By Gareth Moore
Tomorrow night, Future Islands will invade Red Palace and I strongly urge everyone to see them. They have released one of strongest albums of the year with In Evening Air and are known for putting on enthralling shows. This trio illustrate a world of barbed wire love and vitriolic despair underneath the sounds of piercing synths and trembling bass. While their debut Wave Like Home featured seething angst their new album shows five leaps forward, demonstrating that they can craft a an album that’s solid and sweet from beginning to end. Thankfully, I was able to get on the phone with bassist William Cashion and singer Samuel T. Herring and chat about the new album, their live shows, the importance of lyrics and album art, and more.
BYT: I discovered your band back in May via an article in The Guardian. The writer basically said that while he hates it when people lazily describe bands as being A + B but he confessed to loving, and slightly agreeing, with his mate’s assessment of Future Islands sounding like “Tom Waits fronting New Order.” Had you heard about that and what do you think of it?
William: Yeah, we’ve heard that description. I don’t think we ever really got the Tom Waits thing until this last album came out. Before that Sam was compared to Jack Black, so for him to now be compared to Tom Waits is pretty awesome. We’re all big fans, so it’s kind of flattering. The one we tell people when we meet them and they ask who we sound like we tend to say we sound like Joe Cocker fronting early New Order.
BYT: Ooooh, that’s good. That is just as good. I can understand the Tom Waits thing in a moment like The Happiness of Being Twice when he sounds like a growling beast over a glorious synth and bass riff. But, yes, it’s an amusing one, but I don’t think it truly captures what the band is about either.
William: Right, yeah. It’s just a good descriptor for the sound.
BYT: Sure. And if nothing else, it will intrigue people enough to check out and make up their own opinions, and that’s pretty good.
BYT: I’ve read that you guys concocted the term “Post-Wave” to describe yourselves. If that’s true what is it about post-punk and new wave that you find especially moving?
William: We came up with that when we were all eighteen, nineteen years old. It was like seven, or eight years ago when we came up with it. Sam was really into post-rock at the time and I was really into post-punk, and our music was really in the vein of new wave but we couldn’t really call ourselves new wave. We just thought it would be cool to call it post-wave and it just kind of stuck. We played a show and it said we were “post-wave pioneers” on the flyer. And we thought, “Wow, this is cool.” We thought it was an honour. We just ran with it. It’s not quite new wave, but the influences…you can definitely hear the influences of new wave and post punk.
BYT: I completely agree. Without it being one or the other, it has elements of both without it descending into a cheap genre imitation. So I like it. I’ve also been intrigued by the confrontational nature of some of your songs. On Flicker & Flutter and Seize A Shark (from their debut album Wave Like Home) they just have such lyrical venom and ferocious spirit that they actually remind me of a post-punk band like Wire. Is it essential for you to craft songs with such an emotional blast?
William: Uh, I think that’s more of a question for Sam. I do know that Sam likes the emotional, especially with the performance live and lyrically. He likes to be in your face, so we would just turn it up to 11, full blast, and the drums would be insanely fast, he was drummer back then. We were definitely more of a punk band when that album was made. But I’ll ask Sam that question since it’s more for him. But we do want our music to pluck the heart-strings.
BYT: Very good. When I sat down to read the lyrics to the Wave Like Home LP it quickly made my heart ache. Playing the album afterwards made me savour the sweet surface sounds and made me want to thrash around my room. It made me wonder if you guys are incredibly meticulous when writing and recording the music, or if the lyrics just came much easier?
William: The way that we usually do it is that we will be in a room at my house or Sam’s house. Me and Garrett will jam while Sam sits in a corner and writing. If there is a part that we all like, or Sam likes, one of us will say ‘’Wait, go back, do this.‘’ We get into these repetitive grooves. That way we focus on certain chords and how they work together, if it flows well together. In the studio we definitely go to extra lengths to make sure things are overdubbed well. We go through a lot of post-production where we will run keyboards stuff through amps, make it sound dirty, make it sound organic. It’s really easy for bands to allow drum machines and keyboards to sound not real, to sound like plastic, to sound lifeless. In the studio we want to make sure our sounds have life. But regarding lyrics sometimes Sam will ask our opinion. We know each other really well, we have a good chemistry, the three of us, and it just kind of happens. We don’t really talk about it. But when we do write we tend to write pretty quickly.
BYT: Would you ever want to expand your sound beyond a trio or do you prefer your brand of colourful minimalism?
