By Julia Stryj
I arrive at the Picturehouse in Edinburgh to interview We Are Augustines just after their sound check for their gig as support to Frightened Rabbit. When I meet the “lovely and beautiful” (I am sure that is how bassist Eric Sanderson described her very correctly in an interview I listened to) Arwen, their manager, she apologises right away and tells me that everything is running behind schedule. The band hasn’t even started their sound check yet. Billy McCarthy (vocal/guitar) comes up to us to say hello and to offer me to help myself to a drink from their room. Arwen and I talk about the band and other music related matters and watch the sound check. The band had to borrow some equipment from fellow support band Fatherson as a lot of their own gear is in a van on its way from Brussels to Milan (two of the places where they are supporting the Maccabees), so a good sound check is crucial. Bringing the gear over to Scotland would have been too expensive as they already had lots of excess luggage. This is one of the signs where the band stands financially. But missing an opportunity to perform live wouldn’t have been an option.
Shortly after Arwen shows me the band’s dressing room, Bill enters and I find myself asking him the first of my questions as we are talking about accents and picking up regional dialects, him as a Californian in New York and me as a German in Scotland.
Where do you call home?
BM: At the moment I have a really difficult time with that. I don’t feel a spiritual, intellectual or physical connection at all with NY. It’s a very savage, obnoxious place.
So, you are planning to move?
BM: Yes, I am trying to. I think I needed a challenge in my younger years. I value authenticity and I wanted the struggle. But now that I am working so hard things like stamina are really important…
The rest of his answer gets drowned in the squeaking of the door opening when Rob Allen (drums) enters the room.
Have you got any idea of where you want to move to or is that what you struggle with?
BM: I thought of maybe doing some writing in other places. I actually like Scotland quite a bit and I’d love to do some writing here. I moved to New York to be near Europe. I was like “oh, it’s only 6 hours”. But I didn’t realised I’d be so poor all the time.
It is an expensive place to live.
BM: Yes, it is, it is the most expensive place in our country.
Introducing myself to Rob brings us back to the subject of picking up accents.
BM: My theory is that when you want to be understood, when you want to make your point without any issues or problems, you start adopting the quickest way to get your point across. That is what happened to me in New York. In New York instead of “this party is ridiculous” they’d say, “fucking ridiculous this party is”.
After Eric Sanderson (bass) also joins us I ask them how the tour is going: Their own and the one supporting the Maccabees on part of their European tour and whether they prefer supporting another band to being the headliner.
RA: Both have their pros and their cons. The pros of headlining are that you get to play longer and the people are there to see you. But the good thing for me personally about supporting, especially bands like the Maccabees who are really nice people, is when you go up to play first you get a little bit more time to see the city that you are in and can talk to the people.
BM: And also I think, that physically you can last longer. You can have longer tours. It is only 30 minutes every night, when it is an hour and 30 minutes your body starts to ache, like you get elbow problems… It is just the instruments hanging on your body every night.
ES: We like to move around when we are playing.
Do you still have any contact with the other members from Pela?
BM: One of them had children. That is one of those things in life where you are so happy for them. But unfortunately they had to move to a different state…. It is hard, it is really hard, because this thing (WAA) is starting to take us away for a long period of time. And we personally have to accept that friendships kind of have to wait right now. It wasn’t easy discovering that or figuring that out. But I guess this is what we are doing at the moment.
And you are obviously doing it well.
BM: We try.
You must be really pleased. From what I have been reading, you show it on stage and I can see it just now. You have huge smiles on your face; you must enjoy what you are doing. Where do you get your motivation from to continue and not to give up?
ES: From People! People writing us, who have seen us or have heard the music. We get letters everyday from somebody. We just got a letter today from Guatemala. A lot of the letters are very inspiring. They give us energy to carry on. Especially at the early stages of the band, when there was little to no momentum; those letters coming in from people to tell us to carry on and keep on moving. That is where we got the momentum from. And now there is a lot of momentum, but the letters feel just as good. But we also get to play live and that is where people can come and see us and talk to us. That makes it all worth it.
BM: I think also the record, the songs mean everything to us. And I think sometimes when you either have an incredible good or bad year, it is momunental in either way. There was a pretty big moment in our lives and I think we were just trying to respond to it. And I think one of the ways that we dealt with everything that was going on was by focusing (on the record). It is really funny: In America there is a thing called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Basically if they endured some kind of tragedy through people driving drunk it allows them some instant community. They can talk they can network. It gives them a focus in their lives. And that is the record trying to be like.
ES: Yes, absolutely
BM: It is like a central healthy place for us to focus our energy.
The record sounds great and I am really looking forward to hearing it live as I heard and read that it is a completely different experience. It must be hard to play those personal songs live again and again. I know Billy said it is like “shouting out your journal in the middle of the street”
BM: That is probably the closest thing I can describe it as.
I know you feel strongly about issues like homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse. What do you think the government could/should do to help with those issues?
