when all the bad stuff started happening after the record was done, had me on Wellbutrin, and they upped the dose when I got extra despondent. But it kind of did the opposite of what you think a drug like Wellbutrin would do. It drove me into the ground. It was just the difference between 150 mg and 300 mg, taking more of it just made everything so much worse, and I definitely had suicidal ideation.

When something that I put so much into was rejected in the way that it was, and in combination with this disastrous medication change, I was just in bed thinking about what it would be like to have my brains smashed against the asphalt, or jumping off of the top of the house that I live in, or just smashing my face into my desk repeatedly, and knocking out my teeth, and breaking my nose, and just wanting to hurt myself and be hurt. Obviously something was very wrong on a chemical level. Thankfully, I was able to figure that out, with the help of my wife Rachel and a doctor. Once I got on Prozac, things started to become a little less bleak. I don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t medicated through Dave’s suicide.

So this happened before he died?

It was before Dave died. I’m sure you know what he was going through. You talked to him. He was like a TMI machine as far as depression and medication-resistant depression. He and I would talk about medications and we were both on Wellbutrin and would share our experiences and just talk about what had worked over the years for him. Since I was relatively new to psych meds, he was there to be a sounding board.

After everything you’ve been through, how do you feel about making another record after this? Is that something you want to do? I would understand if you just felt like, “This is too much for me. I don’t know if I can put myself this.” But you’re also really great at it. Where are you at with that?

I haven’t finished a song in a couple of years, but that is kind of the way it’s always been. I’ll finish something on this record, and then I will bask in the glow of having finished something that I’m proud of for a while, and not put any pressure on myself, and just read a lot, and watch a lot of movies, and try and make myself happy through other people’s art. And that invariably results in something coming out. Aside from my own death, I don’t think anything is going to change that.

Especially now, the situation being what it is with social isolation and everything, I would give anything to go back to the worst attended, most brutal Cymbals show in Oklahoma City. I would do anything to go back there and to play with them. Just a rehearsal. And it hasn’t been that long. Playing shows is all I did for 10 years, and haven’t played many since 2017. I feel like when I’m in a room with these people again — with [his Empty Country bandmates] Anne, and Pat, and Rachel, and Zena, and Zoe — I am just going to be so elated just to be there.

Empty Country is out now on Get Better Records. Get it here.

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