- Wed, 2011-03-30 10:16
We Are Augustines are Billy McCarthy and Eric Sanderson, once two fifths of the much-loved cult band Pela. When outside pressures became too much for that band to survive the duo resolved to continue making music, and the fruits of their long and hard labours will be released later this year in the form of their debut album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships.
I Like Music caught up with Billy to chat about the birth of the band, its various live incarnations, world music, inspirational lyricists and music as an impulse that can’t be denied.
“I Like Music because…it helps me understand life.” Billy McCarthy, We Are Augustines
ILM: You were in a band called Pela before We Are Augustines; what caused that outfit to fall by the wayside?
Billy: I think it was an intersection between art and commerce. Basically all of our best intentions were hijacked by industry types that wanted to make some cash. Unfortunately we had to walk away as a band.
ILM: But you survived that negative experience and you decided to carry on in music, despite all of that…
Billy: Yeah, absolutely. We just decided that it was too dear to us to walk away from. We decided that we weren’t going to quit and we would get a new band and have people hear this record.
ILM: Why did the other guys from Pela decided not to continue on the journey with you?
Billy: Everybody has a breaking point, and I think that those other fellows simply felt that continuing on with the project would just mean more disappointment.
ILM: It sounds like there was a relatively strong degree of musical continuity between Pela and We Are Augustines, is that fair to say?
Billy: Well yeah, it’s the same voice and bass-player, and Eric played a lot of instruments in Pela as well, so essentially it’s a very close relative! But I think that Pela was a sweaty, rambunctious, visceral rock and roll band, and I think perhaps there’s a little bit more grace to We Are Augustines.
ILM: Can you tell us a bit about the debut album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships?
Billy: Well, you can expect it out this June, and you can expect absolute honesty from it. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of creatively, and I’ve done a lot of different things in my life. This is about the largest commitment that I’ve ever made – both personally and with Eric. We literally begged, borrowed and stole to make it happen, and we put ourselves through a lot. Perhaps too much. But at the end of it art is the most important thing, and I think it’s an absolute piece of art.
ILM: It sounds like a real emotional investment, and from the tracks we’ve heard so far the blood, sweat and tears are palpable; is that atmosphere present throughout the album?
Billy: Absolutely. I happened to be the lyricist and the songwriter, so I think that the things that I had going on personally through the period have just ended up all over the record. All the songs are tied to each other. I wouldn’t call it a concept record, but they all speak as a family… I don’t want to give it away, you’ll have to check it out, but all the songs are related.
ILM: You worked with Dave Newfeld on the record, famous for producing bands like Broken Social Scene; what was that like?
Billy: Dave’s turned into a fantastic and dear friend of ours. He challenged us to the brink of our own sanity, and it wasn’t always comfortable. But I think that we came out of it great friends and we have some good art to be proud of, and I can’t wait to work with him again. I admire him greatly.
ILM: You’ve just finished a run of UK shows with The Boxer Rebellion, did that go well?
Billy: It exceeded my expectations in a massive way. Every night we got just enormous support and love from England and Scotland. Frankly, I wish I’d come here sooner! I used to busk over here, but really only whilst travelling, and I just dreamt one day that I could have a band and do it properly. It’s like a large dream of mine.
ILM: How long ago was it that you were busking here?
Billy: Probably ten years ago.
ILM: So it’s been a long time coming, but you finally realised that dream!
Billy: Yeah, I really mean it! I was on the tube, I was on the trains, I lived all around here… I moved to Ireland and I passed through here to go to Europe, all the while busking. I essentially stopped travelling because I wanted to be a musician officially and properly, and it’s just evaded me for so long that this is just an incredible honour and a great life dream accomplished. Mission accomplished!
ILM: Can you tell us about your live set up? Presumably it’s more than you and Eric on stage…
Billy: Yes. Eric and I have a relationship where we don’t have to think a lot when we play. We did our last tour as a two-piece, but now we’ve added a drummer as a three-piece and we’ve had as many as eight or nine people on stage. I’ve been consumed with inspiration by working as a three-piece because the arrangements have such an immediacy, and I love the challenge of it. It seems to be going quite well.
ILM: Do you think you might extend to a three-piece more permanently?
Billy: Well, we are a three-piece as of now, but I don’t know. There are a couple of different directions that we could go in. I was thinking about another guitar player, maybe another keyboard player, maybe an accordion player. Frankly, this has been such a success that I’m not sure we need to do that.
ILM: Who are your biggest inspirations when it comes to writing songs?
Billy: At the moment I’ve really immersed myself in a lot of world music. The Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars, Franco Luambo, Carlos Gardel, Amalia Rodrigues, Pepe Marchena, a lot of African music. And old Irish music too… I like folk music. Really I’ve been sort of staying off the grid with popular music; I really enjoy listening to Chopin and I like operas…
ILM: That’s a massive range of styles, do they all feed into your writing?
Billy: In a lot of third world countries you’ll find that people can do so much with an instrument. The polyrhythms and the way that the vocals are used are amazing. I think it’s a great thing when I don’t even understand the language but I understand the sense of it. I like to try to be disciplined and write acoustically at home, so instead of peddles and gadgetry, lyrics become paramount. They provide the colour. I think that’s true of any good song. I’m a lyric-lover.
ILM: Who are some of your favourite wordsmiths?
Billy: Oh, there are many! There are so many! God… I’ve recently been fascinated with Shane McGowan, Joe Strummer, Steve Earle… Bob Dylan, obviously. Woody Guthrie, a lot of the blues guys; Son House, Lead Belly, Lightnin Hopkins, Paul Simon, Billy Bragg….
ILM: When you’re listening to music, are the lyrics the first thing you gravitate towards?
Billy: I generally gravitate towards the musicians that have heart. When it just feels like they’re compelled and that they must do that work, that’s when it’s really intriguing to me. When people come out to see us the most important thing to me is that people walk away and think “those guys have heart.”
ILM: When did you first feel that compulsion to express yourself through music?
Billy: I had a very difficult upbringing. I had to move through foster homes, and sometimes there’d be an instrument there. I remember not being able to play a piano but being very young and sitting next to one and hitting one note and just letting it ring, and I loved that. And then I think when I was 12 I started playing guitar. I was in choir, which I took in lieu of a foreign language in high school ‘cause I knew I would fail at that. Then as a teenager I decided to try to approach some of the subjects that I wanted to talk about through music.
ILM: So it started a very long time ago.
Billy: It started very long ago. But I think my palate started evolving when I moved to Europe, to be honest. I moved to Europe when I was about 22 and I got my first paid gig in a pub in Ireland. That was an affirmation that I was on the right track, and from then on I couldn’t play enough.
ILM: What are you future plans?
Billy: Logistically, I anticipate a lot of touring. I think internally, Eric and I just have a commitment to being good human beings, and to be around good people. If at any point in time this becomes some playground for industry people, for people to come and stay with us for a little while just to get what they can get, I won’t participate. So the bottom line is that we want to be happy, we want to enjoy ourselves, and we want to be around good folks. And it seems to be working.