DiS meets Future Islands: "My Dad would always ask me when I was going to write a happy song"
London. A cold, clear evening in mid-February. Four unassuming friends are huddled outside the Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen, sharing jokes and cigarettes. There’s a comfort and camaraderie on display that comes from tough years spent together; sentences not needing to be finished, thoughts communicated with a single look. As several couples and a few groups of tourists busy themselves with food or post-work drinks, the four head inside not for revelry but work. For they are Future Islands, and there’s a sound check to be done ahead of tonight’s gig, their first European foray in nearly 18 months.
Formed 11 years ago as Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, singer Samuel T. Herring, bassist William Cashion, and keys maestro Gerrit Welmers – they’ve just added a drummer, former Double Dagger stickman Denny Bowen – have been making smart, skewed synth-pop ever since. Success hasn’t come easy, and what they have achieved was done the old-fashioned way, with grit and determination; one fan, one gig, one city at a time. One of the hardest working bands out there, they’ve regularly played more than 150 shows a year, an impressive enough number before you consider the sheer physical effort and pure emotion that Herring pours into every stage appearance. More than one friend has reacted with surprise that the forthcoming Singles is their fourth album, but such reactions and misguided notions are surely soon to be banished to the past.
We’re still three weeks away from that Letterman performance, a jaw dropping tour de force that spreads like wildfire across the Internet, but already there are signs. Ostensibly a low-key, four-date warm up tour before a return to the USA, tonight’s concert sold out weeks ago. There’s also a fevered anticipation among those who do have a ticket, a sense that this isn’t just a concert but some kind of grand ceremony. And true to form, they deliver; even the unfamiliar set list fails to dampen the joyous abandon that greets each soaring chorus and call to arms. A sweating, grinning Herring looks content – another gig, another city hooked.
Interview him, and you’ll notice his playful smile and stream-of-consciousness answers mask a steely determination. But it’s not about conquering the world; instead he talks about being all they can be, living up to fans’ expectations, and being true to themselves. “Blessed”, “lucky”, and “honesty” are words he drops frequently, and it’s clear he means them; why else would they self-finance a record on a year-off from touring? But for him, they’ve worked too hard, and sacrificed too much, not to be pleased that they stand on the cusp of a genuine breakthrough, one that will see struggle give way to a more permanent kind of success. Future Islands are here to stay, and deserve every moment...
DiS: After you were done with the On The Water tour, you were back home for quite a while. At what point last year did you guys sit down last year and decide: "Now’s the time for another album"?
Samuel T. Herring: On The Water came out in October 2011, when we were already touring. The album dropped, and we continued to tour through the end of 2012, but around that time I was getting fed up with the set and having to integrate one song at a time every three or four months, including them as we'd write them. Plus, On The Water is much more of a “listen at home” album; with In The Evening Air, there's still four or five songs that we still really jam and people love live, but with Water, there’s only two or three that are really big live. I wanted to radically change the set and drop a ton of new stuff, but you can’t really do that without taking the time off the road. We were getting tired at that time, so we decided to just take a whole year off – which we hadn't done in five and a half years.
We took two and a half months for ourselves, and then said: "Hey, let’s go somewhere and write!" So we went down to North Carolina in February 2013, and started doing some sessions to write and demo some stuff we already had. We recorded ideas as they popped up and jammed for about ten days, and that was the beginning. It was also different, because On The Water was pushed out of us, [we were] really pushed by the label to write and record it, so it was done in a nine-month period. Which is crazy! We kinda felt like it didn't get out to as many people as the album before it did, which is why we took our time with this one.
As you were writing and demoing, did it come together quite quickly?
Not really. The point of this record was to write as many songs as we could, and then go into the studio and pick the best of the best. We ended up demoing about 24 or 25 songs, then went into the studio and decided to do 13 of those, and by the end of it we decided it would be a ten-track record. The writing process started in February – there were two or three songs that we had from the year before that we’d demoed – we stopped writing in the last week of July, and went into the studio in the first week of August. So there was a good five and a half, six months of writing, and getting together two or three times a week over that period to just jam and see what came up. Nine of the songs were written in 2013, one was actually from 2011 – ‘Light House’ – which is the only one that’s been toured extensively. It’s the first time that we've written an album where we didn't tour the songs, which is scary. We're so used to being like: "These five songs are awesome, they've already been out to 90 shows, people love them, now lets put them to tape, we know exactly what they need to be." We did end up booking a few shows – about 13 I think – with the new songs, just to see how people felt about them in a live setting, and they were awesome; people really responded to them all, so we felt really confident. But this was the first time there was no pressure to write in the studio.
