The Empire of Augustines

Published March 21, 2012

ABOVE: WE ARE AUGUSTINES. IMAGE COURTESY OF PHIL KNOTT.

We Are Augustines rise up with an emotional charge on their debut album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships. The band, made up of Billy McCarthy, Eric Sanderson and Rob Allen, follows the break-up of McCarthy and Sanderson’s band of eight years, Pela. Rise Ye Sunken Ships was meant to be a second studio album for Pela, but it emerged as the debut for We Are Augustines.

At the heart of the album is longing and loss, and a response to McCarthy’s experience of losing his brother James to suicide. Not only does McCarthy dedicate a song with his brother’s name in the title (“Book of James”), but their band name comes from the fact that McCarthy, Sanderson, and McCarthy’s brother all share birthdays in August. Contributing to the dark inspiration for the record, McCarthy’s mother suffered from schizophrenia and died from an overdose in a homeless shelter. McCarthy was able to transform his tragic past into emotional art and has inspired others by being a voice for the ACLU.

We caught up with lead singer Billy McCarthy before heading down to SXSW on being an advocate for mental illness, overcoming tragedy, and finding direction.

ILANA KAPLAN: You’ve been involved with the ACLU and have become somewhat of an inspiration to others. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with them?

BILLY MCCARTHY: I think NPR stuff and then Amnesty International. I think the ACLU is very focused on mental illness. Amnesty International is just generally supporting everything nationally, because they help so many people and so many problems in the world. That one was a little more general. The ACLU is very focused. I was really nervous. It’s a big step away from what I’m used to. It was way off the path of music. I didn’t know how it would go, but I was very happy about it.

KAPLAN: That’s a huge honor, and this album has such a story behind it. What was the most challenging part of putting this album together?

MCCARTHY: The stuff that happened was really rough. That stuff in the process… I keep thinking think about while I’m up on stage, is all of the musicians I know back in New York that are believing in their dreams and sometimes it doesn’t come together the way you want it. I think one of the hardest things is having a bunch of jobs that I wasn’t crazy about and feel the potential of what we had been going through and feeling that it might resonate with people, but having to get over this hurdle and going to these jobs every day. We descried it as just a shitty job-hood. It was hard being so passionate and striving for that. It was just difficult every day.

KAPLAN: What made you want to become a musician?

MCCARTHY: Once you get past how to figure out chords on guitar, I guess it’s up to you where you go with it. I guess I was going through a particularly turbulent time as a teenager. It just seemed like a great thing where I could tell my stories, make people happy, and [it could] be the catharsis. It just seemed like a perfect fit back in my late teens. It also gave me something to focus on. I was sort of bouncing off the walls at that age. I think that was that.

KAPLAN: What was the background of your former band?

MCCARTHY: I came to New York about ten years ago. I came here and 9/11 happened. I was very fond of playing in the subways at night. My friend and I were working the subway and I happened to not be there one day. My friend was, and he met Eric. We slowly evolved into this rock-‘n’-roll band. We got signed, started selling out clubs and started touring. It was a lovely run, and I got to live out a lot of my “rock-‘n’-roll dreams” in that band. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nice, liberating things about the independent world, and there are also a lot of binding and difficult things. One of them is that the funding just generally isn’t there to carry a proper campaign. We never really had the money, but we had definitely signed a contract. It was this really awful intersection of no money, a glowing fan base, and not going to be able to properly promote your band. I was in that band for eight years.

KAPLAN: The subject matters that you write about in your music—does that ever get easier to talk about?

MCCARTHY:  To be honest with you, my band was kind of in a transition, and I didn’t really anticipate that much success. The stakes were really low. It was just a now-or-never kind of thing. I was very shocked that it took off. Then I realized that I had to sort of talk about it. The second thing that gave me a lot of courage was that I really think, judging by the emails I got from fans, I really think I helped people out.  I also don’t really agree with some of the way that people are treated in this country: homeless people and people with mental illness. It’s still very taboo and not really okay to talk about. If your father was clinically depressed, bipolar, or schizophrenic, you probably wouldn’t tell your friends in high school that. You know what I mean? If your dad had a debilitating back injury, you’d have no problem. The problem is that they’re both debilitating. Sort of what happens to people is that, they sort of have to fend for themselves. I mean this lovingly, but they don’t always have all of their marbles. What happens is, people get on welfare if they can, and then it’s sort of up to them and what kind of families they have to look out for them. If they don’t have a proper support structure, they end up in a system. If they’re not on top of it, they end up on the street. They end up self-medicating because they’re mentally ill. When they self-medicate, they end up in treacherous situations with ODs, suicide, and crime. It’s a really fast downward spiral. I just wish our country had better benefits for our people, like healthcare. I’ve seen it a couple of times in my family, and it’s just not fair.

KAPLAN: This is a really personal question, but do you personally suffer from a mental illness? I’m just asking this because of how much of an advocate you are for those who do suffer.

MCCARTHY: No. I lucked out. I really did. In a way, I think that’s what really compels me to say something. I said what I could say when this was all happening, but unfortunately it wasn’t a very sensational topic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the time. As tragic things happen, it’s getting more attention. While it has that attention, I just want to remind people that when you walk by somebody that’s homeless, they’re definitely not having a good time. They’re in danger. It’s not right. I go to Europe all the time. They take care of their citizens. There’s healthcare for them. There are a lot of options for them. In New York City, it’s like, “I don’t know what to say. Get a job.” I won’t be talking about this for the rest of my career, but for now, I’m going to stand up for them.

KAPLAN: What’s the most meaningful song on the album?

MCCARTHY: I’d probably say “Book of James.” I think anybody that’s a writer… well, sometimes the closest distance between what you want to say and how it’s being perceived, sometimes that can be a big gap or it can be very immediate: right from your heart, out of your hands, into a page and the person gets it.  I think that happened in that song. I needed it to happen in my life that kind of straightened me out. It’s kind of an interesting thing that you can set a four-minute piece of music and it can change your life. I needed to say some things. I needed to reach out to somebody that wasn’t treated well. I needed to restore some innocence to somebody who I didn’t think it was his/her fault. It gave me a platform to move through the process of adjusting what had happened. It was a bit of a gift. I’m really proud of it.

WE ARE AUGUSTINES WILL BE PLAYING AT WEBSTER HALL TOMORROW WITH BAND OF SKULLS. RISE YE SUNKEN SHIPS IS OUT NOW.