There are many beginnings, many stories and many themes to Augustines’ second full-length. It’s an album, as the eponymous title suggests, of rebirth, renewal and regeneration. It’s an album about growth, about exploration and moving on from the past. But more than anything, ‘Augustines’ is about the band, and its origins can be traced back to one very specific moment and location in time – a recording studio in a converted 19th church in Geneseo, New York. Because that was the first time that singer/guitarist Billy McCarthy, multi-instrumentalist Eric Sanderson and drummer Rob Allen had sat down and written songs together, even though they’d been a band and had been touring their first album, ‘Rise Ye Sunken Ships’, for over two years.
“By the end of that tour,” explains Allen, “we had people at festivals dancing and singing words back to us. It was incredible. I don’t think we were fully expecting that. But by the end of it, it was so inspiring that, after two and a half years, we were able to look at the past with a positive attitude. And that’s really what this new record is about – capturing those feelings and positive energy. It made us a unit. It made us a band.”
It’s a marked difference from the chaos and sadness that surrounded the first record. Consisting of songs that McCarthy and Sanderson had worked on in their previous outfit, Pela, ‘Rise Ye Sunken Ships’ drew heavily from tragedy, namely the 2009 suicide of McCarthy’s brother James, a diagnosed schizophrenic who’d been in and out of mental institutions for years. Unwilling to let go of the songs after the demise of Pela, Sanderson and McCarthy continued working on them and finished them. And then, with Allen on board, things started taking off. The songs started to resonate and the power of the songs and the reaction of the audiences began to overpower the darkness that had inspired them.
“During the last record,” explains Sanderson, “we spoke openly about a deeply personal time period in our lives, especially Billy's. That time period was intertwined with personal and commercial success and failure. As individuals, we hit rock bottom after our dream of becoming musicians evaporated with Pela's demise. We started drinking the pain away and gave up on mostly everything.”
Not only that, but a legal dispute had brought about an end to their name, the trio adding ‘We Are’ to the start of their moniker in an act of hopeful defiance. Now, in 2013, they can lay claim to it once more – both the name and the band are fully theirs.
To get there, though, the band didn’t just move on from the past – they went deeply back into it. After the tour, McCarthy stopped living full-time in New York and took to exploring more of the world. He drove all across the States, up to Alaska and back on his motorbike, and even went as far as Turkey, Mexico and Kenya (“I played the demo of ‘Cruel City’ to Kenyans in Kenya,” McCarthy beams, “and I didn’t have the lyrics figured out.”) Yet for all the miles travelled, it was closer to home, but way back in time that the seeds of ‘Augustines’ began to take root.
“What I decided to do,” explains McCarthy, “was erase the blackboard. I really needed to go back to a place that was empowering and I thought, ‘Well, how do I go back to the beginning and start over?’ And I actually called my elementary school teacher and I went and stayed with her on her farm. I met her when I was nine years old. And I stayed on her farm and wrote. The second thing I decided to do was call my old school. In my mind, in the madness of New York, I’ve always thought about this music room when I was a little boy. I’ve always thought about the way the light came through the windows in that room and how it was cold in the winter and the smell of that piano, and I actually called the school and they gave me the keys to that room. And I got to go sit in there in my thirties, sitting on that stool starting all over again and that’s how the record started.”
That wasn’t enough, however, and McCarthy travelled back even further in time.
“For some reason,” he explains, "it was important for me to go back to the oldest relationships I had before all this, so I got in touch with an old friend of mine I went to elementary school with and she’s now married with children and she had a back shed that she let me stay in and what I did was I rented a car – I’m from Northern California, near San Francisco – and I just started driving up and down the coast, and the beaches that I played on when I was a kid. It was this incredibly emotional experience for me to look at the sea, thinking about the man that I am and the boy that I was and where am I going and what the fuck just happened to me.”
“For me,” adds Sanderson, “the core of the record is the concept of a walkabout. Going on a journey to find – re-find – yourself after going through a life changing experience. What do you do when you make it through the other side? When you can confidently say that you've worked through the tragedy? When your life actually starts to mirror the belief you have in yourself?”
