Interview: We Are Augustines

lauren stern raises sunken ships with Eric Sanderson …

We Are Augustines have come a long way in the last two years. After singer and guitarist Billy McCarthy and bassist Eric Sanderson’s former band Pela broke up in 2009, the two strove to move forward. In order to do this, they felt that they needed to record unfinished Pela tracks, release these songs as an art project, and then move on with their lives. With Rob Allen on drums, the trio got to work and released their album Rise Ye Sunken Ships this past August. The album has been an overwhelming success both in the United States and the U.K., proving We Are Augustines is not just an art project, but a work of art.

Pop-Break’s Lauren Stern spoke to bassist Eric Sanderson about the history of both Pela and We Are Augustines, their new album, and their future touring plans.

Pop-Break: Is there any meaning or story behind your name We are Augustines?

Eric Sanderson: The name came after Pela broke up after being together for seven years. We were trying to figure out what to do with our lives and how to move forward. During that time, a lot of life changing things happened to us, and it just so happened to be in August. Billy and I’s birthdays are also in August and so is Billy’s brother James. We didn’t know much about St. Augustine when the band started, but we looked up quotes, and that supported the idea as well.

PB: What makes We are Augustines different from your former band Pela?

ES: The intention behind why we are doing what we are doing is different. Pela got together because we love playing music. We wanted to play music, have fun, and live our lives. We wanted to make it a lot in Pela, we tried to become successful. We struggled a lot when things weren’t going easy for it. We ended up meeting a lot of people that weren’t really supportive. With We are Augustines, we had already played big venues and played with big bands like Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth so it really wasn’t about that anymore. We had to search inside ourselves to figure out what we were doing. We came to the conclusion that if we were playing music in our lives, we were happy. We didn’t care about making money or being successful anymore. We really wanted to finish the body of work that we started and we wanted to release it to our community. It’s a very different mentality. What we do is more about being a good person and living a fulfilling life then getting your name in a magazine.

PB: Rise Ye Sunken Ships is also the name of a song you used to play live as Pela. Will there every be a recorded version of the song released?

ES: It’s kind of funny not to have the title track on the record. We tried. We attempted to record it a few times — three actually. The first two times, it sounded terrible. The third, Billy added a new chorus and that’s what we play now live. We recorded the third version of the song, and it still didn’t sound the way we had wanted it to. My theory about releasing material is that if I’m not proud to show it to my friends, it’s not worthy of putting it out to the rest of the world. We have every intention of releasing that song once the band gets a good recording of it.

PB: I read in your bio that Rise Ye Sunken Ships took a while to finish. Why was there so much struggle in finishing the record?

ES: The first time Pela tried to record it, it didn’t come out good enough. Then we had some pretty dramatic fighting with our label and our management. We tried to leave our label but we couldn’t because we were under contract. We stayed on the label, but they stopped supporting us. Then we started touring. We booked and paid for the tour ourselves since we had no other support. This brought up a lot of financial issues. Then we started to record again. We borrowed money from people and scrapped almost everything we recorded when we were on the label. We had no money in our lives and we had no support from any label or management. The process took a long time because we were doing everything on our own. Tensions started to grow within the band. We got to the point where we couldn’t tour because the booking agent wouldn’t book anything. We couldn’t afford to get to a show. This caused even more fighting and new management came around and made it worse Eventually Pela broke up and shortly after that Billy’s brother died.

After that, there was a lot of life changing events and drama that we needed to deal with. Billy and I wanted to move forward, but we had no money. We had a community of people that supported us that started donating money so we could finish the record. It took a long time because we had no resources but we had a lot of support and people who believed in us. It was emotionally taxing and harder to go that way. The record means more than just the record itself. It’s part of my life and it’s something I worked on for many years and it’s something I’m really proud of. The band really isn’t just about music. We’re adults, human beings that just so happen to play music. We are trying to accomplish something broader than just music.

PB: Were a lot of Pela fans receptive to We are Augustines?

ES: I can’t speak for all of them, but there has been a tremendous amount of fans that came out to shows and have written us letters.

PB: Do you play Pela songs on tour?

ES: We went through a big debate if we should play Pela songs on tour. At first, we were not going to do it, but then we got a nationwide U.S. tour. We had an hour an a half to full, so we pulled a couple of Pela songs on the set. When we played these songs, people went nuts because they thought they might not see those songs again.

PB: I remember seeing that “Chapel Song” was a Starbucks pick over the summer and now I hear that it’s featured on the new ad for REI. Were you expecting the song to be such a huge success?

ES: No we weren’t expecting any of this to be a success. When we started, we started the first stage of finishing the record. We were going to pull it out ourselves and give it away. The fact that anything has done so well is very surreal for us.

PB: What made you choose “Book Of James” as your new single?

ES: It’s my favorite song off the record and it’s the one I’m most proud of. I think it is the one that is most different from Pela. We talked and thought about it as a band and knew we should put it out because it is our favorite song off the record. We asked ourselves, ‘If we wanted people to show the record to someone, what is the first song they would play?’ and that is the first song we wanted people to choose. ‘Book Of James’ also has a deeper side of it and it shows that is not just about music. It’s about Billy’s brother, but it’s also about doing something different that is incredibly difficult and how you process it. The song is about Billy’s brother’s death and about dealing with loss. He wrote it for memorial types of reasons, but we were also rebuilding our lives at the time.

PB: It has been said that your sound is similar to Bruce Springsteen. Is he one of your major musical influences?

ES: I don’t think Bruce is a major influence. I grew up listening to him on the radio, but I didn’t know any of his other music except the hits until recently. I think there is influence of Bruce Springsteen’s personality. He has been successful and he has done it with grace and respect. Most people, even if they don’t like his music, respect him. He’s stood his ground and he’s a hardworking, passionate, man. That’s completely admirable.

PB: We are Augustines has blown up in the U.K. Were you expecting to be so successful there?

ES: No, not at all. It’s all pretty surreal. They keep telling us about the radio shows we’re on and I don’t know them that well. It’s humbling but it feels amazing. I’m just happy that people are connecting to the songs. It’s nothing I expected or planned for.

PB: Are there any bands or artists out there that you would like to tour with in the future?

ES: We would love to go out with Frightened Rabbit and River City Extension. Wilco would be cool to open for. I’d also love to bring Brick + Mortar on tour.

PB: What does the band have planned for the rest of the year and the beginning of next year?

ES: We are first going to do some radio things in New York City and then go out to London again for the XFM Winter Wonderland show [on Dec. 14]. As for next year we are going to do a European tour in February, South By Southwest in March, and then going on a U.S. tour with Band Of Skulls. We’re just going to be touring and writing for the most part.

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