“I’ll look back in 20 years and think ‘fuck, that’s such a magical thing’: An interview with Todd Howe

Todd Howe. Image © Graham Binns

Todd Howe in his temporary office at O2 Academy Liverpool. Image © Graham Binns

“Ah, look I’ll get straight to the point.” Somehow, Todd Howe has found time to grant an interview to Are We Alive? on what has to be one of the busiest afternoons of his year. Within moments of our introduction, in the tiny office he’s using in the bowels of Liverpool’s O2 Academy, he launches full-speed into his tale. Intense, focused, but incredibly open and friendly, he talks about his journey with Augustines, as their friend and, latterly, as their documentarian.

It’s mid afternoon on October 31st 2016, and the bustle of loading-in is almost done for Augustines and their support act, Fatherson. Tonight will be the last night of Augustines’ This is Your Life tour of Europe and the UK and, though fans may want it to be otherwise, their final performance as a band. From November 1st, Augustines will be no more.

For Howe, it’s the end of a journey that stretches all the way back to 2009, when he was a member of The Boxer Rebellion. As he recounted on stage at Augustines’ London gig:

I met Bill [McCarthy] and Eric [Sanderson] in a bar in February 2009. And at the beginning of August 2009 I saw Bill… We had a conversation about how his band [Pela] wasn’t doing very well. Two weeks later I was back in NY and I texted him to see if he would like to come hang out and he sent me a text that said “Todd, I’m really sorry, my little brother just died and I’ve gone home to bury him.”

From that moment Howe swore to help Sanderson and McCarthy in any way he could, and that decision is one about which he has absolutely no regrets.

“Playing my part in helping Augustines in those formative years get where they needed to go… just selflessly doing that is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” he muses.

“I was in the Boxer Rebellion for a number of years up until 2014… In that time I was married and my wife went through breast cancer for the second time back in February / March 2014, and that forced me to leave. We were married and she was living in Phoenix and I was living in London and I was in the band and… It just got too much, and that was really the end of it for me.

“I decided to move to the US and… It was kind of an existential moment for me because I’d moved from the UK where I’d been living for 15 years to the United States and I was wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Like… these boys are going to wake up tomorrow and have that very same set of questions.”

It was this desire to help Augustines that led him, after leaving The Boxer Rebellion, to decide to try and tell the band’s story in a film, RISE: The Story of Augustines. The film’s Kickstarter campaign was fully-funded within a month of launching in August 2014, and Howe has spent the last two-and-a-half years compiling material, interviewing the band, and filming the dates on their 2014 tour of Europe.

“I thought about the boys’ story and felt that I could tell it, and that it should be told. And you know it’s not just “I’m so close to them, I should do it.” It was really a case of “I’ll be good at making films.” I have a very unique point of view and perspective. Plus I’m involved, and I know I can get out of them something deeper than someone else might be able to.”

The industry is definitely as I see it at its lowest point. If not, it’s nearly there, and there will be something that’s going to revolutionise the industry again, but it’s literally at its most depressed moment.

It’s been a learning curve for him – “I’m a better cameraman than I was [in 2014],” he laughs – but the story itself is so compelling that there’s no way he was going to not make it.

“From a really clinical point of view they have everything that could make a film great… You have this incredible arc of story which dates from when Bill was born through to now, and themes of brotherhood and of overcoming adversity and of music being a vehicle for healing in their lives.

“And you add to the fact that they are two — including Rob, sorry — they are three enormously compelling characters. And then on top of that the fact that their music is absolutely incredible. And then you add on top of that the fact that they are the best live band that I’ve ever seen.”

There’s been talk about showing the film at festivals, and of the story’s award-worthiness. Howe freely admits that it’s something that’s crossed his mind.

“I look at a film like Searching for Sugar Man, and that it won an Oscar. And being as driven as I am I know that if this film is told in the correct way it could be a real contender. It could be a legitimate contender if we do this right…”

He pauses for a second before clarifying that he’s not in it for the awards:

“Fuck all that. Any accolades. I’m not doing this for that. I want to make good art and good work. And if I do that then it will carry the legacy of Augustines, the memory of the McCarthy family, the Sanderson family, the Allen family.”

The idea of carrying a family legacy is one that comes from the band’s first album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships, which Howe calls “a tribute to the McCarthy family.”

“[It was] written at a point where Bill was probably going through the most prolific creative period of his life whilst his personal life was probably at the lowest point it’s ever been.”

