Interview: Eric Sanderson of Augustines on the next chapter of the band, life on the road, and ‘Rise’-ing once more

Editor’s Note, March 5, 10:49 a.m. EST: Hey so we featured Augustines back in October when they came to town, and since they are in Boston tonight playing Brighton Music Hall, we’re breathing new life into this still-relevant Q&A. It all still applies, and they’re a busy band, so we didn’t want to ask them the same shit twice for a prettier time stamp. Go to the show tonight, you won’t be disappointed. And buy the new record. xo _MM

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here’s an old saying about being in a band, how you have your entire life to write your first record, then a year or so to write the second. The idea especially applies to Augustines’ two chief songwriters, multi-instrumentalist Eric Sanderson and guitarist/vocalist Billy McCarthy. After the unceremonious fade out of indie hopefuls Pela, perhaps the most underrated rock band of the 2000s, the duo re-emerged around 2010 as the grittier, dustier Augustines (then after a lawsuit, We Are Augustines). With a batch of emotionally-charged songs that detailed their explosive personal lives and rollercoaster experiences with Pela, the duo enlisted UK drummer Rob Allen to round out the trio.

When they released Rise Ye Sunken Ships two years ago, it felt like a long-lost Pela record. But the stories it contained — McCarthy reaching out to his deceased brother, dealing with alcoholism, loves lost and found — gave the record its own distinct personality, one that defined the struggles and triumphs of We Are Augustines. It was a new start. It felt secure.

The record found the widespread audience Pela’s lone offering unfortunately never could, and what followed was an excessive few years of touring and the band members re-finding themselves, as people, on the endless road around the globe. Eventually, they were able to reclaim their original band name, Augustines, and now the self-titled follow-up to Rise arrives in January. It’s an album of true growth, both musically and personally.

As the band pulls into Boston for two gigs at the Paradise tonight and tomorrow, Vanyaland talked at-length to Sanderson about new beginnings tied into the past, starting over all over again, and the daunting task of following up something that they put every ounce of their being into. A lifetime shaped Rise Ye Sunken Ships, but in the fast turnaround, the people that helped create went on to shape Augustines.

Sanderson, on the phone while in the van last week somewhere in Ohio, details just how all that came about.

Michael Marotta: So I came up with this theory, about Augustines, where the band is really all about fresh starts and new beginnings. The first record was the first post-Pela project, where you were staking out your own identity, and now with this latest record you have a new name, new home base, new sense of who the band is — do you consider this the second chapter in the Augustines saga, or is this a new book entirely?

Eric Sanderson: Hmmm, well, I think history will tell exactly how that pans out. I’m definitely looking at as a re-birth, or a new chapter, somehow. It’s a funny chapter, though, because it’s the kind of story where you hear the end of the story first. We started with the name Augustines, that was our original intention, and as you know things had to be changed and modified, so we’re turning back to the beginning of the story again, but at the same time it’s very invigorating for the band to have a fresh start, a clean palate, to work with again without any unnecessary junk or amendments to the name.

I read somewhere, I forget where it was, but somebody said something about the rebirth of the band, and I really didn’t look at it from that perspective. But when I saw it, my deer ear turned, and I thought it was appropriate.

That might have been me, I mentioned it when I posted the “Cruel City” video

It probably was you then. The last record, [drummer] Rob [Allen] wasn’t playing with us at that point [in recording], and now he is, and that’s a very dramatic shift for the band, in the best way. And I’m thrilled to have toured with him for two-plus years. We sleep in the van together, we’ve shared beds, we’ve been absolutely part of each others lives on every level, in intimate levels, and it feels really wonderful to share the experience of writing and recording the new record with Rob, and see his personality shining on the record. It’s really exciting for me.

Do you feel like you have something to prove?

The first record, we didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, we just had to prove something to ourselves. This record, we kinda realized that the worst mistake we could make would be to try and please everybody, or try to do something for somebody else. What worked for us on the first record was doing it for ourselves, and that carried over to this record. We took the time that we had, and put ourselves in a position — going to the church and isolating ourselves — we put ourselves in a position to have the opportunity to do our best work.

