Siobhán Kane speaks with William & Samuel of Future Islands about Thrill Jockey, The Cocteau Twins & the joys of “balls out, sweat-slinging, fist pumping furies”
From earlier work such as ‘Little Advances’ (2006) and ‘Wave Like Home’ (2007) to this year’s magical ‘In Evening Air’, the North Carolina band (that had a previous incarnation as the very mischievous Art Lord & The Self Portraits) have been producing a mesmerising sound, and in a way, the very name of the band is an insight into the kind of atmosphere they create; as they are an interesting mixture of making you feel like you are in a warm, safe place you never knew existed, like love. And then there are the lyrics – honest, searching, and the way Samuel reveals each word, mournfully, as if recounting a dream he once had about lost love and regret.
Sometimes he is caught between a whisper and a wail, as so many of us are, from ‘An Apology’: ‘And I wasn’t there in the last,/ But I was surely there from the first./ Here, in my chest where you burst,/I keep the crush/And the weight of the world.’ Future Islands try to make sense of damage and disappointment, and sometimes when William Cashion’s insistent bass kicks in, you feel that by making sense of those terrible things, there is still a chance, however small, for something more, and that is worth everything.
They share much in common with bands like Devo, Joy Division, and early New Order, but it is The Cocteau Twins that seem to bear the most witness on their work , though mainly in terms of the way the band create swirling atmospheres rather than lyrically, and, like The Cocteau Twins, Future Islands are so emotionally gripping, you suddenly find that they have their hands around your heart, holding you to ransom, awake in their dream.
Siobhán Kane talks to William Cashion and Samuel Herring.
Thrill Jockey seems like a perfect fit for you, as they have such an eclectic mix of artists, from David Byrne through to Bobby Conn, how did that come about? It is so important to have a label that actually believes in what you do, and Thrill Jockey seem like that good fit. William: Our friend Bruce Willen, from Double Dagger thought we would be a good fit with Thrill Jockey, and he is responsible for giving our four-song demo to the label. The demo had early mixes of ‘Tin Man’, ‘Walking Through That Door’, ‘Long Flight’ and ‘As I Fall’. Shortly afterwards, we were approached by the label and the rest is history! I definitely agree that it’s important to find the right label, and we feel like Thrill Jockey has been really good for us.
Samuel: Yeah, Thrill Jockey was a label that I had followed since I was 15. When we started talking to them about working together it was really exciting. We’ve always had a difficult time finding people to work with us, or that we felt were really behind us. We lucked out with our first release on Upset the Rhythm! and now working with Thrill Jockey, we feel like we’re building the support that we’ve been looking for, for so long. It’s good to have people behind you who believe in what you do and help you push it forward.
Would you say that Future Islands as it stands now in some ways is reaching back to your first project Art Lord & The Self Portraits in that when you first were starting out you wrote without a drummer, and have now gone back to that? William: Definitely. While there was a lot of growth from ‘Wave Like Home’ to ‘In Evening Air’, it was also about getting back to basics, what we were used to. Early on, we felt more comfortable writing with a drum machine, so we used what we had learned while having a drummer and built on it as a three piece. The beats are more layered than the ones we used in Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, but the spirit of that band can definitely be felt in the material we’ve written as a three-piece.
Samuel: It’s definitely given me a chance to get back to some of that early poetry that Art Lord was hitting on, and open up a lot of air for Gerrit [Welmers] and William to breathe. It’s come full circle, but with a much more mature edge.
Art Lord & The Self Portraits were really interesting, with a strain of German influence, do you think will ever do something under that moniker again? William: The idea of doing a reunion show has come up here and there, but the chances of us doing a show are very slim. The German influence came from Kraftwerk. Art Lord & the Self-Portraits was a great starting point for us; it’s where we really figured out how to write songs within our formula, but basically no, we will probably not do anything else under that moniker in the future.
Samuel: Before Art Lord disbanded, we were already doing interviews talking about our 20 year reunion tour, so who knows, maybe 2025 will see the return of Locke Ernst-Frost and his Self-Portraits.
