The return of Future Islands

© Jennifer Lo

WORDS

Back and re-energised with a bold new record, the curtains have been drawn once again for Baltimore’s theatrical romantics.

“You can wear your other clothes over and over again, but with underwear and socks, the idea is to plan ahead and pack as many as you can”, explains Gerrit Welmers, Future Islands’ stoic keyboardist and sound architect. We’re sat with the Baltimore based art-pop trio in a hotel bar, and we’re discussing survival tactics while sizing up the mammoth, international tour schedule ahead of them.

But surely it’s just not feasible to wear a brand new, fresh-from-the-factory pair every day for months on end? “I mean, we do go to laundromats and stuff” bassist William clarifies. “Yeah, I can’t wear the same clothes for two or three nights like these guys”, frontman Sam Herring admits. “I sweat out so much on stage I ruin my clothes every night … But I don’t wear underwear, so I don’t have to worry about that”.

And it’s no wonder Sam perspires so much when he’s performing. Known to exude an intense charisma onstage, that night at the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen he frantically dances to every song as if he’s home in front of the mirror with the curtains closed and his bedroom door securely locked. He grimaces as he lyrically depicts intense, intimate tales of romantic tragedy, sexual jealousy and long distance-induced yearning, holding his fist in the air and squeezing it as he reaches the peak of a guttural grunt or camp, pantomime-style falsetto that never quite manages to drown out the approving cheers of the crowd despite its impressive volume. You can see why he’s been cast as a deranged preacher for an independent art-house horror movie.

While Future Islands are endearingly modest in character, an air of lofty melodrama has always been apparent. This past Valentine’s Day marked the 11th anniversary since Sam, Gerrit and William – then still living in their native North Carolina – first played a show together as Art Lord & The Self Portraits, a band for which Sam would adopt a German accent. “It was more Euro pop with Art Lord, we definitely wanted to be Kraftwerk”, he smiles. “Then when we started Future Islands we had this guy who’d never played drums behind the kit. But he was like an amazing, super technical metal bassist. And when he learnt to play he couldn’t really play slow, he could only keep a beat if he played like 180bpm. So when we went from Art Lord to Future Islands, we were kind of straight off the bat a synth punk band.”

Powered by a berserk electronic kit, the overzealous sticksman certainly managed to leave his mark on Future Islands’ 2008 debut Wave Like Home, but they’ve since softened toward a bitter-sweet style of danceable synth-pop that still borrows Peter Hook’s trick of promoting a metallic, grumbling bass guitar to the role of a lead instrument. So what’s the fabric of the sound?

“The Misfits was an early band we bonded over way back in high school. And Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark were a huge influence on our second record In Evening Air”, Sam reflects, “and Sparks are a big one. British stuff like The Cure and The Cocteau Twins too…” “And ABBA’s album The Visitors”, William blurts out. “Haha, umm, I don’t know if that’s a record we’ve really gotten to know,” Sam budges in, “but all the Eno ambient stuff is something we connect on…” “It’s ABBA’s last record, like ’81, they get more synthy on that one”, Will continues, refusing to be silenced. So Future Islands’ sound is essentially a melting pot of gothic punk, novelty new wave, 80s indie and … ABBA? “I don’t know about ABBA, I’ve never owned an ABBA record!”, Sam insists, laughing a little nervously.

© Jennifer Lo

The band release Singles, their first album in three years, on 24 March. While the new songs never quite reach the giddy heights of Dancing Queen, the record does sound bigger, bolder and more – whisper it – ‘mainstream’ than their previous stuff. They recently switched from the reputable Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey to 4AD, home to artists such as The National, Deerhunter and Grimes. And after years of hard graft, Sam admits that they’re enjoying the basic luxuries that the contract has provided.

“We used to sleep on floors the whole time, but we can afford to stay in hotels now and get a good rest. Those were things we just weren’t able to do in the past. Because we’d just play for peanuts, you’d make like 70 or 80 dollars by selling merch and that’s how you’d pay for gas and food.

“William booked our shows for seven and a half years. He’d do the van thing, do all the e-mails, he was basically managing us. That last tour he booked was amazing, but it was a lot on his head, he was pretty swamped.” The DIY slog has paid off. Over the course of the years, they’ve graduated from gigs in art galleries,to the toilet circuit, to bona fide club shows, and now their first ever Coachella appearance shines brightly on their forthcoming tour schedule.

This time last year, however, things weren’t quite so secure. The band took a little time off the road to write and record Singles, and as a band dependent on touring for income, it wasn’t long before their finances dried up. Without a budget for the album, they found themselves having to call on close friends to chip in. So did it feel like there was a period of struggle? “We might have hit the wall financially a little bit at one point”, Sam shrugs “but creatively, it was the most open we’ve ever been.”

And if Future Islands were nagged by any feelings of self-doubt, it doesn’t show on Singles. The record sounds polished, optimistic and, touchingly, there’s lyrics that suggest that Sam – who usually plays the downtrodden romantic – has reached some kind of emotional equilibrium. In fact, it’s undoubtedly the most confident record they’ve done, reflecting the band’s all-or- nothing sense of determination.

“Once this album was done, I wasn’t worried”, he says with a sense of conviction. “Because I was like ‘we just made a great record, we just made our best record’, so we knew that some solid label would put it out. We’d done stuff with another great label, but we wanted to take it to another step, to kind of shoot for the stars if we could. We know we have the ability to write great songs, and for all the hard work we’ve put in, we felt that we deserve a shot.”

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