The whole time it was “Is this up to our standards?” and “Is this something we believe in?” If we’re not inspiring ourselves, then how could we inspire other people? That’s always been our motto and probably always will be. The minute we start sucking is when we drop that motto –- that’s when we turn into Metallica.

But hey then you’ll be playing arenas. On Rise, you exorcised a lot of demons — Billy’s personal struggle, distancing yourselves from the previous band. It was such a defining characteristic of Rise; it was in every review, every feature. How do you replicate that? Because of the emotional weight of Rise, how do you follow that up?

We talked about that at great lengths while we were touring, while we were traveling. We realized that no matter what body of work we made, that it would get slagged off as being not as emotional, and we were prepared for that.

That’s a pretty daunting feeling.

Yeah it is. There are two answers. One is that we spent five, six years of our lives trying to move past the point that Rise was created in. We were trying to become better men, more conscience, more mature, and deal with the struggles and emotions we were going through. And we worked very hard on that, and I feel — I’m happy to say we were able to work through that in our lives.

So in no way, shape, or form would we desire to re-create what we did in the past. We spent so much energy overcoming it. But we knew that was going to be a challenge moving on to the new record, being known as an emotionally driven band with a powerful story behind the music. We realized that we couldn’t just make the music about us.

The fact we toured as much as we did — which was a total surprise for us. Our internal monologue prepared for maybe one tour before we released that record, and I don’t know how many countries we played in, but definitely well over 20! We did tours all across Europe and North America, and for a very long time, we got to play songs we though no one would ever hear, for thousands and thousands of people, sometimes thousands of people in one show. And it had a major effect on us.

It made us ask: What is the function of music? And what is the value of music? And why do people care about music? During the interviews we were giving, we were talking about what the lyrics were about, what the back-story was about, what the formation of the band was about — and it was very NPR-style. But when we were going out on stage, it was the exact opposite. We were singing at the top of our lungs, we were jumping up and down, the audience was doing the same. And it made us realize that is what makes music such a powerful art form.

It can represent something very heavy, when it’s actually being experienced, on a stage. Or, if you’re an artist, in a museum. People are sweating, and jumping, and full of joy. Or they’re crying and hugging their boyfriend or girlfriend and with the new record, we realized that’s what it’s about. We realized “Ok, we’ve been traveling for two years, how do we harness that energy and focus our time into getting in to the studio as soon as possible as soon as we get off the road?” And in the short time we did have off, we traveled all around the world, so we kept that traveling spirit and kept the connection of meeting people going.

I was going to ask how the excessive touring schedule affected writing the new record. It’s interesting that the record was so personal, and here you are extending Rise’s emotions by harnessing the stories of the people you’ve met on the road.

Yeah without a doubt. Our lives went from people who were based in a certain city, for not really having a foundation anymore. Bill’s been living out of his backpack for two years, and that’s not a bad thing–

No that’s awesome, I’m envious.

My home base –- you know, it’s funny, all of us have spent more time away from any type of home than being at home over the past two years. That changes your lives, and your relationships, and interactions. Because ultimately what we live for now is meeting people, talking, having conversation and having them enrich our lives. You can only do so much on your phone before you get moody. The best thing in the world is to actually talk to somebody. So when we play shows and we have the time to call a friend those are the moments that fill us up with life and justify everything. This tour has certainly affected who we are as people, and that’s certainly affected this record.

You mentioned not having a true home base, but there is word you guys relocated Augustines operations to Seattle.

[laughs] Well, I’ll give you the inside scoop —

Is this on the record or off?

This is fine to be on the record. When we finished writing the record in Geneseo in this church, which was very romantic and beautiful, we lived and worked there for over a month straight. Writing the record over 10 hours days, we took one day off all month, just writing and demoing. Then went over to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and worked with Peter Katis [at Tarquin Studio] for about six weeks, with some weeks off in between, it might have been two or three months — then we realized the next phase was how to perform these songs live. And New York is a very difficult place to be a band unless you’re a millionaire, so we decided we were gonna try out Seattle. Our label is based in Seattle, we have a lot of friends in Seattle, and a lot of really good friends there have been supporting us for years

I immediately think of KEXP who have been great to you guys.

