“We’ve heard the sound of each other’s urine, so I think this will lead to a good interview.”
I’ve been promised — or more likely, warned — that Billy McCarthy is a heart-on-sleeve kind of guy. The Augustines frontman wants to confirm this even before I sit down with him in a less-intimate setting to discuss the band’s highly anticipated and bombastically anthemic self-titled sophomore record. Later he tells me, verbatim: “I’m a heart-on-sleeve kind of guy.” Judging from the grizzly, gutshot howling gracing their music, McCarthy believes every interaction can and should result in a meaningful, human connection, even if it’s just having to share the key to a public bathroom in an office building.
On the other hand, he knows I’m a journalist and in a position to, at least theoretically, make them look cool, something the band has never been able to accomplish on their own. “We’re always outside the scene, because we weren’t cool, we weren’t fashionable,” muses guitarist Eric Sanderson. We’ve always thought that was a bad thing. In [their previous band] Pela, we were told, ‘We can’t get you in this mag because you’re not cool enough and we can’t get you into this mag because you’re not pop enough…so, sorry!’ Now, I’m realizing that’s part of who we are.”
Though Augustines may not make the band cool, it could make them extremely popular. It could also disappear without a trace. It’s hard to predict these sorts of things, especially with rock bands in 2014. Co-produced with grand expanse and pristine clarity by struggle-rock majordomo Peter Katis, Augustines will probably remind some listeners of fellow Katis beneficiaries the National and tour mates Frightened Rabbit, bands who McCarthy claims are the “most compelling rock bands” at the moment. Of course, those two acts are constantly dogged by the term”dad-rock.” Some might hear U2, a group Augustines claim they never listen to, in “Cruel City” or “Now You Are Free,” though the Joshua Tree basslines, pinging guitars and incapacitating yearning suggest U2′s influence is as osmotic as the Beatles. Others might get a whiff of McCarthy’s barrel-aged vocals and hear Kings of Leon. Sure, most buzz bands would trade anything for the kind of hardcore fanbase Augustines accumulated during the slow-burn success of 2011′s Rise Ye Sunken Ships. But would Augustines trade a fraction of that fanbase to have Augustines‘ exclusive album premiere streaming somewhere a little more hip than the Wall Street Journal?
Billy McCarthy is an exceedingly handsome man. Wearing a blazer and jeans, a rare hatless day revealing a burnished grey haircut, he resembles an Ivy League linebacker who decided to get into politics after his playing days were over. His hulking frame negates the possibility of the GQ-indie look perfected by Matt Berninger, Britt Daniel or Hamilton Leithauser, and he doesn’t project the nonchalant swagger of a rock star. Instead, he’s like that naggingly accomplished, worldly ex-boyfriend you don’t like your wife talking about so much. The one who refers to himself as a “global citizen” and finds American culture limiting, criticizing our obsessions with “Walmart, reality TV and college football,” all the while claiming a passionate fanhood of Real Madrid. But it’s OK because he’s lived in Madrid. Three different times. Then he’ll tell you, “You might find me someday in Ireland,” a pretty entry-level fantasy for rugged, poetic types except, well…he’s done that too. “I used to live in Ireland and nothing made me happier than seeing empty Guinness glasses and going all night, singing at the bar.” He empathizes with Edith Piaf (“Her handlers didn’t know what to do with someone who can’t go halfway”), uses Die Antwoord as a “brilliant” example of how globalization is working. But then, two days after the Grammys, he positively compares Sunken Ships‘ handling of mental illness to Macklemore’s “Same Love,” a well-meaning claim for gay rights roundly criticized as the wrong way to do the right thing.
This sort of earnestness makes me think about my first personal experience with the band, two years ago. At 2012′s Coachella, the band, then known as We Are Augustines, was playing the Main Stage at about 2 p.m. On the same stage Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg would perform in front of 10s of thousands, a small throng saw three very serious guys dressed like Bushwick gastropub owners, playing burly, anthemic indie rock that assumed a crowd 10 times as large was watching. There was McCarthy, wearing a very serious-looking fedora, emphasizing the soul-papa grit, trying to wrangle meaning out of the situation. I tweeted “We Are Augustines sound like a band for people who think Gaslight Anthem aren’t sincere enough.” It was meant as a compliment in regards to their ambition, but not much else.
