Music Interview: Billy McCarthy of Augustines — Doing Strong Work
“It seems now that quality spreads through reputation — the live show is where we really see bands pull away from the pack. It takes quality now to survive. Strong work.”
By Rob Ribera
The eponymous new album from Augustines (formerly We Are Augustines) deserves to be a massive crossover hit, beamed over the airwaves of indie-rock, college, and (dare I say it) Top 40 radio. Combining the earnestness of the best of early Coldplay albums with some arena-ready anthems in the vein of U2, the new songs on Augustines will certainly have you singing along in short order. Grand comparisons aside, Augustines is able to sound familiar while generating its own distinctive sound. The group’s powerful live show hits Brighton Music Hall this Wednesday (March 5).
This sophomore effort comes after recording their debut album was borne out of a fair amount of pain and difficulties Formed from members of the Brooklyn band Pela (after the group dissolved because of label and band issues), Augustines forged ahead with singer Billy McCarthy and instrumentalist Eric Sanderson. Together, they recorded Rise Ye Sunken Ships, an album that meditated on death and breakdown, hope and transformation. Much of the material was inspired by McCarthy’s painful experience of losing his brother James to drug addiction, as well as the band’s own struggles to reinvent themselves after the dissolution of Pela.
The new album is a lighter-hearted affair. Gone, for the most part, are the allusions to the angst of the past. The songs here are a bit bouncier, a bit more danceable. And that’s not a bad thing. Augustines have proven that they are capable of changing direction without losing their core appeal. The music still moves, while the lyrics contain some of the emotional resonance we heard on Rise… — it’s just that the story has changed a bit. McCarthy’s words will make you want to sing along to some tracks, while on others you’ll find yourself sitting in quiet contemplation. His lyrics are hopeful without becoming clichéd, encouraging without pandering, passionate without being schmaltzy.
I was able to catch up with Billy McCarthy via e-mail as the group made their way through Europe on the first leg of the tour. I asked him about the new album, moving on from the pain of the past, and Augustines’ next steps.
Arts Fuse: You’ve had your issues with the traditional business model and labels in the past, how has that changed for you with these two albums as Augustines?
Billy McCarthy: Well everything has been changing so much the last 15 years that I think both bands and labels are arriving at a base level reality. Music in my opinion has become for the first time free from much of the hype and aggressive target marketing we all grew up with. It seems now that quality spreads through reputation — the live show is where we really see bands pull away from the pack. It takes quality now to survive. Strong work.
AF: There’s a line in “Now You Are Free” (“Let go of all your ghosts/You gotta let go/Or more will come around”). Does this reflect your new work after the struggle and catharsis of the material on Rise…?
McCarthy: I’d say yes indeed. And I guess after much soul searching that’s what I realize often holds us back in life. Our pasts.
AF: Looking back on the recording and re-recording of the material for Rise…, what did you learn from that experience as a musician as you entered the studio this time?
McCarthy: I think you really need a thought through plan of attack. You need to decide what you’re aiming for and make a realistic time table on how to get that goal accomplished. We made time to shed the songs and develop them, but we also reduced the amount of tangents after that generative phase to stay on schedule. It was a highly organized and focused time for us.
AF: You have been vocal about giving voices to those who don’t have them or have the venue for expressing them, including your brother James. I stumbled across an interview you did with the ACLU about prisons, mental illness, and solitary confinement — is this something you are still involved with in any way?
McCarthy: Admittedly, I think I’ve taken a slight step back this record. Not because I don’t love humanity and want to stand up for folks, but mainly I need to be passionate to get behind things and it was becoming so difficult to get away from these topic by the end of Rise…. It was worthy and I was so proud, but it also hurt a bit to open and reopen that tragic period for me at any given time sometimes out of the blue. It was a tough go sometimes.
AF: “Walkabout” is a standout track for me. Did you think you’d be writing such anthemic songs on the new album?
McCarthy: Thank you. No, I think we just wrote what I feel we’d want to play live.
AF: How has the permanent addition of Rob Allen changed the band? Can you give an example from recording?
McCarthy: Oh, he’s our backbone. He very comfortable playing anything Motown, rock and roll, African beats. But what makes Rob great is that his taste won’t let him impersonate styles, it’s got to be in his own voice. Very authentic approach.
AF: Your lyrics often talk about landscapes, both the physical and the mental that we travel. What is your writing process?
McCarthy: I tend to have a couple songs on the stove at a time, or more sometimes. I like to hop around between them and develop them as they open up to me. I really got out of NYC this last record and I think it was the right move to not repeat ourselves.
AF: You got a chance to work these songs out live when you came through with Frightened Rabbit last year (some of my favorite moments of live music last year by the way). How do you prepare, and are you gearing up for another long run of shows?
McCarthy: Oh, thank you. I guess you just grind it out in rehearsal till its right and try to keep the big picture present in your mind.
AF: How do you think travel has influenced your music and your lyrics?
McCarthy: I’ve noticed that I listen to music nowadays much more in a cinematic fashion. Like I’m DJ’ing my own movie. So the music can be instrumental, linear, slow, mellow whatever. I’d say that traveling makes my life feel cinematic. Falling asleep against a train window in Spain or waking up next to your motorcycle in Alaska is pretty moving. It makes me want to write because life is ours to go out and live.
Rob Ribera is a filmmaker and music video director in Boston. He is the co-creator of the music website Sleepovershows.com, and is currently working on his PhD.in American Studies at Boston University.