Future Islands Future Islands…float our boat

Interview: Future Islands

Published on October 10th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams

Baltimore synthpop three-piece Future Islands have hit the bull’s-eye with On The Water, their third and most expansive album to date, and – thankfully, if only for their sake – a more temperate and ambient affair than last year’s excellent yet romantically scarred In Evening Air.

This time around, the sense of drama remains acute but the signature keyboard squiggles splash down upon a far less vitriolic-sounding set of vocal performances from front man Samuel T. Herring, whose unabashed, guttural delivery has been compared variously to Tom Waits and Meat Loaf.

Herring’s voice is likely to challenge the tastes of many a listener but, if you’re anything like Rocksucker, you’ll not only be totally sold after a few listens but you might also come to appreciate this stylistic hurdle as a strength, something that once overcome lays the path to a world of splendorous expression, a rapturous reimagining of childhood dreams – a similar transition, perhaps, to that of Herring’s emotions from In Evening Air to On The Water.

As the album’s title suggests, the ocean features prominently in its overall sound, be it literally through actual field recordings or suggested by those big ol’, reverb-soaked synth riffs, which somehow seem to ripple in the mix like a skimming stone and accentuate the pastel-like yellows and blues that make Future Islands sound like…well, some kind of futuristic island.

I’ll stop grasping for flowery superlatives and just come right out with it: On The Water is one of this year’s very best albums and will no doubt chart highly on Rocksucker’s end-of-year list.

As such, we were delighted to get the chance to fire off some questions to the band, which were returned with answers from both Samuel and bassist/guitarist William Cashion

Congratulations on a stunning new album. Did you have any kind of unifying concept in mind before you went to work on it, or was the thread something that became apparent later?

Samuel T. Herring: Thank you, thank you, thank you for asking that. I kind of put my foot in my mouth when we were working on the bio for this record and everyone keeps calling it a “concept album” but, as you said, that was something that came after the fact. On The Water wasn’t written as a concept album, just a group of songs that reflected our lives at the time we wrote them. Creating the flow of the album, I started to pick apart a meaning to allow for a story, but it’s kind of my own secret and not something to be found, necessarily. It’s more or less a group of vignettes, that “do not” tell a whole story. I have to stop talking so much. Oh well, you live and you learn.

Were the songs all written close together, or do some of their origins date back further?

Samuel T. Herring: Let’s see…”On The Water” was written around August 2010 and at the time was different than anything we’d written before. That was a little exciting and scary. “Before the Bridge” and “The Great Fire” were penned around early January 2011. “Grease” and “Close to None” were written around March 2011. “Balance”, “Give Us The Wind” and “Where I Found You” all came from the studio sessions for the album and were written during those ten days, late May to early June 2011.”Open” was a bass composition that William composed sometime early this year. “Tybee Island” is the only song that sticks out from the rest – I wrote the first verse for that some five or six years ago, and was something I was singing to myself a lot while we were making plans to record. It was more or less a blind contour that works beautifully in the mix of this album. That’s actually the only Future Islands song that I ever wrote the words for first, with the music coming secondary to that. I guess that shows.

You seem to be using a different voice to that heard on previous Future Islands records. Is this through a desire to convey something specific, or is it just down to the natural progression that is finding one’s singing voice?

Samuel T. Herring: It’s definitely a progression and natural change in my voice, just from trials on the road, but these songs don’t require the same intensity. Maybe require is the wrong word. They weren’t born from that voice. In Evening Air came from a dark place for me, there was a lot of anger inherent in the songs. On The Water comes from a place of greater understanding, a greater maturity in myself. The voice is just a reflection of that calmness rising in me through these songs.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the narrative journeys that are taking place over the course of the album?

Samuel T. Herring: Well each song is its own story. The overall journey is more about a search for something you can’t see or hold, that thing inside of oneself that makes one feel complete. The journey to the water to find an answer in that overwhelming body. Maybe to touch some kind of god. I could go on forever, and I don’t want to eat my words again. Maybe we can talk in person and I’ll tell you all the secrets off the record!

