an interview w/ Future Islands (who played Webster Hall last night, streaming DC show tonight) — on going viral, making pop music, how they got started & more
Future Islands in Austin (more by Sarah Frankie Linder)
2014 has been kind to North Carolina’s Future Islands, but be sure to recognize where credit is due for the band’s success. Few would argue that in the viral age that often gives musicians a shelf life of “until the next distraction”, that an otherwise unassuming band might buckle under the pressure. But this is nothing new for Future Islands, whose members have been writing together, touring together, and working together to simply make the music they want in the way that they want for the audience they need. Their fourth full-length, Singles, has seen the band appear on just about everyone’s radar, and while their hugely popular performance on Letterman certainly helped in every possible, it simply spotlighted what fans have known for the past decade about Future Islands and their proclivity for creating the simple but no less invaluable joy that comes from pop.
Tonight (5/1) you can stream the band’s performance from the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC live via NPR. Last night Future Islands headlined and sold out their biggest NYC show to date at Webster Hall. We recently caught them in Austin, at Coachella, in Portland, in Chicago, and at the start of the tour in NYC at Bowery Ballroom.
We caught up with the band —Gerrit Welmers, William Cashion, and frontman Samuel Herring—for an interview before their show last week at the Bottletree Café in Birmingham, Alabama, to talk about the shockwaves of going viral, the new album, and where the music started.
You guys are mid tour. What’s been the response from audiences so far with where you guys are currently?
SH: We’re in the middle of about ten weeks of straight touring. We’ve got six shows left on this run, and then we have a couple of days off back in Baltimore. Then we fly to the West Coast to do Jimmy Kimmel, and then immediately fly from there to London to start a month and a half Euro and UK tour. Things have been good. Most of all these shows have sold out. I think we would have had a lot of sellouts in the big cities we’ve been playing for in years, but being able to play a lot of smaller cities and see huge turnout has been really awesome. A lot of people are being turned on to our music for the first time and coming out, and that’s always been the hope with the new record. It’s been two and a half years since we put out our last album, and then we took all of last year off, so we were kind of hoping this record would explode out on people. We were able to work with 4AD for the first time, and they’ve been amazing, so yeah, everything’s been going really good.
Looking at that transition from the last album, On the Water, to this year’s Singles, was the thought process or approach different for you guys this time around?
SH: We jumped off the road in 2012 after pretty much touring for about five and a half years straight, and in that time we put out two records written and recorded in between tours as well as numerous standalone singles, seven inches, and EPs. The first thing was getting off the road and allowing ourselves the time to write instead of cramming it in between tours. Usually we went in with five or six songs, and for all three of our first albums, they were all done five or six songs going into the studio, and then fleshing out the album in the studio. This time we demoed about twenty-five tracks and picked the best ten, basically. We had a well to choose from and to go into and select songs from. We never really go into the album writing process with any idea. We just write songs and those songs collect, and you find a theme between certain things or a pallet of sounds. This time everything was very diverse just because we wrote so many songs, and that was very appealing to us. I think the only thought we really had going in was that we all just really had the ambition to write a pop album, which we’ve always considered ourselves a pop band one way or another in the sense of the kind of songs we wanna write people will wanna sing along to, or dance to, or songs that will kind of hit people in a universal way. Just keeping things simple and not complex as far as structurally, at least. We just wanted to write an album full of bangers, and I think in the end going into recording with all the songs we’d created and the songs we were choosing, we felt confident that we had done that at least in the time that we had with what we do as a band. We felt there were some new styles, but there was definitely a nod to the old styles. It kind of goes across the board of what we can do – writing slow ballads and straight up dance music but then mining new territories like soul music, which we’ve done in the past too. Like “Tomorrow”, the last single we’d written, was a straight up soul song, but even if you go back to our first album, “Little Dreamer” is a soul song, too.
You mentioned wanting to make a pop album, and that word often carries with it this negative connotation that’s honestly unfair. Just looking at you guys and the huge response to the David Letterman performance, how do you guys personally view that knee jerk cultural response to the “pop artist”?
WC: We don’t really worry ourselves with labels. We’ve been called so many different genres, and people have labeled us differently over the years. Even now there’s people conflicted about what we’re trying to do. As far as our ambition, though, I think we’re just always aiming for the biggest, most awesome thing with whatever we do. I don’t think any of us have really ever doubted that we could be this awesome band and just really do it. It’s kind of this unwavering confidence that I think the three of us share in what we’re doing. Hopefully we don’t let any label hold us back in any way.
When you guys look at that social media response to art and music, and really how completely new that is, do you see that new connectivity as something that’s more creatively conducive for bands who are no longer attached to big labels or kind of fated to obscurity right out of the gate simply because of where they’re from?
SH: I don’t think it’s more conducive at all. I think the thing is, that belief in the self is what propels people in whatever field they’re working in. It’s the years of struggle that sometimes pin down artists and end up hurting them or make them give up what they’re doing. We’re only thirty, but we’ve been doing this for eleven years, and I think in a way even though we’re kind of old dogs in this, we still have some youth on our side in this. Just in the fact that we haven’t quite gotten to those family stages that sometimes can break up bands. But I don’t think there’s anything easier about this. Well, I guess the fact that you can get ahold of anything through the internet is very helpful, and it allows bands to breakout who don’t get a chance, but it actually hurts some bands because they break out at like nineteen, and they’re all over everywhere, and they don’t have any idea how to do their laundry or cook an egg or something. [Laughs] You can say the same thing about athletes like guys who go to the NBA when they’re eighteen and are making millions of dollars. Some of those guys struggle because they haven’t figured out about life yet. We’re just a hardworking band. That Letterman performance was polarizing, which I think is a good thing, but we didn’t expect anything from it. We were just excited and honored to be a part of it, and it was something we shared with our friends and our fans and our families. I don’t know. I wouldn’t ever say that it’s any easy road. Part of that, though, is just because of the road we’ve taken which has been putting in tons of work and finally getting a little bit of a spotlight put on us now which is still strange to us. It was not our intention or belief. Our thought process in this was to just take the next step, working with 4AD, put out a great album, continue to tour, continue to make fans along the way, and then write the next album, and to get there. It is kind of strange. I think all three of us have snapped more pictures with fans in the last four weeks than we have in the last few years, which is a little insane. And it’s because of that viral culture. Everyone wants a picture. It’s not an autograph. The picture is the autograph now.
