Future Islands is basically winging it. The Baltimore-based group has been making decisively danceable electro-synth/shoegaze-pop since 2006; its latest release (and first for the Thrill Jockey label), In Evening Air, dropped in early May. But not one of the three bandmates—who met while studying at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.—knows how to read music. Instead, they favor feeling, emotion and twinges of nostalgia over technicality, with bassist William Cashion and synthesizer/keyboard/drum-machine master Gerrit Welmers teasing out equal parts drone and tweaky dream-pop behind frontman Samuel Herring's dramatic vocals, leading a strange caravan through the trio's minds. Recently, just before an in-store performance in Chicago, Herring talked to Paste about the beauty of vinyl, friendship and sharing.
Paste: You're about to do a show in a record store and, coincidentally, you've recently released some of your records on vinyl. Why vinyl over digital?
Samuel Herring: It's kind of funny. The beginning of this year we didn't even have a 12-inch record and by April we had four different 12-inches. I guess the last one to come in was In Evening Air. We got Wave Like Home finally put out on 12-inch, which was our debut album, and it was awesome to finally get it on record. I think having things on vinyl just makes it seem more official, like it's not going to be destroyed. People really take care of records, honestly. It's almost like record sales have been going up a lot because of the digital era that we're in. Like, people aren't buying CDs as much because usually you just get a CD and it just goes into your computer and then onto your iPod or whatever. But with people that still love music and love the artwork and all that stuff, getting an album on vinyl that has a download coupon is almost better, because if it's just going to be on your computer or your iPod anyways, then you have the album art four times bigger and it's something you can hold. I mean, for me, I love records because it's more tangible, you're closer to the music and the music has weight—it literally has weight, you know? It's something you hold and you store that you take care of. CDs, I just ruin them. They come into my car and they get under my feet when I'm driving and I step on them and get mud on them and they get destroyed—they never make it back to their cases. My two favorite mediums are probably cassette tapes and vinyl.
Paste: Speaking of tapes, I hear that you only have a tape player in your van?
Herring: We're touring in a Chevy Astro van—it's a mid-'90s Astro van, which is a pretty standard van. It's an old dog- and cat-grooming company's van so we kept the magnetic decals on the side that say "Hugs and Kisses Grooming." It's kind of funny because we're driving around these cities and it's basically like Dumb & Dumber. But William, our bassist—he posted up a thing on I think Facebook or Myspace about "bring in some tapes and we'll trade you some CD-Rs!" or whatever. ... It's only been like three or four people, but it feels really special when people actually come out. We have a couple mix tapes and a couple real tapes. It's good to have participation like that, people helping us out while we're on the road.
Paste: I hope you get something crazy good to listen to.
Herring: Yeah, I hope so, I want some more tapes! (Laughs) Get me some tapes!
Paste: The cover art for In Evening Air is absolutely beautiful. It's like a trippy kind of cross between Da Vinci and Dali—who did that?
Herring: Her name is Kymia Nawabi and she's been a friend of ours for a long time. She was in our first band, on board with the Self Portraits from the very beginning. That was a band that me and William conceived and then brought in our friend Adam who was the local record store guru. He's the guy who told us about all these awesome things and we were just in complete awe of because he knew so much about music and we were just young, silly kids. So we told him about our band and he was like, "That is awesome!" He brought in Kymia because Kymia was a girl that we knew from around school—she was a senior and we were all freshman—and she was just so beautiful and just the most amazing artist of the time as far as what I was seeing in the school. I was just blown away by her stuff. We kept in touch over the years and it's been really awesome having her do work with us and for us. She's definitely an artist who creates her own world from her own characters and symbols and figures that appear or reoccur in her work and I feel like we're very similar, in the same vein, where we have to try and create our own world. We love Kymia's world that she creates—it speaks very much to our music because I feel like it's very light, but it's very, very dark. The colors are bright and pull you in and there's a really dark world inside of that. I think that it speaks to our music, or I'd like to think that it does.
Paste: You've been releasing so much music—since about 2006 you've released something new each year. Do you just love being in the studio, are you constantly inspired to work and create and make something new?
