Future Islands

Future Islands: How a Band of Outsiders Became Pop Heroes

Al Shipley

By Al Shipley

on 03.24.14 in Features

Musicians aren’t known for being punctual, but every band has a member who’s usually the last to show up. For Future Islands, that person is bassist William Cashion, whom I wait for with the rest of the band — keyboardist Gerrit Welmers and singer Samuel Herring — huddled in the cold behind their practice space one Thursday afternoon.

Snow hasn’t fallen in Baltimore in over a week, and what was there has mostly melted off the sidewalks, but a fair amount still blankets the ground in the shady parking lot behind the DIY art studio Current Gallery, the basement of which has doubled as Future Islands rehearsal space for the last several years. The members of the band missed most of the winter precipitation in their adopted hometown this year while touring Europe.

When Cashion arrives close to 1 p.m., a full half-hour after the scheduled start time, Welmers teasingly addresses his bandmate as “Mr. 12:30.” Cashion shrugs. “Yeah, I’m bad with time management.” Welmers seems satisfied, but Herring doesn’t let it go. “Good idea getting Gerrit in here early to move all this gear in,” he quips.

In any other band, the back-and-forth might indicate fissures in the foundation, the first signs that the pressures of being a band on the ascent are starting to add a level of volatility to their finely-balanced internal chemistry. With Future Islands, though, it feels innocuous — the simple ribbing of three close friends who have learned to communicate with their own subconscious language.

Future Islands

Photo by J.M. Giordano for WS

Herring, Cashion and Welmers are only in town for a couple weeks in between tours, where they have been playing songs from their upcoming album Singles, their first for the storied indie 4AD after a pair of albums on the Chicago label Thrill Jockey and a debut on the even-smaller UK label Upset the Rhythm. The album has all the eccentricities and atmospherics of previous Future Islands records but, true to its title, all of its songs sound like hits. Past Future Islands albums put a premium on mood, but the songs on Singles are concise, punchy and impossible to forget. The band has been steadily building word-of-mouth buzz through constant touring for years, but in the long wait since 2011′s On the Water, the fervor for their music seems to have reached a tipping point. “The period right before the record is one of the more exciting times for me. Building the anticipation, everyone gets really excited,” Cashion says. “There’s a lot of anxiety sometimes in these last few weeks, where you just want it to come out,” Herring adds.

The rehearsals are not so much a refresher course in their back catalog as a chance for Herring to warm up his instrument. “I’ve found that if we practice three or four days, just me singing with the guys for 45 minutes a day for before a tour, then I won’t lose my voice,” he says. “You can go out on the road cold, and I used to swear by that. But that was me being crazy at 25, because I’ve damaged my voice [doing that] for sure.”

Herring’s voice, and the way he uses it, is an important asset. He cuts a striking figure onstage, bearing the ruggedly handsome countenance of a 1940s character actor: square jaw, cleft chin, widow’s peak. He’s given to dramatic gestures, holding a clawed hand aloft or pounding his chest to emphasize a lyric, while his voice swoops unexpectedly from a melodic mid-range to a guttural growl. It’s like watching Morrissey turn into Tom Waits mid-sentence. And he dances, swinging his entire body in time to the music with complete abandon. “I love drums, and a lot of my body tics and movements are based on the drums and the bass, and how they interact,” he says.

To put it mildly, there’s no other frontman quite like him, a strange mix of earnestly old-fashioned and deeply weird. He surprises me when he reveals that he cut his teeth rapping, though he never got as far as recording a mixtape or hitting the battle rap circuit. “I fell in love with hip-hop when I was 13, started writing right around the time I turned 14, verse and poetry. So freestyle and improvisation was always one of my strengths,” he says. “William gave me a CD when we first met, and it was all this crazy computer music. It was kind of Kraftwerk-influenced, and really blew me away.” Thus began a process that continues to this day, with Welmers and Cashion composing music, and Herring twisting and bending his words and his voice around it.

Rehearsing in the tiny, cold basement room in Baltimore, Future Islands conjure the same big sound they do on stage, But Herring is almost unrecognizable in a ball cap, winter coat and glasses. Without an audience to egg him on, he mostly stands in place and focuses on his vocals — it’s like the difference between Clark Kent and Superman. The guys run through their current single, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” the song they’ll play on The Late Show With David Letterman a few nights later, and which seemed from its very gestation destined to be important. “The guys came up with it in the rehearsal space,” Herring says. “I recorded it on my computer while they were jamming and then went home and wrote the song. It took me an hour, and I was like ‘This is the best thing we’ve ever written.’”

Letterman shared Herring’s enthusiasm. After their performance, he exclaimed with boyish glee, “I’ll take all of that ya got!” and worked clips of Herring’s dancing into his monologue for the remainder of the week. The YouTube clip of their performance has racked up 400,000 views, nearly twice as many as the song’s moody official video (which, perhaps not coincidentally, doesn’t feature any footage of the band performing). It’s hard to imagine David Letterman as an indie tastemaker, but the performance has quickly become a calling card for the band; their performances at this year’s South by Southwest festival were among the most difficult to get into.

The surreal, larger-than-life presence Herring projects with Future Islands is actually considerably more vulnerable and down-to-earth than his demeanor in Art Lord & the Self Portraits, his first band with Cashion and Welmers. The three of them, along with Adam Beeby and Kymia Nawabi, formed the group in 2003 as freshmen at East Carolina University. Herring wore a white tuxedo and assumed the persona of Locke Ernstfrost, a German art lord whose four self-portraits, all of them black turtlenecks, came to life and served as his backing band. They were something of an unlikely party band on campus, and became a popular live act in and around North Carolina, frequently crossing paths with a similarly synth-obsessed eccentric based out of Baltimore by the name of Dan Deacon.

