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October 6, 2017

Author Ryan Berg Interviews Musician William McCarthy (Pela, Augustines)

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Ryan Berg is the author of No House to Call My Home: Love, Family and Other Transgressions, winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for General Nonfiction, the 2016 NCCD Media for a Just Society Award, and listed as a Top 10 LGBTQ Book of 2016 by the American Library Association. Berg received the New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature and a Minnesota State Arts Board grant. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Slate, The Chronicle for Social Change,The Advocate, Salon, Local Knowledge, The Rumpus, and The Sun. Berg has been awarded residencies from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He lives in Minneapolis.

William McCarthy is a singer-songwriter and visual artist who fronted the bands Pela and Augustines. His new solo album is Shelter.

Author Ryan Berg interviews musician William McCarthy:

As the lead singer and songwriter of Pela, and then Augustines, William McCarthy has written some of the most compelling indie rock of the past few years. Augustines’ album Rise Ye Sunken Ships (2011), arguably the band’s best known record in the U.S., is a collection of twilit, soulfully charged songs that thread together like chapters in a novel. The songs’ themes wrestle with McCarthy trying to keep his brother afloat amid the reckless waters of psychosis. That record was followed up with the beautifully crafted anthemnic and emotional landscapes of their self-titled release (2014). The band's last record, 2016’s This is Your Life, is a bombastic, big, emotionally naked, and relentlessly melodic roof-raiser. Throughout their career Augustines found themselves embraced by critics, by bands such as Frightened Rabbit and the Boxer Rebellion, and by European fans, who turned the trio into minor celebrities. By everyone, it seems, except radio programmers and the American masses, who remained somewhat indifferent. Four months after the release of This is Your Life, due to the financial strain of keeping the band afloat, Augustines disbanded.

Shelter (2017) marks the first solo work for McCarthy. The record, a collection of stripped down covers, with a few original compositions peppered throughout, is a kind of tribute to troubadours, and embraces McCarthy’s quieter, more introspective side. Artists as disparate as Bob Dylan, Against Me!, Sade, and Dan Bern, fill out the collection, a record in tone and texture that is a dramatic departure from the Augustines sound. McCarthy pares back production, eliminating roaring guitars, minimizing soaring vocals, and quiets the quaking drums yet manages to retain his passion and gusto as an interpreter of classic tracks like Dylan’s Moonshiner and Two Coffins by Against Me!

I talked with William McCarthy about songwriting, reinvention, and what it means to be a rock musician in the age of Cardi B.

Augustines played their last show on October 31, 2016 in Liverpool. You've returned to the stage as a solo artist and your solo record, Shelter, is out the end of September. How was it making a William McCarthy album rather than an Augustines album? Did you feel more pressure?

To be honest it was a joyous thing to have members of both my bands Augustines and Pela in the same room. I would say rather than stressful I'd say it was very focused.

Augustines and Pela were both known for their bombastic live performances. Your solo material, however, has more of a troubadour, singer-songwriter vibe. Is that a genre that has always appealed to you?

I think as a teenager I was pretty blown away with words. Lyrics can comfort and inspire us like nothing in the world I decided then that I would commit myself for the rest of my days to words. You have a point, it certainly is not the focal point of high energy rock acts.

What is the music you always return to over time?

For some reason there's an African reggae artist that I listen too named Lucky Dube. I also adore the Jonsi and Alex record. Always the same 5 or 6 songs with both artists. I think these days less is so much more, I don't like exploring new stuff so much as I just appreciate the feeling music brings me and I'm happy to just listen to a few records a year and on repeat.

Augustines fans will be happy to find the concert favorite, "Still I Rise" and Pela fans will find a reworking of "Trouble with River Cities" on Shelter. Both cuts have been reinvented in a way. Reinvention is something you do well. First with Pela, then Augustines, now your solo work. It feels like a shedding of skins. Can you speak to the concept of reinvention in relation to your work?

I think necessity really sharpens us even if it is brutal. I read once that in business everyone is paid in two coins, cash or experience and that one should take the experience and prosperity comes eventually. I think this could be applied to music and art as well. Each thing you create gives you experience and when reinventing yourself, experience feels like your only friend, it's like when everything goes away, experience is the legs you have to stand on to rebuild.

The new album, Shelter, follows down a “rootsier” path – even more of a traditionally American sound. How do you find the European audiences are responding to it?

Really passionately. There were a few people moaning it wasn't what they wanted. But you must stay true to your path, removing a record label from the dynamic makes it an even even more truehearted experience. Sink or swim baby. But yes, all feedback has been warm and encouraging.

Todd Howe's documentary, Rise--The Story of Augustines, is nearly finished. Watching a rough cut I was moved by how committed you were to your singular vision of bringing music into the world, by your fans' devotion to you and the band, and by your resiliency to continue on, even when the past had been bleak. Watching your life interpreted through someone else's lens, was there something that surprised you? Something you hadn't considered about your own story until it was presented to you?

