We Are Augustines: TAS In Session
Although We Are Augustines' Billy McCarthy, Eric Sanderson and Rob Allen are receiving enthusiastic praise for their powerful 2011 debut, Rise Ye Sunken Ships, the album was born from harrowing and heartbreaking circumstances.
The band, cobbled together from the remains of longtime Brooklyn favorites Pela, has overcome not only the abrupt and messy dissolution of that group, but the profound scope of singer and guitarist McCarthy's own family tragedies over the last decade, including the suicides of both his mother and, most recently, his brother James. After James' death and Pela's collapse, McCarthy slipped into a deep depression, eventually conquering this crippling period via the help of friend and bandmate Sanderson and their mutual determination to finish We Are Augustines' debut. The candid and complete story of We Are Augustines' long, emotional journey is told on their own site.
The album's eventual release last fall heralded a new chapter for the determined trio: Rise Ye Sunken Ships was named the "Best Alternative Album" of 2011 by iTunes and We Were Augustines was tapped to be a part of the Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International, due out on January 24 in the States and January 30 internationally.
We Are Augustines, who have sold out their London gig this February, launch a Stateside tour with Band of Skulls in March and will play New York's Webster Hall on March 22.
Not long ago, the three bandmates — who possess a buoyant streak of black humor — dropped by The Alternate Side studios to play tracks from the new album, like the very personal "Book of James" and the rocking "Philadelphia." They frankly discussed their determined road from utter despair to invigorating rebirth. The session airs on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, January 6, at 11 a.m. and will stream on The Alternate Side:
Alisa Ali: Bill, you and Eric used to be in a band called Pela. That band dissolved and the new material for this album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships, originated while you were in Pela, right?
Billy McCarthy: Yeah, it was supposed to be our next record so all the generative stuff happened on the road or while trying to get this record off the ground. It never got off the ground and everything fell apart. We wrote more stuff, but even though it was a very unique situation, we felt like thought that band ended, the songs were their own entity and we wanted to see them see the light of day.
Alisa: So all the songs were written years ago?
Billy: A lot of them.
Eric Sanderson: Not all of them.
Billy: I guess the bulk of the songs were supposed to have ended when the band ended. After putting that much work into them, for various reasons, Eric and I took a little breather and started thinking about it. I don’t think that walking away was the right thing to do. [Those songs] had a life of their own. Their meaning grew. It took a little bit of time, but we actually recorded that record twice anyway, so why stop the challenging record now?
Alisa: I was reading about the making of ["Book of James"] in which you were talking about working with Dave Newfeld, right? You went to Canada [in the]wintertime and recorded this [song] in a freezing church. Can you talk about that session you had? It was frustrating at first, but clearly it turned out well?
Eric: We’d gone through a hiatus of reconfiguring our lives and we were starting to get back more into playing music and figuring out how to finish the record. Billy wrote a new song about his brother, which, at that time period, was the most pressing and important theme in our lives. We demoed it at the house. We had a pretty clear vision of how we wanted it to come out. David mixed a lot of the material on the record before that so we decided to go up and work with him as a producer. We drove up nine hours to his church and Dave began the process of deconstructing our understanding of the song and completely reinventing it and reinterpreting it. The structure was still the same, but [he broke down] the actual sonic palette that it lived in. It was a very difficult process because it was a very personal and emotional song. We did have a clear vision of what we wanted and Dave took it in a very different direction. That led to the process of letting go a little and trusting — coming from a lot of untrustworthy situations in our past, trust was the topic of the day as well. We trusted in Dave. The song was unfinished, which was difficult. We had borrowed money to be there and it was very important that the song was finished and finished well. We needed something substantial to feel that we had the motivation to keep going as musicians.
Alisa: That must have been so frustrating after three days. You only had three days up there and you left with the song unfinished. What was that like, driving back?
Billy: Not good.
Eric: It wasn’t a fun car ride.
Billy: It was about nine hours of anxiety.
