Brooklyn band Augustines recently dropped the We Are from their name and released their self-titled sophomore album, which is already a candidate for the album of the year shortlist. Before Augustines played their sold out promotional show at Berlin’s Privatclub back in January, I had a chance to meet up with them and talk about their new record, their music and gentrification.
You recently changed your name back to Augustines. Why did you drop the “We Are” and what does the name mean to you?
Eric: The name was chosen originally because Bill and my birthdays are in August and Bill shares the same birthday with his brother. Also, a lot of things happened in August; our old band (Pela) broke up in August and our new band formed in August. That was when we actually decided to play music again. It was enough coincidences and we liked the word “Augustines” a lot and it resonated with us. Unfortunately we found out that someone else was using that name and had registered it. We went out and toured the record as We Are Augustines but for the entire time we kept pushing to get our name back. We realised we couldn’t do it legally, so the only way we could do it was becoming a more successful band than the other band. Thanks to all the people who listened to us and supported us we were able to get our name back and it was a real victory.
How do you write your songs? Does the music come first or the lyrics? Is the whole band involved in the writing process?
Rob: Bill is the lyricist and also the primary writer. Eric and I write as well so we all bring ideas to the table but Bill works out the basic idea and then we all start developing new ideas together. For the new record we went to a church up in upstate New York and we sat out there for 6 weeks and we worked for 14 hours a day just developing ideas and songs before we went into the studio.
(At this point Rob left for soundcheck and Billy took over).
Thanks to FluxFM you are quite popular in Germany, particularly in Berlin. Yesterday they hosted an acoustic show for you at their very own Fluxbau. What was it like when you first decided to play here almost 2 years ago and how did you like Berlin?
Eric: Do you know where our first show was ’cause I forget?
That was at the Magnet.
Eric: Oh, it was that show! That’s when we realised how crazy Berlin is. It’s incredible. We’re from Brooklyn and there’s a lot of romance and I feel like there’s an aesthetic connection between the two cities but the truth is that Berlin is what Brooklyn wants and dreams to be… Or what it was. Brooklyn used to be something really special that artists could move to get big loft spaces and have these really romantic industrial homes and make music and live the dream. Now that dream is no longer available because of prices, rents, and gentrification. I hear from people that that’s starting to happen in Berlin more and more but it still hasn’t fully happened yet. It seems like people still have the ability to live life as an artist here.
Your first single Cruel City has a world music touch to it and I realised that there is a novel with the same title about a young African who is struggling to come to terms with capitalism and the rapid urbanisation of his country. Did the book influence your song or is this a complete coincidence?
Billy: Really?! Wow! I had no idea.
You know, I live in the capital of capitalism and Cruel City is about that. In fact, I think what Berlin has done after the war and after the wall is an inspiration. Art is a central aspect of healing. I want to believe that New York has that vitality. A lot of people like David Byrne (The Talking Heads), Patty Smith, Dave Johansen from New York Dolls are talking about their concern for New York right now.
Is that what Cruel City is about?
Billy: A bit, you know. It’s “Come on Cruel City with money eyes/ Come on Cruel city, don’t turn away”. When it was more dangerous people were more afraid of New York and then it got gentrified in the Giuliani years, it became save. It allowed people with money to come in and to start dominating. So the neighbourhoods that were really authentic have become boutique. I miss the imperfections. It’s separatist, it doesn’t feel like we’re all together anymore and that’s breaking my heart. So in that sense, Cruel City is like a relationship with a lover to me.
Kid You’re on Your Own starts out with the line “Dashboard Jesus in a taxi cab” and on Juarez “The statue of Maria on the dashboard looks beautiful”. You hardly ever see those dashboard statues here in Berlin. Do these lines and statues have a religious meaning to you?
Billy: I was raised in a very Mexican area and Latin America means a lot to me. I was baptized catholic, but I’m not religious. Still I think statues in itself are comforting to me. It’s very Latino to have a Maria in your car and it’s just something that’s calming to me. Taxi cabs are a save reflective place for me. It’s sort of funny, these statues stand on the dashboard and it’s like they’re guiding the car, like a figure head on a ship. It seems like an extension of the faith of the person driving the vehicle and for some reason that makes me feel save.
Your first album was a very personal one because Billy’s brother and mother were an overarching theme. When I listened to the new record it seemed to me that it deals with more general topics such as loneliness, love and finding oneself. How did the new record come about compared to your debut?
Eric: Like you said Rise was a very personal record and it was made for us because us was the only thing that existed at the time. There was no audience, no fans, no manager, there was no band by the time we finished it.
So you wrote the record when you were still in Pela?
Eric: Yeah, we started the record in Pela and then Pela broke up. Then Bill and I carried on with the material we had collected and recorded some more material and completed the record. We made the record for us, because we needed to express what we were going though and we wanted it to be something we could be proud of. Then we went out on tour and we were gifted with incredible grace that we were able to tour all around the world, over 20 countries and 250 shows. It had a tremendous effect on us because those very personal and sometimes very difficult songs became public. They also became much more celebratory and transcendent in the process. We were conscious that in Berlin there were people who would come to our show and we respect that so greatly we wanted to acknowledge that. So we essentially stopped touring and went into the studio to not lose that energy because it was very important to us. A close friend of Bill’s and I said that the new record sounds as our show and that was exactly what we were trying to do.
Billy: Well, I think the new record is also personal. I think the events that happened in that Rise period were abnormally tragic. All that stuff that happened with my family were things I could never be able to talk about but I got through it. So with this record we got back to a normal human existence, loneliness, searching, love and loss… And I think another central theme is New York city. That’s the place where this walkabout (which is the name of one of the songs) is departing away from. We all have been on a walkabout, it’s sort of a journey. It’s about the desire to get out and make it and there’s such a refusal to go back and ever get stuck again. What’s really lovely about the record is that there is an optimism to it. It’s about searching, but searching is a good thing.
Eric: When we started the band what we wanted was completely irrelevant, the only thing that mattered was why we wanted to do this. After Pela broke up we were older, we had sacrificed everything we could for music. We had to take on a massive debt, which we don’t often talk about. We asked ourselves why on earth we do this? That fundamental question is everything, everything else is just details. We established what we want out of this long before we even touched an instrument.
Billy: A keyword for us is intention. If there’s something that does not resonate with us it’s not worth it.
Thank you very much for your time.