Yes I was very impressed that in life we can't really see our past except in photos and memories, so we generally live in the present. The film is actually a document going back through my entire life. I was very moved and couldn't believe I've actually been playing music as long as I have, it made me immensely proud of Rob and Eric, and of course Todd as well. It's a beautiful thing to not back down in life. Bravery is such an unseen thing. The NYC cab driver bravely working and sending all his money home to his country to help his family, a high school kid bravely walking through the cafeteria where he is teased, an old woman with Alzheimer's bravely not letting it hold her back in life. I love common bravery, it's all around but we value it so little. I feel the film is a lot about bravery.

I began fantasizing about everyone having a film about their life and when meeting new people you had the option to watch their film to see what their journey has been about. Imagine that!

Your first solo tour was called “Journals, Maps, Stories & Songs: An Evening with William McCarthy." You not only sang songs, you told stories, shared artwork, allowed the audience to a glimpse into your journals. It almost sounded like a performance art piece, not a common move for a rock musician. How do you see the role of the "rock musician"--a fairly fixed construct, and how do you see yourself breaking down the rigid walls of what it means to be a musician in today's bizarre music industry?

It’s not hard to see rock is receding at the moment. I've had record labels flatly say to me sorry but they aren't signing rock bands right now. Like many genres, when it becomes regurgitated or stale it sort of deserves to be benched, but like all genres will come back eventually. Look at hip hop, it was leading the way artistically the last half decade, but now I do see patterns like many of you do, a lot of the time it's very high production with little substance, all about the hook, which actually can be cool in a way, but we as artists have to rally and toe the line of quality as well like Kendrick Lamar is doing. He's literally on such a refined level that he's inspiring musicians spanning multiple genres. It's very hard to be visionary with all the politicking on the label and business side, it's real hard out there. People don't want to lose the audience they've fought hard to have a small foothold with. They don't want to squander it by doing something radical because it could be a career ender in today's Spotify / not paying artist what they are really worth world ( but profiting off of them anyway) and artists know and feel that.

I think NWA was the Sex Pistols of my generation and they came out in this weird time and helped cut through the nonsense. I thought perhaps the interwebs would prevent that kind of mainstream bizarro stale era ever again? But aren’t we in one now? Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande, Bieber, Miley Cyrus and producers around the world ripping off Diplo jams looking for a cheap hook. I dunno it's a great debate.

So rock is in a funny place even within the indies, I noticed Arcade Fire tried something different recently that didn't entirely work, The National kind of make a similar record over and over, Arctic Monkeys have vitality. It's just hard as a fan of music sometimes. But I also say all this empathetically because you really can't win sometimes as a rising band or established act out there in the music business, so you just really gotta make it work for you. I'm exploring that mindset now.

In my solo work I’ve just chosen to pursue my own voice by exploring my own biography from years ago, the early years, how I got into music and why. I felt the visual art and stories, while daunting and intimidating, were the way forward on the storytelling tour, and this entire past nine months.

How did you go about developing your writing skills?
Who were some of the songwriters that you learned from?

That's funny man I don't feel very skilled. I never have. I think I was born with a voice that can sing in tune pretty consistently that's probably where the god given talent ends. As a player I'm fairly average I'd say but I've found a way to make it work. I don't shy away from the man hours of writing and studio time. I do love lyrics, they choke me up still to this day and often mid song onstage, but above all I just love to perform. It’s such an honor. And I love the road, I like to see people happy out there. So maybe in ways I've used whatever skills even if limited and made some sort of platform for catharsis and intention in my life, even if it's wonky here and there.

I grew up on basically mix tapes from friends ranging from The Smiths to west coast skate punk stuff, Reggae and old ska music is always pretty present in California and I fell in love with it early. Lots of skater and surfer type stuff Dead Kennedys, The Vandals, DRI, NWA, Eazy E, Too $hort, Circle Jerks, The Cure but in my mid-teens I found Dylan and the folk guys, Americana and country and that was a big step. Definitely a shut the fuck up and study this stuff with everything in your soul kind of period for me.

"Still I Rise" is a song composed during the Rise Ye Sunken Ship sessions. It didn’t make it on that record. What compelled you to re-record it for your solo record? Does the song hold new meaning for you so many years later?

I lost a bit of sleep on this topic. Imagine doing a solo record, and the b side over the years people consistently request, is conceptually ground you've already covered but secretly you love it too!

Oh man.

I just like the tune. We've tried recording it over the years and were never happy with the results. I think we nailed it this time, and hey, if rising up from life's heartache is something I'm associated with that's fine with me, I've made my peace with it.

The planet is pretty upside down right now, maybe it's a nice thing to put this out in the world in need of a little bit of shelter.

William McCarthy links:

William McCarthy's website

Ryan Berg links:

Ryan Berg's website

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for No House To Call My Home

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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