Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide.
Several years ago, Joseph D’Agostino met one of his heroes, the novelist Richard Ford.
Against Ford’s strict advice, D’Agostino got a tattoo of the phrase “Famous Times,” a reference to one of Ford’s stories. At the time, D’Agostino’s former band Cymbals Eat Guitars had released their intricately composed second album Lenses Alien. At least in terms of ticket sales for the ensuing tour, the album wasn’t as well received as their boisterous debut Why There Are Mountains. A bit discouraged and worried that his young music career might end before it got much of a chance to really take off, he got the tattoo to remember the good times, the euphoric whirlwind of his band getting discovered on MySpace and written up as an unsigned band on Pitchfork during the heady days of the blog-rock buzz band gold rush, which led to Best New Music glory and tours with the Flaming Lips and Wilco.
I first met D’Agostino in 2014 at Coney Island, when I interviewed him for the short-lived music website Wondering Sound, which deserved better. At the time, Cymbals Eat Guitars were in a transition phase. He admitted that in the early years, they were “a totally unprepared, terrible live band” and not at all ready for the sudden rush of attention that a glowing recommendation of an MP3 could result in, as the band’s chops hadn’t caught up with his enthusiasm and songwriting talent. But he was about to release LOSE, the band’s third album, a portrait of a band and a young songwriter coming into their own, looking back upon the shocking death of his childhood friend while crafting cathartic indie rock epics like “Jackson” and “XR.” LOSE still had echoes of Cymbals Eat Guitars touchstones like Built To Spill and the Wrens, but now they were filtered through a poetic, literary and often noisy lens that felt highly singular. In retrospect, the album feels like a bittersweet end-of-an-era statement, the door closing on the freedom of the blog era as streaming, social media, and changing tastes firmly altered the indie landscape.
Looking back, D’Agostino is not without regrets — including that tattoo, commemorating the now-“problematic” Ford. “He had a racist kerfuffle, I think maybe several years back,” D’Agostino says. “That’s why you listen to the author when they tell you, ‘Don’t do it.’”
A few years after the tattoo, D’Agostino again found himself discouraged. Though LOSE garnered great reviews, it felt like the right album at the wrong time, as he remembers many shows where his band played to almost no one. But after playing a show in Nashville for five people, he felt particularly down, only for the universe to send him encouragement in the form of his songwriting hero David Berman of the Silver Jews. Berman arrived after the set had ended but stuck around to offer advice to D’Agostino, urging him to not let his self-worth be determined by how many people buy tickets to his show.
The two remained in touch, and after Cymbals Eat Guitars ended their run with 2016’s Pretty Years, Berman offered D’Agostino encouragement and guidance as he started his next group Empty Country. The band features bassist Patrick Dole and drummer Charlotte Anne Dole but is also porous enough to allow contributions from friends and family, including a co-write on the single “Erlking” from D’Agostino’s wife Rachel Browne aka Field Mouse.
Empty Country were set to make their live debut opening for Berman’s new group Purple Mountains, who had just released their acclaimed debut. But tragically Berman, who had long struggled with addiction and treatment-resistant depression, took his own life shortly before the show.
D’Agostino was devastated by the loss, and he felt isolated after moving from Philadelphia to New England, unable to play shows during the pandemic. He says he was depressed for a while, but eventually found solace in literature and making music.
Though he has faced setbacks and disappointments in his career, D’Agostino has never stopped growing or pushing himself, and Empty Country II, out today, is one of his best. While his love of classic indie rock and wild guitar solos continue to shine through, the album also finds him creating exploratory post-rock soundscapes and Springsteen-indebted classic rock ballads. While Cymbals Eat Guitars’ later albums found D’Agostino writing about his troubled New Jersey childhood and personal experiences, Empty Country is more like a short story anthology filled with vivid tales of addiction, mass shootings, and hope along the margins, rendered with nuance and empathy from a maturing songwriter at the top of his game.
