Augustines (or We Are Augustines as they once were) have been on a steady upward trajectory for some time now. If the title of their first album Rise Ye Sunken Ships alluded to anything, then it was perhaps the idea of lifting victory from wreckage, or making the disastrous somehow glorious.
This held true of that album’s content too, which took personal tragedy and married it to wonderful hooks and choruses so pumped up with belief and determination that they were impossible to hold back.
We caught up with Rob Allen and Eric Sanderson to discuss the past, the future, and inevitably, change.
With the Sunken Ships now risen, Augustines are on the crest of a huge, soon to break wave. The recent Lexington show sold out in four minutes, and since the release of Rise Ye Sunken Ships, the band seems to have been gathering pace and fans like a snowball. Is this something that you’re aware of as it has been happening, or is it all still something of a surprise?
Eric Sanderson: Rise Ye Sunken Ships was made with no real audience in mind. We made it for ourselves, because we had to. After we released Rise we gave a bit of ourselves away. There were times when people exploited that, but for the most part we were surprised by how well it was received. Selling out a show in the UK in four minutes, no matter how big the venue, was an absolute shock to all of us. Everything that we are living through right now is a surprise for us. One that we feel incredibly grateful for.
The new album sees a name change, back to Augustines. Most people are going to know you with the “We Are” prefix, do you think it’s going to throw a few people? And did you just think at any point “well, we are We Are Augustines why change?” Is it just more comfortable now you’ve got the name back?
ES: Our original name was Augustines so we never questioned if this was the right decision or not. We were conscious that some people would be confused, but only for a short time. We actually fought hard to get our name back and view it as a victory.
Change seems to be a constant feature of the band – the name changes from Pela (the band Eric and Billy were in prior to Augustines) through to the present day. Although these changes were circumstantial rather than conscious decisions, does it feel like starting afresh every time? Rob’s presence on the album gives the band a new feel, even though he’s been with you in a live capacity for some time. How necessary do you think change will come to be for the band in the future, or is some stability perhaps what you need for a while?
Rob Allen: Like anything there are always ups and downs and the downs can be extremely frustrating, granted. The important thing to remember is that life is for learning and when you’re learning and not making the same mistakes twice, or planning ahead so you can see any potential obstacles, it helps to create stability. Change is always going to happen, it’s the human evolution, but personally having a steady ship, in anything you do is the way to go.
On a similar note, turbulence (for want of a better way of putting it) seems to be one of the key motivators for the band. On the first album, many songs dealt with loss – I’m thinking of Book Of James in particular. Is this still feeding the nature of your songs?
RA: I don’t think we are motivated by tragedy or turbulence. Rise was written and inspired under extreme situations. That was what was happening at the time; that was life for Bill and Eric and as creatives, you take from what’s around you. Sure there are new challenges now as we move on in life which are talked about on this record but if you’ve ever met us before, you’ll know that we are life loving, joyful and vibrant people. We hope the energy and positivity from this record shines through, as a reflection on who we are.
Rob is quite right, Augustines are a phenomenally upbeat and personable bunch. The band’s positivity is clear both on record and live. But how does the band take adversity and transform it into entirely opposite?
RA: We just love what we do, i really think it’s that simple. Life happens and you deal with it in the best way you can right? Life is to be enjoyed and we have the privilege to be able to play and write music for a living. We don’t take it for granted though. We play every show like it’s our last.
One of the themes of the new album is the idea of music as a “journey” and as a method of dealing with tragedy. When you’re dealing with subjects that are so personal, do you ever think that you don’t want to share them with the world, or is the fact that they’re going to be heard by people part of the healing process?
ES: To be completely honest that doesn’t concern me. I have nothing to hide from people. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, stress, everyone battles with emotions. We are always so free to talk about joy or happiness. Every feeling should be treated with the same sense of openness and honesty. The journey you are mentioning is actually full of joy but also wonder. Who am I now that I’ve achieved what I longed for so many years? Did I live up to my expectations of myself? Am I now? Where do I want to go from here? These aren’t themes of sadness they are thoughts of the dreamer in all of us.
There is indeed a dreamer in everyone. Unsurprisingly Augustines have had quite an effect on those that have caught them live or heard their music, helping them in part, to revisit their dreams and maybe act on them. Has the band been surprised by the strong emotional connection that the band has had with its fans? Has it caught you out at all?
RA: Augustines started out as a project with the goal simply being to finish something that had been started. We had no idea that this record would get the response it did. It was all a surprise to us. The emails we received acted as fuel because it meant that people were genuinely being touched by these songs. In return they were sharing their stories. It was quite remarkable. We didn’t expect it but there was something very beautiful about it. Then at shows, people began singing the words back and meeting us after the shows, again sharing their stories. This positivity was funnelling through them into us and back again. It was one of the reasons why we didn’t take a break after touring. We wanted to capture the energy we had felt and use that to create the new record.
