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A Quietus Interview

Honest To Goodness: Future Islands Interviewed
Simon Jay Catling , March 10th, 2014 06:56

Simon Jay Catling celebrates the hard-working Baltimore synth pop trio whose moment is at hand after some nifty footwork on David Letterman

If the response to their recent live US television debut on David Letterman didn't make it clear; Future Islands are on the cusp of taking 'that leap' – the one which takes you from cult but impoverished touring band, traipsing round continents in a knackered touring van with a view through a hole in the floor to the exhaust, to arrive to a tub of hummus and a few cans of cheaply-priced beer; to an act that might impeach on the more casual listener's ear, that'll fill air-conditioned venues, feature on adverts and, maybe, sell a few records. After eight years together as Future Islands (and three more before that as part of Art Lord & The Self Portraits,) the Baltimore trio's potential ascension to the next level is totally deserved, and it also makes total sense.

Take Singles, their latest majestic synthpop odyssey. As the title suggests, every song on it stands on its own, but more than that, they convey messages that anyone can understand: themes of love and love lost, expressed via simple sentiments – "a dream of you and me", "I've grown tired of trying to change for you", "My sun every morning". There's a universality to their music that could be mundane were it not for the blinkered, raging honesty that lyricist and vocalist Samuel T Herring etches from every moment. Sometimes, as on 'Spirit' or 'Sun In The Morning', he'll find a phrase or line towards the end of the song and repeat, repeat, repeat, ramming the emphasis of it home until he's barely a breath left. As a performer and lyricist, Herring's a man for whom the idea of love still burns firmly into his conscience, the fascination of two people together notable in a time where finding a mate has been reduced to a few clicks through different picture profiles on the internet, each as easy to discard as the rest; where friendship is merely a series of texts. The physical way (just look at those moves, those facial expressions) in which he strives to get this across is a comfort.

That Future Islands' universal message has taken a while to bubble to the surface (four albums, several EPs) and is perhaps something to do with the fashion of their musical peers in 2014; shrouding words in secrecy or aching self-awareness, scared to say anything other than, "It's up to the listener's interpretation." You won't get many comparing a former girlfriend to the moon in complete sincerity at the moment, where's the LOLs in that? Why present yourself so nakedly and risk getting shot down? But Future Islands – allied with a soundtrack that takes in ostentatious synth balladry, saucily delivered bassline disco, howling histrionics and straight-up succulent pop – come completely unclothed, a re-affirmation of the euphoric catharsis one can have when simply letting yourself go.

Where did the genesis for the new album come about?

Samuel T Herring: At the end of 2012 we decided that we'd take 2013 off the road and write a new record. We'd been heavily touring for five and a half years straight, doing 120 to 160 dates a year. The break tied in well because in February 2013 we were celebrating the ten year anniversary for our first band, Art Lord & The Self Portraits. We put out a double LP retrospective of all those old MP3s of stuff we'd done as teenagers and then headed to North Carolina for ten days and stayed up at a hunting cabin there. We hadn't done anything creatively with each other for two and a half months, which gave us a fresh head for it.

How did the sessions balance out between Future Islands and the Art Lord material?

STH: We worked on Future Islands stuff in the day time and at night our old keyboard player from Art Lord would drive into town and we'd practice that stuff. But that was the beginning of Singles really… we re-visited 'Back In The Tall Grass', which had been a jam maybe a year before; and we wrote 'Song For Our Grandfathers', 'Like The Moon' and 'Lighthouse', as well as demoing many others that didn't make the cut…

Was it different to how you've previously gone about making an album before?

William Cashion: We've previously always just crammed writing in between tours, getting five or six songs together and then forcing ourselves to get the rest done in the studio … it worked, I think we wrote some great songs doing that.

With the deal with 4AD only coming retroactively after Singles had already been completed, did it feel like a gamble committing so much to this record, not knowing that a label was there at the end?

STH: It was only with our last album, On The Water, where we knew Thrill Jockey wanted to do it. With Singles though we knew it was time to see if we could take another step and go a little bit bigger. We played all our cards and went all in and thankfully it seems to have worked as far as label, production and sound goes. But yeah it was a gamble.

Was there any fear about what might happen if no-one had been there to put it out?