Critics aren’t alone in taking this sort of kneejerk stance on Augustines and McCarthy is all too aware of that. He mentions a “scandalous” review of Rise Ye Sunken Ships, in a publication that will go unnamed: “They called us ‘emo’ and said ‘dial down the emotion, yeah.’” Hint: He’s speaking in a British accent. “The writer obviously didn’t even read the bio and so many fans slagged them, they changed the review to cover their own ass. Which is completely unethical. If there’s any success, it’s that our fans allow us to be here. We got picked on, and the fans just mobbed them.”
This is a common thread in the story of Augustines — a weird inversion where the masses of unhip, substance-seeking rock fans are the underdogs against a tiny elite group of tastemakers. The story behind Rise Ye Sunken Ships was much more brutal and bloody, one that McCarthy admits, with a little bit of venom, “isn’t something that’s really heard in indie rock, maybe more in hip-hop.” If you want the blurb-friendly version, here it is: McCarthy and Sanderson began in Pela, a solid, if nondescript post-punk-pop band on NYC indie Brassland during what Billy calls the “gold rush of the MySpace era…you know, the Stills, the Kills, the Thrills, the Killers, the Thrillers, the Spillers.”
Two of those bands are made up and only one is actually from New York City. Nonetheless, “gold rush” is an accurate assessment, because most of it was speculation. “Independent labels — the bad ones — will take on a band, give them enough money for one tour; and have every intention of selling them to a bigger label after they take them off the market,” McCarthy says. “Which is bullshit because we were so hungry, we needed new amps, new gear. Someone basically benched us professionally.” After “New York handed my ass to me,” McCarthy left the city, living an itinerant life in hotels and tiny apartments in numerous continents, before settling down in the band’s current home base of Seattle. Augustines‘ “Cruel City” reaches back to those experiences, inspired by what McCarthy calls “gourmet Brooklyn.”
Pela collapsed under acrimonious circumstances, mostly with labels and management and assorted “industry” types, but McCarthy and Sanderson were still writing songs. They were extremely personal and dark, and many of them were about McCarthy’s brother, who had just committed suicide. In prison. Where he was doing life. It was also informed by the mental illness of his two parents, which led to a childhood he calls “sideways and unfair,” often spent in foster care. McCarthy took a hard look at the societal stigma and recognized, “You can say, ‘My dad’s blown out the cartilage in his knees and he’s not working,’ or, ‘My mom’s got melanoma.’ But you can’t say, ‘My dad’s bipolar, I really don’t think it’s a good idea if you come over,’ or, ‘My mom’s schizophrenic, I’m sorry for that outburst.’”
Sunken Ships was soul-searching in all aspects — McCarthy describes himself in Pela as “reckless on stage, in that Paul Westerberg mode, ‘Fuck these fashionistas, this is rock ‘n’ roll.’” The way he describes the turning point, he either found Buddhism or a 12-step program. “I had to give away my dream of making it and let go of ‘I’ll show these guys, I’m good enough.’ The best way to go forward in life is to help people. After all this stuff [with my family] happened, I thought, ‘Let’s try to talk about this stuff and help.’” Knowing that journalists are liable to “manipulate” his emotive and honest bandmate and dear friend, Sanderson considers himself “protective” of McCarthy and explains the reason Pela had to transition into Augustines in more general terms: “We didn’t care about what, but about why — why were we in a band? Why would we make a record? Why would assume all this stress and debt and responsibility? Just to have a bunch of people tell us we did a good job?”
