Future Islands is a band that has navigated its career the old fashioned way—working from the bottom up and peddling not only a fantastic songbook, but a live show of the same caliber. Armed with a semi-‘that’s show business’ attitude, the Baltimore-based trio caught some serious air under its wings last year after signing to eclectic Chicago label Thrill Jockey and releasing the magnificent full-length In Evening Air.
CMJ had the chance to ask its magnetic frontman Samuel T. Herring a few questions about the band’s powerful live shows and its relationship to Future Island’s music and songwriting. Side-stepping the very genre tags that sometimes fence them in, as Sam puts it, Future Islands is “dance music you can cry to”—a tension that clearly takes seed long before the final pressing and resonates over and over again throughout every recording.
Your live shows are incredibly theatrical—it’s definitely something that sets you apart from other acts. How do you factor the performative aspect into songwriting process?
The performance doesn’t come into play in the songwriting, but the songwriting, of course, is a huge part of the performance. In most cases, as things change and sometimes stay the same, the music dictates my movement and the power of my movement. The words dictate the gesture and the intensity of that gesture. The most important thing for me is to be able to tell a story without words, because people aren’t going to be able to hear what I’m saying word-for-word. So, it’s very important to show them what I’m saying and what I’m feeling. All in all, the performance is about getting into that story and that feeling I felt when I lived the words and when I wrote them.
You’ve said your original band (Art Lord And The Self Portraits) started out as a performance piece and turned into a more serious band. What aspects of your old sound and show have carried over into Future Islands?
Definitely the performance aspect remained. Doing something in costume allowed us to tap into the theater aspect, while being strong behind the mask of it. Future Islands was about taking the theater away, so that it was just real life theater. That may sound strange, since most bands perform plain-clothed, nothing fancy. But that’s a really important part of how and why I do a lot of what I do onstage. The Art Lord character taught me a lot about the power of the stage, and it was a heavy transition to try and get that back when I couldn’t hide behind a persona. Musically, there are a lot of similarities in the style and approach – keyboards, drum machines, bass guitar, dance music you can cry to.
I’ve heard that Future Islands plays acoustic sets. What does that consist of, and is it particularly challenging vis-à-vis your usual instrumentation?
We’ve only been able to do a couple performances, but it was really nice. It definitely opened up a new life for the songs that we hadn’t hit on before. A bit more tenderness, a bit more wounded nature, where there may have been fury. The two performances were acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, cello, piano and drums. Learning the songs wasn’t too difficult, as our songs are not too difficult. We were working with talented musicians so they picked it up really fast.
You really seem to play around a lot during the recording process, especially with field recordings and production touches. How does experimentation play into the final product for you?
With the field recordings we’re just trying to create an environment for the songs. We want them to live somewhere outside of a piece of wax or plastic. The sound of my backyard in Baltimore, or outside of William’s childhood home in Wendell, NC, are important in creating an atmosphere that feels like home. Not just for us, but for the listener. It’s all very subliminal, and I think that’s good. It’s kinda like, you can walk outside on an almost silent night, but there’s still something buzzing somewhere, a chirp, slow wind going by. That’s real life. We just want to capture some of that to make the experience more real.