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William McCarthy

William McCarthy

"I wanted to play music forever with these guys"
Interview: Jenny Schnabel
Foto: Ruth Medjber

When Augustines announced their breakup last year, it came as something of a surprise. Why does a group that's so talented and successful with its three albums would call it quits? But the music business is challenging for artists nowadays. It's very hard to survive. So sadly this wonderful journey of Augustines has ended. But William McCarthy's journey goes on. He has many plans and is starting a new chapter of his life.

I met up with William McCarthy in Red Hook Brooklyn. It's 28C in New York City and summer's here. William picked me up in front of a Brooklyn bar on Van Brunt Street. We sit down in its backyard beer garden, enjoy a beer in the sun and start talking.

When I look back on Augustines it seems like it went very well with the band. You released three amazing albums, venue sizes increased and it looked like the band was really successful.
It was very strange to have a bus, a crew and everything sold out and being at festivals on the main stage at night. We were having an international career. But the secret was that we were really struggling. It takes a lot of money to sustain ten different people working for you and it takes a lot of effort.

So what's the challenge for a band nowadays?
We saw this at the beginning of the 2000s with Napster and we were kind of afraid, but it seemed like you have to be a really savvy computer person to understand how to do file sharing. I think what happened with Spotify is because their service is basically free. They are giving everybody's work away. What's happening now that we give it away, it puts you immediately in a difficult relationship with the record label, because you're having difficult time getting their money back to them. And then you got caught in this trap of sort of like a loan shark, like somebody who loans money to poor people and then they are aggressive about how to get it back. So you've got the situation, where the label wants their money back and there is no way you can sell these records. And I remember something happened on our second record, which had so many songs like "Weary Eyes", "Cruel City" and "Nothing To Loose But Your Head", but we found out that in Canada our record only sold 600 copies, which is impossible, because our shows where bigger than 600 people there. So that's a really great example of what's going on. I think now things are changing. People are kickstarting, they pledge music, people are doing different things to get their music out there. But I think the old way that we all knew, that we were growing up with, that you work really hard, play some shows, give the demo to the record label, the record label likes you, you get a manager and you have a crew. That's all over.

Yes it is. I think it becomes more and more difficult for a band to make a living out of their music even if you're successful. But that's what many people don't know out there.
In the New York Times there was a piece done on a band called Grizzly Bear. They were a very big band here. They were touring with really big names, they were playing large rooms, they were a really successful band. And then it went into what they made a year, what their apartments were and where they lived. And if I remember correctly one of the guys was just sleeping on his friend's couch and it really kind of explored perception and reality. A lot of people live by perception like if you think of maybe Rage Against The Machine or Interpol. You wanna think that RATM are these passionate freedom fighters, that they were fighting politically against and giving it a voice to people. And with Interpol you wanna think that they were maybe these Manhattan late night guys that lived in bars and were international. But the truth is, that that's a perception. That's what we think. That's what we've been sold. But what's really going on is a completely different story.

Absolutely. A few years ago I did an interview with Laura of Blood Red Shoes. They are pretty well-known in Europe, play large venues and stuff like that. So I thought that she could make a living out of making music. But then she told me that she is working in a shop. That's insane.
That's really insane. I've a lot of respect for people working in shops or bar tending, but I think sometimes after all the joy you have given to people, after all the sacrifice you've made, after all the suffering and travelling in vans, sleeping two guys in a hotel bed. You think that after decades of this you actually can call it your job. It's an unfair business.

Sadly it is. And I felt so sorry when I heard about the end of Augustines because every time I saw you on stage it seemed to me that after all those years you were finally where you wanted to be. How does it feel for you that your band has ended?
It's a little painful. I didn't except that. It's not what I wanted. I wanted to play music forever with these guys. It was like we were married. But I also know that we would have been exploited, too. And you get to an interesting line where you say: I'm doing anything to make my fans happy, but what's about our health.

