Billy McCarthy is still standing. After dealing with the disintegration of a promising band doomed to rot on a dying indie label, the unexpected suicides of his mother and brother, and problems with alcohol abuse, the Brooklyn-based songwriter has resurfaced with his new band We Are Augustines.
McCarthy’s old band—-the anthemic and pleading Pela—-would chew on the everyday banalities of life—-stirring nostalgia for, say, crashing parties on New Year’s Eve. But We Are Augustines is a vehicle for personal, romantic, and darker themes, like pain pills and homelessness. On new record Rise Ye Sunken Ships, McCarthy narrates stories from his bartending days, along with tales of laboring families along the bordertown of Juarez and loved ones in prison. We Are Augustines plays Red Palace tonight, and McCarthy answered a few of our questions.
Caught you guys at the Austin City Limits festival last weekend. I noticed that lots of Pela tracks made it to the We Are Augustines setlist. Why do you still dust off those songs?
When Pela ended I had seven years’ worth of music written that I didn’t know what to do with. I went back and forth on it and I had to go back and check on songwriters that had been in multiple bands—-Jeff Tweedy, Eric Bachmann—-they gave me the courage to bring those songs back. I couldn’t just let all that material die.
Speaking of Pela, you guys publicly tow the old party line of industry pressures ending the band. What exactly happened?
Pela existed in a different era—-that sort of Shins, Strokes, Napster through the beginning of Facebook era. And through those technologically important years, our industry had hesitations as it was receding. We were known as a strong live act; we got around the country and sold out cities, but we suffered from the industry having cold feet. We signed to an independent label and then it went under. The funding for the band’s ambitions was never there.
The frustrations made things a little sideways. It was creepy to sell out venues 3,000 miles from home, but not be able to get to Europe. Or to do television but not certain festivals because of connections…we had to take personal loans to make a legitimate record, and [2007’s Anytown Graffiti] was a real letdown. There just wasn’t enough gas in the tank.
I thought it was a really interesting move host a PDF online that outlines the theme and intent of every song on the album in concise paragraphs you wrote up. Was that your idea? And doesn’t that transparency leave little to interpretation?
[Pela holdover and Augustines collaborator Eric Sanderson] and I realized that we’d have to do every single thing differently. One of the major examples was the subject matter of the record. The whiskey-drinking, hard-touring, volatile, and reckless band wasn’t going to work. We made it a point to zero in on informing people where we’re coming from. That always gets lost in the music.
I grew up in an era where everything was very played down. Records didn’t have pictures or lyrics. But now you can find anything online in a nanosecond, and I think information is really healthy. If I was listening to a record with this kind of subject matter I’d want to get a little deeper. It’s a trade.
Why so many songs about specific places on Rise Ye Sunken Ships? Juarez, Mexico, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, bars, hospitals, etc.
The location stuff works for the stories. In the beginning of the record a lot of the intent wasn’t to write about personal stuff, but by the end life was so dire that we stopped camouflaging. I mean we recorded in East Los Angeles, and I’d go out for a cigarette and see homeless people everywhere: Between 90-200,000 thousand live in L.A.
I grew up near artichoke fields in Watsonville, Northern California. Mexican culture was my first impression of life. We grew up in a trailer park and those were the kids I played with. That I played soccer, and got into fist fights with. That smell of Mexican cooking—-that just seemed to be what life was. Never forgot that community.
I likewise notice Mexican influence on the album art. Is that an intentional Dia De Los Muertos homage?
I’ve had lots of adventures to Mexico. There’s something very true about the country and its complexities. But I don’t know. I’d gotten touch with my favorite artist Tony Fitzpatrick. He’s worked with Steve Earle and Lou Reed. We’re both Irish-American and he’s a very base-level guy. He called me out on drinking, told me that the streets of the world are littered with talent and sometimes it’s not about talent but getting out of your own way.
The album art was a gift. An understanding that I’d do the right thing and clean up. Before there was a deal or music written, I had a title and a cover.
Album opener “Chapel Song,” is pretty heart-wrenching. Tell me about her.
That song is about small towns and getting older. I had somebody in my life that was absolutely a keeper, the type of girl you marry. There’s no jobs or opportunities in small towns, you have to leave, and she went on into her life. A little something inside you dies when your small town sweetheart gets married. It’s about watching someone walk down the aisle with all that remained of your childhood.
Tell me about your relationship with your brother. He was a paranoid schizophrenic who spent his adult years in and out of prison before taking his own life. But he’s a redemptive character throughout the album. What do you miss most about him?
He was just very soft. He was very funny and had a big smile. He loved animals, he had a dog named Bubba that wouldn’t leave his side growing up. He was the kind of kid that would fall down a lot; the kind of kid who’s best friend was a girl. I miss him making me laugh, and his shine.
We’re from a really small town and you put him in a mean city, in a bad part of town, and throw some bugs in there and some mental illness and it’s a tremendous gap. It’s not fair how he left. I try to send him off the right way. I’m not gonna stop singing these songs.
We Are Augustines performs at Red Palace Sunday with The Riverbreaks. $10.