“Was that too much?” Billy McCarthy asks the crowd in a north London pub. “It felt like too much…” The Californian has just finished singing “Now You Are Free”, from his band Augustines’ second, self-titled album. During it, his wracked face resembled tragedy’s mask, and his voice cracked on the verge of tears. There aren’t many bands whose emotions are so constantly near the surface, or who are so obviously grateful as fans roar their songs back at them. Augustines’ freewheeling, passionate shows have been getting such responses for three years now. This gig sold out in four minutes.
Initially Brooklyn-based and called We Are Augustines (due to a prior claim on the “Augustines” name), the band consistently won over crowds while touring their 2011 debut, Rise Ye Sunken Ships. The 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy is being talked of as a suitable venue this year. Augustines’ sound is certainly stadium-sized. There are traces of U2 in the guitars, and Springsteen in McCarthy’s raggedly potent vocals. But the band’s humility, and his lyrics, retain a human heart.
Sitting in an east London pub the next afternoon, McCarthy’s looks suggest a matinee idol who’s been round the block, but who has retained a bruised innocence. That bruising began during a childhood spent bouncing between Northern California foster homes, after separation from a drug-addicted mother. She fatally overdosed when he was 19. McCarthy’s brother James was later thrown into solitary confinement in a Californian jail, despite his schizophrenia. He killed himself there in 2009. Pela, McCarthy’s first band with Augustines multi-instrumentalist Eric Sanderson, collapsed the same year, dragged down by debt and label politics. We Are Augustines rose from these ashes. The autobiographical Rise Ye Sunken Ships, which became iTunes’ Alternative Album of the Year, pulled the band past the car-wreck of their past.
“If I’m not mistaken, life aches,” McCarthy says of the emotion in their music. “It’s like when I hear flamenco, I like it when those women go [he imitates a wail]. I didn’t wake up one day and go, ‘Hey, I’m going to sing like I’m nearly crying’. It’s just that that’s how it makes me feel.”
The background to Augustines is almost as dramatic as its predecessor’s. “Walkabout” is the album’s key track, describing what happened after McCarthy fled New York’s bad memories. He rode a motorbike to Mexico, then up into Alaska. There, he pitched a tent on the roof of a boat heading north, where he heard whales spouting water, wolves’ howls, and the crack of glacier-chunks “the size of lorries” crashing into the water.
McCarthy’s wanderlust took him as far as Turkey and Kenya. Finally, he circled back to Northern California. “Come on home!” he almost shrieks during “Walkabout”. But this was no home worth having. “There were a lot of rednecks,” he recalls of Loomis, the town where he largely grew up. “Weekends we’d have bonfires, and maybe if you got lucky you’d make out with a girl and feel her boobs. There’d be shitty beer, fist-fights, racism. And I’m just lucky that I was so fucking angry that I got out of that. Seeing my friends when I went back, their dreams didn’t happen.”
“I walked out into the waves,” McCarthy tremulously sings during “Walkabout”, “to be quiet with the storms inside”. He wrote that after returning to the Californian beaches where he’d played as a child. “As a little boy, when I lived near the sea,” he remembers, “I’d just throw myself against the waves, all day. They’d crash into me, knock me down, I’d get back up, crash into ‘em. I remember getting into fights with kids and just letting them hit me. I don’t know,” he ponders. “I wasn’t really allowed to be a child. Maybe that was my way of fighting back.”
This journey into his unhappy past saw McCarthy contact the grade-school teacher, now in her seventies, who had taught him when he was nine. Remarkably, he moved to her farm. “She was a lantern in a dark tunnel, man,” he says. “Still is. The last time I saw my mother I had to say goodbye to her in jail, they wouldn’t let me touch her, and then I landed in this woman’s class. I was not well-hygiened, and the second day some kid gave me a hard time, and I punched him right in the face. I asked her, when I was at her farm, ‘Why did you stay with me?’ and she just said, ‘You were special, William.’ She never called me Billy. She always wanted me to feel proud of myself.”
With Augustines, McCarthy has turned his odyssey into a passionate album which thunders to some kind of redemption. The raw experiences behind both records stand out in a US indie scene which, like the Brooklyn where it’s based, is increasingly gentrified. “On the last record, we were talking about prison, and mental illness, and healthcare, and border violence,” McCarthy ponders. “And you find that more in hip-hop, not in the semi-upper-middle-class genre which indie rock has become. It’s an upwardly mobile scene.”
McCarthy smiles a lot as he talks. But after his previous band’s destruction by the “fickle, brittle” music business, he distrusts his recent good fortune. “I’m so fearful,” he admits. “I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, cool, hopefully we’ll do Brixton this year’. But I’m also still looking around for what kind of job I could have should this all fall apart, because my heart would break if I had to be a barman again, or a truck driver, where I was degraded every day. I want to go to Cuba, I want to hold someone and kiss near canals, I wanna see... cockfighting in Thailand! I wanna live. And life has broken every single person in my family’s heart, and there’s a sort of fear inside me.
“I think that art gets really good when you need to do it,” McCarthy concludes. “I could drive a truck again, and I’d survive, but my soul wouldn’t survive. I need this music for my soul to make sense.”