How did you record vocals on the beach for “Tybee Island”? Were there other people around at the time wondering what on earth you were doing?

Samuel T. Herring: We took a trip to the beach while we were recording. We had some friends staying about an hour and a half from the house where we were working. Basically, we just went out there to record these vocals, get some recording from the water, the tall grass on the dunes, the splashing of water on the piers, etc…and to have a good time, take a break from everything. So there was fun involved with the work. We were just out there, a group of about nine of us, and I took a walk. It was perfect that night. No one at all was around. We walked down with a few beers and just sat out there talking for awhile. Took some group shots.

“Future islands” works as a fairly effective summary of your sound! Could that be why you decided to name yourselves so?

Samuel T. Herring: No…haha. We’ll leave it at that.

Have you ever been on a tour as long as the one you’re about to embark on? Do you enjoy touring or can it get a bit fraught at times?

Samuel T. Herring: Oh yeah, this one isn’t too bad at all. I guess the longest single tour we’ve done was a little over seven weeks, and this one’s only five. We’ve also done stints, linking tours together, where we’ve been out for four or five months straight. It can be hard sometimes but, once you reach a certain point out on the road, it’s just routine. You feel like you can keep going. It’s the little tours and the bouncing back and forth, in and out of home, that are the toughest for me. When you get your bed for a night, it doesn’t help too much. It just seems to trick the brain into thinking it’s done, that it’s over, and then you throw it right back into the grinder.

Premature question perhaps, but do you have material in mind for the next album yet? If so, what kind of direction can you see it taking at this stage?

William: No idea.

Samuel T. Herring: I think we’re gonna kick it up again, but I don’t know. I think for us, the worst thing we can do to ourselves is have any preconceived notions of what we ‘want’ to create. We like to just let the music come as it chooses. We’ll just keep working and see what happens.

How was Hopscotch 2011? Did you enjoy The Flaming Lips? What was this panel with Wayne Coyne that Samuel was on? Who else did you see?

Samuel T. Herring: Hopscotch was awesome! The Flaming Lips were awesome! The panel was a discussion on the limitations of pop music, what ‘pop music’ is, and just generally circling around those things. Wayne Coyne is an hilarious dude. It was an honour to be on a panel with him. I also got to meet Dave Tompkins, who’s a music writer whose opinion I’ve always appreciated. I saw lots of stuff: J. Mascis, Rhys Chatham, our friends PC Worship, Lonnie Walker, Liturgy, The Body, Toro Y Moi, Yelawolf…all kinds of stuff.

In this interview, Samuel said you all still work jobs. What do you each do?

William: I sometimes host at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Baltimore.

Samuel T. Herring: We don’t actually. I must have misspoke or have been misread!

Are you still considering bringing in a drummer one day?

William: I think so, yes.

Samuel T. Herring: Always considering it. We’ll see what the future holds.

Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming artists that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?

Samuel T. Herring: I got really into this guy Mulatu Astatke recently. He’s considered the godfather of Ethio-jazz. Then there’s this guy Danny Brown, who’s a rapper from Detroit, that I can’t stop listening to. He’s coming up right now with the release of his newest album XXX and I think he’s the best thing for hip hop right now. He’s the truth and there hasn’t been a person like that coming out in hip hop in awhile, in my opinion. That’s really exciting for me. There’s this record I listen to a lot that William bought me for my last birthday: Edward Larry GordonCelestial Vibrations. That record is really gorgeous. I have a terrible record-buying habit…I have so much stuff to listen to.

William: Ed Schrader’s Music Beat.

Finally, if I asked you right now to name your top three albums of all time, just off the top of your head, which ones would you pick?

Samuel T. Herring: Rachel’s – Music for Egon Schiele, Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Morphine- The Night/Cure for Pain. Sorry, Morphine will be my split – I can’t do just three, it’s too hard.

William: Cocteau Twins – Head over Heels, Brian Eno – Discreet Music and the Animal House soundtrack.

Future Islands, thank you.

Future Islands - On the water

Future Islands’ third album On The Water will be released on October 11th on Thrill Jockey Records. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit future-islands.com

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.