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Start Absolutely From Scratch: Billy McCarthy, Augustines And The Bike

Tuesday, 28 January 2014 Written by Huw Baines

“So, it’s like two hours before the show and I have a cord running through my nostril and a camera going into my throat, shots in my bum and everything. I asked the doctor, ‘Does this mean I can’t have a whiskey?’ He said, ‘I don’t think that’s a problem.’ I love England.”

Having shared the details of his vocal problems, Billy McCarthy lets loose a throaty laugh, one that still bears traces of medical intervention in the wake of Augustines’ recent stop in Berlin, not to mention a couple of ‘celebratory drinks’ following a show at the Lexington in London, a curtain-raiser of sorts for their new, self-titled album.

Almost three years have elapsed since the band - McCarthy, long-time collaborator Eric Sanderson and drummer Rob Allen - released their debut as We Are Augustines, ‘Rise Ye Sunken Ships’, on which McCarthy discussed his brother Jim’s suicide in a candid, unvarnished fashion.

The album is one bordered by competing emotions. It’s a treatise on grief that is, nevertheless, also emblematic of McCarthy’s desire to fight on, whether against label antipathy, the demise of Pela, his and Sanderson’s former band, or the burden of isolation.

Early on, during Augustine, he sings: “Keep your head up, kid. I know you can swim but you gotta move your legs.” Since the release of ’Rise Ye Sunken Ships’, McCarthy has been taking his own advice, whether you’re talking a tour that lasted a couple of years and comprised something like 250 shows in 23 countries, or a recent motorbike odyssey that took him from Mexico to the very tip of Alaska.

“New York had beaten me down so much, with everything I went through getting the last record out,” he said. “Family things, being evicted, bad jobs - being a barman, and driving a truck. When you move to the city from a town, the framework of your thought process is that ‘when I make it, I’m gonna get out of here’. Our band took off, and I was faced with this really interesting dilemma. It was like, ‘I’m not going back there’, but then I’m travelling so much that it’s like, ‘what roots can I really grow elsewhere?’”

At this juncture, the seeds of Augustines’ second album, which is set for release on February 3, were sown for McCarthy. He felt cut adrift; a dreamer among people that he felt had long ago set their own aspirations aside. By hitting the road, he sought to move on from ‘Rise Ye Sunken Ships’, to ‘shapeshift’.

“All these wonderful things were happening in our lives and whenever I called my old friends to tell them about all these victories and things that felt so good, they really couldn’t be bothered anymore,” he said. “They had mortgages and they’d long since put their dreams down. It was like I was the last man standing.

“I started travelling. A lot of it was because I recognised that the subject matter of the last record was rather intense, and I was thinking a lot about Elliott Smith. Elliott in his earlier material was, like, down to the marrow of his existence. He was so honest about everything. He went on in his career and started trying to build his sound in more orchestral, George Martin arrangements. People wanted him to stay that old Elliott with the four track.

“What I decided to do was start absolutely from scratch. I went back to my town, of 5,000 people, and stayed on a farm. I somehow got the keys to my elementary school and they let me get inside the room that I studied music in when I was 10 years old. I’m always up for that. I appreciate making a commitment. Like people who are actors do, they try to shapeshift. Drop weight or a different dialect or something. I wanted to commit to it, holistically, from the inside out.”

That transition began with getting back to something that felt real. For McCarthy, there was nothing to be gained from the city and the vast array of ‘single serving friends’ available to a guy in a successful rock band.

“I have a severe distrust, admittedly, for the entertainment world,” he said. “It’s changing and it’s never been gentle. In a weird way it felt like I’d come through so much, but I didn’t want to celebrate it with fast friends, new friends. I wanted to go back to my roots and have people be proud of me where I come from. When I went back I felt crazy. I felt pretty battered after living in New York for 13 years and limping back to this small town, where everything closes at 6.30 at night and there’s two pubs, I felt like an alien, man. In a good way.”

Then, it really was all about the bike. McCarthy, determined to embrace his one-man mission, put almost 6,000 miles on the clock as he traversed the west coast of the US. All the while, the ideas were percolating as he confronted the reality of spending time alone.

“My motorbike, actually, was very helpful,” he said. “I rode my bike down the coast and returned to the sea, where my life really started. I was born near the ocean. The song, Walkabout, is about me admitting to myself that I had no idea where I was going: ‘In the arms of the sea, where my tired head carried me.’

“It’s so easy to keep yourself numb, with your laptop, or your phone, or your Instagram or whatever. Whatever’s at your fingertips. Louis CK was on the Conan O’Brien show and he was talking about the ache that people feel, when you’re sitting by yourself and you want to pick up the phone to avoid that ache. That ache is actually a big part of life.

“In modern times we’re running away from that aspect of life. The motorbike allowed me to face that ache. I went from northern California all the way down to the desert, to the Joshua Tree and into Mexico. All they way up to glaciers in Alaska, near Russia.”

Sanderson and Allen, meanwhile, had been working on demos of their own, inspired by the many people the band had encountered on tour. When Augustines reconvened at Temperamental Recordings in Geneseo, New York, Sanderson was determined to make a record “with other people in mind”. McCarthy had come to the same conclusion, and Allen has since described the sessions as being like a “music factory”.

“What the press doesn’t know is the kind of emails that I receive, and the kind of things that people tell me about their lives,” McCarthy said. “No-one likes a bully, you know? I was hearing all these voices wherever we toured, from people who had been through so much and were sharing things with us. Those people’s faces and their stories were really fresh in our minds. We purposely got off the road for about two weeks and went directly into this studio to record. We didn’t want to forget the people.”

‘Augustines’ is the result. Co-produced by Peter Katis, who has previously helmed albums by the National, Frightened Rabbit and Interpol, it’s a huge, sweeping rock record, one that is muscular in its delivery and unashamedly upbeat. To find this sound, to pin down his next move, McCarthy had to get well and truly lost.

“It was like a roman candle in the night, we just needed to light it up,” McCarthy said. “We fired off everything we could, from a capella and choir music to like, a little bit more of a robust guitar sound, way more piano. Loneliness, exuberance, celebration. We covered a lot.”

Augustines UK & Ireland Tour Dates are as follows

Thu April 10 2014 - LEEDS Cockpit
Fri April 11 2014 - GLASGOW Arches
Sat April 12 2014 - GATESHEAD The Sage Gateshead
Mon April 14 2014 - LONDON KOKO
Wed April 16 2014 - MANCHESTER Academy 2
Thu April 17 2014 - BRISTOL Bristol Trinity
Sat May 10 2014 - SHEFFIELD Plug
Sun May 11 2014 - NOTTINGHAM Rescue Rooms
Mon May 12 2014 - OXFORD O2 Academy Oxford
Wed May 14 2014 - LIVERPOOL East Village Arts Club
Thu May 15 2014 - EDINBURGH Liquid Room
Fri May 16 2014 - BIRMINGHAM The Temple at The Institute

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