[MUSIC: Interview] Future Islands
Sometimes you can forget that bands are people too. Of course they have the physical requirements – legs, toes, haircuts and so on – but for some reason you see them onstage, you read about them, and you start to separate the creation from the creator. They become vessels to funnel sound through, with no interest in anything that’s not their next project. This perception can be reinforced when a band nonchalantly shrugs off their world-faring day job or plays the modesty card. So it’s particularly refreshing to hear Gerrit Welmers, the man in charge of Future Islands’ glossy keyboards and electronic percussion, speak about seeing the band’s collective idol with bright-eyed enthusiasm. Remember: musicians like music as well.
“We just came back from playing a festival in Sweden and that was pretty amazing,” Welmers says excitedly. “Of course we went to Sweden, which we’d never done before, but we also got to see The Cure play… They’re all of our favourite band.”
The ‘all’ Welmers refers to includes himself and the other two members of Future Islands – vocalist Samuel T. Herring and guitarist William Cashion. The trio started their first band in North Carolina while in college, with various twists, turns and lineup changes leading to the band you see before you today. Over the space of six years, three albums and a clutch of EPs, the now Baltimore-based band has carved out a nice little niche in which to play their heart-on-sleeve glossy synth pop, a Masters course in lovelorn lyrics. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that the band are so enamoured with Robert Smith’s pioneering goth pop sound. “They played for, I think, three and a half hours with no breaks,” continues Welmers with a pause, as if he’s recalling it all right now. “Robert Smith is still the king – he can still belt it out.”
Future Islands like songs about love. It’s that simple. Mutual, everlasting love; unrequited-bordering-on-the-obsessive love; love that turns sour – they’re not picky when it comes to source material. The neat little trick they often employ is to mask their blissful lyrics in a shroud of downbeat atmospherics, or turn tales of woe into jubilant dancefloor fillers with electro-bubblegum keyboards. Think of it as a 21st century update of Phil Spector’s teenage melodramas, or the way Eels’ Mark Oliver Everett sprinkles chirpy guitars over tragic words. At times they’ve almost been accused of revelling in misery, a charge that Welmers neither confirms or denies. “I guess our songs can be a bit glum, but they’re also a little ironic,” he offers. “Like, we’ll play songs about suffering, but they’re kind of catchy… I guess some songs are kind of dark but others sound uplifting. We definitely enjoy the dark side of things. No one wants to hear about a happy relationship, like, ‘My life’s great, everything is really cool, I love my girlfriend’ and so on.”
Future Islands’ third and most recent album, On The Water, is their first attempt at a song cycle (a term invented after ‘concept album’ became too damaged), a narrative telling a tale of – you guessed it – love, loss, despair, redemption, and other such grand themes. In a makeshift recording space that doubled as living quarters, the three pushed their sound (and friendship) to previously unexplored extremes, for an album that conjures visions of Bowie & Eno’s Berlin experiments or Robert Smith’s most unforgiving self-analysis, with less of the glittering pop shine that Future Islands often employ. “I mean they’re definitely still Future Island songs, they’ve got that dance vibe and pretty big sounds, but [they’re] also a lit bit more mature,” Welmers says. But their recorded output up to this moment already seemed pretty mature (these aren’t songs about partying and frat house misadventures), so I probe a little further… “I think maybe the sound is a little bit more defined or refined?” he replies. “I guess I’m making sure there’s not so many cheesy sounds, keeping away from that glitchy, catchy type stuff. I think it’s a natural progression. But yeah, as far as lyrics, Samuel has always been a pretty mature writer.”
Taking into account their fairly nonstop touring routine and vast recorded output, Future Islands’ approach appears to be one of workhorse-like determination. “It’s pretty evenly split up along the lines of what we play: I do the programming and keyboards, William writes the parts for bass and extra guitar parts, and then Sam works on the lyrics,” explains Welmers. “But we all have a say in whether we enjoy what’s happening. That’s just how we’ve always done things. There’s no set plan for how this happens, and we would never stop doing something just because, like, ‘Oh, that’s not how we write’.”
Wrapping up the interview, I ask Welmers where he sees the future of the band, whether this can continue into a long-term thing. Perhaps they can take another page from The Cure’s books, still playing to disaffected audiences worldwide after three decades? “Oh yeah, that would be amazing,” he replies. “The three of us work together really well, we’ve been doing it for almost 10 years now. I would love to be talking to you in twenty years, thirty albums in or something”.
What: On The Water is out through Valve
Where: Oxford Art Factory
When: Thursday September 20