Hard work and (not so) divine intervention propel Augustana to mainstream acclaimThe morning before my scheduled interview with North County folk pop chartbusters Augustana, I get a polite but rather urgent call from the band’s ebullient publicist. The band needs to push the interview up, she tells me, as they’ve been offered a last minute spot on the Today Show. I gladly accommodate—having your interview rescheduled because the band’s singer is heaving Schlitz Ice into a bar toilet is one thing, but getting bumped up so they can pal around with Al Roker on national television is another. When I finally get bassist/vocalist Jared Palomar on the phone, the band are just hours from a flight that will take them to New York City to perform their hit single “Boston” for the show’s estimated 6.2 million viewers.
“We’ve met Matt Lauer before, when we did Letterman, and he was a really nice guy. Al Roker seems like a character, I’m not sure what to think about him,” he chuckles. Palomar then mistakes their cohost Anne Curry for vicious right-wing pundit Anne Coulter: “Anne Coulter’s kind of crazy, too. I used to read a lot of her columns, but now I don’t know.”
If Palomar is a little confused, it may have something to do with the band’s dizzying schedule. In addition to the Today Show, they’re in the midst of a national tour with the Goo Goo Dolls (to be interrupted again by a flight to Burbank to appear on Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show) before their own headlining stint through the South and Southwest. Speaking from Detroit, Palomar, vocalist/pianist/guitarist Dan Layus, drummer Justin South, lead guitarist Chris Sachtleben, and keyboardist John Vincent have been recording demos in a friend’s studio.
Palomar’s voice is friendly and familiar, though his tone bespeaks some fatigue, as if he hasn’t quite had a chance to catch his breath in months. Their first full length, All the Stars and Boulevards, has just been certified gold, and over the next few months, the band will be taking their Counting Crowes-meets-Coldplay brand of alternative folk rock on its second headlining tour. Their sound is full of swelling choruses and the kind of personal yet open-ended lyrics that listeners from teens to the stay-at-home moms have found appealing.
Success, however, wasn’t preordained. Augustana’s rise from beginnings at a conservative Christian college to being the type of band that rubs elbows with major network television stars is a story that takes place over two time zones, two years of performing in relative obscurity, and the not-so-divine providence of one Garden State filmmaker. It’s also a story of one of the longest incubating hit singles in history.
“You Should Know from the Start, Greenville College is Different”
–Greenville College website
Though the band claims San Diego as its home, its birthplace is tiny Greenville, Illinois (population 6,955). It was there that Augustana was formed by Layus, Palomar and original guitarist Josiah Rosen while the three were attending Greenville College. Closer to St. Louis than Chicago, and surrounded by corn and wheat fields, Greenville College is perhaps best known for its Contemporary Christian Music program, which produced 90s alternative band Jars of Clay. “That was the big reason that Dan and I ended up there,” admits Palomar. “We got a lot of experience working and recording, and were encouraged every day.”
It’s the type of encouragement that more and more bands are receiving. Augustana are part of a larger movement of groups (Relient K, Underoath, As I Lay Dying) that have Christian roots, or even self-identify as Christian bands, that have audiences that go far beyond the traditional Christian music market. However, the Palomar is quick to make clear that the tag “Christian” may apply to their personal beliefs, but that the band itself doesn’t really fit the designation. “All of us grew up in Christian households, and my dad was a pastor,” he says. “It’s definitely something that’s important to us in terms of character, but right now it’s more of a personal thing.”
Though Greenville College was a supportive environment, some of its interpretations of Christian beliefs, including a lifestyle statement that prohibits homosexuality, and the students that it attracted ultimately proved too confining for the band. When asked about this aspect of campus life, Palomar becomes somewhat more guarded, carefully measuring his words in between longer pauses. “Certain groups of students there were very liberal and accepting, but the majority of the campus and the faculty probably grew up in much more conservative households. The majority of the campus was fairly open-minded, but when it came to something a little more controversial, in regards to church doctrine, it was always a little bit tougher on everybody. There was one girl that came out and said she was gay, and although she was accepted by a large part of the community, the majority were really condemning her.” When asked to sum up the experience there, Palomar puts it thusly: “In that kind of environment you can get very sheltered. It was definitely good for us to drop out and go some place where we were all on our own, and to grow off of that.”