BM: That is a very big question. You know we were just in Holland and I was looking for a sleep tablet, as I hadn’t slept in 2 days. And you know in America you can buy them at a gas station. And they said it was illegal in Holland you had to go to the doctor. And I thought “wouldn’t it be nice to go to the doctor”. In America it is a fact that none of my friends can go to the doctors. We don’t have healthcare. I was injured a couple of years ago and I think it was 700$ just to be seen, not even to get medicine. But if you are a drummer, or keyboard player, or trumpet player or poet, you don’t have 700$. That is your rent. And that are able-bodied people who are working. Imagine you are disabled and you live in a project or a ghetto or you have a drug problem and live on the street. What I would like the government to do is value these people. If you don’t have upward mobility or you don’t have mobility and you are stuck, be it in your mind with a mental illness or disability. It is very sub-standard health care and help for them. They don’t have an easy time and I wish our government would change that.
We just had an email from Canada and it was a guy talking about mental illness in his family. And he said it was mental health awareness day in Canada – Amazing! We can learn from other countries on how to live and help other people and not just earn money and have two cars.
ES: That’s the thing. When life is that hard and there is no resources or opportunities it is very easy to turn to substances. I mean you can’t go to the doctor to get drugs, so you find your drugs on the street. And those drugs are highly addictive and un-regulated. Next thing you know is you are starting that downward spiral. That is very easy to get involved in.
BM: The numbers aren’t that clear, but I think there are 200,000 homeless people in Los Angeles.
That is a lot of people. And it could be worse; you could be in Sao Paolo or something with crime. But in a first world country that is unacceptable.
That brings me to drug addiction (including alcohol). Obviously prevention is key, how do you think that could best be dealt with to work against this downward spiral?
BM: There are different levels of drug use. There is college drug use, there is someone sitting at home, quietly smoking a joint, like they are doing in Holland. But then there are those that Eric was talking about. Those who are sick and not well and who are using it as medication. I don’t know if there is anything that you could do about it. In California they recently de-criminalised marihuana. So a lot of people who are terminally ill can get it. It used to be that if you had Aids you could get access to it. It seems like, now if you are sick you can get it, so it is not a big departure. I mean nobody is getting killed over there, so…
ES: It is so tricky though, because the minute a government force tries to step in they can create as many problems as they are trying to solve. One thing that Billy has talked about a lot and I thought about a lot is on a human level, not on a government level, but on a human level.
It is like recognising that homeless people, people with substance abuse. That it is not necessarily that they choose to be there. They are not bad people. And I think a lot of the times people look at poor people, people without much opportunity, or people who have lost themselves to drugs. They look at it as if it was their fault. And most of the times it is not their fault. They were given a bad hand in life. And it really takes an exceptional person to overcome the struggles that they are faced with on a daily basis. A little bit of humility and compassion can go a long way. Passion can go a lot longer than government policies.
Yes, and the average person walks past any homeless person and thinks get up and do something.
BM/ES simultaneously: Get a job!
BM: It is really true. I guess in closing on that subject: It is somebody’s son, brother or father. It is somebody’s mother, sister, daughter or aunt. If you look at it that way, have a little more humanity for that situation.
One thing I am not 100% sure is where and how you met Rob? I guess you met him in the UK?
RA: No, I live in the states, I live in New York. It is funny before when you asked about Pela and whether we still kept in touch. Well, I basically know the old drummer, Tom. I have known him for a long time. We lived together. And that is how we met. They were doing a duo and they needed a drummer. So we did an audition and rehearsals and within two weeks we were playing London. It was that quick. That was about a year ago. I think they have been counting the days.
ES jumps in: 357 days
Laughter from all of us
Where does the eighties influence come from in some of your songs (like ‘Chapel Song’)?
BM: I think the eighties were a very melodic time. I remember all the jingles, I remember all of the TV show songs, I remember the radio. And I think it was the one-hit-wonder era. We were talking about it today. You could be The Fine Young Cannibals and have one song that was good and the whole album was shit. And they would sign you and you would go on tour.
So you wish you were a band in the eighties?
BM: What I like about it, in a weird sense it was absolutely poppy. But there is also like two different eighties. There is the as we know the eighties, like Cindy Lauper. But then there is also an underground eighties, which is very important. It’s like the nineties; there was the Nirvana nineties and the Squirrell Nut Zippers or Creed… Terrible… Creed….
If you did anything else apart from music what would that be?
ES: You mean happily?
Yes, I am not asking what would be your worst job. Is there anything else that you feel passionate about apart from music?
RA: I’d say nothing. If I can’t play music I’d be a tour manager or a tech. I’d do something that was at least involved in it.
ES: This is what I do and if I am not performing or be in the studio I’d be somewhere. May be teach, don’t know. Never tried it.
BM: I’d probably work with people somehow, probably with people that needed support. I was working with disabled people a little in the last couple of years. I enjoyed that. Also, I am very passionate about immigrants and their lives and what they go through.
I know Eric said that We Are Augustines was named after your own personal August theme, but that he had looked at some of the quotes of St Augustine, which were very powerful. Is there any one that stands out in particular?
ES: To be honest I am not very good at quotes. But I think the general consensus that I saw, which I really liked is that it had a lot to do with consciousness and humanity. And those are two themes of ways of beings that are very important to the band.