You've got a live drummer now. What prompted the change, and how do you feel it's going?
It's awesome! It just adds an extra oomph to the songs, you know? Our shows are all about creating a really energetic vibe, a physical thing, and we want more people to move – that’s the big thing. We either want them to move, or be moved by the music. It was never weird to us that we didn't have a drummer, but to some people it was – they'd be like: "Where the hell are the drums coming from?" We were never really a typical sounding band. Most electronic bands that don't have drummers and do similar things to us fall into a certain sound, or have a certain vibe about them, and we feel that we've always held onto to a certain punk or soul vibe, at least in the heart of our music – there's a heart to it that sets us apart from other drum machine bands. So I’ve never really thought about it, but having the drummer just gives me even more energy on stage, which is nice, plus we just wanted a change.
The previous albums were pretty much break-up albums and, at times, the lyrics were brutally honest and real. But this album seems a lot more confident, and a lot more wistful – even happier. Have you made peace with the past?
I think a big part of it is making peace with my future. I haven't really talked about this much with the press – I've talked to my friends about it – but the thing is, when I was 15, I thought I would die by the time I was 18. And then I turned 18, and I thought: “There's no way I'll make it to 20.” Just because I couldn't see my future, you know? Then when I turned 20, I said: “Well, there's no way I'll make it to 21." And I made it to 21. So then I thought: “Ah, it'll be 25.” And at this point I was making changes, at 23, 24, to try and get rid of some of the destructive elements in my life, to clean it up and try to figure out how to be an adult in some ways. I made it to 25, and then thought: "Well, I guess I'm a rock star, gonna die at 27!" And to the last day of my 27th year, I thought – and this sounds so arrogant and pretentious of me, to think this much of myself – but in the last minute of my 27th year, I was driving down the Pacific Coast highway in California, looking up at the cliffs, expecting some kind of Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote shit to happen, like a rock falling off, and then it turned.
And honestly, I was kinda bummed out, and that’s sad. But it was at that point things changed. My 28th year was a heavy one; coming to terms with my age, getting older, accepting the fact that for the last ten years I was scared I was going to die and living in a way that I was certain of this, in a way that held me back from having happiness in my life. So at 28, I came to terms with the fact that I have a long life ahead of me, there’s a lot of things to do, and there’s a lot of things that will happen that will make me sad, and happy, but I'll be able to be with my parents, my family, my brother, the people I love, and life will continue. And when I turned 29 it felt so good – and honestly, I had gone through a break up at the end of 2012 that was pretty devastating – but by the beginning of the next year, I felt better than I had in years. There was no more of this dark cloud over me, and it felt good.
In a way, it also released me as an artist, because I said: "Hey, I can make so much now that I know I have another 30 or 40 years hopefully, that’s so much time for me to do what I want to do", which is what I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s make a mark with my words, my performance, and just to do something in this life. So there’s been acceptance. It's funny, because people say they come to terms with their mortality, but I’ve come to terms with my immortality, and that life goes on. So yeah, I feel like there’s a more open air in the new stuff partly because of that, but also because the way it was written; there was no pressure on us to go back out on the road, we were just like: "We don’t have anything to do, so lets write some songs." We felt much freer to explore different sounds, different voices for myself, different styles of playing bass and keys for the guys, and I think we knew – I mean, we're a pretty confident group of guys – that if we had the time, we could write a great album.
A lot of artists, especially people in bands, use unhappiness and pain almost as a muse. Is it easier writing from a happier, more content place, or more of a challenge?