Billy: [Pela had] ended and — we don’t talk about it a lot — but the record cost a lot of money and we did it twice so it was a massive amount of debt. No band. Not really sure if we should continue and just get new members. It was really confusing. We’d been in the band for a while and had reached a place that was not entry level. You can’t walk in and headline the Bowery as a new band, so we didn’t want to let go of that.
Alisa: And Anytown Graffiti, the first and only Pela record, was awesome too. It actually did quite well.
Billy: It did.
Alisa: And you still didn’t see too much money from that?
Billy: No. We got screwed. I’ll say it straight out. Very weird time in the industry, for sure. This was in the period of Interpol, The Strokes and so on and I think the industry, with its new-found indie thing, were looking for sure-fire stuff. The rest of us had to fend for ourselves, either self-releasing or major indies or outright indie-indies. The indie-indies are awesome, but we just live in the most expensive city in the country, we were approaching 30 and looking at the whole situation. We knew, going into it, that it was going to be really bad for us, but it was a trade-off of, well, we won’t get our record out. I’ve seen this happen; we’ve played with bands that are plenty good and they’re doing well, but to get all the way from coast to coast, across this country, it’s very difficult to have visibility.
We knew that the contract wasn’t so hot, the lawyers were kind of wack, the label was a hack label at best and the management quit three days before our record came out — it was the worst. And it was a very binding contact, three records or something. We accumulated all this debt and we ended up putting in our own money to make this record. It’s important to realize the confusion of that session. We just knew that we had an enormous amount of debt, we all had such bad jobs that we knew there was no way we could pay it and we didn’t know whether to get new members.
Given what had happened with my brother, I look back and all of the songs had been about my family and I think, truly, the intention was not to be in a band. It was very earnest, [a matter of] let’s finish what we started because we’ll never be able to live with ourselves. If we can at least finish it, we’ll have something to look back on because we had been in a band for seven years with one record. You know? It wasn’t our fault; there wasn’t resources.
In the depth of all of this confusion, we borrowed more money [and thought we’d] just finish it. I’ve written enough songs to know how to guide them and I had a very clear understanding of what I wanted to get from the song and Eric did great when we demoed it out. But it just went so sideways. When we got the track back it was good, but it wasn’t anywhere close. The whole lower end, the drums and some of the atmospheric stuff had shifted. The whole intro was absolutely startling to me; I thought it was cheeky and cute and I didn’t like it at all. I was very upset about it. It’s funny how you lose track of what’s good when it’s emotional. Sorry to make a big deal about it. I was in the depths of a pretty rough time and I didn’t care anymore. I was just happy to drink. I’m not kidding … I became a bit of a tragic guy. When I’d call people, I couldn’t be casual. I wasn’t snowboarding, I certainly wasn’t working. I’m sitting on my couch drunk. Eric and I learned quite a bit about this environment that we’re in and we had very nasty lawyers calling us, threatening us. Managers threatening us. Bascially, the big tab that Pela ran up … [we were] stuck with the bill.
Eric: If we wanted to do anything. The other option was to just walk away from your life’s work.
Billy: And walk away from a record that you wrote about your family, [who were] dropping like flies. There was no cartilage … it was like bone on bone. Cold winter. Buying beer from a change bag that I’d kept in better times. A big bag of change. Going to the deli and getting 40s. The summer was over, the fall was [here] … we had hoped to just get out of this thing creatively in a way that we could feel proud of. We talked about putting the album, when we finished it, up online for donation because we wanted to try to pay back some of it. Our worlds completely changed. And what happened out of all of it is that I started to take care of Eric’s grandfather. His wife’s grandfather who [was] 88 and was a very calming angel in my life. He told me one day that I was going to be okay. I started crying because I literally didn’t know if I was going to be okay. He recently passed away, but his calming presence was the beginning of the tailspin stopping.
