Joseph D’Agostino ended the first Empty Country album with a song titled “SWIM” – given that he’s written heartland rock anthems about Silk Road in the past, one must assume D’Agostino is using the acronym for “someone who isn’t me,” often employed on Reddit and the dark web as a preface for drug-seeking behavior (coincidentally, it’s also the name of Geoff Rickly’s celebrated debut of autofiction detailing his experimental treatment for heroin addiction).
In that case, Empty Country II truly is the bigger and bolder sequel to the original, populated with characters who are most certainly not D’Agostino – there are “based on a true story” liberties taken with the late David Berman and his mother, but also drag queens pounding the pavement in “early 80s, biblically filthy” New York, Appalachian psychics, suburban junkies, and, on “FLA,” a lovelorn, queer boat pilot in the Florida Keys. For any artist that aspires to make widescreen Americana, trying to copy Bruce Springsteen is usually a good place to start. And indeed, “FLA,” one of the many highlights on Empty Country II, might not have happened if D’Agostino was a better piano player. “‘FLA’ exists because I was just trying to learn ‘Thunder Road’ and I couldn’t quite nail it,” he jokes.
Though the classic rock influences on Empty Country II continue to distinguish D’Agostino’s new project from Cymbals Eat Guitars – more Boss and Stones and Lou Reed, less Modest Mouse and the Wrens – the most notable change comes back to his desire to embody someone else’s perspective, trying to change his inner narrative, in the hopes that it might change the outer one. As for the latter, I can’t help but feel responsible as someone who has written numerous times about Cymbals Eat Guitars. D’Agostino’s previous band was the beneficiary of a very specific type of 2009 buzz: getting discovered by a Pitchfork editor off their MySpace page, earning a Best New Music tag that landed them a record deal, and playing their sixth ever show at the site’s music festival in Chicago later that summer.
But as Cymbals Eat Guitars’ music grew progressively more ambitious and accessible, their audience never seemed to expand along with it, and it seemed like every album review and profile of D’Agostino was tinted by the writer’s sense of injustice – that Cymbals suffered from bad luck or bad timing or a narrative that pegged them as a “2009 buzz band.” Both 2014’s LOSE and 2016’s Pretty Years are indeed incredible albums, but in retrospect, I hear a strain in them, a deep-seated desire to be classics fighting against their ultimate fate of receiving a handful of raves from the same five writers and discouraging headline tours. I’ve learned the hard way that “WHY AREN’T THESE GUYS BIGGER” isn’t really a good sales pitch for a band, and D’Agostino has also come to terms with the futility of this mindset.
But while Cymbals Eat Guitars was often seen as the victim of shifting tastes, that all paled in comparison to what awaited Empty Country. In August 2019, the album was announced the day after Berman, D’Agostino’s hero and penpal, committed suicide; Empty Country had been booked as the opener for Berman’s new project Purple Mountains. Empty Country was also set to be released on Tiny Engines, the beloved North Carolina label that would ultimately collapse in the face of accusations of financial impropriety later that year. D’Agostino found a new label for the record, and it was finally released on March 20, 2020, a week after the world went into lockdown.
After spending the 2010s trying to situate himself within Brooklyn and Philadelphia, D’Agostino moved with his wife/collaborator (Rachel Browne, formerly of Field Mouse) to Connecticut to be closer to family. As the song goes, D’Agostino has a job (“it’s a 40-hour week…I do risk management stuff and fraud detection”) and he does it fine. It’s not what he wants, but still he tries. “Aside from being able to pay for a place to live and food and everything, it also structures my days in a way that I think is better for my mental health,” he explains. “It makes my time making music, which is pretty much every day from 6 o’clock till like midnight, more important to me and more exciting and it puts a little bit more pressure.”
That’s not to say Empty Country II doesn’t have a lot riding on it. While D’Agostino started a Patreon to help raise funds for the album recording, he also took on a sizable financial risk to realize the totality of his vision, which involved recording at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium studio with John Agnello, the producer of both 2011’s Lenses Alien and LOSE. D’Agostino admits there was a rift between the two that occurred when he opted to work with John Congleton for Pretty Years – “I was probably just a little shit about it when I told him, because I was an arrogant fuck in my in my 20s,” he jokes. “John said, you know, ‘you’re the only person to ever come back from the dark side,’ the fucking Sicilian psychopath dark side.”
It’s been a slow process, but D’Agostino has developed acceptance, even gratitude, for the outcome of Empty Country. “Knowing that there are 100-some odd people that are willing to pay ten dollars a month to support what they want to hear, it got me through some really tough stuff,” he says. “I promised these people I’m going to do a song a month and regardless of what fucked up thing is happening in the world or at work or in my family. I pretty much stuck to that for an entire year. And that’s why Empty Country II happened in a prompt way.”
