Augustus began in 2011 when frontman Colin Kelly wrote, recorded, and posted to Youtube his song, “North.” This was years before he met the other two founding members of the band, Jim Herlihy and Jesse Wright, and before they began as a trio named “Tusk.”
This was their first mistake (with many more were to follow), as another band already had the name somewhere out in Musicland. As they would countless times in the following years, they adjusted and moved forward, now as “Augustus,” forgoing that which didn’t work while maintaining that which did: their original “Tusk” logo— two entwined animal bones jutting upward against a black backdrop. Without fail since, Augustus has done with failure what we all wish we would at our best: They’ve used it to become something new, fresh, and better. Today, the group features founding members Colin Kelly on vocals, Jim Herlihy on guitar and vocals, along with Marshall Carlson on bass, and Ryan Healy on drums.
I note the release of “North” as the true beginning of the group because they still play the song. I believe it’s on its fifth iteration now. And that is the real story of Augustus. This is a band in a constant state of reinvention. This has never been more evident than in their recent release, “Idle,” which is wholly different in style from previous releases and qualitatively advanced by a good bit. It is through this lens of growth that I approached a recent interview with Colin Kelly around a fire in my backyard, accompanied by BolderBeat contributor and scene veteran Zach Dahmen. Augustus will perform at the Fox Theatre this Saturday, November 10th and tickets are available here.
PL: So you’re new to Colorado, determined to write and be in a band, and you find two guys, Jesse Wright and Jim Herlihy. You start “Tusk,” which was kind of “mountain-y” and not really rock and roll. Not your forte, but it seemed to fit into the Colorado scene. Why didn’t you stick with that?
CK: Jesse always thought of us as a prog folk band.
PL: Did you really want to be in a prog folk band?
CK: I just wanted to be in a band so I was going to do anything I could with the instruments we had then.
PL: You had lots of early success and hype in those days. And yet, it didn’t work out in the long run. Why?
CK: We had some bad gigs now and again. Jim was doing too much. [He was] going full sprint all night on banjo, guitar, drums… And Jesse was always a wild card. Sometimes totally brilliant, sometimes couldn’t remember how to play the songs. I was still an ametuer in a lot of ways. We’d have these five-minute breaks between songs sometimes at shows, just trying to pull it together.
ZD: I remember those early shows of yours at Johnny’s. In the scene at that time, Whiskey Autumn was No Name Bar, Augustus was Johnny’s, and sometimes on the same night you’d be catching the first half of one show then jumping to the other. It was a captive audience. People were excited at what was happening. But it was always going to be just experimental.
PL: Who was the other band really wrapped up in that?
ZD: The Almond Butters?
PL: Yup, but another one, too… You know who I’m talking about.
ZD: The Ridgelings!
CK: There was a lot of bluegrassy shit going on then. Everybody was all like, “Mumford and Sons!”
PL: Ah yes, the Mumfordy era.
CK: If Mumford could do it, we were like, we could do whatever the fuck we want. (Colin turns to the recorder). Hey, future Pete, do you read me? This is Colin, don’t quote me on that…
PL: I’m totally going to.
PL: But anyway, on those early recordings of yours, there were a lot of great songs, but one phenomenal song in particular that a lot of people still talk about and request called, “Return.”
CK: We still play that a lot. We’ve re-written it like five times. We finally found a version we like with the quartet that we’re keeping. The first records were pretty desperate things for me musically. I liked the songs, but I didn’t really know what I was doing in a studio yet. None of us did. The only reason we could get through it was because Jim was always so prepared. He practices his ass off. And Jesse had some moments of blinding brilliance. But it was a struggle for all of us. Being under a microscope for the first time. On the second record, I was also really sick, and we had to rush through. We had to be decisive and learn to live with flaws. Some have more character than others. Sometimes you have to be OK with not being very good.
PL: Which flaws can you live with… That sounds like some earned wisdom right there. So let me flip it around. Which flaws can’t you live with? Musically? Personally?
Colin gets up to chop some wood, as these sorts of questions make him antsy.
ZD: I can say, on the spot…
CK: That’s a really fucked up question, Pete. Do I have to answer that?
