We are Augustines: Not out of the woods yet

Scroll down to watch an exclusive album trailer from the band

“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.”

‘Augustines’ is out now at iTunes or Amazon. Tickets are available now for their 'Walkabout Tour' from the bands’ website http://po.st/WalkaboutUK.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz