Augustana's debut All the Stars and Boulevards is a true rite of passage—an album full of airplanes and acclimation, of New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, and San Diego and, maybe most importantly, the moments of self-awareness in between. But first… Greenville, Illinois.
After growing up on the West Coast, lead singer Dan Layus landed at Greenville College in Illinois, where he majored in music. When Dan met Josiah Rosen, the two found a shared passion for bands like Counting Crows and Radiohead. They started playing together and christened themselves Augustana, a name suggested by Josiah, which is thought to be Latin for 'a small glimpse of hope.' ("We're not 100% sure of this," says Dan with a laugh. "We've tried researching it.")
Then, after recruiting fellow undergrad Jared Palomar to play keyboards, Augustana recorded some songs that started winning them local acclaim. Disillusioned with school and full of the kind of adrenaline that gets things done no matter how impetuous, Dan and Josiah decided near the end of the fall 2004 semester that their future wasn't in Greenville — they were going to move to California and try to make Augustana more than a college band.
"I wasn't happy in my classes, I was failing and I just kept thinking, man, I know music is for me, just not this part of it," says Dan. Jared was understandably wary about leaving school, but decided to join the duo six weeks later and jumped from the keys to bass. The one thing Augustana needed now was a drum player. When Josiah heard through some common friends that Justin South was a free agent, he e-mailed him to see if he wanted to come try out.
"I checked out their website and I was like 'wow,'" Justin remembers. "I thought this sounds like a signed group who'd been playing together for years. When I found out it was all self-produced and they were doing their own thing, it completely blew me away."
When Justin played with the band for the first time, it was clear things had fallen into place. "I ran through their songs with them," Justin says. "And then we just kind of looked at each other and, I don't know, it just felt right. There was no awkwardness, no one telling anyone what to do or how to play. It was just completely fluid."
Justin e-mailed Augustana's website to an old industry contact he had who was so impressed he called Justin immediately. ("I think the first words out of his mouth were: when do we start working?‚" Justin says with a laugh). Within months of their first practice session, Augustana was playing showcases in New York and LA for major labels. After signing to Epic, the four were entrusted to premier rock producer Brendan O'Brien (Bruce Spingsteen, Pearl Jam).
The band went into the studio with songs Layus had written in different locales over the past three years. The ones penned at home ("Bullets" "Hotel Roosevelt") have certain buoyancy. The ones written on the road ("Stars and Boulevards" "Mayfield") have more grit. It's easier to see your life from a distance when you're miles from home.
"There's a lot of leaving," Dan says, of the album's many beginnings and ending, takeoffs and landings. "That's pretty much the theme of the record—looking for a home and not being able to find it, for a multitude of reasons. I was looking for a home in a person. Be it a real love or just one I had in my head. I wish that by the last song there was a conclusion but I'm still figuring it out myself." At his Atlanta studio, O'Brien helped the band nail down a signature sound—a fusion of European rock and organic Americana. "Everyone varies on what they really love and what they listen to. But I think we meet in the right places," says Dan.
More importantly, O'Brien allowed them to convey the easy authenticity that defines the four members of the band on record. "If you listen to the album, all the notes aren't perfect and the vocals aren't all smoothed over," says Dan. "It's just natural. There are mistakes. Brendan wanted to capture the realness of it and that was important to us too, to try and get that live sound."
The result is an album that has the flavors of many things yet manages to be something entirely its own. All the Stars and Boulevards isn't trying to recreate or mimic. Augustana has never needed to—they've always remained boldly on the surface of themselves.
The BBC drama starring Aidan Turner returns to BBC One on September 4th.