I’m always happy to catch up with D’Agostino, so we jumped on a video call to discuss the influences on Empty Country II, from working at the studio of legendary R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter to the author that pulled him out of his depressive state to the one Smashing Pumpkins song he reps. Below, stream the new album and read our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Bing & Ruth
JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: There’s this album by Bing & Ruth called Tomorrow Was The Golden Age, it’s magnificent stuff. It’s mostly piano-led, but there is, I believe, a cello and just spare instrumentation, and just some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever, ever heard. Then I delved into their other albums as well after getting into that one, and they’re all so wonderful. David Moore, the main person from Bing & Ruth, also just did a collaborative record with Steve Gunn.
Producers Mitch Easter & John Agnello
While you did some overdubs in your home studio, Empty Country II was mostly recorded in Kernersville, North Carolina?
D’AGOSTINO: We did it in North Carolina. And then I recorded some extra stuff, you might call it more guitars and things, at home. But we did the bulk of the tracking in Mitch Easter’s studio Fidelitorium, in Kernersville, North Carolina, and that was like a super, super cool, beautiful experience.
Did you get to meet Mitch Easter?
D’AGOSTINO: Mitch was around, basically during the setup. He and John Agnello obviously go way back, and John works there all the time now that he lives in North Carolina. John lives in Raleigh, he and his family. So, yeah, Mitch is just, like, around.They have the main house, and then the studio is out back, and there’s a guest house where Anne and Pat and I stayed, and Mitch was just around helping out. Mitch, his wife Tammy also, they were just bringing little treats over and coffee and helping John decide to use which limiter or preamp, what’s the best shit in the studio.
What can you say about your relationship with John? You guys go back to the second Cymbals Eat Guitars album, I believe.
D’AGOSTINO: Yeah, Lenses Alien. John and I have had kind of a… I don’t know what you might call it. We were the best of friends through the making of Lenses and LOSE. And then I at the time, I guess was when this happened, in 2015, I guess I was 26, after two records with John, which were great records and happened to be my favorite Cymbals albums, like no question. In fact, Lenses Alien is kind of my favorite Cymbals album now, which is kind of an about-face from what I’ve said in the past.
Yeah, that is different from what you told me when we first met.
Yeah, it’s grown on me because I feel like it’s the most unique of all of those albums. And it’s also my wife Rachel’s favorite. So it’s kind of the reason we met. So it holds a special place in my heart. But yeah, so after two records with John, being the young, hungry fool that I was, I was like, “I want to do a record with someone else.” I’ve been talking to John Congleton about doing Pretty Years,” which, obviously he ended up doing.
Oh, I love John Congleton.
I admire him tremendously. But my relationship with John [Agnello] kind of fell apart when I decided to work with someone else. And I think part of it was… a lot of it was probably my attitude at the time and not showing the proper respect that a fucking legend like Agnello deserves. And so we didn’t talk or communicate much for many years, from 2015 to 2022. And I have just kind of been in the constant process of trying to become a better person and evaluate my behaviors and my past actions and selves. And I realized that the whole thing was kind of fucked up between me and John and that I owed him an apology.
And so I reached out to him on Instagram, and he was very gracious. We talked, and it felt like we were healing a little bit in our conversations with each other. And we talked on the phone, and I told him that I had these songs and how I was trying to make it sound, and we decided to give it a go and work together. I didn’t know anything about recording, producing, engineering, anything besides playing the guitar and singing and writing the songs when we worked together last. Whereas now, I’m a little more into things on the recording end, and I’m sure that’s intensely annoying for somebody like John, who has just learned and forgotten more about recording than I will ever know in my life. But I had that awareness to know that this time around, I would ask him some question about something and he’d give me a really thoughtful, thorough answer to it, and then he’d be like, “Any more stupid fucking questions?”
D’AGOSTINO: He’s an amazing man. He’s just one of a kind, and nobody fucking does it like him. He was very patient with all of my intense anal fucking bullshit and the back and forth and many test mixes and versions. But, yeah, we got it done, and we’re kind of like, “We’re okay. We’re good again.”
Joy Williams & W.G. Sebald
One of the main differences between Cymbals Eat Guitars and Empty Country is how you approach your lyric writing. Particularly by the last two Cymbals albums, you were pulling from your own life and experiences, whereas Empty Country’s albums feel much more like a short story collection. So who were some of the authors and books that you were thinking about when you started writing this album?