Yes, I totally agree. The most important thing in life is to pursue happiness and to take care of yourself. So if you're not happy anymore with a situation or a situation is not healthy anymore, then it's probably better to quit.
I can remember there was a time, when we were in the UK and I had no voice. I kept losing my voice and I didn't know why. And then I started realizing it's because I've been overbooked. They had booked too many concerts. So I was playing like six concerts a week for months. So that's four days off a month of singing. That's not ok. And I remember this one point my voice actually went out and I looked at this tour manager, who wasn't our normal tour manager. Our tour manager had something going on with his family. And this guy was like: I said: We can't play this show and he said: You have to. And I said: But I don't have a voice. And he said: If you don't play you won't get paid and then you're all over this money at the end of the tour. And then he said: Sorry, but that's just business, man. And so I had to play a show with no voice and hurt myself worse. It is pretty ugly. Eric got pneumonia and we had to leave him in a hotel room in Germany and continue touring as a two-piece. It doesn't get more real than that. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, absolutely. It's a fucking awful business! So after the split you decided to go on as a solo artist. Was that directly clear for you after the band ended?
No, it wasn't. I have different talents. I do visual art, I write, I do storytelling. I wasn't sure. I know that I would play music, but I didn't know, if it was worth trying to make a career of it anymore. But I'm very lucky that I decided to do a solo tour before the band ended. The reason I went on the solo tour was that in my opinion we had too much time off. We had finished the record and I just wanted to keep working and they were asking us to take six month off. And I thought: Fuck, that's just too much time. So I wanna go play these songs and it was a challenge and I was a little scared. But I did it and it went so well. It sold out. All of Europe sold out, all of Britain sold out and it gave me faith. Then I thought when the band broke up I'll do another tour or maybe a record or something, because I wanna keep working. It was about I wanna to keep busy and then now that I've done it I was thinking: Wow, that's a very interesting journey really, because I'm going back to what I was before the band. I didn't realise that. Yeah, I met Eric when I was playing in a subway. So this is how I've always been and I forgot that I think.

That's very crazy, that you met Eric in a subway.
Yeah, it was after 9/11. When that happened the city was not functioning probably. Downtown was totally closed. If you imagine 9/11 happened on a Tuesday I don't think any nightclubs were open that weekend and for a long time. The city sort of stopped. And I had just moved here and I didn't have a job. And so that was the only way I really could make money. And a friend of mine and I were going into the subways trying to come home with twenty, thirty dollars a day to have for cigarettes and food. And that friend of mine was talking to Eric and he introduced me and so we started talking. And I thought: Oh that's a really lovely guy, a sweetheart. He had just come back from living in Africa. And he was a really interesting guy and he seemed very supportive of my talents, which was sort of hard to find back in California were I was born. It was great!

I saw some of your paintings you posted on Instagram. They are pretty good. I like them.
Thank you. I haven't had the time obviously, because I've devoted so much of myself to writing and performing. I'm still very busy actually, but I have a book that's going to be coming out next year. So I'm working on that.

What's that book about?
It's an art book. I worked on this journal for about four years travelling. So when I left my town I went travelling. And when I went travelling I had a book and it had empty pages. And after four years of travelling it was full. That's the book I'm putting out. It's a memoir. It tells stories about going to jail in Spain and hiding in the trains. It's pretty cool.

Earlier this year you started this crowdfunding via Patreon. Do you think that this is going to be the new way for musicians or creatives to earn money in the future?
I think it could be. It's not without its challenges. I think a musician has to be willing to walk away from the radio and walk away from television and walk away from magazines and press. It's sort of like a small island that's away from the land. Do you know what I mean? And I think that it's basically like a small community of people who wanna know what you're doing and want to interact with you. Some people I think are more interested in the sort of typical success story. I personally have been there and success didn't complete me. The dialogue with human beings and humanity and where we're all at and where we're all going to and comforting each other that's what I'm interested in. So therefore the radio and television and these things they're nice, but I like human beings I think. I found success to be a little bit isolating. I mean I would be in my bus listening to everyone having a great time outside. Seriously. And it was weird. It was such an inconvenience to go out and deal with craziness all night and you just wanted to be quiet and just talk to a couple of people, but it wasn't possible when you start doing 4000 person rooms.

Last year you moved to Berlin for a while. What were your impressions?
I've been going to Berlin for some time for music. I think I've been there in the wrong month. I was in November. I had a difficult time. I'm not going to lie. I think I just needed a place to go look after myself and recover I think from the band ending. And I didn't anticipate. Well everybody says everybody in Berlin speaks English. That's not true.

No, that's not true actually.
No, that's not true at all. In Amsterdam it's like that. But not Berlin. I was in Prenzlauer Berg and I was being sad and lonely and cold. And then ordering the wrong salad or ordering the wrong thing or not being able to say hair conditioner instead of shampoo. I was really struggling. This courage in my lifetime just to go to places is very brave, but also it was a great example of me not even imagining the issues that could happen. But I'm going to do something crazy this summer, I'm playing festivals on my motorbike. I'm riding from Spain to Austria to Switzerland to Germany all through Europe. And again I'm not thinking about the things that could happen. So that's me. That's how I live my life. But unfortunately I paid a very high price. So I was quite lonely and I was hurting pretty bad there.