Originally self-released on iTunes, Sunken Ships bore the sort of powerfully cathartic, “if it bleeds, it leads” narrative that propelled Brooklyn bands like the National and Antlers into indie stardom with Alligator and Hospice. But not Augustines. Though Sunken Ships was named the No. 1 alternative album by iTunes in 2011 and critically acclaimed by most mainstream outlets, it was virtually ignored among indie tastemakers and in a way, this protected Augustines. Because now, Augustines is much more visible this time out and when I ask McCarthy what that will bring, he immediately says “haters,” knowing that Sunken Ships might’ve been like the drama kid who kept a low enough profile to slip by the bullies in high school. They don’t have that luxury this time out.
While Augustines have no desire to revisit the situations that led to Rise Ye Sunken Ships, there’s a sense that things were simpler, there was less at stake (“What’s at stake here? Our careers,” Sanderson sorta-jokes). But you only get to exorcize your ghosts to the extent that Sunken Ships did once. You get to be an out-of-nowhere success once. And this means McCarthy and Sanderson are, in some ways, right back where they were in Pela, having to rely on the “industry” to achieve their goals. “In Pela, we made the unfortunate mistake of surrounding ourselves with people who would help our career as opposed to people who’d make us better people. In Augustines, it’s very much the opposite. Obviously, we can’t vet every person and see if they’re going to be good people.” Sanderson says this as we sit in a posh office building on Sunset Boulevard, across from BOA Steakhouse and David Arquette’s burlesque club. But at a time when even the staunchly idealistic Arcade Fire covertly wrangled a major label’s assistance to make their biggest statement, Augustines make no apologies about making a record that’s aiming to be…well, perhaps “too big to fail” is too cynical for a band like Augustines. So, I’ll use their terminology — they want to be “global citizens.”
Though still a three-piece, they’re touring as a quartet, and the fact that Augustines’ on-the-road lineup is half-American and half-British (drummer Rob Allen and touring multi-instrumentalist Al Hardiman) brings noticeable pride to Sanderson and McCarthy. Sanderson likewise claims that at the current moment, “we’re right below playing theaters”…in Europe. McCarthy got back on the road for lyrical inspiration, traveling across three continents and doing a 6,000-mile loop on his motorcycle from Mexico to Alaska and back. And in order to deal with troubles that remained unresolved after Sunken Ships, he also headed back to a place that seemed more foreign — his hometown near Santa Cruz, California. “I decided to contact my elementary school teacher — we’ve kept in touch all these years, she’s been like a guiding light.” McCarthy describes a piano room at Applegate Elementary School, what he calls an “arty, progressive school” that he was sent to while in foster care. When he got back, he found out “The room was still there,” and he used it to get back in the mindset where he was nine years old, “given an instrument to put in front of my angst.” McCarthy admits “I always got kicked out of class, I dropped out, and here I was writing in this room again. And all these parents, teachers and kids were coming by to watch me write. They were proud of me. Having been such a difficult kid and have this community be proud of me was a big deal.”
But in a more tangible sense, Augustines is more “universal” than global. Its lyrics deal in more general, existential subject matter than Sunken Ships, the production is far more electronic and “post-rock.” And while the band workshopped most of the material in a snowed-in church in upstate New York, it was a similar situation to that time at Coachella, always keeping the unseen masses in mind. Explaining the band’s strategy to develop the biggest sound possible, McCarthy explains, “We went from playing support slots sitting down on stools, to playing for 5000-7000 people at festivals. We specifically didn’t take time off, we went from these European soccer stadiums right into the studio. It’s an all-or-nothing thing, like, ‘If we made it this far, let’s keep going.’”
Which could double as Augustines’ motto, if Sanderson hadn’t come up with a better one — “struggle’s kind of become our identity.” Struggle’s even embedded in the name. You might have noticed that We Are Augustines can now say “we are Augustines.” That was the original name of the band, and in typical Augustinian twist, 30 days before the release of Sunken Ships, the band was hit with a cease and desist. “We made a deal with these people that we pissed off, they didn’t want us to use ‘Augustines’ in any way shape or form. We said, ‘Why don’t we both use the name and see where it ends up?’ And here we are. No marketing team, no label’s gonna make people sing back to you at the show.”