Herring: Well, I'd love put out more work. It's definitely something that we've taken a lot more seriously since we moved to Baltimore. That move was not only about us getting out of our comfort zone in North Carolina—what we knew and just being in that world where you're close to home and where you're feeling at home—but we were trying to put ourselves out of that. Also we moved up there so we could get away from jobs and school—we were tired of working in Greenville where we all went to college in North Carolina. ... The move to Baltimore was about us pushing our music. And since then we've really been pushing—I mean, Thrill Jockey picking us up is huge for us. We've been working a long time to not only be worthy of a label of their caliber, but we've been working to get to that point where we feel that we have something that we feel deserves to be released on a record of that caliber, so it's just really exciting. We were working really hard on this before the album was even close to being finalized. The first group of songs that were written, we did 14 or 15 songs ... and pulled the best four or five songs from that group of 14, 15, and sent out demos. We looked at it again when we found out that Thrill Jockey didn't want to release it. That made us work even harder to finish up the second half of the album and figure those things out. But I wish we could write more. We're much more of a touring band than a studio band—we spend very, very little time in the studio. It's not a world that we know, the world of music we know is getting out and sharing what we're doing with people. I think that's where we get the most joy. I know that's where I get the most joy.
Paste: Future Islands tours a lot—it seems like you're big into performing and sharing your music with people.
Herring: It's kind of what made me fall in love with music, or performance in music, because at first when I went to college I wanted to study performance art, conceptual art, because I kind of fell in love with the fact that I didn't have to sit in front of a drawing for 30 hours to create something that people could respond to or that made me feel like I created something. So then through performance I can do something on the spot and pull a reaction from a group of people immediately and in a way that's kind of lazy, but it's definitely the quickest gratification for your art. Then starting to play music in college with that initial love of performance art I fell in love with making music, because it's a performance, the way people respond to what you're doing immediately, and that's definitely the same way I feel now.
Paste: Going back to moving to Baltimore—why Baltimore? Was the Dan Deacon, Wham City thing a big draw for you?
Herring: That was the big draw. He is an old friend—we've been playing shows with him since I guess the beginning of 2004? And that was a time where nobody knew either of us, we were young musicians who had just started a band and he was just starting. ... He was the biggest proponent—he moved up there I think late 2004, 2005, and as early as the beginning of 2005 he was telling us to move up to Baltimore and come be a part of this collective that he was starting. And we basically met all the people involved in Wham City because they would come and play our town in North Carolina and all those guys were touring so they would come through and we would put them up or set up a show for them or they would open for us, so it's just kind of a friendship. It was funny, when I moved to Baltimore I was living in Asheville, N.C. before. I lived there for a year, and as soon as I moved to Baltimore I had 10 times as many friends as I had in Asheville. It's just because all the guys that I really spent the crazy nights with, the long nights and all the weird stories, were my musician friends, because so many of them lived in Baltimore.
Paste: You just released the full-length In Evening Air with Thrill Jockey earlier in May. Since you don't read music, what's the recording process like for you? Is it pretty much the same every time?
Herring: With most of the our old stuff it was really just all of us getting together and us just kind of playing and finding things—that's between William and Gerrit just playing music and me just kind of sitting there and feeling what I felt or writing words, just thinking. But with the new stuff, Gerrit definitely spearheaded it a bit more, or he was in the forefront because since the last album we lost a drummer. So just as a three-piece, Gerrit's doing a lot more of the drum programming. ... It's basically—Gerrit or William come to the table with a melody and just kind of play and I decide whether or not it moves me at all. (Laughs) They definitely write stuff and I'm just like, "No, I can't write to this, it doesn't work for me," and so we move on. Sometimes I write stuff that seems to work in this moment but then it doesn't seem to work over time. ... It's all real loose improvisation and songs written on serendipity ... but the words are definitely the last thing to come along in the music.
Paste: You're more of a touring band, but even so, you had performances scheduled for just about every single day in May. Aren't you guys exhausted?
Herring: We meet a lot of people—we get to see so much. It's kind of a blessing to be able to bring your art to people and have them show you support or buy your art. It's like we're portable artists sharing what we do with people, and they in turn share by allowing us to get around the country and eat and pay our bills. It is our job, but it's not a bad job. It's what we want to do. It is exhausting, but you never think about it.
Future Islands on MySpace