For the recordings of your solo album you came back to New York City and you recorded it with Eric. Was the reason why to have a familiar surrounding?
I think that the Berlin thing was so difficult for me being so alone. I really thought I know people there, I have a record label there. I didn't realise that it didn't mean a shit. And I decided to come home to where people really love me. I have friends that really love and care about me here. I don't ever wanna be alone like that again.

I understand that. And it's nice to have a place where you can go and where people care about you.
It's different if you're sitting by yourself or if you're sitting around people that know you and you say: Hey I'm suffering. And they say: Oh man do you wanna talk. And you say: Yes sure. But when I say: I'm suffering. And no one cares. That's terrible. My band ended after seven years, my musical partnership with Eric ended after fifteen, sixteen years. It is ended. And I had no one to talk to about it. That was terrible. It was my fault.

Is Eric your best friend?
I would say yes. But we had this discussion. He considers his wife is his best friend. So I'm not allowed to get in the middle of that. I know that I can depend on Eric no matter what. And that's very valuable in the world. I don't have a whole lot of family and so my friends are my family.

What is it that you love so much about New York City?
This is my life. I love it when I come from the airport in a car and I just can see my neighbourhood my body is just relaxing. This is my home. It's weird but it not the cheapest home and it's not the prettiest home. It's fucking crazy.

Would you say that you are also at home in the world?
I've been to every continent in the world. I've been travelling for twenty years. New York City is my home. That can and will always change. But it is my base. But as much as I am an American, I'm a citizen of the world. I just listened to the John Lennon Song "Imagine". And I never really heard the line: "Imagine there's no countries." I never heard that line. I heard it just two days ago and I was just thinking: Oh my god. Imagine that. Imagine you were just a citizen of the world.

Does travelling inspire the way you write songs?
Yes. It's funny. I don't struggle to figure out lyrics or titles or songs. Because you just have to look outside or I just look around here. And I'm going to ride my motorbike from Spain to Austria to That's what I'm going in two weeks. It's not hard for me to find inspiration because it's everywhere. Every old church, every old village, every old couple, everything I see gives me kind of like hope and inspiration.

In April you went on your second solo tour named "Music For The People" Tour. On your tours
every night is different: Different set lists, different stories, different jokes. What is a good night for you?
Those were the nights, when you're not scared about taboo things. When you have no fear and it's a complete success. And it's all instinctual. Nothing can hurt you. You can't hurt anybody. Not offensive. You figure out the vocabulary were you're just curious and you're just talking like I'm just saying my observations and it's totally working. So you can talk about some really crazy shit.

I remember that you talked about S&M in Cologne.
Haha. Yeah. I remember that. And I think that these kind of scary taboo things are really fun. We are not in a university class, we are at a fucking rock show. People wanna drink and have some fun. And I think that we have our pain with Hiroshima and Vietnam and all that shit. And you have your pain. And the Brits have their fucking pain. Constantly making fun of England for being kicked out of America. It's just funny. I think that anybody who takes me too seriously should go to a different show.

I think your shows are a good mixture of deep songs, storytelling and jokes.
That's the African-American thing. If you go to a black church it's not a sad place. They are dancing, having fun, laughing and holding hands. I think that I've been having some hard times in my life I've learned how to laugh at myself and laugh at life. And I think that's sort of my signature. I'll sing you a song about prison and some terrible shit that has happened to my family, but then I'm also gonna be making fun of Mel Gibson.

So your solo record is in the can. What can we expect from "Shelter"?
It's largely about my Berlin experience. When you're in a band, you really can't cover songs very much and I really wanted access to a lot of material, so I decided to make a covers record. But in the middle of that I started writing my own songs. So it's kind of a mix. But I felt like the emphasis on the last album was very kind of like a sort of celebratory. I felt this is more about lyrics. So I selected specific songs with specific lyrics and specific things I've never tried for this record. I just wanted a piano, a guitar and a harmonica. That's all. I just wanted the most basic things.

Sounds good. I'm really excited. Do you already have a release date for the album?
Yes. I want to release it in the next eight weeks or so. So I think late August, early September.


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