It was a January morning and I came round groggily at my girl's house, idly fingering a sore left ear lobe she’d decided to pierce the night before. In-between Googling ‘stop ear infection’ I found an email sent from myself sometime around midnight. It had no word in the subject space and just one in the body: “Augustines”.
After some perfunctory nosing around I came across ‘Nothing To Lose But Your Head’. I stuck it on and even though the speakers were tinny I knew why I’d sent myself the reminder. With its rolling drumbeat, woah-woah-ohs and lyrics about minds like empty parking lots, it had all the necessary ingredients to join the pantheon of fucking great rock songs.
At home I switched on 6 Radio and there it was again, and the jigsaw of how I came to this song was complete. It seems that 6Music really rather like Augustines, having A-listed ‘Nothing To Lose…’ for a few weeks, before getting them in for a live session.
The album the song is lifted from- Augustines-is a barrage of badlands rock and roll, shot through with the kind of world-weary awe that ensure they'll never be one-dimensional chest-whackers. Tunes like ‘Don’t You Look Back’ and ‘Cruel City’ might sound like they were made pretty in a studio, but there’s little doubt they were born in the guts of the writer. If you’ve ever spent a portion of your life with Gaslight’s ’59 Sound you’ve really got everything you need here, though it’s a bit more sheeny. Gaslight with better teeth. Similarly, if you loved the first Broken Records record When The Earth Begins To Part-and it’s a shame more people don’t-you’ll go giddy with the slow-burning, knockout brevity of ‘Walkabout’ and ‘Highway 1 Interlude’.
Brevity is probably a good word to describe lead singer and principal songwriter, Billy McCarthy. He’s the band’s trump-card, with the shoulders and heavy set chin of a Rhode Island quarterback, but the eyes of a troubled hunter. Augustines is the second album by the band, and a relentlessly hopeful beast. Their debut Rise Ye Sunken Ships and its subsequent tour was by all accounts an exercise in soul-expunging for McCarthy. With a troubled upbringing-which seems trite to mention so briefly, but is equally impossible to ignore-that included being passed around foster homes, a drug-addicted mother who died when he was 19 and a schizophrenic brother who killed himself in a Californian jail in 2009, the band’s debut was a setting to rites for McCarthy; a fluffing of the feathers that had threatened to close round his chest.
Fortunately, he and fellow band members Eric Sanderson and Rob Allen managed to take his grief, plus their own collected struggles as a band, and turn it into something tangible. This all came to a head in a triumphant headline show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in October 2012; a show that McCarthy describes in the video below as both ‘life-changing’ and a ‘hashmark’ moment.
After flying back from the UK, Billy took the executive decision to leave behind his New York demons, and take the money he would have spent on rent and go on his own walkabout (also the name of their current tour-spot the theme). He bought a motorbike and, in his own words, just “went south” on a worldwide tour that took in Mexico, Alaska, Russia, Kenya and Europe, before alighting back in the US.
At the tail-end of January the band played a gig at the Lexington which sold out in four minutes. During it, McCarthy (quite rightly), made regular reference to his travels, with a story about him tying his bike to the roof of a freight boat bound for Russia garnering the requisite howls of laughter and envy. Throughout the show he was an incredibly engaging character, bounding around with dynamite energy and peppering each interlude with a gag or reflection on the band’s journey. Indeed so long was the patter between the band members and audience that at a couple of points I (silently) implored them to ‘get on with it’.
I was pretty much unique in holding that opinion, however, so full of wanderlust were the beard-toting crowd: in half a lifetime of gig-going I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an audience held so obviously in one person’s hand (and I’ve been to lot of Springsteen shows). At times I have to admit it verged onto the Dolcelatte for me, but these moments were few and swiftly dispensed when they powered through another howitzer of a tune. When they get going, they are an awesome proposition; like they’ve distilled the joy of Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’ and somehow spread that song’s transcendental, communal energy into every note they play. When Billy walked through the crowd, I swear I couldn’t work out if I was at a church service or a presidential election. He cried at the end. Of course he did. On the face of another this might have been perceived at best as cringe-worthy, at worst disingenuous. With him it was real, an honest reflection of the fortune he felt to be standing onstage with his brothers in front of an audience that treasured his every word.
The band are back touring the US at the moment, before travelling back to the UK in April. Their KOKO show is already sold out, and there’s a genuine sense of excitement around the band- it’s that space in time where an act goes from smalltown secret to Brixton hero. Obviously. I’ve got a lifelong reminder of the time I first heard Augustines. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you go get your ear pierced, but if you’ve ever spent some time in the grand old church of Springsteen, Fallon, Finn, Berninger and the rest, odds are you’ll have trouble forgetting them anyway.