Throughout the creation of this record, you’ve made the songs available in some kind of “unfinished” form on Patreon, do you ever feel uncomfortable letting an audience in on your process?
I’m actually struggling with that right now, because I owe my Patreons from like two months. I promised that I was working on a new Empty Country song, but it has gone hand-in-hand with me getting a new DAW controller for Pro Tools and I’m learning all this stuff about mixing and everything. I don’t mind letting people in on something that is somewhat incomplete, knowing that there’s going to be, like, a John Agnello version. Whatever I record here at home, aside from maybe drums, will end up on the final thing. The song is all pretty much done by the time I post it every month. I won’t share something that I’m not stoked about and that hasn’t been vetted…or at least shown to Rachel, to Matt Whipple and bandmates, to make sure that, yeah, it’s got the sauce.
What’s the shortest amount of time you’ve taken to complete an Empty Country song?
Probably the first one, which was “FLA.” I was in super dark COVID times, super depressed and I pulled myself out of it by reading a bunch of Joy Williams novels. She has a Florida traveler’s guide thing that I was reading. And at the same time, I was just kind of trying to learn “Thunder Road” on the piano, for no real reason. And then I started playing this other weirder, more moody kind of thing and that was the song. It took a week and a half, maybe two weeks. A month and a half is really my max now, aside from this new [song], which has taken like two or three months, but it’s almost done. Some of the ones that you might think took a longer time didn’t, like “Bootsie” – that one just kind of flew out of me. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and she’s alright and it’s okay now. I was just thinking about her and I had to do a song for Patreon and there was a week left and I wrote that song pretty much in the course of three days. The rap part, the Street Hassle kind of part just kind of came out in the course of 20 minutes and it was like I had my John Updike moment because I didn’t edit it, I didn’t touch it. Little miracles sometimes.
As far as doing a talking-rap thing on “Bootsie” or writing a tribute to David Berman that’s kind of a funk song, how have you silenced the inner critic that might have held you back from exploring these kinds of ideas before?
I think when I paid more attention to what people said about the music, I would get self-conscious about the fact that there were so many different types of songs on some Cymbals albums. LOSE has a song like “Chambers,” and then it has “Child Bride,” and it’s got “Laramie,” all different types of things. I think I’m usually very open to trying any different type of thing from what I started out doing because there’s a lot of cool, sexy, and fun music that I wasn’t drawing from earlier in my life that now is kind of just a part of everything. The marriage of the dark, dark subject matter and upbeat-sounding music is certainly nothing new and definitely nothing new to my catalog. You lose people if you go full [fun], but you know, I just like fun sometimes. My wife would scoff.
Was there ever a point where music stopped being fun?
Yeah, it was definitely not fun being consumed in ego and worrying about what is going to happen with how the album will be reviewed and how it will perform commercially. I still worry about some of that sometimes, but now less and less. All of that was profoundly unfun, you know, just the progression of having all of the success of an entire career packed into the first thing and then kind of just existing in various, diminished forms of notoriety over the course of five more records now. I’m just having more fun with it now and looking forward to my time playing music. And we’re playing a show at the end of the week on Friday at Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. And I’m just so excited. It’s only the third show I’ve played since the pandemic and it’s the first show that my wife, Rachel, is going to be playing guitar and singing in Empty Country with me. Even though, you know, the hellscape of the music industry and the larger world, it’s more fun than it ever was when I was fretting or making myself sick and getting ulcers worrying about anything that would happen after the beautiful moment, which is the creation and the excitement. And just like making yourself cry because the thing that you did is so beautiful.
It was obviously unfortunate timing that Empty Country was released a week after the lockdown started in 2020. But throughout the year, many artists started to envision a way out of the “release an album, tour, tour again, release another album two years later” cycle, not knowing whether that would be feasible again. Was there ever a point where you imagined a different approach to making music?
I had begun my reimagining journey when all the stuff went down with the first Empty Country record. Like, handing it in and getting dropped as if it was like fucking Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or something. It was like an affable, folk-tinged rock record and, you know, these people were like, “Oh, I don’t hear it, we can’t sell this.” It’s like, you’re fucking kidding me! I’ve lost the bitterness mostly, but it’s just funny to think about now. So at the top of 2019, my life changed in that way where I was like, “Okay, got to do something, got to get a job.” So that was March, followed by Dave Berman’s passing and Tiny Engines blowing up when we were set to release [Empty Country] in November 2019, and then COVID. I was trying to roll with it and try to figure out what my identity was. I still do and always will primarily think about myself as a songwriter, you know, in a practical sense, even if I’m doing something on an extremely small scale and paying my bills elsewhere. But I think what it comes down to for me is I have an immense amount of pride in the things that I make and the things that I choose to release. And I think just leaning on that feeling of pride in a way that isn’t unhealthy, that doesn’t strike outward keeps me able to create and stay sane. Being able to lean on that feeling of knowing my worth is something that I’ve been trying to work on in recent years, more of a healthy thing that helps me walk through the world and be proud of who I am.