STH: No - and taking a year off the road meant all the pressure was taken away from it. Writing the album before talking it to any labels gave us complete control over it, with nothing over our heads. It's important to us to have complete control over our touring lifestyle, our recording lifestyle, our music writing process, so we just wanted to be able to continue that. We don't want to be indebted to anyone, so we were freeing ourselves from any constraints. I think that reflects in the music – Singles is kind of low stress, especially in comparison to what we've written in the past. There's more freedom in the spirit of the songs.

It's certainly a record with a confident feel to it.

STH: We wanted to make a strong album, but then we always do … [pauses] do you guys wanna answer something? I feel like I'm doing all the talking here.

[Will and Gerrit look impassively at him]

STH: Anyway, we're definitely of the school of thinking that an album should be a whole experience, because those are the sort of records we loved growing up. We're not of that iPod culture where you listen to one or two songs and that's what you know; we've always wanted to make these complete works. Before starting this album I think all of us just wanted to write and write and write. Over six or seven months we demoed 24 or 25 songs and then picked the cream of the crop. To me that's what really unifies the album; in the past we've tried to make things ebb and flow, with this one every song has its strengths, every song stands alone. It's our most diverse album, I feel it shows our versatility as musicians and writers.

Having written so many songs this time, was it tough to pull all these diverse strands together into something coherent? Were things sprawling out all over the place?

STH: Well usually we write in groups of two and three and slowly those groups come together, and it's like, 'Ok we have this mood here, let's keep expanding on it.' With this one we were writing in those groups of two and three but just picking the best of each, instead of forcing ourselves to raise up these other two babies because we had no alternative. Things kept popping up though; one of our favourite songs on the record is 'A Dream Of You And Me' and that was an idea Gerrit brought into the studio the week before we went into recording. But it was nice to hit the studio and know exactly what we were doing.

WC: But I can see us returning to being more instantaneous on the next record; it's not like we're done with that – it's just for this record we wanted to try a different process. Every record's been a learning curve and everything about this record is different [like the others]. The label, the way the art looks, the production - we were in a studio and had a drummer in the studio with us for the first time rather than doing it after as an overdub. We all felt we were right there punching in at the same time, having these meetings. It was very charged.

Why did you feel this was the time to 'step up?'

STH: Well you've got to! I'm excited to write the next record already to be honest, and that's how I always feel, because you're so inspired by the creative process and you're waiting for the record to come out because you want to share it with people. We always want to step up and we've worked really hard to get to this place that we're now at with 4AD, so I'm excited to see how this next year will grow; we've been together for nearly 11 years as writers and had a very organic growing process. It's been nice, but we're also ready to pop out and capture something; not by changing the style of the music we make, but just by stepping up to a sound that's maybe more open to people so that we can reach a wider base.

The album to me feels split into two and, although you've said you've looked at a bigger, perhaps more open sound, the second half of the album in particular certainly feels a lot more wandering, and – thinking of 'Fall From Grace' – harks back to some of the band's earlier abrasion.

STH: I think the second side of the record is going to hit people hard. That first side is very shiny and will get people moving, but the way the second moves between songs until 'Fall From Grace' nine songs in, and then when that song unleashes that scream … it's like those reaction videos they have on Youtube; I want to see people's faces on video when they hear that! When we were writing that song we were like 'keep pushing it!' We wanted those speakers to pop when William hits that distortion and Garritt's hitting the guitar! I feel that the record's second side has those older moments of ours; we don't feel like we've forsaken anything we've done. We've always been that polarising band that writes dance jams and torch ballads and slow anthems - since we were 18 years old. That's something that people have grown to love about us - and I've grown to love it about us too!

You spoke to Pitchfork recently and they angled a couple of questions at you about aspiration; how difficult is it to admit ambition in taking the band to the next level in a current music climate of small money and even smaller dreams?

STH: For me I think it's just natural. We've lived the underground life, but we want to be able to continue to do what we're doing. We could continue at the level we've been at and be fine, but you you always want to be able to grow and reach more people. Of course we write music that's true to us, but it's there for an audience, to make them happy, entertain them, to help them deal with their problems. So many of my favourite bands don't exist anymore and maybe some of that was because being DIY eventually eats them up, or they start families they can't support through music alone; but we want to continue to do this and make music and find success. One of the things that writer didn't print was that he asked us all, 'How is success going to change you? What is success for you?' and we were like, 'We already have that, we've lived off our music for four and a half years, paid our bills, we can eat, we have amazing fans.' It's about being humble, but we already have our success. Writing music with these guys is my life.