Do you have a motto in life as a band or as individuals?
BM: Eric was saying something to me. Whenever things are very difficult and you don’t know what to do. Eric and I have sort of developed our own vocabulary. He said: Just be the best version of yourself that you can be. You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t have to work miracles.
ES: Just try.
BM: It’s like when you are not doing well, that is not a good version of you. But you should strive for that.
ES: And it is amazing because that is something that Rob shares whole heartily as well. We try to do that as much as we can. You always get tested when you are in difficult situations or you haven’t slept or you are in a stressful situation.
BM (slightly angry at the fact that Fatherson were still sound checking): I’d like to point out that we didn’t even get to play one full song and they have already played four. Sometimes you are too nice, I can’t figure this out. Like I am an arsehole and that doesn’t work. I am nice and that doesn’t work.
And you guys don’t even have all your own gear, so you should get extra time.
ES: The middle slot is always the hardest. Because these guys (Fatherson) will have everything set up and once everyone is cool walk off.
BM: If they play another song it is there fifth song, we played three half songs.
RA: We don’t know what their setup is…
BM: You drive or fly to a place and then you only get a half song to sound check. I don’t understand this environment at all it doesn’t make sense. Sorry…
He then adds with a big smile: And again be the best version of yourself and if people wanna walk over you, I guess that is what they are going to do.
ES: Or sometimes just standing up for yourself.
BM: Yes, I did that the other night with the hotel (looking at Eric), you know the four Euro ice water. I tried to explain how I didn’t think that was fair. I don’t think he agreed.
ES: We asked for ice water and we got tiny bottles and they were four Euro and he didn’t tell us before that they were four Euro.
BM: The thing is the one before that had free internet, beautiful breakfast
RA: Corner window
ES: And it was the same price
BM: Yeah, and this one: You have to pay for Internet. I don’t understand that
ES: We are struggling with Internet service right now. We are used to having it on our phones. And it costs a fortune.
I know, I don’t understand that either, how it is so different from country to country and hotel to hotel.
BM: But in England specifically it is like £5 for 5 minutes in a hotel that you have paid for
ES (laughing) to me: This is what you want to talk about right?
Ok, let’s go back to my questions then. Who inspires you musically or in life in general?
BM: I think this year Charles Bradley. He is a 62-year-old singer, who just put out his first record this year with some people in Brooklyn called The Daptones. They did Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse I believe. They are very like Soul guys, true to the art form. He does this really beautiful soul. He was a cook. He’s had a bit of a tough time. He was in a James Brown cover band when they found him. He is an amazing performer and he is one of those guys. I enjoy movies or stories or things in life that make you look, I feel like people are all in their own bubbles and if you look inside their bubbles Charles Bradley really does that. He makes you look at 62-year-old cooks differently. Cause you are like WOW.
And you know usually we have this kind of youth worship in the entertainment industry.
ES: But then he comes our and he makes those kids look like kids.
How did you come across him? Is he quite big in the states?
BM: He is picking up some popularity now. But it’s like I admire him and I also admire the people that believed in him to put money into his career. Those are the silent good guys.
Ok, I’ll just ask one more question to let you get some time off. What is your biggest achievement in life so far?
RA: I can say it: Being here with these guys. Hands down.
ES: I have one, but I am not too sure if it is too personal… Fuck it, I’ll say it. When we started recording this record we borrowed money from a lot of people. The record was recorded twice. We had an initial plan and then we re-invented ourselves and we had to do it again and again, so the money kept going up and up. And one of the people that gave a tremendous amount of money was our old drummer Tom that we talked about earlier. And after the band broke up we essentially made a pact and promised him to pay him back with the work that we would do to put the record out. He is an outstanding man and he believed in us. And he patiently waited. A couple of months ago we met up with him at a legendary drinking hank and we gave him a cheque of the full amount. It was a very emotional day.
BM: I think what is it you are happy that you have achieved? I am very proud that I got myself around the world and that I am a world citizen. That is the biggest achievement. Where I am from there is nothing wrong with the people that I grew up with but I don’t think that they had any desire to go anywhere outside of the region that they were from. There was no consciousness that it was ever spoken about that we were part of a larger global community.
And without any education and without any money I got myself around the world and I learned about the world through meeting people and I am really proud of that.
Well done to all of you and as I said before, best of luck to what is lying ahead of you! But it sounds great and promising. And I can’t wait to get my hands on the album (Rise Ye Sunken Ships). I already asked Arwen why we have to wait so long for it to be released here.
RA: Not too long now.
ES: What’s today’s date?
RA: February 10th. Less than a month.
BM: Thank you for your time, I hope I didn’t seem too grumpy in between. I do get grumpy sometimes.
When I ask Billy for a personal favour after the interview the other two are starting to take the piss out of him and laugh. But I couldn’t have asked for a nicer reaction from Billy to my request of writing his motto down to hopefully inspire a teenager in care. Even more so as it meant keeping Bill from his girlfriend (who he hardly sees while touring and was desperate to spend some time with) a bit longer. I could have chatted to the guys for hours and they certainly never gave me the impression that they wanted to stop.