How then did you evolve into Future Islands? What was the point where you thought you wanted to try a somewhat different sound or ethos? William: Art Lord’s rhythm keyboardist quit the band, which immediately broke up Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. Also, leading up to that, Gerrit and I wanted to get away from the gimmick of Art Lord. To an extent, we felt like people thought of us as a novelty, a party band, and we were, but we wanted to be taken more seriously. Our friend Erick, who is this sick bassist in the band The Kickass, had an electronic drum-kit and he basically convinced me, Sam, and Gerrit to start jamming again. He brought a new urgency and energy to the way we wrote songs. Everything was faster and louder. Unfortunately a year later, after a Halloween party, Erick quit the band. We had only done a few short, regional tours as a four-piece. We added another drummer, Sam Ortiz from Thrust Lab, when we moved to Baltimore, but he quit when he saw our intense tour schedule that was coming up, pretty much four months, nonstop.
In the past ten years Baltimore has been home to such interesting artists such as Dan Deacon who has been such a benevolent influence to so many, and who believed in you from the beginning. How would you describe his influence and his ethos, I think of him in terms of intelligence, fun and inclusivity. William: We met Dan on his first tour. It was just after he graduated from college, and it was just a short six-day tour down the east coast. He told us that every show on that tour sucked, except for the one he played with us. A month later, he emailed me about setting up another show in Greenville, so we played with him again. Then the following month he’d come right back down. He was constantly on the road, and made it a point to come to Greenville, because shows there were always rowdy and fun. Each time he would come back, he’d be on tour with a different band from Baltimore, bands like Height, Videohippos, OCDJ, Santa Dads, Ecstatic Sunshine, Blood Baby, and Ponytail. In this way, we got to know a large portion of the Baltimore music scene while we still lived in North Carolina. Dan’s touring style has always been a big influence on us, which was basically just touring all the time… staying on the road. He took Art Lord & the Self-Portraits on a two-and-a-half week tour in July of 2005, just before that the band broke up. We were already talking about changing the band name on that tour, and he would get really pissed off and tell us that we weren’t allowed to change our name. He also encouraged us to move to Baltimore, for years, before we actually moved up there. Since we’ve moved up, Gerrit and I got to be in his ensemble for its debut tour of the US & UK/Europe, and Future Islands got the chance to open for Dan along the way, which really broadened our audience. So yeah, Dan has been hugely influential to us over the years… and hopefully we’ve inspired him in some ways.
You spent more time on your second record than your first, recording it inbetween touring and Chester’s [Gwadza] limited availability, did you really appreciate having that extra time for your ideas to breathe, and that it gave you a kind of clarity you had not experienced before? William: We didn’t plan it that way, we started recording in July and had hoped to finish the record in a week or two. Because we had recorded ‘Wave Like Home’ in four days, we thought we could just pop out another record. That soon proved impossible and it caused a lot of tension in the studio. We were driving ourselves insane to meet this self-imposed deadline, and we didn’t even know who was gonna put the record out. So we decided to take a break, and come back to the studio when we were ready to finish the record. In retrospect, taking that break and taking our time on the record let us really nit-pick all of the details, all of the subtleties of the record. For example, at the end of ‘Swept Inside’, mixed very low, is an instrumental song that Sam wrote called ‘A Song For You While I’m Away’. It allowed us to really give the record an atmosphere all its own.
Samuel: The time was nice, but also worrisome. We aren’t a studio band; we like to learn our songs in front of people and not be removed from them, in our own headspace. In the end, we learned a lot, though, about the importance of taking a break and letting things come to you. We were able to make a really strong album, by taking our time, and the recording process became less daunting. Plus, Chester is a genius, we feel very comfortable working with him, and he’s extremely patient with us.
I cannot help but think of The Cocteau Twins in relation to you, especially on this record, maybe it is that sense of atmosphere. William: Although we’ve never properly sat down and said ‘we want to sound like the Cocteau Twins’ they are one of my all-time favourite bands, and I thank you for the compliment!
