Future Islands: Perfecting the Imperfect

Despite disparate musical backgrounds, the Baltimore trio make it work.

It’s a question that has never been asked before, and will probably never be posed again: What happens when you combine growling vocal acrobatics with silky synth selections and tumbling, incessant bass lines?

The answer is Future Islands, one of modern music’s unique-sounding bands and easily one of its most improbable success stories.

After years toiling away on the indie circuit — delighting fans with its mix of pulsing, New Wave cadences and with frontman Samuel Herring’s inimitable posturing — Future Islands found fame in a major way after a memorable performance on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2014.

Most of that newfound notoriety could be attributed to Herring’s endearingly intense performance — think a Ford assembly-line worker channeling Prince’s on-stage overtures — but that gig might have been a fleeting viral sensation if the band didn’t own an irrepressibly catchy sonic dynamic.

Future Islands captures so much, using so little. Employing a simple formula of bass, keys, and vocals — with the occasional drum machine — the Baltimore trio manages to craft expansive, atmospheric creations that recall elements of The Cure and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, but which specialize in a sound that cannot be found in any of their contemporaries.

Herring attributes their distinctive approach to the hodgepodge of musical influences each member brought to the group.

“I was a hip-hop and jazz head in high school, and Gerrit [keyboardist Welmers] was really into punk and hardcore,” says Herring, whose band plays Outside Lands’ Twin Peaks stage on Friday. “Then we met William [bassist Cashion] in college, and he introduced us to acts like Joy Division and The Magnetic Fields. We all had such different backgrounds, and we really had no idea what we were doing at the beginning, which is probably how we grew into the sound we use today.”

Herring, Welmers, and Cashion first played music together in college in North Carolina, performing as Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, a costumed troupe that mocked the artistic community’s elitism. After disbanding in 2005, the three reformed as Future Islands, dropping some of the exaggerated mannerisms in favor of more emotionally honest stylings.

Throughout Future Islands’ five-album career, the group’s sound has remained remarkably consistent, with the trio constantly honing and perfecting their synth-pop approach.

Herring gets the most notice for his maniacal live performances — his expressions range from beastly outrage to mournful lamentations — but Gerrit and Cashion’s rhythm section is the group’s secret weapon. Content to blend in seamlessly with the background, the duo nonetheless crafts mountains of sound with its bass and synths. That intriguing combination is heightened by Herring’s introspective wordplay, which often focuses on themes of desperation, sadness, and separation.

It is disarming to hear a man so visibly full of brio onstage sing, “And I can’t take this world / This world without you,” as he does on “Ran,” a standout track from the group’s latest album, The Far Field.

“I think there may be a tears-of-the-clown thing with me,” Herring says. “I think those lyrics definitely reflect my emotional bassline. I’m not a happy-go-lucky dude. But I’m not a super-dark person, either. I just think it’s important to share those doubts and fears — to say, ‘Look, we may be up on stage, but we haven’t figured everything out either.’ ”

That last sentiment goes a long way toward reflecting the overall outlook of the band. Despite their elevated status in the music realm, the band takes nothing for granted.

“We know so many bands who got too much success, too soon,” Cashion says. “For so long, we thought we deserved a bigger stage and bigger direction, but it was probably good that we didn’t get those things. We trudged along for years and just kind of kept our heads down. Eventually, good things happened. Now, we just keep doing our thing.”

Their “thing” is a difficult-to-define musical aesthetic that they have mastered. It might not be the blueprint for other bands, but it works just fine for Future Islands.  

Future Islands plays Friday at 6:50 p.m. at the Twin Peaks Stage.

Check out more coverage from our Outside Lands issue here:

Who’s They?
New York dance-pop duo Sofi Tukker are about to blow up, period.

Fleet Foxes Emerge from Hibernation
Robin Pecknold details the band’s new record and the six-year wait that preceded it.

Solar Imperialism Conquers All
Empire of the Sun was too big for Coachella. Can Outside Lands do them justice?

Belle and Sebastian in Peacetime
Guitarist Stevie Jackson says the band’s best years are yet to come.

Warpaint’s Second Coming
With third album Heads Up!, the Los Angeles art rockers return from the brink.

The Original Noname
Her album Telefone calls and leaves a message with listeners.

Real Estate Lets Good Music Speak for Itself
Avoiding all drama, the band continues to churn out great tunes.

The She’s Take Control
The local surf-rock favorites are determined to build their own future.

There Will Never Be Another You, Lee Fields
The 65-year-old owns the stage with soulful love songs.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Stories