Following-up a big, emotional debut album like For Emma, Forever Ago or Funeral is no easy task. With his Bon Iver project, Justin Vernon expanded upon his mythic, cabin-created sound, mining 80s yacht rock of all things for richer, more experimental textures he thought might intrigue his fans. It did, some of them anyhow. Though polarizing to some of his early followers, Bon Iver went on to win two Grammys. Arcade Fire went ahead and released something similar in Neon Bible, an album I for one still believe to be their best work. Their secret? Rousing their evangelists with a dark, gothy batch of dramatic new tunes. It was called Neon Bible for a reason; it felt like going to church for people who never go to church.
With their 2011 debut Rise Ye Sunken Ships, New York rock trio Augustines (then known as We Are Augustines) introduced a vast brush of unchecked emotion, powered by stories of the premature deaths of principle songwriter Billy McCarthy's mother and brother. Such music was obviously dipped in heavy subject material. Yet musically, Augustines ran it up the flagpole with arena-ready musical compositions. On paper, McCarthy's ship had sunk. Instead of wallow, he and the band tore through a glimmer of light to reveal a blinding future for the band.
That decision to find hope in life's darkest moments is obviously inspiring, but with a sophomore album lurking, the band was faced with an old tried-and-true dilemma. "When a part of your identity is struggle and trying to obtain something what do you do when get it?" asked bassist Eric Sanderson. For Augustines there was only one direction to go. "We knew that when we made the follow-up record," admitted Sanderson, "that no matter what we did people would not feel it to be as emotional." So they had an idea. Having spent two and half years on the road playing songs that were mostly about them, the band decided to turn to their audience for the fuel that would power their sophomore record.
Energy — the massive crowds, the jumping, the dancing, belting out every last lyric — "That's part of what you search for your whole life," explained drummer Rob Allen. As Rise caught on, that energy started to burn bigger and brighter, to the point where Allen found himself crying on stage at The Reading Festival. "We were totally blown away [by the experience]," said Allen. "We wanted to figure out how we could use that inspiration for the new record, how we could get that feeling and put it on the record."
Ironically, their quest for such a force started in an unexpected place, a quiet room where McCarthy could escape the non-stop noise of New York City to think, write, and record. "When I got back to New York City I was thinking I needed to go somewhere to write, somewhere that's meaningful to me," he told us. "When I was a little boy in elementary school we had a music room and I remember playing piano and different instruments and singing, mostly choir. I got in contact with them and I asked them if they wouldn't mind if I came and wrote at the school and they gave me the keys to my music room. That was the first place I started playing music."
When he emerged, the band got down to it, writing, arranging, and recording the album over a five-week period. Not only did they come out of the sessions with a glorious new album, but also with the knowledge that the chemistry binding them together was more powerful than ever. Initially (We Are) Augustines was Billy and Eric's project...the remains of their band Pela that they still very much believed in. Allen provided the perfect support on drums. After bonding on the road for the last two years, the new sessions provided the final bit of glue they needed. "Going in the studio and working together and creating this piece of work really did it for us. We really got close after that," Allen added.
That friendship and tight-knit creative connection is obvious if you get a chance to spend a couple hours with Augustines. But it's how it all comes together on the stage and on the new album that will have the biggest impact on what these guys are able to do in the future. Already fiery and kinetic performers, songs like "Cruel City", "Nothing To Lose But Your Head", and "Now You Are Free" are the type of shackle breakers that will take the band's live show to galvanizing new heights. Augustines didn't just metaphorically rise that sunken ship, they outfitted it completely anew; bigger songs, catchier melodies, and massive production. They sound ready to tackle even more daunting seas...whatever peaks and troughs their career or life in general throw at them. "We really went for it on this record, we've put everything into it, " Allen affirmed. "I think some of the best songs Bill's ever written are on this record, some of the best things we've ever done musically... I'm very proud of it, I'm very proud of them. I hope people get that from the record because we certainly feel that we've done a good piece of work."
They've done more than a good piece of work, they've done the near-impossible; made a sophomore album that will find new fans and excite those they've already won over. They've made an album you need to hear and you can do so beginning February 4th when it's released.