Over the last decade, we’ve somehow managed to get used to bands not developing but instead arriving on the music scene fully formed with an exciting, well-thought-out campaign, which puts them in position to wilt, explode, or just fade into nothingness. When a band slowly matures and its sound starts to progress and develop, we’re surprised and delighted because we just don’t see many slow-and-steady blooms anymore.
Which brings us to Baltimore trio Future Islands, who, after 11 years of playing together, have developed exponentially. What’s interesting about them is that they’ve shown that success alone does not breed confidence. Their recent appearance on Letterman immediately thrust them into the limelight, and no band can script a feel-good moment, a global fantasy, quite like they did. As Giuseppe di Lampedusa said, “For things to remain the same, everything must change.” Their fourth album, Singles, sits separately from the footage of lead singer Samuel T. Herring’s performance. And in fear of debasing the word “serendipity,” it all feels rather cinematic. This is their arrival-in-the-airport scene of music’s history.
“We’ve always been more about moving people physically, but we realized we’re at our best when we move people emotionally, too,” says Herring. Have you ever stopped to imagine what later generations will consider to be the defining cultural output of 2014? Between Sun Kil Moon, How to Dress Well, and the new Antlers, this is fast becoming a year to get in touch emotionally through music.
My heartfelt conversation with the band felt as though I was sifting through a large stack of cocktail napkins that the band had scribbled their thoughts onto. As I began to unfold them one by one, they revealed a single story of how three men (Herring, William Cashion, and Gerrit Welmers) rely on change, just as much as we do seasons. We talked about accepting the present, looking forward to the future, and respecting the past; a recording idea that William Cashion shares with the band for the first time; and of course, twerking.
How do you feel about people classifying this particular stage of your career?
Samuel T. Herring (STH): I’ve read a few things where they’re like– I hate to talk about this really– but the Letterman performance being a change in our career. For us, it was just another performance. I’m really excited that people are excited about it, but honestly, there has been so many points up to this that have been more defining changes in us going forward — just the fact that we’ve been doing this as Future Islands for eight years, and we’ve been writing songs together for eleven. There have been so many moments, like the first time we went to Europe and small triumphs like traveling to Australia for the first time.
If we had not been on Letterman, we still would have put out an album that we believed in deeply, and we would have hit the road hard and turned a lot of new people on to our music. It just might not have happened so quickly.
It must be completely bizarre. Even Alan Watts said, “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.”
STH: Yeah! It’s really crazy. The whole experience was pretty surreal. We’re kind of gaining what we’ve always been working for, but we’ve been out on the road for the last few weeks, and we’re remembering why we do this, and we’re grounded in that.
There’s a real joy and wonder to your work, too, like the way a kid might look at a car going by and still be shocked that such a thing even exists. Is there a song that sums up the philosophy of the album?
STH: You know, there’s certain ideas around each song. Some lead into each other in just trying to find peace and understanding in this world. Peace in our existence and being okay with the fact that things don’t always feel right. Maybe “Spirit” has the most universal ideas behind the album in that “Spirit dies to capture truth / Spirit thrives in the darkness.” When we’re in the dark parts of our lives, that’s when we find out who we really are.
Even the way you say the word “challenge” on that track is spirited, and during “Light House”, there’s an accent that creeps in and reminds me of “Long Flight” from In Evening Air. Did that come about from improvisation or habit?
STH: I was just exploring different sounds of my voice, ways to push forward, and you know, “Spirit” [is] a pretty dynamic song because I push upwards, dip back down to the low in the third verse, then bring it back really strong in the final chorus. That’s to create tension and bring people close, then blast them with a message. Me and William have a side project called The Snails, and I really think it gave me a new lease on my voice. I think some of those elements crept in, which is the inspiration in creating.
Is there something about your performance that helps to offset the feelings and inspiration you’re getting?