Truly, it’s a record formed from thousands of miles and years of memories and a journey through a long, dark tunnel, the songs themselves a physical manifestation of hope and positivity, of pure triumph in the face of adversity. Recorded with co-producer Peter Katis (The National, Frightened Rabbit, Interpol, Jonsi) at Tarquin Studios in Connecticut, you can hear that triumph flowing through its songs. There’s the gorgeous, lilting atmosphere of the aptly-titled, short-but-sweet opener ‘Intro (I Touch Imaginary Hands)’, the desperate jitters of self-awareness and identity in ‘This Ain’t Me’ – “I can change,” McCarthy repeats over and over, his voice tremulous and terrified as cascades of sound fall down around his voice – the mellow, melancholy falsetto that soars, angelic, over the gorgeous piano of ‘Walkabout’, and first single ‘Cruel City’’s despairing love letter to New York. Yet these songs are infused with the support of the people that Augustines have met along the way and the encouragement they gave the band.
“That whole experience,” says Allen, “made us much stronger. We learned a lot about each other, even though Bill and Eric have been together in a band for ten years. The whole point is finding who you are and finding yourself, taking in everything that happened and moving on. Because by the end of it, we felt so many positive vibes and we wanted to put that into the record. There are loads of big sing-alongs and choruses, and it’s all because, when we were playing, we’d get that back from the crowds and it was so inspirational for us. It was a wonderful feeling and we wanted to make sure that got put onto the record.”
“The last record,” says McCarthy, “was about cold, hard truth. Cold, hard fact. There was nothing I could do to help any of the characters in the songs last time. This time it’s absolutely about having the ability to help all the characters in the songs. There’s an empowerment to it. If you wake up every day and you have the best intentions and you carry yourself as someone who looks at the glass as half-full and you try to be a good person. It’s very scary to be defined as a tragic band. Not to say that the situation we did live through wasn’t worth anybody’s empathy, but there’s a lot of life left to live.
“This record,” adds Sanderson, “is kind of like the sequel that starts right after the first movie ended. The last scene of the first movie is the first scene of the sequel. The last record was very difficult and full of emotional turmoil and struggle and pain. It was the band overcoming and working through all these issues. But once we’d dealt with the death and the break-up of our band – and we’d pretty much given up on the idea of becoming musicians because the struggle for ten years was just too much – we released the record and it actually worked. It started to pick up and connect with people and, after a decade of being the underdog and struggling, we were suddenly touring all over the world. We were standing in the place we always wanted to be, but realising that it’s not what we thought it was. When we started working on this record it was called ‘Now You Are Free’. Because when you invest all your time and heart and passion into getting somewhere and overcoming obstacles and finding a sense of peace and you finally get there, you’re free to do whatever you want. We’re free to finally prove ourselves to people and live life the way it should be.”
That, if anything, is the crux of ‘Augustines’. Through their friendship, their music and all the fans who they touched with the tragedy of that first record, they’ve beaten off everything that life has thrown at them and emerged into the bright light of day that outside the tunnel, free of the shackles that once bound them and with a renewed sense of spirit and vitality.
“An artist once told me,” McCarthy says, “that the streets of the world are littered with talent that didn’t go anywhere. I’ve had my back against that wall many, many, many times. I think that having success really validated my life, because I was someone who didn’t go to college, I dropped out of high school and I had a real problem with adults growing up. If I didn’t get the nod that ‘What you did is good, kid’, I might have just thought, ‘Well, I fucked my life up.’”
He didn’t. All you have to do is listen to ‘Augustines’ to know that. This is a brand new beginning for the band, and they can rest assured, despite all the trauma, trouble and tragedy experienced in their lives, that this part of the journey is going in a much more positive direction.
“This was us moving on together,” Allen beams. “It was wonderful to come through the other end and record a new record. It was a huge accomplishment and it looks towards a brighter future for us all.”
This is just the beginning of that future – there’s at least a year of touring on the horizon, so the walkabout is far from over. The trio are taking British musician Al Hardiman, who plays most of the horns that can be heard on ‘Augustines’, along for the ride.
“He’s a very talented artist who we have a strong connection with,” explains Sanderson. “He’ll play trombone and sing, and play keyboards as well. We decided, with the nature of the music that we made on this record, that we wanted someone else to come out for the journey with us, because the walkabout hasn’t stopped, now that we’re learning to play these songs live. So as we go out into America and Europe and the rest of the world, this idea of a walkabout, of finding yourself, is going to carry on, and Al’s going to be joining us, for however long it lasts.”
Photo by Phil Knott