Future Islands: ‘We were seen as jokers’
In a previous incarnation, Future Islands were taken less than seriously. It only took a name change, a more honest approach and 1,000 gigs to change all that
Heart and soul: Gerrit Welmers, Samuel T Herring and William Cashion of Future Islands. ‘Everyone wants us to keep growing. I was like, can we stop growing this year and leave something for next year?’ Photograph: Timothy Saccenti
Sometime in the next couple of months, Future Islands will play their 1,000th gig. That’s 1,000 gigs after years of touring up and down the US, and back and forth to Europe.
Although many will associate the Baltimore-based band with that breakout TV appearance on Late Show with David Letterman earlier this year, that gig statistic highlights that this is not some overnight success story.
All the same, the demeanour of the three band members, who are backstage at Dublin’s Vicar Street in November before a second sold-out show, tells of a hectic year. The release of their fourth album, Singles, led to a non-stop touring schedule.
“This year has been crazy,” says frontman Samuel T Herring. “Everyone’s really happy and blown away and excited by how things have went. Everyone wants us to keep growing. The other day, though, I was like, ‘Can we stop growing this year and leave something for next year?’ I’m done growing for 2014.”
There is a sense of quiet satisfaction from Herring, bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers about a job well done.
“We wouldn’t have been ready for this a couple of years ago,” says Cashion. “We’re old enough and mature enough now not to take this for granted. We can keep our heads down and keep working. If we were at this point in a tour a few years ago, we’d be losing our minds.”
The story of Future Islands begins with the formation of a band called Art Lord & the Self-Portraits
in North Carolina more than a decade ago. “It was all about this grand concept and poking fun at rock stars and art stars and celebrities and how they admire themselves so much,” remembers Herring of his time as Art Lord.
“Very quickly, we ran out of songs to go with the concept. We wanted to be more real and people still saw it as the concept. I got to hide behind that and the stage costumes we wore and the gimmicks. People saw us as a joke party band.”
“We got booked opening for El Vez,” says Welmers, remembering their date with the Mexican Elvis impersonator. “That was the realm people saw us in. It was a fun, art party kind of thing.”
“El Vez was awesome, though,” says Herring.
Their time in that band gave them the wherewithal to know they wanted to be in a band. Cashion recalls how playing shows with Dan Deacon around North Carolina introduced them to the Baltimore scene.
“Dan didn’t have a driving licence, so he always toured with another Baltimore band. He used to come down with OCDJ – who is now on the road doing our merchandise – Blood Baby, Santa Dads, Ecstatic Sunshine, Ponytail and Double Dagger. We got to be friends with all these bands through Dan and we used to do a string of shows across North Carolina with them.”
They decided to give Baltimore a shot. “We were scattered across North Carolina,” says Cashion. “I was living in Raleigh on friends’ couches, Gerrit was in Greenville and Sam was in Asheville, which was five hours away.”
In Baltimore, they could avail of cheaper rents and proximity to bigger centres such as New York and Washington DC.
“We fitted in more with the Baltimore scene,” says Cashion. “The music press in North Carolina never knew what to make of us. We were seen as jokers, the class clowns, the weirdos. But when we moved to Baltimore, our first review said we were the serious guys in the back taking notes in a class of clowns.”
Having changed their name, Future Islands gradually took shape in Baltimore. “We started writing songs which were a lot more serious,” says Welmers.
“We became honest,” Herring says. “It wasn’t until we were in Future Islands for a few years that I realised the power of being honest onstage. It was not only affecting me, but it was affecting the audience to say really hard [things] and share really emotional things. It was weird to feel this power when I began to hit on stuff all three of us are feeling. That’s when we really began to grow as a band.”
That development took place on the road. They were still playing “house parties, warehouse spaces and galleries”, says Cashion, long after their debut album, Wave Like Home, came out in 2008.
“It was hard to get into a venue; you either had to know somebody or have an agent, and we had neither. Plus we always thought back then that the venue gigs kind of sucked because the other spaces were so cool.”
Back then, they did everything themselves. “William booked us for nearly eight years, all the way from Art Lord to our second album, In the Evening Air, because that’s what we had to do,” says Herring. “But at some point, William needed to make music without having to worry about European dates and fielding hundreds of emails.”
“You can’t do DIY forever if you get to this scale,” says Cashion. “You’ll burn yourself out because there’s so much work. There’s definitely a ceiling before you have to get a team to work with you.”
“You also have to experience growth if you’re going to continue,” says Herring. “If the shows don’t get bigger, it will hurt your spirit. If you do grow, the shows will get to a point where you need help.
“We’ve had booking agents for a few years now, but we only got a manager this year. He’s someone we trust and he understands us, but we’ve still got a great amount of control. Because we come from that DIY background, it’s hard to let go.”
Herring chuckles when he talks about some of the people who approached them after Future Islands became a hit.
“We got loads of people saying they could help. We don’t need their help now, but where were they five years ago? We got to this point by sticking with and working with friends and people we’ve worked with for years.”
Herring naturally wants Future Islands to be around for many more years to come. “I don’t want to be the band who hits that peak and fades,” he says. “I want to be the band who are there for 20 or 25 years. I like the slow growth.”
Herring has also realised that maintaining that growth and especially his own magnificent, searing, all heart-and-soul live performance means cutting down on certain things.
“I haven’t been partying as much on this tour because I’m not 24 or 25 any more when your body has a shorter recovery time. Your body hurts a little more in places, though when you’re on the road, you become kind of immune to how your body feels. Doug Stanhope has this great joke about wanting to die from some disease which has the same symptoms as a hangover.
“When you’re beat up on the road every day, you think that’s how your body should feel. You preserve the energy during the day and you put all that energy into the show and then you sit down again and drink some water and chill out and repeat the next day. I like how that goes.”
Singles is on 4AD
WEIRD YEAR: FROM OMD TO OMG
What’s the most surreal thing to have happened to Future Islands in 2014?
SAMUEL HERRING: “Getting the record out on 4AD, being on 4AD. And OMD’s Andy McCluskey coming to see us in Liverpool was awesome.”
GERRIT WELMERS: “Playing the Roskilde festival and the roar from the audience when it was announced that we were about to come on.”
WILLIAM CASHION: “Bono said he was a fan of Future Islands. That was a what-the-fuck moment. As we’d say with our friends back home, that’s a wrap.”