The Cocteau Twins music perceives the preciousness in the everyday, while also giving weight to things that are often the gravest of human concerns, such as love. You also do this, and your lyrics are revealing and soulful, in opposition to a lot of pop music which often trades in reducing feelings, though some pop is of course, wonderful and full of feeling. What are your thoughts? Samuel: For me, that’s a challenge that I enjoy, trying to turn a pop song into something that has great depth. I always try to write in a simple, universal language, hoping to keep it out of the realm of pretentiousness, because I understand that when you write a really heartfelt song, sometimes it can come off as arrogant or narcissistic. That’s just the state of music now, though. I think it’s hard to write a sincere statement and not be accused of being “ironic”. It’s hard for some people to accept sincerity. I’ve been called “ironic” many times, but it happens less and less, and honestly it’s been awhile since I’ve heard it. I guess people are finally seeing that this is truth and not just a show.
Your live performances are always so interesting; do you put a lot of thought into your performance? Samuel: To be honest, we don’t really spend anytime offstage working on the live performance. We’re on the road constantly, so there’s not much need to practice before a tour. And with my personal theatrics, they’re just kind of born and worked out onstage. I find ways to tell a story with my hands or advance the movement of a song through the force of my body, pushing and pulling, my arms my legs. It is a bit of theatrics, and gives me something to do onstage. Haha.
How have your live performances been so far? Is it strange without Erick? What have been your best and worst live experiences so far? William: We recently played Paris for the first time and that was really amazing. France really does a knock-out job with their light-shows. Worst live show ever was probably in Cincinnati that was when Erick was still in the band, we played two and a half songs before calling it quits. Erick actually got Sam’s mic and told the audience that “Future Islands is done!” just before the show ended. Coincidentally, we sold the most merch at that show than any other one on the tour!
Samuel: With this tour, the shows have been really good. I think, for first-timers or people who have no idea what they’re about to see, I can come off as a bit of a maniac. I don’t know if that’s the truth, but I see it in people’s faces sometimes. On occasion, they leave, but most often, halfway through the set they’re just mesmerized. At least that’s what I hope. Every crowd is different. You learn something new everyday, and you can learn to judge a crowd and see how hard you can push them, or how hard you should push yourself. Playing with Erick, or a live drummer, taught me a lot about power. I think with Art Lord I had a bit of that, but I worked more on the storytelling side. Once we had a drummer, it became this propulsive force behind me that pushed me to my physical limits; balls out, sweat-slinging, fist pumping furies. When he left, and we went back to electronic drums, I felt a little lost without that cannonball behind me. And I had to learn to channel that fury, even though it wasn’t there. It’s made me a stronger performer.
Your lyrics seem very much based in real experiences, is it a cathartic process for you? It seems so raw, breaking your heart repeatedly on stage every night. Sometimes when you are in pain, it is the most alive you can be, though that isn’t much comfort, though Samuel Beckett wrote in a much more poetic way about that troubled relationship between despair and hope, for example from Watt: ‘consider: the darkening ease, the brightening trouble; the pleasure pleasure because it was, the pain pain because it shall be’. Like him, you seem to have a love for suffering humanity, and the transformative potential of pain. Samuel: It’s a cathartic experience to write, and perform. I don’t know if it keeps me sane, it’s hard sometimes, but I like to share that with our audience, those intense, real emotions, bare. But the songs are about working through that pain. With ‘In Evening Air’ the first group of songs held a lot of anger and frustration for my ex. As time passed and we continued to write, the songs became more about the complete understanding that neither of us was wrong, things just happen, people change. So there is hope, in that we can learn from these things and not just dwell in them, that we can free ourselves by telling the story, by sharing it.
I agree with you about the pain. I’ve always said that sadness and depression are the strongest emotions. I actually got in a disagreement with Dan about it once. He said that happiness was the strongest emotion. I disagreed, saying that happiness is fleeting, and when it leaves it just becomes sadness for that lost feeling of happiness…I’m such a bummer. Me and Samuel Beckett have the same birthday, too. A couple bummers. Ha.
Future Islands play The Workman’s Club on Wednesday October 20th with special guests Patrick Kelleher & His Cold Dead Hands. Tickets are €15 from www.tickets.ie & City Discs.