California-based rockers Augustana caught lightning in a bottle back in 2005, when their first single “Boston” skyrocketed the young five piece to sudden success. But the track’s unexpected popularity meant that since then it’s been an uphill battle for the band; no song from their 2008 follow-up Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt could match its runaway success and the album faltered commercially as a result.
Augustana are hoping to change that in 2011. With a new album, a revamped sound, an instantly likeable first single and a co-headlining tour with Arizona pop-punks The Maine, the band is ready to claim a spot on your next romantic mixtape. We caught up with Augustana frontman Dan Layus to learn about the new album, their new sound and life after “Boston.”
OS: You guys got an interesting start thanks to the success of “Boston”—you didn’t have a huge fan base yet and all the sudden you had this insanely popular single. Was it weird to get thrust into the scene like that?
DL: That’s a great question. You know, not to sound arrogant, but we were so young. And I think a lot of younger musicians would identify with this—people that were younger and hadn’t had much prior experience and did well in their first ventures— it felt normal to me. It didn’t feel crazy, didn’t feel that exciting, you know what I mean? It was just normal. It was like, “Oh yeah, of course it’s going to do well.” And that’s a testament to our immaturity at the time. There’s a lot of people that would kill for that kind of experience and that kind of success. And me, now, I would kill for that. It’s tough because when you’re sort of just picked off the sidewalk of a suburban street and don’t have much life experience, all you know is, “I went to high school, I had a good upbringing, I did a couple semesters of college, and started this band, and here we are!” You didn’t have to fight tooth and nail and work and work and work to get to the place that you are. That being said, we were incredibly fortunate. I look back now and go, “Wow, I’m a lucky motherfucker.” [Laughs] It sort of worked in reverse in the sense that now we work our ass off and we’ve really fought tooth-and-nail to get to this third record and to get to this place where we have an opportunity to put our music out and do this for a living. It’s a really phenomenal thing, ‘cause you look around and there’s so many people that want to be able to do something like this, something that they love, and make a living at it and enjoy it. And it doesn’t happen for them. You see it all the time. I’m a really, really fortunate young man. It’s nice to be able to look back and learn from your arrogance and appreciate where you are now. Not to say that we were assholes about it, but it felt like it was supposed to be that way, I guess.
OS: When “Boston” was featured on an episode of The Big Bang Theory, one of the characters jokes that it’s a great song “If you’re compiling a mix CD for a double suicide.” How did you feel about the track being featured in that way?
DL: Oh, that was awesome. I loved that. That was one of those weird moments when you sort of go, “Is this real? Is this really happening?” That’s a really surreal thing. Because it’s one thing to hear your song on, like, a WB show. It’s another thing to see something like that where somebody pulls the iPod out of their ears and they’re singing your song, and it’s a pop-culture type moment. It’s just really weird. It’s hard to wrap your head around that. It just doesn’t even feel real, to be honest. It felt kind of like a weird dream, or something. But that was really flattering, you know, that’s a really successful show. It was great.
OS: So what can you tell us about the new album, Augustana?
DL: Well whenever you make a new record, you always think it’s the best stuff you’ve ever done. You always think it’s way better; you always think it’s a huge step forward. I’m going to go ahead and say that that’s the case. In my opinion, I think it is a big step forward in a lot of ways. It feels really good to have new material to be able to bring out to the… whatever you want to call it. The forum of music listeners. The process of making the record was at times very frustrating, a very trying experience. But it was so worth the effort that we put into it, and the hours, the days, months, years that we ground away trying to get the product possible. Trying to get the best product of ourselves and balance that world between making it satisfying to ourselves but also satisfying to other music listeners. It’s a tough thing to do, because you can really over-intellectualize it all, and you can really over-think a lot of it. Especially when you’re spending years doing it. It’s just ten songs, you know what I mean? It’s just a couple of songs that are three-and-a-half minutes long. It’s funny how you can really over-think it. But it feels great.
OS: Augustana definitely goes in a different direction than your previous albums, was that something that you did intentionally or something that just happened as you were working on it?