“After we got out all the kind of ‘concept songs’ that the concept of the band afforded, it became more personal songwriting. But because I played a character, it allowed me to say certain things that I would never say,” Herring says. The dramatic flair suited his personality and performance style — and it still does — even if the upshot is that it often makes the real Herring difficult to locate. The quintet played its final shows by the end of 2005, but within a few months, three members had regrouped under a new configuration. “The guys wanted to stop Art Lord and start a new project where we didn’t have to do the costumes, the character and stuff. And at first that was really scary,” he remembers. “I didn’t really know how to perform at first. I’d felt really strong onstage as this character. I had a German accent, and wore a white tux, and I was this guy.”

Art Lord

Herring, in character, as Art Lord’s Locke Ernstfrost

Vestiges of the Art Lord character, accent and all, still show up from time to time in Herring’s Future Islands performances, but the band largely carved out new territory. The original lineup featured a drummer, Erick Murillo, whose legacy was ultimately in helping them decide on a name (a combination of two proposed names, Future Shoes and Already Islands).

As the band began touring in earnest, they found a particularly enthusiastic fanbase in Baltimore. Inspired by Deacon, who had relocated from upstate New York to Baltimore in 2004 and had become one of the biggest champions of the city, Future Islands decided to make the move after an especially memorable show at The Depot in 2007.

“We’d gotten to know most of the scene because Dan would bring a different band from Baltimore [to open for him] every time he went on tour. He’d come to North Carolina, and I used to always book those North Carolina runs,” Cashion remembers. “So when we moved here, we knew Video Hippos and Death Set, Ecstatic Sunshine, Ponytail. The first week I moved here, people were like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ Everyone kinda welcomed us with open arms.”

Future Islands

Photo by J.M. Giordano for WS

Baltimore’s arts scene has long thrived on the constant influx of new blood from students arriving in the city to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art, or people simply looking to live in a city where it’s still relatively affordable to be a starving artist. But Herring and his bandmates were still pleasantly surprised by the instant acceptance Future Islands received. “I felt a little self-conscious of the fact of moving up here to try to make music,” he says. But there were no suspicions of opportunism, just a scene full of other freaks who play vintage synths and dabble in performance art, and seemed to understand Future Islands a little more immediately than the more guitar-driven North Carolina scene.”

Wham City, the loose collective of Baltimore artists and musicians the group fell in with, is mostly populated by acts like Ed Schrader’s Music Beat (the opening act on Future Islands’ current tour) and Santa Dads who tend toward a surreal, performance-art aesthetic. Future Islands, and particularly Herring, skirt that line, but there’s a strong emotional component to songs like “A Song for Our Grandfathers,” that gives the band both gravitas and a sense of sincerity. “When we moved to Baltimore, I think somehow it allowed people to hear us in a new light,” says Cashion, recalling an early review that likened them to serious students among Wham City’s class clowns. “It was like the complete opposite of how we were perceived at home. Everything kinda shifted.”

The band has become deeply embedded in the Baltimore community, recently playing a show at the long-running DIY venue Floristree even as they move into bigger clubs and halls across the country. In a testament to how deep their roots in the scene run, each member of the band also has a side project: Last year, Cashion teamed with Bruce Willen (formerly of Double Dagger) to release an album as Peals, Cashion and Herring have a reggae-flavored party band called Snails, and Welmers makes instrumental music as Moss of Aura.

Future Islands

Photo by J.M. Giordano for WS

But while Future Islands’ art-consciousness has become something of a calling card, they’re not oblivious to mainstream expectations. After more than five years of relying solely on Welmers’s drum machine, the trio recruited Mike Lowry from Baltimore acts Mt. Royal, Lake Trout to for the current leg of their tour. That the simple act of adding a drummer — a baseline requirement for most rock and pop bands — is such a monumental development is a good indication of how unusual and elliptical Future Islands truly are. As it turns out, the decision paid off: Lowry’s presence has redefined the band’s stage sound, to the point that when they played a recent North Carolina show without a drummer, they felt the difference. “It felt naked without the drummer,” says Cashion. In a way, the addition could be seen as a rare concession — a bunch of Baltimore oddballs realizing what it might take to move themselves to the next plane.

“I’ve always yearned for them to perform with a live drummer,” says Mat Leffler-Schulman of Baltimore’s Mobtown Studios, a mutual friend who produced Future Islands’ 2010 Undressed EP. “They’re one of those bands that are pretty hard to classify. Are they punk? Are they dance? Are they indie? I think that ambiguity works for them. Listeners find what they want to find in their music.”

Being difficult to label is often a liability for bands on the ascent but, in the case of Future Islands, it seems to have just make them feel more special. But it’s also given them a certain aura of inscrutability, a quality that extends to their individual personalities. Outside the Current Gallery, after the rehearsal has ended, I’m still asking questions, trying to satisfy my curiosity about these guys who, as affable as they’ve been, make music with a strange, almost intangible mystique. Feeling determined, I try again: Is there anything special about the way band communicates with each other? Herring laughs and recalls an awkward period when he’d try to pitch instrumental ideas with vague “just play doo-doo-doo-doo” instructions. The trick didn’t work, but it led to a revelation, one that informs their approach to this day, and hints at the weird alchemy that make Future Islands songs seem so kinetic, and what makes them resonate on such a deep, instinctive level. “I think the big key is that I stopped communicating,” he says, as the rest of the band walks off into the night. “These days, we go off intuition. We just try to see what we can create together.”