D’AGOSTINO: I will say this is one of those things where I was just starting to get into her when I was citing her as an influence on the first Empty Country record. But Joy Williams is my god. I think she might be the greatest short story writer. And I love her novels, too. Specifically, The Changeling kind of just dragged me out of torpor and despair, which, of course, I still feel, like anyone else in this era. Like all the time.
But just getting me back into a creative zone whenever I open a book of hers or just decide to read a short story before bed, I am reminded of the power… it’s hard to describe the magic of what she does, but it’s kind of like a similar thing to why I love [Roberto] Bolaño so much and why I love W.G. Sebald so much is because they…for instance, Sebald’s Austerlitz. That book is about a Holocaust survivor with amnesia, basically, and throughout the book, he never specifically talks about or references the Holocaust, but everything points to it. It’s like a black hole at the center of the book. And all you’re seeing is just the things around it. It’s magnificent. And she does that in the span of a short story.
It’s when the outline of a thing or the absence of a thing stands in for the thing it’s about.
D’AGOSTINO: It’s like the thing that [Raymond] Carver does where the most important things that are left unsaid are as important as the things that are described in detail. It’s just the most masterful, and The Changeling is definitely huge for me and huge in the creation of Empty Country, too.
To that end, I mean, “Pearl” is a great song, but I assume your mom didn’t send fan mail to John Hinckley Jr.
D’AGOSTINO: No, no she didn’t. “Pearl” and “Bootsie” are kind of the anchor songs of the record. It’s very loosely based on my mom’s youth, spent in New York City and Brooklyn, where she was part of a scene of a lot of gay men and the club scene and like 85% of them passed from AIDS in the first half of the 80s. So just the enormity of that.
She was very young, 18, 17, and going out and moving out from my grandparents’ house, because my grandma at the time was oppressively Catholic. My mom was searching for her place and for freedom and working in restaurants. There was this place, Night Falls, which has since closed. But that was the locus of her scene and all her friends worked there.
It’s fiction. But I tried to pull through the emotions and the things that she feels and that I feel hearing her talk about that part of her life and that era of her life. “Bootsie,” for instance, I’ve been leaving lyrics to the last…I finished the whole track first, and it spurs me to go for it with the lyrics. And “Bootsie” was pretty much just one shot all the way through, it just vomited out of me like the old days.
Usually it’s a lot more of a laborious process now, but that one just came straight out. I was thinking about my mom, and my mom went through cancer treatment last year. Breast cancer. She’s okay. I mean, she’s going to be okay. But I just let in some spirit, I don’t know who or what or what it is. But you just kind of let it in and then let it out through. My mom was just on my mind constantly. And so it was just informing what I was doing.
I feel weird saying this, knowing that the song is inspired by your mom. But the song that “Bootsie” reminded me of, and this is a compliment, is “Street Hassle” by Lou Reed.
D’AGOSTINO: Oh, fuck yeah. Very cool, very cool that that’s the thought.
It definitely has that cinematic feel, and it’s a little bit funkier than anything we’ve ever heard from you. Are there bongos in that song?
D’AGOSTINO: There are bongos on quite a bit of the album. Ann Dole loves bongos, and so do I. Now, honestly, she made me a convert. Not that I was ever anti-bongo. I was just maybe, like, not sure that they belonged on an Empty Country album, but yeah, I think they do. The groove thing was just like, we had most of the song tracked, but the bass wasn’t quite working, and Pat went out there and we were like coaching him into, like, “Oh, like Roxy Music,” on the talkback, annoying him until finally he was just like, “All right, all right, shut the fuck up.” And, you know, just like, did the thing that you hear on the record, which is obviously like super slinky, funky, cool.
I got to compliment you on the lyric in that song, “biblically filthy.” That’s a good turn of phrase.
D’AGOSTINO: After the fact, actually, I’m afraid that I lifted that from Daniel Clowes. It might be in a short story of his. He says biblical filth. That’s why with influences and stuff, if you examine everything very closely, you might start to find the seams and threads more than you, as the artist, might want to. But I think it’s okay, especially with rock n’ roll.
Just steal from the best.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock”
So going back to “Pearl,” what was behind the reference to “Cherub Rock” by the Smashing Pumpkins?