DL: Yeah, it was very intentional. We wanted to make something that felt— to our own ears and our own gut—felt timeless and real. We wanted to feel the conviction in the music and the lyrics and the performance and delivery of the takes. And we also wanted it to feel relative to what’s happening today. Essentially, we wanted to make a 1975, Tom Petty/Bruce Springsteen American rock record, but we wanted it to make sense for 2011. And that’s a tough thing to do. It sounds sort of easy on paper, but when you really set out and try to do that, you run into a whole set of issues. Sometimes it’s easier to kind of just go back and do the same thing. It’s hard to push yourself into new frontiers sonically and in the writing process. But if you do it right, it sounds like you just made some music. [Laughs]
OS: Was “Steal Your Heart” the obvious first single?
DL: For me, it was the obvious single. There was no doubt in my mind. If it was my money, and I was putting out the record and needed it to do well, that was the song that I would do. Luckily, we were able to get everybody that works in our camp on board with that. They were considering some other songs, and sort of going down that safer road like we did with the previous record, which really didn’t do that well commercially. I don’t know if that matters or not. I don’t think “Steal Your Heart” was the obvious choice for everybody involved, but I hope that it was the right choice. I think it’s the right choice, for whatever that’s worth.
OS: So why did you choose to self-title this album? Were you trying to say, “This is Augustana, this is who we are?”
DL: That’s exactly it. It just felt like it was all in the record. Everything was in the music. There’s so many emotions and words and stories, that it was like, “Let’s just self-title this thing.” This is the band, this is the sound, these are the songs. This is what we’ve been essentially working on for my entire adult life—making other records, maturing, finding my voice (both metaphorically and physically), finding out how to write what I think is a good song, touring and touring, playing show after show—it just felt like it was all leading up to this. I don’t know where it goes from here, but it felt like the end of a very long chapter of Augustana, and hopefully the beginning of a new one. It just felt like the period at the end of a sentence.
OS: All of your releases have been on Epic Records, which is pretty unique since bands switch labels so often these days. Why do you think that relationship has been so successful?
DL: You know, I can speak from my experience. [Pauses] I don’t want to assume how other people feel, but from my observation and my own experience, it’s easy to look at the major label as kind of the big bad wolf. I don’t know why they get that stigma, but to be honest, it’s kind of a cop out. I don’t know if they get enough credit for what they do. They invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into kids, hoping that they get their shit worked out and know how to make a good record. I think that we’ve been very fortunate that they’ve been incredibly patient with us. Epic Records has been beyond supportive when the cards were down and when things have been really rough over the last couple years. A lot of bands get hung out to dry, and maybe that’s because they tarnish their relationship with their labels and the people they’re working with. But essentially, I don’t have the money to finance my own record. I need these people. And they certainly don’t need me. There’s always somebody waiting in your shadow to take your place. There’s plenty of kids that would be hungry to make a record, and be happy to be on a label. I think you have to look at it like, I’m in a really fortunate position. These people want us to do well, because if we do well they do well. Everybody wins. Everybody’s happy. So if you can look at it from that perspective you can make it a positive relationship, and then it kind of feeds off each other. Then you start taking steps forward, in the right direction. Nothing positive comes out of rolling up your sleeves and thumbing your nose at the label. It really doesn’t get anything done. They don’t need you; there’s a million other bands out there. So you just have to work with them and try and move forward. It can be a good thing, if you look at it like it’s a good thing.
OS: That’s great, because there are a lot of horror stories out there.
DL: Well, yeah, at the end of the day it can be tough. They certainly ask a lot of you, and sometimes they want you to do things that maybe you wouldn’t normally do if you were on “Augustana Records.” But I think at the same time, they ask you to do things that maybe at the time you don’t want to do, or you think it’s a bad thing, but I think sometimes they do know better. It’s good to have people outside your bubble pushing you to go further into your songwriting, pushing you to write a competitive, commercially viable song. Maybe you want to be cool, or you don’t want to go there, but sometimes I think they know what’s better for you. It is what it is.
OS: So what do you guys have coming up? Are you planning a summer tour to support Augustana?
DL: We head out in May and June. We’re going to be doing a tour of fairly… not small rooms, but 500, maybe 1,000 at the most and see if we can fill out those rooms. ‘Cause it’s been quite a while since we’ve really done a real tour that wasn’t supporting somebody else—as far as a headlining tour it’s been about three years. So we’ll see what we can do, and if we can take it beyond that, that would be great. If there’s a demand for us to keep going out and playing, then we’ll do it, for sure.
Stream Augustana’s latest single “Steal Your Heart” on AOL Music until the album hits stores on April 26th, and be sure to catch them on their upcoming tour with The Maine.