Well, I wouldn't say I'm writing from a happier, more content place exactly; I don’t really feel that way. I just think I’ve accepted that you aren’t in control, and you have to accept the fact that you can’t always have what you love; sometimes you lose it. And the only thing that can make you even remotely happy in this life, above anything, is caring about yourself. Now, that’s not to be selfish, but I mean in the sense that if you don’t love and respect yourself, no one else can change that but you. So I guess I don't feel happier, I just don't feel so sad. There's a big difference in that, where so much of how I would feel day to day was based on how somebody else in my life who I wanted [to be there] wasn't there, or I felt misunderstood, or I was losing something or someone. But it is much easier to write from a point of view of pain, yes, that’s true, and it’s because those emotions are so much stronger than happiness. To me, happiness is fleeting, and comes on and off, but true sadness and depression can sit with you for a long time in a deep way. And that’s ok. You know, I've fought with my good friend Dan Deacon about this many times. He thinks happiness is the stronger emotion, I think that sadness is, and we go back and forth.
More than a few artists have told me that it’s much harder to write a happy song that a sad song.
Oh definitely, because happiness is trite. My Dad was bugged out by it for a long time. All of our parents are real supportive of our music – we're lucky for that reason – but my Dad would always ask me when I was going to write a happy song. I talked to my Mom about this and said: "I wish Dad would stop bugging me about this, he's weirding me out.” And she’d be like: "He just wants to know you're OK. When you write a sad song he’s worried that you’re sad in your life." And I understand that, but I basically told my Dad that I don't want to write a happy song because it’s boring; who wants to hear a guy singing about how great his girlfriend is? It sounds like you’re bragging, or rubbing it in someone's face, and it just doesn’t interest me.
Do you hope that this album, and signing to 4AD, is gonna be a chance for a big breakthrough in terms of reaching a lot more people, and being a lot more successful?
That’s the hope! All we've ever wanted to do is get our music out to people, that’s why we tour so hard. Long before the labels – Thrill Jockey, 4AD, any of that – we were touring to get our music to people because you can't get on the radio, you can't get into magazines, you're not anywhere, but you can create your own movement by just being in cities, playing the songs, and seeing those five or six people who come to that first show. And then next time, they come back with their friends, and then you've got ten. Then 20. Then 40. We've been able to see that, and if you'd have asked me four of five years ago, I would have told you that it sucked being an unrecognised band considering how hard we worked, but at this point I'm really happy – and I have been for years – that we were able to be unrecognised and fight for the shows, fight for the songs, and struggle. It made us stronger musicians, and better, more humble people.
Sometimes, when you are given everything, you take it for granted how lucky you are to be doing this, and I feel so lucky that I can make music for living, doing what I love, and making other people happy. And with my two best friends – it's crazy! We do our best to stay humble to that, and I'm not really concerned that that’s gonna change with success. And honestly, to me it doesn’t register the same because all these big things coming, or the hope of big things, is just another "thing"; at the end of the day, we still have to play our shows to our full potential, and we have to continue to write – another album, another album – because that’s what we want to do. We want to be one of those bands that sticks around for 30 years, and becomes part of many generations, and a part of music history. This might sound like a bunch of bullshit, or pretentious, but it’s all inner confidence. That’s why we've been doing this for 11 years already, because we want these things, but this is not the end; it’s just the next step in the hope for all these amazing things we feel we've worked hard enough to gain at this point. We want our music to really, really reach out to people with this record.
One way you do that is giving your all when you play live – you really live the music.
That's very true. My background is being really interested in the art world as a developing teenager – back when I gave up sports and started smoking cigarettes and pot. I realised I was really good with a pencil when I was about 13 or 14, and continued with that. Then, when I was 17, I found out about performance art. I'd always loved singing and the stage, but never done anything with theatre in high school, or being in bands – I was a MC, because hip-hop was my thing, and I started writing verse when I was 13. So when I discovered performance art, I realised: "Oh, I don't have to sit at a drawing table for 20 hours at a time to create – I can perform on any street corner, something from my own heart and mind, and get an immediate response from people.” I started doing weird performances in parks and on sidewalks, and that went on to college, and then we started a band. The theatricality was inherent in our first band [Art Lord & the Self-Portraits] and just continued from there.
I've always liked the physical nature of performance, because it's something that grabs people. I think of myself as a writer first and foremost...or maybe I think of myself as a performer first – I don’t want to get too dull in my writing, and if I think I’m good, I’ll get dull. But doing a show in a loud, crowded bar, people can’t always hear what you’re saying – especially if they are seeing you for the first time – so I always felt I had to express what I was saying. The theatricality has been a big part of that since forever, just pushing the performance as hard as I can. But you should give as much as you can – with your voice, with your body – because I want to see a performer sweat. Or at least I want to see a performer be honest, and the most honest way to perform for me is to express the emotions I was feeling when I was writing the songs.