Then Eric and I had to take this track … we weren’t even finished. There was all kinds of work to be done. We saw it as an art project; not as a band. It was a very long road, but like most things in life that are difficult, the lessons are golden. I’ll never let us — nor will Eric or Rob — be in a position where we’re badgered, threatened, ignored, overlooked, mistreated or undervalued.
Eric: Our families, friends and loved ones … there was definitely a moment of distance and then there were times when they found encouragement and continued to be there for us and support us. But how do you support that kind of situation?
Billy: A lot of fast friends, people rooting you on, but not in real life. We were living something that was very much real life and everyone scattered. Selling guitars for rent money. Selling belongings. It was pretty rough. But we soldiered on and put the record out and it made the top ten on iTunes the first week. It’s unbelievable. It seems that as far down as the valleys were, that’s how the peaks are now. What we found is that if you believe in your music or your art, it’s really an extension of yourself. If you believe in your art, you’re really believing in yourself. I went from a prison to a morgue to a pawn shop to driving a coal truck in Queens and it was pretty ugly. But the art got us out of there.
Alisa: Still, knowing your story, some of these songs sound so triumphant. Based on your story, one would think that you’d go to an icy region [like Bon Iver] and make a sad record, but you didn’t.
Eric: The dark time got so much press, but in truth we’re really celebratory people.
Billy: This is a spectrum. It’s like a color wheel. It’s a theme I’ve been going through my whole life and a theme my brother and my band went through. There’s stuff that’s out of your control, but what you can control is how you react to it. We’re actually normal guys who had a bad patch and we made a record during a bad patch. But we’re back to being normal guys. That’s the distinction.
Alisa: Billy and Eric, I understand that you stopped drinking too?
Billy: We did stop drinking for five months.
Eric: Six or eight months.
Billy: To get a grip.
Eric: At the time when there were so many questions floating around. So much grieving. Billy had met Tony Fitzpatrick, a fantastic American artist, and he had given us some sage advice that booze isn’t gonna get us where we want to be. We decided to stop drinking until there were more answers than questions. It was very empowering. It gave us a lot of focus and a pretty intense drive to get out of the murk.
Alisa: Tony introduced you to Steve Earle too.
Billy: Before Pela broke up, we met with a label owner, an industry guy, who wanted to sign us and he’s gone on to sign some very large acts. It was very left field that we were in his office. My brother had just passed away and I shouldn’t have gone to the meeting, but we manned up and went. I think I was wearing flip-flops and shorts and I was out of my mind with grief and started talking about it in the meeting. He signed Steve Earle early on in his career and [in an email] wrote us that we reminded us a lot of Steve. But I realized later that it wasn’t a compliment; it was actually saying that [I was] out of control, like Steve was. I know his music pretty well and listened to Steve a lot when I was younger. I don’t know if Tony thought it would help me, but he introduced me to Steve and I spent some time with him in a gallery show, one of Tony’s shows. Steve doesn’t drink any longer and his career went from prison to being critically-acclaimed. He’s a fantastic talent.
Alisa: Was that an encouraging interaction?
Billy: When you’re down on your knees and reaching out and you need help, it was these two old road dogs, Tony and Steve, who’ve done it, been it, lived it … they knew [exactly where I was at]. I love them for that.
Eric: There was a whole crew in Brooklyn that stopped drinking at that point because everyone wanted to get their lives together. The booze wasn’t helping. We do drink now, but our relationship to it has changed. It’s not a threat anymore, the way it used to be.
Billy: I’m looking forward to this album cycle coming to an end. I’m excited about approaching other topics. This has been very cathartic and therapeutic, but the mental illness and homelessness … it’s pretty excruciating to be out there and have people know this stuff. But what people don’t know is the emails from fans and how it’s helping them. The agitating force behind all of these characters on the record [was] speaking about my brother and my mother who were mentally ill. We don’t really understand mental illness as a culture and I know the statistics, but it’s still not okay to talk about. So the fact that it’s out there, well, it’s been a lightning rod, all over the world. It’s not the easiest thing … but it makes me happy that it’s been a force of positivity. “