WC: There's nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about what you do. There are other bands that comes across to the UK with this jaded attitude maybe; any American bands like that, though, the fact that they're over here at all means they definitely have some ambition. Maybe their idea of what they should be doing is acting jaded. It's also cool to care though… we've always been a totally ambitious band; we've always been very eager to do cool stuff. I get excited when we get to play fun shows in the most random places. We all know how fortunate we are that we get to do this; we've worked really hard for a long time and we realise that not everybody gets the chance we've had.

There are a lot very basic, but very heartfelt messages in Singles. Often you'll come to a lyric towards the end of a song and then ram it home as a repeated refrain – how intentional was that?

STH: Well that's kind of the whole point. We're trying to make music that we can believe in, that's unpretentious and that can exist in a universal way, and that extends to lyric writing. It's about simplifying statements so that everyone can understand them, but still giving them a powerful meaning. Live, it's all about challenging people emotionally; for me showing vulnerability on stage is an attempt to open people up to their own emotions. I feel like in this day and age we hide from emotions because we feel it makes us weak, it's like we can't be strong if we're honest with ourselves. We've found that people come up and say, 'I've cried to your records,' or 'I've cried at your show, your music's helped me deal with my problems.' When people are sad they say, 'No one understands how sad I am' – but the fact is they do! So when we play a show I think the most powerful thing we can do is bring a group of people together in a room, who haven't felt like they've been able to deal with things, and then share something that is a catharsis. You can cry in front of people and smile it off right afterwards because that's life.

Do you feel there's a strange paradox to your music, whereby these lyrically broad strokes actually seem somewhat out-of-step at the current time? I've lost count of the amount of times in interviews recently where I've been told, 'Any meaning in our music is to be interpreted by the listener…', which to me is starting to come across as an excuse for 'We've nothing interesting to say.'

STH: We've always tried to be ourselves and in a funny way that's always gone against the grain. Being up front and forward with people in our music, being out on the floor at shows and talking to the fans – all that goes against the rock star stereotype. I think we're all happy to break it. We're just three guys from North Carolina, regular people. I still love the fact that our fans are the whole reason I'm able to eat and keep my lights on in my house. I guess there's some influence from hip hop there too, talking about personal struggles, saying something strong because you believe it and trying to get that into people's heads.

How tightly bound are the themes on Singles? It doesn't seem to be quite as relationship orientated as your work's been in the past.

STH: It's kind of universal. There's themes of childhood, of things before your childhood even existed and showing respect to your forefathers...

You're talking about 'Song For Grandfathers' there, right?

STH: Yeah; and there are love songs, songs about loss of love and regret; songs about pushing self, in 'Spirit' there's the knowledge of who you are as a person, holding that, seeing it and learning to respect it. Just because your own ideas are different doesn't mean they aren't important. There's allusions to the natural world and falling in love with that….

There are several opposites that appear frequently – the moon and sun, night and day, summer and winter; what were the intentions behind that?

STH: It's just the way it comes out in my writing. Like I was saying before, they're universal things. The movement of seasons, the moon as a figure that's so bright but so far away …

Something else you've maintained is a seemingly ongoing fascination with relationships in – specifically between two people – in your songs.

STH: I don't want to say anything I don't believe in. I don't want to get political - and the band don't either - because I don't understand politics, it's all bullshit. I don't understand religion, so I don't want to make strong statements about that either… The only thing I can honestly talk about and believe in is my own life, so I share personal stories because it's the only truth I know. I feel that even coming up through art school I'd already decided I wanted to be a performance artist and share my personal experience. As far as art goes that's all I have to share.

As for your inter-band relationships, how have they evolved over the years through all that time on the road?

Gerrit Welmers: It's growth. There are ups and downs of course, but usually we're fine.

WC: We've finally realised you don't have to be hungover every day on tour. It took me a long time to realise that; but we've a lot coming up and we're trying to take it one day at a time.

Does it still excite you?

WC: It's the most fun part. We started writing songs back in 2003 just because we wanted to do shows. I think the truest form of the band is when we're on the stage.

Singles is out now on 4AD. Future Islands will play Field Day on Sunday 8 June; head here for full details and tickets