It’s cold, dark and miserable in Camden – a night to turn your breath to crystal, decked out in the full complement of seasonal greys and browns. Your correspondent has been shivering outside a creaky old bar for fifteen minutes, before being revived, suddenly, by approaching, oblivious laughter. “You wanna come join us in our dressing room?” comes the greeting. Around the corner, a humble eight seater awaits, or as We Are Augustines will come to know it over the next couple of weeks: home. Remarking on how tidy it is, The Skinny climbs in and is confronted with three faces from which the smiles rarely stray over the course of forty minutes’ chat.
Frontman Billy McCarthy, plumped in the backseat in a porkpie hat, could pass for a burlier Brad Pitt. Bassist Eric Sanderson is urbane and dapper, and newly recruited drummer Rob Allen is the picture of contentment: all three are happy to be on board. It’s only fifteen minutes later, when Billy says: “we’re not a tragic band, despite having seen plenty of tragedy,” that a bright pink floods our cheeks, as an earlier preconception comes to mind. It had been decided that if anyone were to be forgiven for being miserable, it would be this lot. It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes a rock band can surprise you for all the right reasons.
Their travails predate this current guise, and can be traced back to the days of Pela, a band Billy and Eric played in before We Are Augustines. Eric takes up the story: “The band hit a brick wall, due to a lack of opportunities and resources. We were on a label with a tiny budget. We had little or no support. We self-produced our first record and the label kept telling us that nobody liked it, which is not what you want to hear. Then the year-end came and we ended up on over 30 lists. We went to the label and asked them: “What the hell’s wrong with you?” We got to the point where we were selling out shows across the country but couldn’t afford to get to them. We were doing our own PR, management, merchandising, support, everything. Eventually the pressure got so great that the band crumbled and we broke up after seven and a half years. We were left with remnants of a record, no career, no support, no band, lots of debt and lots of binding contracts.”
As the band’s professional career lay in tatters, personal tragedy was to strike, particularly for Billy. His brother Jim had spent years living rough in California, moving from psychiatric wards to homeless shelters. He was diagnosed as being schizophrenic a number of years back, after he stabbed a shelter staff member with a knife. He spent time in solitary confinement, while being treated in a hospital ward. Upon learning he was being sentenced to the fate for a second time, Jim took his own life. He hanged himself.
In his bereavement, Billy penned Book of James, a song about his brother that’s powerful and emotive, but also acceptant. The chorus ends with the couplet: “And all the words can all get spoken / Well I know we tried and you’re forgiven,” and Billy says that yes, his music has been cathartic, but has also given him the opportunity to speak out about an ignorance and a taboo that he feels contributed to his brother’s death. “It (debut album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships) is almost a concept record about family. It can be tough to play, but the upside is seeing people respond to it. Wherever I am in the world, when I see people react to the issues I’m talking about, it makes it worthwhile. Mental illness isn’t talked about. It’s not… it’s a huge taboo. When you’re a kid and you invite your friends to your house, you have no problem saying: ‘my mom’s not well, she has a bad back.’ But rarely would you hear a kid say: ‘my mom’s unwell. She has a sick brain. She’s manic-depressive.’ People don’t talk about it, and that’s wrong. So if this album does a little bit of good, raises any awareness at all, then I’m happy.”
The record, like the band, is anything but depressing – if anything, it’s rousing: a call to arms. Watching them on stage later that night, it’s clear that We Are Augustines have been galvanised by the hardship they’ve faced and that their audience respond to that. “Sure, they don’t all know what the songs are about,” says Eric, but that’s not important. Everyone can find their own meaning in them.” The Skinnyis pleased that the parallel drawn with the infamous Alan Partridge ‘Bloody Sunday’ moment raises a chuckle. Right now, this band is determined to have some fun, no matter how bad the jokes are.