ZD: For me, diving deeper into the eye of who I am, as opposed to trying to look more outward… I need to find the thing to make me sufficient and happy, and I have to look inward for that.
CK: That’s very theological.
PL: He’s got a background in it (Zach majored in theology at college)
.Colin chops at another log.
PL: So let’s go back to that time specifically, what couldn’t you live with then?
CK: I couldn’t live with my guitar sounding shitty, my vocals being out of key… I wasn’t always prepared with all the arrangements. I didn’t know what stories I was telling with my vocals. I can’t say I’m any more confident now, but I’ve logged a lot more hours. We all have. And that definitely helps.
PL: Give me a specific story that speaks to all that.
CK: We were playing this show in 2015 and we were being scouted by this guy who had some connections, and who we couldn’t afford, but arrogantly thought we were confident about getting his help, and we realized that night that we couldn’t play a whole three hours live. We didn’t sound like we knew what we were doing at that show. Especially when we started bringing in more electric. We weren’t really acoustic listeners. We were individually more into rock and roll sounds.
PL: Tell me about The Mercury EP that came next. I know you were proud of those songs, but I remember you weren’t too happy about how that turned out.
CK: We had a thing, we thought it was working. We thought we were going to continue to get closer to the concept, the feeling of what we wanted to make, but we didn’t get there.
PL: So after that, there seemed to be a great retooling of things that led to your latest release, which couldn’t be more different than where you began, and if I may say, couldn’t have had a better outcome, at least on a critical level. It seems that in the lead up, you wanted to stabilize your group, add permanent players after Jesse left (which was around the Mercury release). You mentioned earlier that you wanted to make the best out of the instruments you had access to, but this one feels very intentional from top-to-bottom.
CK: We had to do everything different when Jesse left. We had to change the sound. It was worse than I assumed it would be at the time. I was really bummed when Jesse left. There was a vacuum, and Jim and I had to start over. Retooling to us meant trying a bunch of different shit till we got somewhere. We couldn’t really do the acoustic shit anymore.
ZD: Sonically, you seemed to completely transform from one space to another. How did that happen?
CK: Jesse used to play a lot of lead on the cello. And now suddenly I was in the position to write lead for electric guitar. I still don’t know if I’ve got that down, but again, I’ve got more hours logged. We used to have a banjo and an acoustic guitar, and now we’ve got two electric guitars. The foot-kit suddenly made no more sense for Jim, and he wanted to do more singing and more lead guitar. So then we had to bring in drums, a new bass…
PL: You sound frustrated just remembering all that.
CK: You go from a three piece folk band to a four piece rock band, and there is going to be some really ugly shit that goes down.
PL: The new album has a song on it called “Things Got a Way of Changing.”
ZD: When it came out, Pete and I listened to it a few times and knew it was going to be the song people gravitated toward. That song to me was just a fucking, “Woah!” Better than anything else you’ve done. It felt like something different to us.
PL: I know it has nothing to do with the changes in the band over the last couple of years. But so many of our motivations are subconscious, and to me it just seems so clearly like a cathartic piece. That from beneath the surface, this theme emerged on its own. What was your experience like making it?
CK: We always wanted to swing back around to playing electric music. We were tired of the half-baked folk thing. I started demoing stuff by myself more, got more organized, and I could hear better when something just wasn’t going to be a song anyone would want to listen to. We started more from the bottom of the song to build up, not just “start with guitar and vocals and then add bass and drums.” I started the old stuff more from a lyrical standpoint. But with this song in particular, we wanted to build it from the ground up. And it took months to write. I sat on it for three months. And the guys did just an amazing job with it.
PL: Aside from the mechanics of it all, there must have been a cathartic moment for you guys with this song, especially after the lull of “Mercury.” You came out ahead when maybe you thought you were falling behind.
CK: Well there was a lot of change in mine and Jim’s life around that time (both got married within that same year) and I stopped working my same old job. A lot of things personally changed. Things stabilized. Life finally felt a little less on the brink of disaster on a daily basis. Which was fun when you’re in your twenties. But from all that was a lot of failure, which created a lot of intensity. We had to find out how not to fuck up anymore. Obviously something was missing, and we had to figure out what that was… We had to find it. It’s tough to say.
PL: I think you said it.
Keep up with Augustus here.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.