Exactly, and our front of house engineer lives out there and a bunch of other people, too, so it seemed like a great decision. So we went out and got a studio and rehearsed for two, four months. And during that time period, we did an interview with somebody, and he interpreted that we all moved to Seattle.

I mean Rob had moved out there officially, but he still has a place in New York, so… I dunno, it’s fucked up. It’s a misunderstanding.

Things like that tend to stick. Plus, as you mentioned in “Augustine,” New York City can go to hell.

[laughs] Right! The writings on the wall. First chance we got…

Did you have a better idea of the sound you wanted to craft with this new record? There’s still that classic Augustines sound; “Don’t You Look Back” is my favorite track off the album, a lot really resonates and picks up where Rise left off. But then there’s “Cruel City,” and I don’t wanna say it sounds… tropical, but it’s got a positive vibe to it. Is this the worldly travels speaking? There’s definitely a freshness to it all.

First and foremost we wanted to make something that resonated with us. The way we, or anyone, does that is to dig as much into themselves as possible and be honest with themselves. We also knew we wanted to make something that harnessed the live energy and harnessed the experiences we had on tour. That was super important. We all love ambient music, we love ballads, sonic masterpieces, like soundscape-y stuff. If you look back through our catalog there’s all that sonic soundscape instrumental stuff. But we realized you can only play so much of that stuff live.

It’s funny because as a kid growing up in the ’90s, the idea of something someone could song along to was considered bad, and uncool, or whatever. Then we realized “Fuck that! It feels awesome when someone sings along to your song!” It’s a great feeling, and it’s great for you and great for them. So we wanted to capture that.

We’ll see how it goes with “Cruel City” being the first single because it’s the probably most different song on the record. But I do like that it is. I love the feel and vibe, it’s the kinda song I can show to any friend, like “Hey check it out!” And they’ll go “that’s cool.”

It sounds uplifting, the music at least.

Yeah, it’s funny I was reading an Elliott Smith interview and he was talking about how the thing he struggled with the most was writing happy songs. Because it’s hard to not sound corny or whatever and that always resonated with me because in many ways it is easier to write sad songs, or moody songs. There’s a natural credibility to it. How do you write a song that’s not sad? But you look at the blues, and some of the best songs are sad songs with a happy beat. So “Cruel City” has a very uplifting feel, and a lot of the record is more uplifting, but if you look between the lines…

Yeah, there’s the lyric “I miss your skin/I still reach for you in the dark” and such. Actually, you mention Elliott Smith — you’ll be playing Boston on the 10th anniversary of his passing.

No way, maybe we could do a song of his.

It’s a weird thing, how we celebrate anniversaries and birthdays, but due to the nature around his death, you more memorialize it then anything.

Yeah, absolutely. It resonates because his record means so much to people. But I’ll have to think about that.

Ok, so wrapping up, if you had to pick one highlight since Rise came out, what would it be?

Just one?

Yeah just one. I know it’s been a crazy couple of years.

Ahh, man. I’m thinking if like, a show pops into my head, but that seems superficial…

First thing that comes to mind…

Well, we… there was a moment when we were in the studio working on the new record. It was dark, and it was late at night — it wasn’t too late, the sun was just setting — but we were playing, and Rob just finished laying down a drum beat. And we all were having a few beers, and we just looked at each other and we were all just smiling and hugging each other.

We were so proud of what we had done, because in that moment, we realized all we had been through to get to the point where Rise came out, and releasing it, and touring, and the festivals, and the stresses of having to make a new record. At that moment, we realized we were gonna be OK. That the new record was going to be just as strong, if not much stronger than the last, and we didn’t have to live up to anything. If anything, people would go back to Rise and be like “Wow, that’s not nearly as good as this new one!” Not sure if that’s going to happen, but that’s how we felt at that moment and it filled me with a tremendous amount of pride.

AUGUSTINES + FRIGHTENED RABBIT + THE PHILISTINES JR. :: Monday, October 21 and Tuesday, October 22 @ the Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave., Boston MA :: 8pm, 18-plus $22 to $25 :: 617.562.8800 :: Monday tickets :: Tuesday tickets