D’AGOSTINO: There’s some cool teens that I passed driving. I was going to get some coffee somewhere. And I was like, wow, these kids are 15 or 16, but one of them was wearing a Nevermind T-shirt and had a flannel around her waist tied, and I was just like, “Damn, maybe the kids are all right.” Or just, “People are still into guitar music.” So that was maybe what I was thinking of at the time. And I know that I went home and I pulled up on Vimeo or YouTube or whatever, the SNL rehearsal of “Cherub Rock.”
Hell yeah, I’ve seen that too.
D’AGOSTINO: Which is fucking righteous, one of the most ripping fucking performances I’ve ever seen in my life. Honestly, not my favorite alt ’90s band. I just think Billy Corgan is a dickhead. Obviously that’s not a hot take. The music just isn’t a huge part of my life, but that song is. And that performance is. So that’s definitely what I was thinking about, was him ripping that guitar solo, when I wrote that line and thinking about Pearl, like she might be one of those girls that I saw the nice side of the road.
Sparkehorse’s Mark Linkous
Is “Erking” one of the first songs you wrote with your wife Rachel?
D’AGOSTINO: We’re working on stuff now. But yeah, this would be the first song attributed to Rachel, although I would say that her participation in my process is tantamount to co-writes on other stuff on Pretty Years and the first Empty Country record. But “Erking” is the first formal co-write. That was just when we were still in Philly. We hadn’t moved yet, and the pandemic lockdown era, the album had just come out and I was, you know, despondent, of course, like everyone else, but also I was just not getting to play any shows. Anyway, she was like, “All right, well, we might as well just just keep going.” And we started doing little jams and things here and there, to kind of keep each of us engaged in music making and in the stuff that makes our souls happy.
Are there cellos on this song?
D’AGOSTINO: No, there’s nothing on there but guitars and maybe some Mellotron string stuff.
Okay, that’s what I’m thinking of, the Mellotron. Could you tell me more about that?
D’AGOSTINO: Obviously, Linkous, Sparklehorse, is a big one of my guys and I love his use of the flute mellotron, and some string synths, but mostly just the flute like “Gold Day.”
Just wonderful. I try to throw that stuff wherever I can. And in general, I’m just a big fan of Chamberlin Mellotron, all that stuff. We’ve been using it on albums since, like, since, I mean, since Lenses.
The lyrics sound like it’s about the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting incident.
D’AGOSTINO: I wrote it on the day of Uvalde, pretty much the whole thing. And, we’re two days out from another horrific thing, not a school shooting, but the Maine massacre. Nothing’s changed.
I’ve come to believe probably the most important piece of text in American life in the 21st century is the Onion headline “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
D’AGOSTINO: Because I hate myself, I am still on Twitter a little bit. I lurk a little bit when I need to feel bad about everything in myself. You just see there’s such darkness, just poisonous blackness at the heart of our country. I don’t know what can be done.
Elliott Smith & My Bloody Valentine
Let’s move on to something more fun. You’re playing your ass off in this album, but, “Dustine,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard you, like, go so explosive and guitar hero-like in your entire career. Who are your favorite guitar players these days?
D’AGOSTINO: Um, geez, I don’t know, I barely think about it because it’s such an outdated kind of notion of guitar heroes and whatnot.
But I guess, I constantly rewatch this video on YouTube, that’s Elliott Smith in the era of Figure 8. I’ve been obsessed with Elliott Smith for many years, but it started to occur to me that he’s basically like a fucking Slowhand, top 10 all-time lead guitarist, too. He just doesn’t flash it all the time.
I guess that figures into all of my lead playing, but the bombast of “Dustine,” I think, sort of came by accident, really. That was maybe the first or second song I wrote for the record. I knew I wanted a loud, quiet, loud thing. My reference is always like, there’s this guitar sound on the 2013 My Bloody Valentine album (m b v), the second song that comes in. So that’s how that song kind of came about. It’s like three chords mostly for the entire song.
D’AGOSTINO: Since maybe May 2018, at least once a week, I listen to Laughing Stock and then Spirit Of Eden by Talk Talk. I love those albums so much, and I can’t really estimate how much they have influenced my music making in the last five years or so.
