Future Islands third album, On the Water, has an air of romanticism as well as an allusion to the bandīs beginnings. (courtesy photo)
After two albums of enthusiastic, occasionally hysterical dance beats and supplicating growls, there’s an air of suggestive romanticism established at the outset of the Baltimore-via-Greenville synthpop trio’s 2011 opus On the Water. The two-time blogosphere darlings bookend their latest with the sounds of gently breaking waves and ambient marina clatter from outside of the Elizabeth City home where it was recorded, conjuring imagery of acquiescent loneliness that’s reflected in Samuel Herring’s verses. They’re romantics to the core, but it goes well beyond their lyrics. It permeates how they record and how they tour, and it’s even reflected in the title of their latest. On the Water alludes to not only the album’s origins, but implicitly to the genesis of the band itself.
They started under another name in 2003 with only keyboards and bass out of necessity. Today they’re essentially still a group of just keyboards and bass, but that’s because it’s who they are. You’d hardly know it from the arresting stage presence of Herring, but there was actually a time that he and his bandmates were nervous about performing. Bassist William Cashion recalled it was their very first show together almost nine years ago as students at East Carolina University.
Motivated by Herring’s urge to explore a performance art project, keyboardist J. Gerrit Welmers and he had decided to play a house show to enable it with art-school friends Adam Beeby and Kymia Nawabi. No one at the time had ever been in a band other than Cashion, who taught his bandmates rudimentary keyboard parts to fill out his playing. Herring, sporting Victorian muttonchops, a shimmering white suit and cape, and an affected German accent, did the rest. That day, Feb, 14, 2003 at Beeby’s house, a stone’s throw from the banks of the Tar River, Art Lord & the Self Portraits were born.
“The first time Art Lord had ever performed, we were all really nervous, but that first show, Sam just became the Art Lord character. People really paid attention to what he did,” Cashion said. “Eventually other likeminded people said asked us to come and play their houses, and then we played our own house.”
Playing in those rentals still musty from the taint of Hurricane Floyd served as their proving grounds as performers, but when it came to recording, living rooms were their first choice then and still are today. The closeness and warmth of their home-recording ethic is best espoused though their 2004 release Ideas for Housecrafts, where Herring sounds as if he’s doing calisthenics alongside bristling preprogrammed drum beats, simple synth patterns and Cashion’s Kim Deal-inspired bass runs. It was also a portent of what was to come with Future Islands.
“We prefer recordings that sound like a band in a room. Studios have fancy stuff, but are clinical and weird. Houses feel lived in,” Cashion said. “It’s a comfort thing. I just feel freer working in someone’s house and that’s probably how it will always be.”
When Art Lord dissolved after three years, several months had passed before the trio of Welmers, Herring and Cashion were prodded by friend and bassist for defunct Greenville band the Kickass to even reboot their musical efforts. When they finally did, they recorded their first release Wave Like Home at the Backdoor Skate Shop in downtown Greenville, an erratic effort that was far more confrontational than anything they had ever done as Art Lord. Cashion was still booking the band’s shows, a skill he acquired in the Art Lord days from outsider electronic artist Dan Deacon, whose DIY ethos was a significant part of the band’s logistical and artistic groundwork.
“We met him in the parking lot right before playing his show at the Backdoor Skate Shop when we were Art lord and he blew us away. I had never see a performer like him. He was a heavier guy, took his shirt off and was running around telling these stream of consciousness stories about Mickey Mouse and Michael Jackson. It was surreal,” Cashion said. “Dan just kept coming back and I would help him book shows in Raleigh or Greensboro or Chapel Hill. He invited us on a two-and-a-half week tour that was a big eye opener for us on how to do things ourselves. We actually played the Werehouse in Winston-Salem with Dan a bunch. Future Islands’ first official show was there opening for him.”
Cashion acknowledged that though Herring has always been a magnetic performer and frontman, he wouldn’t be surprised if he took at least a few cues from the maniacal Deacon because of the scope of his influence on the band. They’re inexorably joined at the hip today through Chester Gwazda, who produced Deacon’s acclaimed album Bromst and was a member of his touring ensemble along with Welmers and Cashion. Now, he’s become Future Islands’ go-to producer.
“We’re really comfortable with him and he understands what we’re trying to do,” Cashion said. “He’s not afraid to be opinionated when he needs to be.”
Future Islands will perform at the Blind Tiger Tuesday, Jan.24 with Twin Sister, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat and Ava Luna.