Days of Future Islands Past
A candid conversation with the band that bares their soul for you every chance they get.
All photos by the author
When I first discovered Future Islands I was in a weird place in life. I was alone most of the time, and often found myself driving back and forth between Oakland and Arcata picking up large bundles of marijuana or hashish to sell via my newly-founded delivery service. This route on the 101 is a mildly circuitous path that cuts a clean line through vast and vibrant natural terrain where towering redwoods and hulking heaps of rocky earth echo the past, while the paved asphalt and automobiles are the only indication of a technology-enabled future shaped by humans. Perfect driving, night or day, for listening to Future Islands. Much like the drive, their music departs from clearly contemporary territory, and leads the listener on a motorik journey to arrive at a destination that is strangely disconnected from the contiguous present. With sensibilities more akin to the visceral pop ballads of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark than the pulsing rhythms of Deadmau5, Future Islands are creating music with computers that is empowered by the technology of the present but always prominently and proudly aligning with the past. Much of their material departs from beats created by keyboardist Gerrit Welmers (check his solo material as Moss of Aura for a good reference), and arrives at completion once it has been whittled and augmented in collaboration with bassist William Cashion, and vocalist Sam Herring. With concrete roots in punk rock—their previous incarnation was Art Lord and the Self Portraits (check “Lantern Sigh” from their final album Snail—Future Islands have found a way to use a traditional format to create music that makes sense to people who have grown up with computers and internet, carving an ecstatic path out of computer-assisted sounds to arrive someplace remote and familiar.
The arrival of 2014’s Singles—their first album with indie powerhouse 4AD—prompted the band’s arrival in popular culture at large. After an enrapturing performance on David Letterman that put Herring’s dance moves front and center in millions of American living rooms they went on to sold out shows, impressive album sales, enviable Billboard chart positions, top spots in the most discerning year-end best of lists, and a wave of what can only be called success in today’s terms. But the band is so much more than a dancing meme, or even a successful group of artists. They are a rare ensemble who, when presented with a larger stage, effortlessly expand to enrapture the bigger space. And 2014 proved that no stage was too big for Future Islands’ art. Their live show is tight, relaxed, and nuanced, punctuated by Herring’s soaring highs and disruptive gestures. Herring’s presence challenges the audience to keep up as heartfelt renditions of the songs seamlessly bleed into ecstatic celebrations of our carnal nature that verge on exhibitionism. To bear witness to Future Islands is to take a glimpse behind the curtain of our contemporary world and see the kernel of humanity manifesting in these new times as something fresh and enrapturing. As their popularity increases the potency of their work grows exponentially, and through their art we gaze deeper and deeper into what it means to be human in these new times.
I caught up with Future Islands before a show in Las Vegas last April. We found the quietest alley nearby and posted up for an informal conversation sitting on a curb.
Noisey: When would you say Future Islands started?
William Cashion: The band formed in 2006, before that all three of us were in a band called Art Lord and the Self Portraits that we formed while we were freshmen in college. That band lasted from 2003-2005. There was a few months after that band broke up where we didn’t collaborate. And then in January 2006 we came back together and formed Future Islands with a drummer.
Sam Herring: The funny story about why Future Islands formed though was because we had promised to do an Art Lord tour that we forgot about. So in January of 2006 a few months after Art Lord broke up William got a call from our friends The Texas Governor like, “How are those dates coming on that tour?” And we had totally forgotten that we had promised that tour. We pretty much put a band together in a week and a half, wrote six or seven songs with our new drummer—my buddy Eric—and William booked like 3 or 4 shows in North Carolina.
And that was the beginning of Future Islands?
Yeah, that was like the first Future Islands tour.
A lot of other bands are limited by the instruments, but you guys have managed to create something that really does transcend that. What drove you to choose the instruments and use them the way that you did?
We’ve always been a punk band from the beginning. In Art Lord we just used what we had, which was old Casio keyboards. We had a Yamaha B200. A DJX. William borrowed a bass guitar from our Buddy Enich the first year of college, and played that thing for like the first six years of us playing together. A borrowed bass guitar.
We’ve always had that attitude that were we’re a punk band even though we weren’t making punk music because we just did it with what we had at our disposal. I think it’s just exploring sounds, and I know especially for Garret building sounds, he builds a lot of his own sounds through software. But that’s something he learned a lot about over time.
Garret Welmers: As far as learning about software, so many people wanna go buy these synths that cost thousands and thousands of dollars. But there’s all this software where you can actually do all this stuff and it’s so much cheaper, and you don’t have to carry around all this stuff. So I started messing around with this software program called Reason and it’s really fun. You don’t have to know anything about anything; you can just get in there and start messing around.