I was on, like, TikTok reading about how Laughing Stock was created. They would have guys, session musicians in the studio playing all of these various parts, and then they would edit it after the fact, kind of just like plucking like, “Oh, this little passage here,” and creating the songs kind of after the performances, well after everyone had left the studio. That’s kind of the stage that I’m at with songwriting now, where I’ll just play for a while and record everything in Pro Tools on any given instrument here, and then I’ll arrange things and drop things. It’s really freeing and really wonderful. So whatever the next Empty Country record is, I think is going to be, really, really strange in a good way and not at all conforming with the previous, stylistic, whatever kind of box I am in with the Cymbals and Empty Country stuff. It might fall outside of that in some way.
As I’ve mentioned to you before, I’m from Orlando, Florida. It’s interesting not living there anymore, as in recent times, Florida has kind of become like a symbol for American inequality and the people that society has left behind. Probably the best example of that would be the films of Sean Baker. I think that one of the first lyrics in the song “FLA” is about being wiped out by Hurricane Andrew. What were you thinking about with this one?
D’AGOSTINO: I believe I wrote “FLA” in February ’21, so I hadn’t written a song since like 2019 at that point. And that was the literal moment of Joy Williams yanking me out of the abyss. And obviously a lot of her stuff, she lives in Florida, and she’s written about the ecological collapse over there and the moral unraveling.
I have spent a fair amount of time in Florida in my childhood. My grandpa on my dad’s side lived down there, and we would go to visit here and there. I just felt like I wouldn’t be completely writing about something I don’t know. To a certain extent the American hick is everywhere. And in some ways I can get inside it easily. So I was just like, “I’m gonna write a character song, a character sketch, and it’s just going to be the piano-led thing, and it’s going to be three chords, and I’m going to try and make it interesting.” I was reading The Changeling and Breaking And Entering, and I was going through her novels again at the time, Joy Williams. And that was kind of just where I was coming from. It’s like “I’m going to get myself out of this, have to write, have to write something, going to write something,” and that that was it. That was what came.
So you grew up in New Jersey, and as such, you are aware that you are, by law, required to enjoy the music of Bruce Springsteen.
D’AGOSTINO: I do. I mean, I love Bruce Springsteen. I don’t love the Obama war criminal podcast partnership. But you know, Bruce is what, 70?
What are you going to do?
D’AGOSTINO: If he had done some really terrible shit, okay. But like, no, it’s fine, he’s fine. Fucking, he’s a boomer. It’s cool. I love him and all of the albums that you’d think that I love, I do, and some of the albums that you wouldn’t think I’d love. I do like The Rising. Huge for me, one of the first albums that I had on CD. The corny songs make me cry, like “Mary’s Place.” I love that album, and I love Tunnel Of Love, which in recent years has gone through kind of a reappraisal. I feel like maybe it gets the respect that it deserves.
Now, that’s a lot of people’s favorite Bruce Springsteen album, it’s not even a contrarian choice anymore. I bring this up because “FLA” definitely reminds me of “The River,” particularly with the piano and the harmonica.
D’AGOSTINO: You are so on point, because the reason that that piano part exists was because I was trying to learn “Thunder Road” on the piano, just those little subtle movements. What is it, Roy Bittan, I think.
The Professor, yes.
D’AGOSTINO: That was exactly what I was going for. That definitely formed the basis of it. And then, as usual, you let it blossom out into something else. So then there’s all these weird vocal samples and things that are happening. I almost was thinking of it like [Radiohead’s] “Everything In Its Right Place,” but like a Springsteen-esque American version of what might happen with that.
Some Quick Thoughts On Crowded House, Aimee Mann, & Neko Case
D’AGOSTINO: Crowded House, Together Alone — big, big favorite of mine in recent years. I love it from start to finish. I just love the sound of the album. Neil Finn has the coolest fucking voice, like of maybe the ’80s and ’90s combined. He’s just like the sexiest, coolest motherfucking voice that you could ever hear, and the songwriting is absolutely phenomenal. And I only knew them as “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” But it turns out the other studio records are phenomenal. Together Alone. Huge influence on me and Empty Country.
Aimee Mann, specifically the record Mental Illness. I mean, she has so many songs where it’s like she should be talked about in the same breath as Elliott Smith as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, she’s just like the best or one of the best ever. And I love that album. Means a lot to me.