WC: I think the social media stuff is also changing the way that bands tour. I feel like there’s a total loss of regionalism that used to exist even in the 90s where bands would play really small towns, or they didn’t wanna do the full US tours, so they’d just do the regional bubble from where they are and play small towns. We have that old school touring mentality where we’re like “The only way to get our music to people is to get in the van and go!” And our manager is like “No, that’s not the only way anymore. The label’s helping, you’re on TV now,” but it’s still like “No, we gotta get in the van and go to the people,” and it’s this stubborn old school way of thinking.
SH: I’m hoping that that’s the thing turning people onto us – that sincerity – because that’s what we’re completely based on. Writing songs of passion and honesty and putting them on and performing them in that manner.
What brought you guys to music as individuals? Was there a specific moment in growing up where you knew this was what you had to do?
WC: I started playing guitar when I was thirteen and fourteen, and I was in a band like a year or two later with a buddy from high school. We eventually started writing songs together, and he’d just pick through random chords and be like: “There! It’s a song!” [Laughs] But we just started making up songs, and there was a record store outside of Raleigh called Record Exchange, and they used to have bands come in and play, and somehow they let us come in once a month, so we’d try to write new songs every month. We never played high school battle of the bands like the other bands did. We were always like “Fuck those bands! We’re gonna do our thing!” [Laughs] But then I went to college, and I was the kid in high school that when they asked: “What do you wanna do?” I was always like: “I wanna move to Boston and start a band,” because I loved a bunch of bands from Boston, but then I ended up moving to Baltimore. I went into college wanting to start a band, and I met Sam the first day of college. Sam wanted to start a hip-hop project, and I wanted to start some kind of keyboard band or something.
SH: When I was a kid, a big part of it was just riding down the road with my folks, and my parents would sing songs. Then riding around with my mom listening to oldies stations on the way home from school or from my parents office just singing songs from the Supremes, the Temptations, the Platters, and that kinda stuff. Even when I was a kid, like nine or ten, my biggest dream in the world, and it says a lot about me because even then I knew it was a dream that would never come true, was that I was born in the forties so I could be a singer in a boy band in the mid-fifties. It was the weirdest thought as a kid, but I loved that doo-wop and those five-part harmonies from that old soul music. Later on, my brother was in bands, and he gave me so much musically, and I remember him buying a Black Sabbath Paranoid tape when I was ten. We were at the mall, which was about forty-five minutes from home because we lived in rural North Carolina, and he listened to it, and then he let me listen to it, and it blew me away. “Fairies Wear Boots” was the weirdest song I’d ever heard. I was like “That’s so funny! Is that real?” There’s many moments like that, though. My brother introduced me to hip-hop, and he was in bands. I did idolize my brother, but even then I wanted to define myself away from that, so when he introduced me to hip-hop I was just like “That’s what I wanna do.” He was in bands, but I didn’t want to be in bands. I wanted to do this thing. Me and Gerrit were best friends through high school, but we never talked about making music. I just assumed Gerrit wouldn’t want to play music with me. [Laughs] But you were making four track demos even back then.
GW: Well, in college. I got a guitar between middle school and high school, because I wanted to play my Misfits songs and my Ozzy songs. So I got that and then played throughout high school, and then in college I met William who had this crazy CD with all this weird electronic stuff on it, and then he had a four-track, and I was just like “What is this crazy thing?” so that year I bought a four track and just started from there just wanting to make really weird music. I was really into John Frusciante, and his first two solo records, and he did those on four tracks so at the time I was just thinking “Hey, I really want do something like this.” But that morphed into playing keyboards.
What do you guys see as the most valuable component of the creative process for Future Islands?
SH: Really, for me it’s when these guys hit on something, because I feel it when they hit on something, and I tell them: “That’s it! Keep doing that!” And that’s just them jamming or something, because sometimes Gerrit comes in with songs he’s written or we just sit in a room and jam. When Gerrit has a song, me and William know what we think when we hear it. There’s tons of stuff that hasn’t made it to the finish line with songs Gerrit’s created, and then again with us jamming. When we write a song it only takes an hour and a half or two hours, because you know when you write a song. Sometimes we have this brilliant part, and we work for it, and we try to mold where it moves to. We have this part, what’s the next part, and then we work and work on it, but then we have to throw it out. Like I said, it’s not about the complex. It’s about that feeling, that spark you get when you hear something and you feel something, and it just feels right. It’s all about them giving me the feeling, and in a way a lot of times I feel like I’m translating their emotion. I think a lot of people look at this band and would say that I’m the very emotional one, and I play that part, but it’s all been emotionalized in that music before. I don’t say “I wanna sing a song about the shit I’m going through.” I just sing the song that goes with the music.
Tonight (5/1) you can stream the band’s performance from the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC live via NPR. Catch them on Kimmel on May 5. You’ll also find them at North Coast Music Festival in Chicago, at MusicFestNW, at Boston Calling and at NXNE in Toronto this summer.