What’s the story behind the road trip you did with Beth Jeans Houghton?
That’s actually probably one of my favourite things I’ve ever done, cause it’s so different to anything else. Beth is an amazing talent, and our voices work so interestingly together. At the end of November 2012, right at the end of a long tour, I was going through this thing where I was losing my mind on the road; like I said, we'd been on the road five and a half years, and I’d already lost a girlfriend years before to touring. So I’d started seeing this other girl in 2010, and we had this rocky, two-year relationship; very passionate, very painful, beautiful and sad…the whole spectrum, and by September 2012 I was telling her: "Just stick with me, end of November, I'll finally be back!" And a week before I got home, we split up. I was so frustrated; finally, at the point where there's no tours on the horizon, that happens. I didn’t want to be at home and around that person, and Beth wrote from LA saying she was a huge fan of our music, that she was recording there, and was curious if I wanted to do some backing vocals. I flew out and suggested collaborating and writing some music as well – because I want to make as much music as I can. For a week and a half, we worked on her record, and then we drove up and down the Pacific Coast, out to the desert, and hung around LA for a couple of weeks. We wrote a couple of songs, but that one, 'Pelican Canyon', was the gem of those sessions. And then about a month and a half later, she came to Baltimore, and we drove around out here because she'd never seen the east coast. We continued to try and write, but we didn’t get as much done as were just trying to enjoy our time.
With Dan Deacon, Wye Oak, and Beach House among others, the Baltimore scene just keeps on producing all this great stuff. What is it about the place that seems to be so fertile for music?
I think that part of it is that great people gravitate towards the place, but also the people who come out of Baltimore are also very warm, amazing people themselves. Jenn [Wasner] and Andy [Stack] are from the Baltimore area, and us and Dan are imports to the city. Dan's actually the reason we moved there; he went and was like: "Hey, we can live in a warehouse space for 100 bucks each a month! We can make art and music, and not work but still pay our rent!" That’s a big part of it – Baltimore has a depressed past, and it's still really cheap. It's not as cheap as it was when we moved there, but it’s still very cheap when compared to NYC or Chicago or DC or Philadelphia. But it's also very central to those places, so you can live in Baltimore and just make art – you don’t have to work 40 hours a week. You can work 10 and get by and play shows, and that’s the biggest thing; if you’re an artist, you need to make art, but if you have to pay two grand a month to live, there’s no time to do that; there'd be no time for music. It’s kind of a trade off, but living in a rough city makes for great art too, you know? You’re surrounded by struggle, and you feel it, and you put that to good use. That struggle is definitely in In The Evening Air; when we first moved to the city and started writing songs, they were about missing home and the heaviness of a new place.
Do you think you'll do another duet with Jenn? The ‘The Great Fire’ is probably my favourite duet of all time, and one of the most heartfelt songs I’ve ever heard.
Yes! That’s definitely going to happen. Man, she's great, isn’t she? She has one of the most amazing voices. Have you heard the new Wye Oak single? It's so good! But we'll definitely work together again, sometime. We've been talking for years about getting a super group together with them, a five piece – wouldn't it be amazing? Andy on drums, Jenn on guitar, two vocals, Gerrit on keys and Will on bass – just killing it! Endless possibilities.
Singles is out March 25th 2014 via 4AD.
The band play the following European live dates this May:
7th - LONDON, GB, Electric Ballroom
8th - MANCHESTER, GB, Sound Control
10th - BRIGHTON, GB, The Great Escape
14th - MÜNSTER, DE, Gleiss 22
17th - HANOVER, DE, Cafe Glocksee
18th - DRESDEN, DE, Beatpol
19th - LEIPZIG, DE, Conne Island
20th - NÜRNBERG, DE, K4
21st - ST. GALLEN, SUI, Palace
22nd - LUZERN, SUI, Südpol
23rd - OFFENBACH, DE, Hafen 2
25th - KÖLN, DE, Gebäude 9
26th - MÜNCHEN, DE, Feierwerk
28th - WIEN, AUT, Flex