Neko Case, we saw her in Philadelphia, before the pandemic, maybe at the end of 2018. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Just incredible. Middle Cyclone I think is the one, that’s my favorite. That has all my jams on it. That song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” which I believe is on the following album [Hell-On]. That’s just completely a cappella. It’s a story about a girl being yelled at by her mother at the bus stop, and Neko witnessing it and talking about how her own parents didn’t love her. It’s this stark and gorgeous song. I think about that song all the time when I’m thinking about, do I need this extra layer of guitars or do I need to try to be more subtractive because of the power of that song?
D’AGOSTINO: “Lamb” was inspired by a James Salter story called “Twenty Minutes,” it’s in the short story collection called Dusk. It’s about this woman who is out riding horses by herself around dusk, and the horse stumbles. And she gets crushed from the waist down. And the entire story kind of is what’s happening to her in her mind as she lays helpless and dying as the sun goes down. And it’s one of my favorite short stories.
And I was like, I want to make a song that’s a nod to that in some way. And at that point, “Lamb” was maybe the last song I wrote for the record. So I had already kind of formulated this idea of this family and all the characters that are sort of happening on the record. And I got this idea that Lamb is Pearl’s daughter. And that song takes place in like 2038 or, you know, 2037 or something. And I mean, is it apparent to you what happens in the song?
I think so. I know something bad happens to the titular character.
D’AGOSTINO: She hits a jump and she falls, in a similar way that the horse, it injures her mortally. And that’s kind of what the song is about is this character, slipping away in the woods alone.
I have always meant to read A Sport And A Pastime.
D’AGOSTINO: I saw him at the 92nd Street Y, sometime in the past decade before he passed, and got to see him read some of the novels that were new at the time. He’s a legend.
Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan
Let’s move on to the album’s epic closer “Cool S,” which is one of the longest and most bombastic songs you’ve ever made. I feel like, just as with Springsteen, you are embracing your Jersey heritage here, as this feels like Yo La Tengo at their most exploratory.
D’AGOSTINO: Ira is…I don’t know him personally. I don’t know why I’m calling him Ira, but when you asked about guitar heroes and stuff, I would name him as being one of mine early on, because of the skronky stuff that he does, the noisy stuff, but there’s also wonderful melodic stuff like, “Stockholm Syndrome” or whatever.
And then there’s also like wild, noisy, just sounds like a fucking hell beast kind of stuff. He kind of gave me permission, as somebody who didn’t play guitar very well or know a lot of anything about scales or anything as a teenager, to just kick on a fuzz pedal and fucking just have some confidence and rip it, and if you get to the wrong note, just fucking bend the note up until it’s right. And maybe you never get to the right note, but just have the conviction and don’t look like you fucked up. That jazz thing too, a wrong note played twice is not the wrong note.
So Yo La Tengo’s huge. I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One is a big one for me. Also, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass because it came out in 2006 when I was graduating high school. And I actually saw Yo La Tengo in Jersey city at the Loews Old Theater. There’s an old theater venue in Jersey city. My friend Louis and I, we saw Yo La Tengo in that era, and it definitely shaped me.
The Late David Berman
Do you feel like talking about the song “David”? You don’t have to if you don’t want to.
D’AGOSTINO: Yeah, we can talk about it.
I remember you told me you first met him when you were on tour in 2015.
D’AGOSTINO: With This Will Destroy You. We were going out to meet those guys. I think it was in Utah, Salt Lake, but going through Nashville.
What is your first memory of meeting him?
D’AGOSTINO: What I remember most, I guess, is the uncommon kind of kindness and willingness to stop and chat with a random stranger. That tour was a disaster for us. We didn’t make money. We lost money. Nobody came to some of the shows that were only ours. And I was really bummed out at the time about it. But then that night where I met him… I was in Nashville at that moment, but it was just a random strip of parking lots and the venue. And he just emerged from the darkness, seemingly like I summoned him. I don’t know what it was. It just seemed, in retrospect, like supernatural kismet that this person who totally, almost single-handedly shaped my artistic life and helped me make sense of the world, would just kind of randomly walk up to me while I’m loading out the van at this garbage show.
Probably the last person you would expect to see.