Separating yourself from the reception of the music is particularly difficult if you’re writing from a personal perspective, did this impact the decision to make Empty Country more of a character-based project?
It’s hard to say now because I have such a clear idea of what I’m going for, but I think on the first Empty Country record there was an even split between things that are story songs – “Becca,” “Marian,” “SWIM” – and then songs that are more ambiguous, or loosely based, or based fully on my life, like “Diamond” and “Untitled.” So I just want to be free to do both things at this point. It seemed to me at the time when Cymbals was ending that I was very self-critical. And while I do think the music was good, the criticism could be leveled that it’s extremely self-serious and self-obsessed. Maybe that’s just the voices in my head, but in any case, I was trying to shift into a place where the songwriting could also become this act of empathy, connecting not with other people necessarily in the audience, although that is a wonderful thing. But, you know, do art, do fiction, write stories, make stories, tell stories. And then I could fit in the pieces of myself in whatever ways I felt like I needed to make it true.
Do you find yourself actively seeking out books or movies as research material for character studies?
I’m constantly reading and watching movies. It’s important to me that things line up, that there’s as much authenticity and believability as there can be in the sci-fi and supernatural elements. And I want all of the real world stuff to feel real enough and lived in. All the music is happening well before the lyrics, but during the writing of the music, I usually have the idea or the kernel of what the lyrics are going to be. And I’m reading in and around that subject matter and doing research and being like, “Okay, this will work, this won’t.” And then it just comes out and hopefully it’s okay.
What was the last thing you did for pure fun, knowing that it wouldn’t be considered “research” for Empty Country II?
The way I’ve always operated since I was a teen is like, I’m gonna find the best shit to watch and consume because I know that art is just kind of an amalgamation of it all, a synthesis. Grist for the mill! You know, push things in through my ears, whatever, get refilled through my ears, out through my mouth, whatever the fuck he says. That was the vibe. But I do play video games here and there, and I’ll get heavily into something for like six months. And it was Elden Ring while I was writing Empty Country II. And I was like, “Okay, a video game couldn’t possibly inform something like this album.” But it really did. You really feel like you’re discovering things and it’s the only open world game where I’ve felt that way and it’s not just the same content recycled, recycled. So yeah, Elden Ring even kind of makes its way into Empty Country II just in that feeling of exploration and discovery that I hadn’t had from anything in a long time.
I’m particularly drawn to “Dustine,” where did the kernel of that idea begin?
I had just played my first show since the beginning of the pandemic and since the end of Cymbals in Hamden, Connecticut with my friends Willy Mason and Noel [Heroux] from Hooray For Earth, who produced Willy’s new record. And you know, it electrified me to play with everyone again and to play in front of people. That song kind of came immediately right after that. I was thinking about how, you know, fentanyl is the new oxy and how many people I have lost to, of course, heroin, but also oxy and now fentanyl. I started feeling this tremendous amount of anger, of course, and sorrow and just like, directing it at the people who were largely [responsible] like the Sackler brothers. It probably just started as some little kind of revenge fantasy, about punishing the people responsible for the situation that we’re in.
When you finish writing a character-driven song, do you ever wish you knew them for real?
Absolutely. It’s gotta be “Pearl.” I wrote a story to accompany the first single, it’s called “Basilisk.” I don’t think very many people saw it or read it, which is okay, because it’s a lot to ask to listen to an hour-long audio short story. The process of writing was very intense, and I wrote for six-ish hours a day, every day, editing, editing, working, because I’d never written a real short story before. And it started out, like, bad, I think. The fact that it was able to come to something that’s, pretty good, especially with the sound design and everything, is something I’m really proud of. I know this sounds silly, but she became very real to me and that was such an exciting moment. And the whole process of it happening made me want to do more character songs with pitch shifting and vocal plugins and things, where I can make my voice someone else’s. I can do all sorts of things that I never ever thought to do in a band like Cymbals. So I would like for there to be more of this on the next Empty Country record – more experimental stuff, and I don’t mean like noise breaks, I mean getting inside of characters, that’s what’s exciting to me right now. I don’t even want to describe what the song that I’m working on sounds like to you because you’re going to be like, “That sounds fully insane, but I support you.”