Rise Ye Sunken Ships had such a wealth of life experience poured into it – it felt as if you’d been writing it every moment of your lives up until the point. If anything, it felt like a full stop of sorts. Was there ever a sense that you’d struggle to find a voice or a new path for the new album?
RA: People change, people evolve. I think it’s fair to say that ‘Rise’, especially with its subject matter, was a one-off record. There was no way we were going to write another ‘Rise’ because its inspiration was circumstantial. Now you could say the same for this record but, the difference is the circumstances. There was struggle, and like we all do in life, we pick ourselves up and try to move forward. In Augustines, you can sense an air of hope and positivity. Life will always throw curveballs at you so there is always something to talk about. Plus keep in mind that I wasn’t on Rise, I toured the record but I didn’t track it. So, naturally, the second record was always gong to have a different feel to it.
Where did you find time to write? You’ve been constantly touring for the last two years. Do you find it difficult to inject your recorded work with the same vibrancy as your live performances, or do you just treat them as entirely separate entities. A kind of “live is live, recorded is recorded” approach? What is the writing and recording process like – and who brings what to the band/process?
RA: We purposely jumped straight into the studio so we could transfer that live energy into our second record. We work very hard and put as much heart into recording as we do playing live. We started the process by locking ourselves away in a old church in upstate New York. We were there for five weeks. The state was experiencing some heavy snow so we were snowed in for the duration which actually worked in our favour. It enabled us to really focus and concentrate on taking our ideas and developing them into actual songs. Bill is the primary writer of the band but we all write and once the developing starts, it’s a real collaboration. Once we had enough songs, we went to Tarquin studios and Peter Katis. We were there for six weeks and continued the collaboration with Peter because we co-produced the record with him.
ES: But to answer directly about the separation of stage and record… we don’t view them to be different. Obviously they are, but when we record we are recording experiences. Not just cutting and pasting music together. Things break in the studio just as much as on the stage. Billy may literally be lunging from across the room when recording vocals, or laying on his back. I believe that the way you feel when you record a song, your heart, your anger, your connectedness, all of that transfers into that recording. Music will always be a performance art for us.
How important is place to the way you work. You were based in New York (which can “go to hell” apparently), and you’ve been recording in Seattle and done some work on the album in Connecticut. You’ve also been out on the road for the best part of two years. So, is place really important to the way you sound or the way you feel? From the outside, it seems like the band is in a state of flux, and constantly moving, whether that be emotionally, or with the name changes, or where “home” is?
RM: To be honest, that’s the way it happened. Not everything you need is on your doorstep. In regards to the name change and any other business issues we’ve come up against, are again circumstantial. If we could have avoided them, we would have.
ES: That a really interesting question because we put a lot of importance on place in this record. I truly believe that you can’t separate your art from your environment. That’s why we worked so hard at finding the church in New York.
Where do Augustines go from here? What are the plans for the future?
RA: Well, we would very much like to make a long career out of this. You can expect to see us out on the road a lot that’s for sure. I truly believe we can be one of the best acts the world has seen, let’s hope i’m right.
At the heart of the album is Walkabout. It’s a song that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever recorded. If the album is about change, then this is a clear indication of that happening in the band’s music. How did the song come about, and what was the driving force behind it?
ES: I originally wrote the intro piano line when visiting my brother in North California. He lives 4 miles north of San Francisco on the coast. The land there is absolutely beautiful, some of the most beautiful land in the country. Depending on the season you can look out in the ocean and see whales, the giant old growth redwoods are nearby. The mornings are cold and wet, mushrooms grow in abundance and every day the sun burns off the clouds around midday. Living there, visiting there, it feels like you are on another planet. I carried that piano line with me for a year, then when we were in the church I was playing it on a piano from the early 1900’s. Billy heard a melody and started singing. That’s when we decided we needed to do something with the song. Over the next few weeks the change came. Bill and I fine-tuned the chord progression. Billy’s vocals melody seemed to come effortlessly, at least it seemed that way to me, we let the song tell us what to do.
How was working with Peter Katis, and what did he bring to the recording process and the band?
ES: Peter is an incredibly talented and driven person. He is also one of the most stable people I have ever worked with. His stability was and is inspiring. Making records has always been an emotional process for us. You give so much throughout that it’s possible to loose the plot. Do I need to keep pushing, or do I need to let it be? Am I making this better, or taking away what was so special about it? You are constantly making decisions, both large and small. And it’s through those decisions that you define your style. Peter’s stability helped me stay stable, and that stability is where I found the confidence to make decisions. I cannot recommend Peter enough to other musicians.
The new album Augustines is out now through Votiv/Caroline. It is streaming on Spotify and is also available at iTunes. They return to the UK for their ‘Walkabout Tour’, playing at London’s KOKO on 14 April 2014. Tickets are available now from the bands’ website.