D’AGOSTINO: Truly? I mean, I would think that it would be like, I don’t know, somebody coming to rob me or something, but no, it’s my idol. Very strange. And that’s that web of coincidence. It’s just that wonderful strangeness of the human experience, all these things that happen that are technically coincidence, but we can’t see the bigger thing that’s happening because we’re inside of it. But there’s obviously something happening.
Did he know about your band and like your music, or was he just coming up to see whatever band was playing that night?
D’AGOSTINO: Whoever was playing. And I gave him CDs that night, and a year later or whatever, he wrote back to me. He and [his then wife Cassie Berman], I guess, had been listening in the car to the CDs. It was Lenses and LOSE, by the way. So he didn’t know who I was, but I knew who he was, and I made that obvious fairly quickly. I guess it’s not so bad to stand there and allow somebody to effusively just ask you questions.
So when did you first get into Silver Jews?
D’AGOSTINO: I guess just the first rock stuff that I got into in a way, where I was playing a little guitar and cared about anything, was the well documented Weezer-into-Pavement pipeline.
D’AGOSTINO: And then of course very shortly after Pavement, the Silver Jews. So I was buying all those CDs at the same time. I guess that would be 2004 and 2005. I was a sophomore and junior in high school, and instantly, American Water was my most listened to. I was constantly listening to that album whenever I would drive.
So you and David kept in touch over the years, I take it.
D’AGOSTINO: We did. We exchanged many emails. While I was writing the first Empty Country record, he was very supportive. I mean, he went out of his way in the first email to be like, “You’re one of the great young lyricists. And with a few edits, you could go and get into the Iowa Writers Workshop,” just saying very nice things to me and encouraging me. And then over the years, we kind of got into deeper conversations about depression and suicide and… heavy things. And we kind of got pretty deep with each other on a lot of that stuff. It felt good to have someone that I could go to with those feelings.
And he obviously lost the battle or whatever you want to call it. I wouldn’t say suicide is losing a battle with depression. It’s…. I don’t know.
[D’Agostino takes a moment.]
I don’t want to get too far into that because… my mom is going to read this, and I don’t want her to fucking worry about me, or I don’t want to say the wrong thing. But yes, we spent a lot of emails back and forth, and he was one of the major reasons that I continued to write music or tried and do music after all the disappointments of making the first Empty Country record and getting dropped and all that stuff. He was really there for me to try and pep talk me when I needed it. Really sweet, really sweet to me. He didn’t have to be, you know?
Obviously, I think history might try to paint David as a tragic figure, but when he passed, my friend Rob Sheffield wrote a memoriam of him and he told this really funny story about how in the ’90s they’re at some hipster party and David went to the stereo, blasted an Oasis B-side and sat there in the room with a shit-eating grin as people were horrified.
D’AGOSTINO: Love it. Yeah. He’s hilarious. I mean, that’s just so fundamental to everything that he did was how he could somehow be so funny. And also have these profound truths laid bare in the same line, same stanza, just unbelievable talent. No exaggeration, probably, to just say the greatest lyricist of all time, maybe.
I’m sorry for your loss, Joe.
D’AGOSTINO: Others knew him and loved him. And everybody, even people who didn’t know him personally, miss him. But again, without getting too far into suicide stuff….you know, I think I’ll stop there.
Fair enough. Can you tell me about writing the song “David”?
D’AGOSTINO: Another really simple song, by the way. Three chords, and then the chorus is just the same chords, but backwards, like ascending, descending. And it all was just a keyboard and vocal loop. I wrote the song around that, this was maybe, I guess this August or September ’22. It was literally what I say in the song…I finally wrote this, like I’ve been meaning to write a song because that’s how I deal with or process anything really that’s important. I was like, “I’ve been putting this off, and I’m going to do it now.” And it may seem weird to build this type of song or lyrical content around this bouncy vocal sample and a Philly soul kind of groove. But it’s just like, all right, it’s happening. Here it is. It’s happening now. Can’t stop it. Here it goes. And it went.
For Empty Country, I was giving myself deadlines monthly because I was posting stuff to Patreon. So a lot of the stuff that I wrote for it was just like, “I have a deadline, I have to post something on the first of the month, and here goes. And I’m not going to get too precious, I’m just going to do it.” And similarly, like with the “Bootsie” thing, where it’s like, whatever was going on, me thinking about my mom, everything, just let it come. Just be a conduit. I know it sounds pretentious or whatever.