William: For now we are going to keep it a three-piece. We have definitely talked about adding a drummer at some point, when the time is right, but right now it just makes sense to be a three piece if, for nothing else, the fact that it is really easy to tour as a three piece. We really have very little gear. We really just have PA speakers for the keyboard and a bass amp.
BYT: That must make the ride from city to city far more comfortable.
William: Absolutely. It’s really easy when we get to Europe; we just have to rent a bass amp. It’s very minimal gear. So economically it makes sense for us right now.
BYT: I think that would be so much more fun when a show is over and you’re exhausted and ten minutes later everything is checked in and fine. No disabling a drum kit or anything.
William: Yeah. But on that same token we just did an acoustic EP. with some friends playing cello and acoustic guitar and our friend Denny playing drums. We are really interested in expanding our sound, if not live then in the studio. On our last record we had some strings, some violin and cello, and Denny played some drums on a few of the songs. As far as a permanent fixture in the band, that’s down the road a bit.
BYT: That EP you just mentioned, is that the Undressed EP?
BYT: Damn, I don’t have that one yet.
William: It just came out while we were on tour in Europe, about a month ago. It’s all acoustic. It was recorded for a radio broadcast.
BYT: Are you selling it on this American tour?
William: Oh yeah, we’ll have it next week.
BYT: Ah, wonderful. I have your Post Office Wave Chapel EP. which features four remixes of your songs. Are there any other artists or bands you want to see remix your work or are remixes just not quite as important to you?
William: When we did Post Office Wave Chapel we were just seeing what it would be like to get remixes. Personally I’m not that interested in getting remixes done just because there is so much other stuff we want to focus on. But we would love a remix by Aphex Twin. That would be awesome.
BYT: That would be awesome.
William: I really love Javelin, we all really love Javelin; they did one on that record. There are definitely some artists whom we love and respect and would like to be remixed by, but we aren’t really focusing on remixes at this point.
BYT: As I’ve said, I’ve yet to see you live and I am incredibly excited for the show next week. What is it you aim to achieve on stage, aside from everyone simply having a good time, and what would you say to convince someone to check out your show?
William: We try to create our own world, we write music in our own world, and we try to take the audience to a different place. Sam is very theatrical, but I think theatrical is the wrong word. I think he’s very emotive with his singing and he’s very engaging. He’ll try to get in your face. We just want it to be loud and sound good. We have been playing new songs that haven’t been recorded yet, so that’s another reason to check us out.
BYT: Absolutely. I certainly think you have created your own world on the albums, and the live footage I’ve seen online has been captivating so I have high hopes. Both albums feature such distinctive artwork that, every time I look at them they are both intriguing and completely mystifying. Do you consider artwork to be an integral element to the world of Future Islands?
William: Definitely. I think having good artwork is a big deal for any record. I think if a record has bad artwork I will just dismiss it, I just won’t even give it a chance. I think a lot of people share that opinion, that artwork is very important. Our friend Kymia…as I said, we write and record in our own world and she kind of makes…her artwork is definitely in her own world, in a way. The images she uses are all her own. We went to college with her and we’ve always admired her work and we love working with her. She also did the cover for the new e.p. and the Feathers & Hallways e.p. We definitely put a lot of weight on the art, and we want to make the albums look as good as they sound.
BYT: I’m very happy that you guys take the time to make the art work solid because it’s so good. It made me realize how few albums I can name from the past five years that had genuinely eye-catching art work. I don’t think enough bands take the time and effort to make the art-work stand out.
William: Yeah, I agree.
BYT: You’ve said you’ve been recording some new material. Is it for an e.p. or album, and can you tease what direction you’re going in?
William: We haven’t started recording, we’ve slowly started writing and it’s really too early to say. But we are really excited about the new stuff and we are beginning to set our sights on the next record which we are going to work on very soon.
BYT: Do you have a grand goal for the band or would you simply be happy making as much music as we can?
William: We’d be happy to just keep making records. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we want to have the same kind of output that the Cure had in the 80’s; just constant records evolving in their own way and hopefully creating something classic.
BYT: I am happy to hear that. Nick Cave had a great line saying all artists should put out as much work as they can before they die, you shouldn’t take too long in between. As long as you’re happy putting out as many solid albums as possible and not saying ‘’no matter what I need to play Wembley Stadium’’ I think a lot of fans would be happy with that.
William: Yeah, thank you.
Exit William. Enter Sam.
BYT: I haven’t seen you guys yet, but my father, step-mother, and brother just saw your Paris show and they can not stop talking about it.
Sam: (laughs) Aw man, that’s crazy.