STH: At first, it was just to release it as therapy and say something honest, but over time, all the three of us realized that in doing that, we’re actually really affecting people. When you share something so deep, especially in a public setting, you’re sharing something that makes you weak and vulnerable. But you’re still at that point of power, and it breaks something in people; you release something for them, and they’re able to release their emotion vicariously through you, creating a cathartic moment. Creating art. We’ve always been more about moving people physically, but we realized we’re at our best when we move people emotionally, too.
That honest self-expression in your performance is what people respond to. It’s cheesy, but we all look and listen for heart. Is there something you do before you perform?
William Cashion (WC): We have a little group huddle, a little pow-wow. But we can’t tell you what we say! It’s part of the magic. If we play in South Africa, maybe we’ll tell you in person.
STH: You can get into the huddle with us.
I’m already in the huddle! I’ve also always thought that the impulse to make art is like to squirrel yourself away, piece something together, and make it perfect, which is somewhat very different to the idea of performance. How was the recording process different?
WC: The biggest difference was that this is the first one we’ve really gone into a proper recording studio for. Our longtime collaborator Chester Gwazda was unavailable, so we’ve been friends with Chris Coady for ages, as he’s originally from Baltimore. This had the best of both worlds; we had free reign in the studio to do what we wanted to.
I haven’t even told these guys, but I’ve thought about getting some microphones on the floor and getting Sam to dance in the studio and have those ambient sounds mixed in the tracks.
STH: That’s a really cool idea!
WC: Ideas just pop out, you know. You never know when they do! Have you ever been to a dance party before where you’re really excited and feeling the dance music and you realize that the sounds of you dancing are louder than the music? Has that ever happened to you?
All the time. How the heck did you know that?
WC: It’s cool to hear that that happens all the way in South Africa. That’s a universal thing right there. Gerrit’s laughing over here, you guys.
Really, that’s a brilliant idea to use Sam as ambient sound. Have you used some ambient sounds this time around? I know you did on the other records.
STH: Less than in the past. Before we’ve been more about mic-ing rooms and getting sounds of the house. We call it “ghosts and dust,” the sounds of a house breathing. Chester is very experimental, trying to find different sounds, but Chris is a little more controlled in those things. There is one piece of dust that is in between the A-side and B-side of the record that travels from “Back in the Tall Grass” into “Song for Our Grandfathers” — sounds of toads and crickets at this hunting cabin out in North Carolina where we first started writing. It works with those songs, too, and it was too beautiful to take out.
It seems for this album the sequencing was especially important, and there’s definitely that split from “Song for Our Grandfathers” when the album transcends and turns introspective.
STH: Oh, yeah. I agree. I think that song and “Light House” have the strongest message on the album. You have “Like the Moon”, which is a beautiful, lost love song, maybe more of an old-school Future Islands, and then “Fall from Grace” is the deep, heavy, slow blaster.
I can imagine editing your own work can feel like cutting off your own leg. How do you know when you’re done?
STH: Yeah, a lot of times we don’t finish songs before we take them onstage. Usually, we play songs that are 75% done and take them out on the road to play and finish them in front of audiences. That’s where you find the emotional base of the song and certain turns in the words. It’s the first album that we didn’t have a group of songs that we had played live that much. When we did In Evening Air, we probably, I dunno, played “Tin Man”, “Apology”, and “Long Flight” at least 80 or 100 times before we went into the studio. It definitely helped the process of recording, because we felt like we knew the songs better after taking it on the road.
So much about music is pushing boundaries, but any time great musicians evolve, they can alienate a segment of their fans who didn’t want them to change. When you’re making music, are you thinking about what niche your sound might be filling?
STH: For us, the most important thing is being aware of that and not paying attention to it in the writing process. It needs to be about what feels right to play, and if you think you know your audience and you’re going to make music for that audience, you’re ultimately going to fail as an artist. You know, as a business, the industry wants you to sell a million records and have a certain sound that will be the most universal to reach the most people. We’ve been doing this for so long on our own that we’ve made it so that we can do what we wanna do. We can’t turn away, or we’ll just forget our roots. Our roots are writing the songs and playing them for the people.