In 2004, Layus and Palomar did just that, dropping out and returning to Layus’ father’s home in North County. It was there that the group began working on the songs that would come to form All the Stars and Boulevards (Epic), and met up with their drummer, Justin South. “We moved out to his dad’s apartment, and lived there for eight months. We met our drummer in April of 2004–he’s from Dana Point–and through some of his friends we ended up showcasing for a bunch of labels. It was really nice that the decision we made to leave turned out OK.”
These songs attracted the interest of Epic Records, who signed the band and sent them into the studio with Brendan O’Brien, a producer who’s worked with everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Bob Dylan and Neil Young. The band went to Atlanta to record Boulevards at Southern Tracks, an experience the band found revelatory.
“The two indie releases we did were recorded with friends. It was a completely different experience going in with an established producer, with the whole setup, and making a legit record.” Along with the change of environs came the reality of working with O’Brien. “It was definitely intimidating. You go in and you’re in awe; I was a huge fan of Brendan’s, and you go in there and he gives you all these ideas.”
Despite the auspicious jump from college to the pros, Augustana’s release didn’t set the charts afire on initial release on September 12, 2005. Tours with Switchfoot, the Fray, Counting Crows and Snow Patrol may have helped to cement their reputation as a live band, but the record itself wasn’t generating heat. Almost six months later, the band would find their luck changing due to the support of a particularly influential fan.
The Zach Braff Effect
Though Zach Braff’s persona as the twenty-something’s Ray Romano strays a little too far into the realm of the corny for my personal tastes, there’s no doubting the man’s ability to break a band. In 2004, Braff gave a central role in Garden State to the music of the Shins, sending them out of the indie watering holes and into the consciousness of, well, practically everyone. The fact that the Shins are in heavy rotation on stations like KROQ, 91X and 94/9 is a testament to the Braff’s tastemaking potential.
In April, 2006, “Boston” was featured on an episode of Braff’s hit TV show, Scrubs. Immediately, the band began picking up steam on music blogs. By mid-summer, the band was being mentioned on over 40 sites a day. In September, 51 weeks after its initial release, Epic rereleased the album with acoustic versions of “Boston” and “All the Stars and Boulevards.” By early 2007, “Boston” had been out for an astounding 19 months before breaking into the Billboard Top 40.
To put that time frame into perspective, the Beatles released five full albums over the 19 months after their first release. A staggering 158,000 albums were released worldwide in that time span. The amazing success of “Boston” almost two years after its release–when there were many moments in which it could have fallen through the cracks–is a testament to the band’s both the band’s tenacity and the power of television to break new music. Though MTV may be more interested in filming reality-based teenage makeout sessions than inspiring them with sexy videos these days, the mixture of sound and picture still carries weight.
“TV shows are really helpful for a lot of people who are trying to break right now. I like the medium of music in film and television.” Palomar points to the opening shot of Mike Nichols’ Closer, set to Damien Rice’s haunting “The Blower’s Daughter,” as simply “one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.” The increased exposure also has allowed the band to make more appearances on late night and daytime television, an experience Palomar and crew really seem to embrace. “Doing all the late night stuff is always awesome, too, because that’s actually us playing live. That’s what we love, and that’s really enjoyable for us, too.”
Two Years Later
As our time winds down, I ask Palomar what the future holds for the band. Between now and publication, the band will be touring almost constantly. Touring behind a record for a year is one thing, but playing the same songs over and over can tire even the most energetic of performers. Luckily, Augustana have used the time wisely, working out ideas for what will undoubtedly be an eagerly anticipated follow-up during sound checks, hotel stays and any and all general downtime. Putting some of these down on tape was the occasion for their short break in Detroit. “The first song we recorded was a song called ‘Heart Shaped Gun,’ which is definitely my favorite,” says Palomar, his energy picking up a bit. “There’s another called “Either Way, I’ll Break Your Heart Someday’–that’s a really fun live one.”
When asked about plans for the new record, Palomar confesses that the band has almost 30 songs stockpiled. There’s a bunch of new ones, and we’re not even sure what’s going to be on the next record. We’ve got 25 or 30 songs–a third are stripped down, acoustic ones, another third are full band ones, and another third haven’t been fleshed out at all yet!”
One thing that’s for certain is that the band is eager to work with O’Brien again, this time coming to the table more as creative equals. A chance to go back and work with the producer showed–both to he and to the band–the difference that a year’s worth of touring could make in terms of their maturity and poise. “We went back and tracked a song with him a couple months ago (‘Marie,’ for the re-release of Boulevards), and it was really cool how it worked out–it was a lot more free in terms of us throwing ideas out,” says Palomar. “Hopefully we’ll go back in with him in a month and start working on the new record.”