A t the end of their Rise Ye Sunken Ships touring run, the now-Seattle-based Augustines (previously We Are Augustines and Pela) had become a bit burnt from being constantly mobile, constantly up and down from performing, and constantly away from their Brooklyn home base. Billy McCarthy (vocals, guitar), Eric Sanderson (bass, keyboards), and Rob Allen (drums) had been touring nonstop for two and a half years. But instead of holing up somewhere to rest and settle the dust for a change, McCarthy did the opposite—traveling had been so imprinted into his blood, he couldn't break from it. So to recharge, he visited Kenya, Turkey, Mexico, and Alaska, eventually returning to the Applegate, California, elementary school where he first learned an instrument. There, while being observed by students and teachers, he worked on the Augustines' latest, self-titled album, out February 4 on Votiv/Oxcart Records. McCarthy's voice is immediately identifiable. There's brawn and rapture to it that pours out over the builds of the band's unfeigned rock and roll. The songs have a sense of triumph and fruition, while at the same time knowing heartache. When he was a teenager, McCarthy lost his mother to suicide. He took care of his schizophrenic brother, but his brother became homeless while battling drug addiction and eventually ended up in solitary confinement in prison, where he took his own life. In November 2012, Augustines convened at a converted 19th-century country church in Geneseo, New York, for a month to work on new material. Then they headed to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to record with coproducer Peter Katis (the National, Interpol, Jónsi) at his Tarquin Studios. McCarthy spoke from Sea-Tac Airport just before getting on a plane to the UK.
Are you going to England to play a show? No, I'm taking some time off. It's my last gulp of air for the next two years I think, while we tour the new album. There's this place I really like to go over there called Brighton. It's a seaside town, and there's an old Coney Island feel to it, in disrepair. It's beautiful. And it makes me feel calm, but it's inspiring at the same time. Last year, another spot I enjoyed was Puerto Rico. I could get around pretty easy there because there are no visa or money-exchange problems. I wish we could go to Cuba [laughs].
What goes into your singing? You have such a recognizable voice. Where does it come from? I'm really inspired vocally by flamenco and gospel stuff. I like vocalists who get to that weird point where you don't know if you want to fight, or fuck, or cry, or fall apart, or save someone's life. Those vocalists who are right on the cusp of crying—it's always grabbed my heart. It's taken me some time to figure out how to do that in my own way. And hopefully I'm doing it.
You envelop anguish. It's brutish, and furtive. If you've ever been to Spain, flamenco music is close to the blues. There's a guy named Pepe Marchena who I love, he's an old-school guy from the 1950s and '60s. And blues guys like Lightnin' Hopkins. I don't know, it just has this power about it. Edith Piaf is another one—she's more refined, but somewhere in there, it's almost like she's falling apart. I admire her ability to encapsulate that.
I wanted to get you to talk about your song "Kid You're on Your Own." Your words are "Everyone you love slips through your hands like sand" and "The sun goes down but don't come up again, this polluted city makes my head a mess." You want a place to call home. I started on acoustic guitar. The lyrics really have to do with New York. I had moved to New York from Seattle, and I was out there for 13 years. When you move to a place that big, your mind-set is "I'm going to get my career going, then I'm going to get out of here." It's fun for a while, but it can be a very abrasive place to live. I'm in my 30s now, and when I left New York, I went back to Seattle and contacted old friends after the Rise Ye Sunken Ships album cycle was over. It was hard to relate to anybody. Things close so early. People weren't necessarily pursuing their dreams as much; they were busy with mortgages and professional lives and young families. It was strange, I didn't realize how much New York was fostering my creative side, and it was absolutely asphyxiating me on a day-to-day basis [laughs]. No parking, extraordinarily high rent, very loud, drinking too much—you can't really hang out at people's places because there's not that much room, so you're at pubs. New York is filled with all these ghosts for me. I guess I got out, but then I had nowhere to go [laughs]. So I just kept traveling. I haven't had an apartment in more than two years—as we speak, I'm traveling again, living out of suitcases and hotels. I heard that Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age went four years without an apartment or a home, he was just on tour the whole time. I get it. It's sort of how I justify traveling, I took all the money that I wasn't spending on New York rent and I bought a motorcycle and traveled quite a bit. It's not such a bad way to be, actually.
I need at least one New York rat story. Oh, the rats are as big as armadillos. New York rat story? Let's see, how about mice? I had some friends from Seattle come stay with me, and I was living above a bodega, and because of the deli and the produce, upstairs there were so many mice. At any given time, there would be a gang of mice running around at will, laughing at me. I'm not kidding, like 15 mice doing whatever they wanted in my living room. I had a futon, and that's where my friends slept. It was a very long night with the mice, I believe. Those friends never came back to stay with me [laughs].
You worked with Peter Katis on this album. I believe you all were fans of his Jónsi production work. What about that Jónsi Go album made you want to work with him? It's his sonic spectrum. Peter's been around for years. He's worked with some of the bands that we came up with in the New York scene over the last 10 years or so. He's always done such a fantastic job sonically, but the Jónsi stuff was a big step forward for him. It's so layered. Much of it, we actually discovered, is acoustic. Go is a sonic masterpiece. I don't think there's any electric guitar or electric bass, it's actually really stripped down, you wouldn't believe it. They're playing trash-can lids and strange Casio keyboards. The album is such an accomplishment. We didn't want to be produced, though; we wanted more of a collaborator. We told him we would rather coproduce and have a partnership rather than just run us through the ol' production mill. We wanted to have a strong voice in the process, and he was cool with it.
Did you all bump heads much along the way? I think one time it got a little bit heated. It's hard in the studio, because you want to explore and experiment. At one point, we were running out of time and we had to really snap out of it. Everyone was getting excited and got caught up, and we forgot about our deadlines. Once we realized that, we got back on track. Another facet to Peter's expertise is his attention to detail and his understanding of the sonic environment. Which is what the listener hears in their earphones. It's a world that we collaborated on, and Peter is able to move pretty quickly and effortlessly through it. I'm proud of the record we made. I think both parties pushed each other's thresholds. I just spoke with him today, and he's really happy with it.
Making this new album was exciting for us because our drummer Rob Allen wasn't on our last album. We've also added Al Hardiman to the band, he's British and he rounds out this strange half-American/half-British band we're in now. They both made expansive contributions to the record and gave it space.
So now that you're sort of based out of Seattle, where do you like to go when you're here? I like the International District and Georgetown. Rainier is amazing, I rode my motorcycle up there.
You gotta try Paseo, between Ballard and Golden Gardens. They have the best sandwiches of all time. I don't know what those people do to their sandwiches, but they're ridiculous. I've totally hit that place! I also like Gorditos, the giant burritos place. And KEXP is the best radio station in the country.
Why did you all choose Seattle to relocate to? Besides our smaller-sized rats. I've been all around the country, and Seattle just has something. It's been like a defibrillator for me so many times. It seems like every time our career felt doomed, Seattle was there for us. I think the fabric of the community is pretty much a music-first kind of place. I went to the Sub Pop 25th anniversary celebration this past summer, and it was so great. There were all these old-school heads and old-school rockers with kids now. And they're rocking together. It's almost like this utopian Portlandia thing where it's, oh my god, we've spawned yet more rockers [laughs]. Seattle also reminds me of the Netherlands. It's progressive with a lumberjack/fisherman past. But now it's very forward-moving—lots of farm-to-table restaurants and yoga. People care about themselves. They care about NPR. They're liberal. There's lots of wool and flannel in the thrift stores you can still get at a fair price. I think Seattle can be a fair place to live. Brooklyn has that "Go fuck yourself" attitude.