WC: …and selling a million records. We want to be able to write that universal album, but it’s important that it means something to us and we’re not taking from what is trendy at the time.
So, basically, you’re telling me William is going to be surrounded by a bunch of girls twerking on your next video?
STH: [laughs] Yeah, he’s gonna have a solid gold pic, wearing Chanel wristbands to keep the sweat from getting on his face.
WC: We definitely gotta get some twerking on our next video.
STH: I can drop it. I can drop it, guys? I don’t know if you know that, but you can imagine? I can do that shit.
Have you ever tried to twerk, Sam?
STH: Man, I was doing that drunk at house parties back in 2004 before I even knew it was a thing!
WC: [mocking Sam] I was twerking when you were in diapers!
We’ve created a monster! I’d imagine that one of the more challenging things about being an artist is making peace with the selfishness that’s inherent in the process, because making art sometimes means engaging in all sorts of anti-social behavior.
STH: I think we’re a social band, and finding a reaction is when you find the emotional clause. Of course, the lyrical content is of a very personal nature, but you find out that these points of loneliness are actually things that we can come together on and we can help each other with. It’s okay to feel down sometimes because you’re not alone; there are millions of people who have been through similar things. The idea is to take that internal point and say those things that are maybe somewhat selfish in order for other people to release themselves through it. Things that are so hard to say are the simplest statements; that is what I’m really going for with my words.
Are there any fears or crutches that you’re still exploring?
STH: A big part of what we do is that the guys write music, and I take their emotions that their music gives me and inject something into it. I don’t write separate to the music; I let the music guide me to a place. I think that’s important to having that serendipitous feeling and feeding off of each other, that simplicity and serendipity with three things coming together.
I mean, I just found out about that new Sun Kil Moon album this year, and we kinda fell in love with it. It’s like the most honest piece of songwriting I’ve ever heard. He just says it all. It’s all completely arresting. I always thought Sun Kil Moon was just a metal band or something; I feel like an asshole saying that! We actually got to meet him down in Austin at SXSW, and I felt like a fan boy, but he was the nicest guy. That record knocked me on my ass! You know that’s a good feeling to be affected by a piece of art like that. That’s what we want, to knock people into a consciousness.
Your music moves in those areas, too. Do you feel nostalgia for music of the past, and does that ever inform what you do now?
STH: Oh, definitely. Even little references in the music to songs like “A Dream of You and Me / Staring at the Sea”, that’s The Cure you know, and that is a cure. In a way, that’s a play on words itself — the idea that I ask myself for peace staring at the sea – and that is the cure for me. That’s kind of a funny thing, actually. The references to “Spirit” are in a sense to Joy Division.
You know, you mention Joy Division now… William, your bass technique on this album feels like a lead instrument, which leaves the actual bass line to the keyboard from Gerrit. And Sam, I’m sure you’ve been compared to Ian Curtis before?
STH: Those are really good points of reference for our music. I think in a live setting more for his strange movement, but I don’t know so much from my voice. If we could just write a song that sounds as if it was mid-period between Joy Division and New Order – being in the middle of that transition – thumbs up.
Weirdly enough, one of the quotes I’ve always remembered from Ian is “I exist on the best terms I can. The past is now part of my future. The present is well out of hand.”
It feels like you would say something like that.
STH: Thank you. Wow, that’s so nice and poetic and true.
You’re not looking back anymore, but facing forward instead.
STH: That’s a good point. I feel like I’ve always been a nostalgic person always looking towards the past. I remember being posed a question in an interview once to the three of us: “Past or future?” I think Gerrit said neither, William said future, and I said past. They asked why, and I said, well, because there’s so much of it! I’ve always been that kind of person who thinks way too much about what’s already happened, and that’s just in my nature, but I think there’s a new lease on life in the last couple of years. Feeling more comfortable to let life happen instead of pushing at it so hard and trying to make something of it.
It’s like accepting the present, looking forward to the future, and respecting your past. That is the way I feel about it now.