It seems like there’s a lot of layering. The way it’s mixed, the way things are orchestrated, it has depth to it. It’s not just putting a sequence of notes out there, it’s saying, “How am I gonna engineer the space with the sound?”
I think a lot of that too is us working together. I’m a maximalist sort of, and William is a minimalist almost. So I’ll bring in stuff and it’s like, [Explosion sound] so over the top. And William is like, “Can we bring some of that out?” And I think at some point it balances everything out.
Sam: And I just fight against all of it...
William: [Laughs] I’ll sprinkle in these washes sometimes to add atmospheric guitar drone kind of things. I started doing that on On the Water, and it’s on a few songs.
Sam: Two of my favorite Future Islands tracks we ever did were “In Evening Air” from In Evening Air, and “Open” from On the Water. And “In Evening Air” is Garret’s solo track and “Open” is William’s solo track. Those are things that they wrote on their own that are just gorgeous little pieces of minute and a half music.
How does the creative process work for you guys? I have no idea beyond that what you guys are doing and how you’re getting there.
William: There’s two ways. A lot of times Garret will have a kind of idea that’s got changes and everything, and if he has that he’ll bring it to us. Like he was saying, we’ll usually take things away. Maybe, “Let’s take this part away, maybe change this one part,” and then we kinda dig and try to feel out how the bass should flow. And Sam will be there writing and figuring out. A lot of the arrangement is based on the lyrics. So once Sam has a better idea of what is happening lyrically we’ll be able to adjust the arrangement. Sometimes Garrett will have a chord progression and we’ll jam and make a chorus. And then the other way is jamming. A lot of the stuff we do is just jamming…
Sam: Garret was already using Reason for his own stuff and then when our drummer left right before tour. And we were like, “Well there’s not enough time to find another drummer do we even wanna try to find another drummer?” So Garret went to work and made beats as best he could in a couple days to go out on the road. So this is probably June of 2008. I think it was at that point that Garret’s doing that in the band gave him a little bit more space to continue creating.
William: Yeah originally the programmed drums were just trying to mimic or replace the live drummer which was really impossible cause our early stuff is really fast and punk. Our early stuff Garret was just playing one keyboard. One keyboard, one bass. When we decided it would just be the three of us…
If you had to each describe yourself as a musician, how would you describe what you do?
Sam: I don’t even consider myself a musician. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Right, so artist?
William: I think we bring people together. We’ve seen that when we go places like North Carolina, Baltimore, there’s people that we’ve known for years. Especially in North Carolina it’s kind of like a reunion of friends and family. I guess all music does that. It’s one of the things that music does. We’ve gotten a lot of people writing us lately saying that our music has really helped them…
Like helping them go through hard times?
Sam: And that’s interesting too. I remember when we first went on the road for this record we were doing the song “Spirit.” I was like, “Is this song too preachy in a way, lyrically? Maybe that’s OK?” Before I’ve definitely tried to tell the stories of my life to help other people deal with their life stories. To deal with things that maybe they don’t wanna talk about. You know put it on our backs and we’ll carry it, help you carry it through. That’s “Walking Through That Door,” we’ll help you through this.
I think people need that now.
Sam: I think they do. [Laughs] I think they need a digital medium to tell them what to do. I shouldn’t say that, but…
William: Yeah, also I feel like everything that we’ve done we’ve built from the ground up. And I’d like to think of that as inspiring to other artists and other creators. If you believe in what you’re doing and you work really hard you’ll find some level of success. Just believe in what you do. It gives you a kind of power. You can do anything if you set your mind to it. I know that sounds really cheesy and we’re all told that when we’re kids, but through hard work…
Sam: Yeah, you’re proud of it. It’s something that if you do it the right way, or you do it the honest way, then you have the support of people who care about what you do. If it doesn’t feel like you pulled the wool over anybody’s eyes, or took advantage of anyone or anyone’s intelligence, you just build it on your back and that feels good.
I think another big thing is just doing it and not caring what anyone has to say. That’s the hard part especially in this day and age where everyone’s a critic, and you can hear what people think about you. Even as we grow, as long as we’ve been doing well for ourselves or been struggling there have always been people who have loved what we’ve done, and people who don’t care for what you do. And that’s just the way it is. That's just the way life is. It’s going to continue to be that way, and that’s OK. I think fighting through that and being like, “We’re just good dudes from an honest background doing what we love and we don’t pander to fashion or trends of what people expect us to be and that’s what makes us us.” And that’s why we can be honest in what do because of that. It’s continuing. We all agree that we wanna make honest music, and music that’s built on certain passions of our hearts. Because I don’t know how else to do it.
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