BYT: They have kept talking about how fantastic it was, and then kicking my ass for not ordering Wave Like Home yet.
Sam: Our European tour went well. It was a positive vibe in the way we were received and people already knowing who we were, knowing the songs and singing along.
BYT: Well, you’ve been getting attention in big outlets like the Guardian and Pitchfork, so it’s natural for people to want to check out what you’re like.
Sam: Definitely, and that’s our hope. Thrill Jockey has helped us out a lot with that, getting our name out there and giving us support. We’ve been doing this for a long time and there’s always that struggle of ‘’Is this ever going to happen? Are people ever going to know who we are? Are we just going to have to work our fingers to the bone?‘’ but that’s pretty much what we’ve been doing. Having them help us out and picking things up for us feels really good.
BYT: I’m really glad you have a label that is taking good care of you wants to put your music out there. That seems to be hard to find these days.
Sam: Oh yes. It’s definitely been hard for us to find. We’re excited. We’ve already done three twelve-inches this year. We’re really excited and they’re really excited. We’re working very hard to give them the opportunity to push records for us. It goes back and forth. When we first started talking to Katina from Thrill Jockey I was kind of trying to woo her by saying ‘’if we work with you we are going to work really, really hard for your label, for pushing our band really hard because that’s what we do. ‘’ She would reply ‘’No, we’re going to work hard for you, for your band. ‘’ We’re happy both sides are after the same thing.
BYT: That’s good to hear. I was telling William how I was particularly intrigued by the confrontational nature of your songs, especially with Flicker & Flutter and Seize A Shark. They possess such lyrical venom and a ferocious spirit that reminded me of a post-punk band like Wire. Is it essential for you to write songs with such an emotional blast?
Sam: I think it’s kind of intuitive. I’ve probably said this before in interviews but, if you’re not going to sing a song you believe in then why sing a song at all? Why write a song at all if it doesn’t affect you or mean something to you? Passion has to be there. I don’t know if it’s important but it’s definitely something I’ve learned about working between those albums. With Flicker & Flutter and Seize A Shark it was more about the punk spirit and it was all in your face. I think with the songs we have now they go from being soft and then being in your face, to kind of create a rise of emotion that goes from that pain and misunderstanding to that aggression and frustration. That’s more current, but with Seize A Shark and Flicker & Flutter those were…actually, Flicker is an angry song. That was about an old girl, I wrote it four and a half years ago, and it’s probably one of the only songs I wrote in Future Islands where I wrote the words and then it became incorporated into the song. Usually the music comes first and then the words come to fill in the emotion of the music. I kind of wrote those words in a fevered panic of some built up stuff, but that’s a long story.
BYT: Yeah, you don’t need to go down that road.
Sam: (With writing emotional songs) I guess I don’t need to do that but I couldn’t do it another way. With the songs I stick to what I know, to the stories I know that are of me or from me, and try to go into things that are personal so that they come out with a lot of passion that can go off into the aggressive side or on the lamenting side. It goes off in different ways.
BYT: Normally I wouldn’t ask about writing emotional songs since it seems any artist would try to do that, but the fact is only few artists pull it off to the degree where the lyrics can make your heart ache and put together with the music it unites for this all encompassing blow. Personally I think Future Islands does a terrific job of doing that.
Sam: Well thank you. I think there is somewhat of a lack of that. I think that’s what music production and the way people do their stuff…words just fall behind in the music. The words are very important to me, if the lyrics tell a story…It’s my part in the band, we all have our part to bring something a little different, but we hope to create something that does pull at people and affect them.
BYT: It was strange for me because the other day I sat down and read all of the lyrics to Wave Like Home and In Evening Air and I really marvelled at not only the quality of the lyrics but how they can affect you so quickly. The funny thing is when you are listening to the music, as I have been for months, that alone was moving enough from the arrangements and your performance but, given your singing style, some lyrics I caught early on and some I did not, yet that never deterred me from having a deep emotional reaction to the music. I think it was impressive that you were able to do that, without some of us knowing the lyrics straight away you can still sit down and read the lyrics and they have their own special punch.
Sam: Thank you. There really is a big jump between Wave Like Home and In Evening Air. Personally there are only two or three songs I’m really proud of, lyrically, on Wave. Not to discount the other songs, but it was a different kind of period. On In Evening Air I really hit my stride and I am proud of all the work on that album. I’m really excited that we could get the lyrics printed with the album and let people jump into that if they wanted to.
BYT: You should be proud. It’s one of the few albums where I can say It’s just as worthwhile to sit down and read the lyrics as it is to listen to it…and dance to it, of course.