All that, then, adds a great deal of weight to the documentarian’s shoulders. Get the film wrong and it will not only not tell the story, but it won’t carry forward the legacy of a band and their fans, who have come to treat each other as extended family. Howe is adamant that the film must not only be made, but be made in the right way.

“That’s why it’s taking so long to get right. I’m not just prepared to hit a deadline and say “that’s it” and rush something which could be so much better.”

I relate a quote from Neil Gaiman, talking about fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, clamouring for the next book in the series: “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” I suggest to Howe that art, when made, deserves to be made well.

“It does!” he exclaims. “It does. The end result will be a relentless attention to detail of every aspect of the story.

“This is the first time I’ve ever made a documentary — I’ve certainly made a shitload of mistakes. And I’m certainly not blowing my own trumpet but I have this ability to get things done, and to find the right people at the right level to help with this film. And that’s my goal all along: outside of the whole creative aspect, to find the right people.”

It’s analogous, he says, to working in the music industry:

“You can have the best record in the world, the best film in the world, and if you don’t have the right people to help you leverage what you’ve created out into the industry then it just… it’ll hover somewhere.”

The ultimate goal, he says, is to “…have it seen by everyone the best we can. And I’ve been waiting for the right time to do that. You don’t walk in with a shitty demo and expect a million bucks. It doesn’t fucking happen.

“I learned that in music: leverage is everything. I’m looking for the right people, the right opportunities and the right plan to have this seen by as many people as possible.”

I ask if the story the film tells is altered by the fact that this is the last night of the tour, and the last night of the band as a performing, recording entity. Does it make the story more rounded?

“It does. It certainly brought closure and a finality to the achievement. It allows the boys to show … to help with their closure. I guess a hint of what’s to come maybe. I don’t know.

“I’ve done a number of edits and story changes and nothing’s ever felt right. What the ultimate arc of the film will be is very much the story of Augustines, how this came to be. And the arc is “Rise Ye Sunken Ships.” It will really follow that period.”

Howe leans back, his gaze suddenly distant, as he thinks about  the film that’s coming together in his head.

“It will start with — I’m visualising now — Bill and Eric’s first promo video, the outtakes of that. Five months prior to that was when Jimmy passed away and Pela disbanded within a week, in August 2009.

Bill was ready to quit then and drive trucks, which is was doing before. And I said to him ‘no fucking way. Don’t. You can’t. Trust me, if there’s anything I know it’s that this record will people and it will make a difference. It’s just too good.’

“The beginning of Augustines was Bill and Eric standing there in Seattle, doing their first promotional video. That’s the point at which the movie will dart back and forth. I obviously have to be very careful and sensitive because of the subject matter, and Bill’s been absolutely amazing, being so open.

“Rise Ye Sunken Ships is kind of the mechanism through which the story is told. From its conceptualisation Bill came up withe the name… He decided he was going to be honest and that completely changed his lyrical style. That then became a semi-conceptual album and a tribute — the lyrical content gave that album a completely different significance. And almost, kind of, a life of its own.

“Some albums have a life of their own. It was really the third band member at that time, when it was just Bill and Eric. Jimmy was alive for most of it, and that whole episode — Jimmy dying, Pela breaking up — set Bill and Eric on a journey of brotherhood and on a quest to finish something that they started, to preserve the legacy of the McCarthy family and to heal themselves.”

It was a time, Howe says, when the future looked uncertain, and Sanderson and McCarthy were considering giving up on the music business altogether.

“… at that point in time they didn’t even want to be a band, they just wanted to finish the record. They hand no aspirations. And there was no opportunity.”

McCarthy emailed a copy of Rise Ye  Sunken Ships to Howe, whose girlfriend at the time was working for a management company. “I put the record on and halfway through Chapel Song she was jumping up and down and saying ‘fuck, I wanna manage this.'”

Howe, who sits in the story of Augustines as a benevolent observer, sometimes opening doors and helping to move mountains, was present for another cruel twist to the nascent band’s fate.

“Bill and Eric had come over to London for the first time, to get the lay of the land and go through the whole release strategy of Rise Ye Sunken Ships and it was very small time… and they get a cease and desist order on their name.

“They were sitting in my house and it was like the worst thing… I’m not even going to talk about that because it was just another thing, you know? But they changed the name to We Are Augustines. But… that was nearly the straw the broke the camel’s back. Bill was ready to quit then and drive trucks, which is was doing before. And I said to him ‘no fucking way. Don’t. You can’t. Trust me, if there’s anything I know it’s that this record will people and it will make a difference. It’s just too good.'”

