“Cigarette break? Fuck off!” Augustines singer Billy McCarthy laughs disbelievingly when he spots someone in the sold-out audience at Brighton’s Concorde 2 heading outside. You’d need a very pressing engagement to miss this first night of the band’s farewell UK tour. No band this decade has poured out more open-hearted emotion on stage, or connected more deeply with what seemed a growing army of fans.
Although their three albums didn’t always capture the raw feeling at the heart of their huge, anthemic music, it was always there when they played live. Songs such as This Is Your Life, which McCarthy sings unamplified, letting the audience roar repeatedly: ‘Knock me down my friend, I’ll just get back up again.’ It’s a thrilling, freewheeling show; the gig of the year, in fact, full of goofy asides, deep passion and great rock’n’roll. And they play like this at every show. So why call time on the band now?
Talking to Classic Rock that afternoon, McCarthy puts the blame, “as unsexy as this is”, on money.
“We were in America two months ago,” he recalls. “And I said to our accountant: ‘If things don’t change, I don’t know if we can keep doing this.’ And she said: ‘That’s what I’m here to tell you. You can’t keep doing this. Or it will start doing real damage to you.’ And we had a laugh about it, with real dark humour, like: ‘Holy shit, it is that bad! Oh God!’”
McCarthy believes Augustines’ situation reflects the rock economy’s precipitous collapse over the past three years, especially for bands in what he laughingly terms “Not Famous rock’n’roll” – the middle ground between icons and up-and-comers. He wants rock fans to think about how it has come to this. “Record labels aren’t offering advances any more,” he reveals, “and I know multiple people who don’t own a CD. Our band lives to play live. But even though we’re on festival main stages, without people buying albums, it’s still not enough blanket to keep everyone warm. I don’t want to make this like Rock’n’Roll Lives Matter,” he continues, laughing wryly. “But we just went out on tour with Noel Gallagher, and in Madrid I was counting tickets and thinking: Noel didn’t make money tonight. [American singer-songwriter] Cat Power filed for bankruptcy. And no one’s doing amazing. We stopped having an income around the middle of the second record [self-titled, released in February 2014]. Which is sad, for such hearty guys, that have such great fans, don’t mind being on the road and will play three-hour shows. I know how we touch people. But I guess we find a different way now.”
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The no-cash blues may have finished them, but Augustines meant so much more. Taking a walk down Brighton’s seafront that morning, McCarthy pondered how he, Eric Sanderson (keyboards/guitar) and Rob Allen (drums) are handling their band having come to an end. Celebratory though the tour is, he also sees it as a grieving process.
“I’m so used to being on the road,” he says thoughtfully. “I haven’t had a flat for six or seven years. So I’m anticipating a shock coming my way. I want to keep my wits about me. And I’m proud that we’re processing this properly. We’re spending time with our fans, trying to let them know that we love them and that we appreciate all this. But it’s hard to take. It got me the other night in Berlin. I literally started crying during a song. But what did they say in [the film] The Outsiders? ‘Nothing gold can stay.’ And I think it’s okay to be a bug trapped in amber, and just exist in people’s thoughts of a special time in their lives.”
There is, anyway, so much to celebrate. Augustines were the phoenix from the ashes of McCarthy and Sanderson’s former New York band, Pela, who were also burned by the music business. Drinking heavily under the stress of bad debts (and the suicide of McCarthy’s schizophrenic brother James in solitary confinement in Folsom Prison in 2009), Pela split the same year, abandoning an album that drummer Tom Zovich had invested $30,000 in. He waved that aside when Augustines bought the recordings to complete as their debut, Rise Ye Sunken Ships.
“We got signed,” McCarthy remembers, “and one of the proudest moments of my life was giving Tom a blank cheque. And Tom has just flown here. We broke up in 2009, when no one would ever have known who Pela was, and he’s going to play drums in front of a sold-out room in England.”
Zovich does play Pela songs with them that night, bear-hugging and bringing things full circle.
For all the body blows, Augustines redeemed McCarthy. “I had a large axe to grind at the beginning of this band, because my brother had just died in such terrible circumstances. And I felt, as a big brother, that I really wanted to tell his story [which he did with the surging heartbreaker Juarez, sung early on tonight with tears in his eyes]. Because for someone to die in prison, they’re just a statistic; there’s no funeral. And it wasn’t fair. It was too much for me to bear. And I still sing thinking of him. What I have learned is that self-expression is so vital. Because it did help repair me – and a lot in our audience too.
“Whether it was my family, or music, or my book no one ever knew about, I never completed anything [before Augustines],” McCarthy reveals. “I actually feel really wonderful as a man that I saw something to completion the right way, with the right values, and I didn’t run away. And I’ll tell you, man, we scared the shit out of some very well-known headliners. It’s like David and Goliath. We’ve landed direct shots. And if that doesn’t slay the dragon, then fuck. Let someone else take a crack at it!”
He laughs, mood rising.
“And I have to look at the new paradigm [for rock survival] and think: do I really want to keep up with the Joneses? I think I don’t. It’s like a woman: how did you know she’s the right one? I just knew I didn’t need to look any further. And as far as bands go, I don’t know that I need to look further. Now I’m looking at my toolbox, going: ‘Holy shit. What else am I good for?’”
In 2017, a film, Rise, will cap Augustines’ career. And on his solo Storytelling tour last February, McCarthy regaled audiences with a jaw-dropping life story that would give Jack Kerouac pause, riding the rails and working on chain gangs.
Augustines hardly scratched the surface of William McCarthy. “Shit… will the world accept an acoustic guitar record, like Nebraska?” he wonders. “Anyway, there’s no going back. I don’t think I’m a bartender any more.”