Not at all.
D’AGOSTINO: You just have to let it happen. I love this album for that reason. Maybe more than any others, because it feels very immediate to the moment of the inspiration and the creation because it all kind of elapsed within this very kind of tight time frame for each of them.
In the subgenre of songs where someone honors a musical hero of theirs, the absolute best version of that is “Alex Chilton” by the Replacements. We all know that.
D’AGOSTINO: We do.
Number two with a bullet would have to be Ted Leo And The Pharmacists’ “Where Have All The Rudeboys Gone?” Two years ago, Liz Phair had a great song on her album about Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. So “David” is a great addition to that very, very hollowed world of tribute songs to musical icons.
D’AGOSTINO: Thank you. That’s very illustrious company, for sure.
Speaking of Rob Sheffield, his first book [Love Is A Mix Tape: Life And Loss, One Song At A Time], I don’t know if you’ve ever read it or not, but it was about him losing his first wife at a young age, and eventually his grieving process.
One thing he wrote about is, towards the end of the book, and I’m paraphrasing, but “Some people think I don’t want to ever hear her name again. But the opposite is true. I would hate it if I went through my life and never heard her name again. Every time people tell me a story about her, I smile.”
And, long story short, a friend of mine died a little over 10 years ago, and I’m still very close friends with his sister. It was really tough for her, and eventually I realized I should actually bring up a memory of her brother whenever I see her, so she knows he’s not forgotten. I think she appreciates it.
So this is all to ask, does talking about David make you feel better or worse? Because if not, I don’t know, then I feel bad asking you these questions at this point.
D’AGOSTINO: No, no, don’t feel bad. I don’t feel bad.
So the question is like, does talking about it and having it be out there and having it be this thing that can now be referenced by other people and experienced and then talk to me about… if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for my brain?
D’AGOSTINO: I think it’s a good thing. Definitely. That’s why my mom sometimes will be like, “Well, I saw this amazing post on Secret Knowledge of Backroads,” because she follows that Instagram account, which is just all Dave Berman stuff. Great, great, great account if you don’t follow it.
She’d be like, “I don’t send them to you because I don’t want to make you sad.” And it’s quite the opposite. I mean, I put it out there with the knowledge that people would hopefully hear it, some people would hear it, connect with it, and we could eventually talk about it, because I do have a lot of personal connections now with doing this as long as I have. But in the cult way that I am doing it now, I know a lot of people by name. I know a lot of people’s stories, people who are still around and still listening. So I know I’m going to talk to a lot of different people about this. Not like a million, but it’s it’s a good thing, I think, to put the…I don’t want to sound like, you know, hippie dippy, but putting those vibrations out there can only be a good thing and maybe would point someone towards his music that maybe they hadn’t heard it or heard a specific album, or they decide to delve deeper. I don’t know who that would be, that is a big Empty Country person that isn’t also a huge Silver Jews person. But you never know. Maybe they exist.
Is there anything you want to say on the record, knowing that your mother will read this, about mental health and where you’re at at the moment? You don’t have to.
D’AGOSTINO: Well, I don’t want to say anything trite. But again, with the personal relationships I have through music with the people who like my music, whether I talk to you on Instagram or whatever, I try to be as open and as willing to talk about any type of subject.
There are people who come in hot about the grief that they experienced and their loss and why the song, whatever it is, “Jackson” or something on LOSE or something else that is so important to them. You know, that’s because that’s the kind of openness that Dave showed me where he was just like a constant serial oversharer is what he said. So I’m down to talk to anybody who’s hurting, anybody. I presume that it’s the same way when, maybe it always isn’t for everyone, but I am also an oversharer generally. I just feel like, if we can all be open about when we’re having terrible brain days and try to give each other the benefit of the doubt in every way possible, and dealing with people in public or whatever it is, that would help everyone, whether they suffer from depression or anxiety or whatever or not. So just assume that somebody has some loss or some pain that they deal with every moment of the day and that they’re going about their day in spite of or with this other thing or many other things. You’ll be more compassionate. And that’s really important in life.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.