Even after all the tumultuous times in which he’s stood with the band, though, Howe doesn’t see himself as being a great mover-and-shaker in their tale.

“It’s not really about any of us that helped… like I said in London, we opened the door for them and they just exploded through it. They held their heads high, took every opportunity, and turned a tragedy [the death of James McCarthy] into a celebration of the life behind that tragedy, and that’s just something absolutely beautiful. and it’s a beautiful story of perseverance — Augustines in general — and it’s been an amazing journey for all of us.”

We’re briefly interrupted by the arrival of an old friend of Howe and the band, and when we’re able to return to the conversation I ask how the being with the band for the last two weeks — arriving in time for their London gig — has been on a personal level.

“It’s been good for me actually; I’m a lot better cameraman than I was. The weird thing is that we haven’t spent this much time together since the very beginning… I’m glad I’m here. I certainly needed it.”

He pauses for a second.

“… this film has been book-ended by my wife having breast cancer twice. And so…” he pauses again and smiles. “What an amazing woman she is…

“So for me, sitting in phoenix, doing this on my own, it’s been great just to do this and be here with my brothers, I guess, and just share these moments. It’s not been an easy journey for any of us. Eric and I have just finished talking and… there’s no happy endings. Life is hard. It’s all about how you deal with it.”

We talk for a while about the beginnings of Are We Alive?, and how we, as founders, were motivated to try and help artists who are trying to break into an industry that seems increasingly hostile towards the smaller acts, unless they have some kind of viral appeal. Much has been made of Augustines’ announcement of their breakup, but, Howe says, there’s nothing mysterious about it.

“Nothing lasts forever. And there are a number of factors that have contributed to this decision. It’s a combination of nobody buying records — Apple put the death nail in the coffin that Spotify was closing on record sales. There is no money to make records for bands at this level. There is no money to make records in the way that you want to and to be able to monetise them. The industry is definitely as I see it at its lowest point. If not, it’s nearly there, and there will be something that’s going to revolutionise the industry again, but it’s literally at its most depressed moment.

“So there’s that and then there’s just… it’s a huge emotional struggle to… you have to dedicate your whole life to doing it, and when the financial returns just aren’t there and it’s getting harder and harder.

“And it’s age. Your late 30s, 40 years old, you’ve got to start thinking about where you’re going to be at 50.

“It’s just a combination of everything, and it’s no more than a reality of ‘we’ve changed a lot of people’s lives but it’s time now to start the next chapter of our lives, put this behind us, move forward onto something else and be positive.'”

To say that Augustines have changed lives is an understatement. I recount to Howe one of the stories sent to Are We Alive? by a young woman who credits the band’s music with quite literally saving her life at a time when she felt that all was lost. He pauses again for a minute, emotional.

“What can you say about that? Bill received a load of letters yesterday from school kids in Ireland who studied Book of James; so beautiful. I don’t think you can gauge… That makes me feel that what I did was worthwhile. Let alone those guys.

“They’re going to have to process the significance of their achievements. I don’t think it will sink in for quite some time, until they decompress and have a chance to really sit back and analyse it without being in it. It’s not about the scale, it’s about the depth.

There’s noise in the corridor outside, and I’m becoming acutely aware that Todd Howe is a busy man with a great deal to do and a responsibility to do it well. Before we part ways, I ask him again about the release date for the film. 2017 has been rumoured; is that something to hold on to?

“It’s coming man! Editing… If you get the wrong editor, not only do you spend money but you fuck your film up. And editor is make or break. I have nearly two and a half years of work that’s going to live or die by the edit. And their legacy is going to live or die, and this is a lot of weight on my shoulders to make sure it gets done and it gets done properly. So I just want to do whatever it takes

“So I say 2017 cos we’ve got an editor ready to go. And that’s gonna take a couple of months. If he’s the right editor then I’ll be so fucking happy. And if he’s not the right one then we’ll find another one.”

We have to wrap up — there are GoPros to charge and interviews to complete. As I’m thanking him for his generosity, Howe adds one last snippet that sums up Augustines’ work so succinctly.

“Eric says something amazing at the end of the film — and I assume it’s still gonna be in there — he refers to Scott Hutchinson, who says ‘make tiny changes on earth.’ I’ll leave the rest; it’s a good ending. It’s a beautiful story and I’ll look back in 20 years and think “fuck, that’s such a magical thing.”

Graham Binns

Graham Binns is a music photographer, writer and artist, as well as being the co-founder and chief beard-keeper of Are We Alive?.