A rising Baltimore band takes success personally
Published: November 2, 2011
Sam Herring is standing near the used CD section of the Sound Garden, about to sing, but he’s not entirely there. He swings around to grab a towel and wipes the sweat from his face as synth player Gerrit Welmers plays the twinkling opening bars of “Where I Found You.”
Herring turns back toward the crowd in the Fells Point record store’s aisles, his gaze directed at the floor near his feet. A programmed bass beat comes in, and he glances up to deliver his husky vocal.
I remember your smile
The smell of your skin
The way that you walked
At the start of the next verse, which begins with the line “I remember our room,” his voice cracks ever so slightly. His eyes are closed for much of the song as his words go through the little memories of what once made him happy in a relationship. And then the second half catalogs when it was beyond saving.
Even given a solemnity that is downright tamped down compared to the confrontational theatrics Herring gives to most every other Future Islands song, it is an emotionally intense performance. “I love that song, but it fucking makes me cry,” he says to the spectators gathered for an in-store show to celebrate the arrival of the Baltimore-based band’s new album On the Water, released on Thrill Jockey Records.
With every song that deals with his own life, Herring tries to channel the very feelings he had in those specific moments, and then he does his best to convey them with his whole being while performing. He enunciates certain phrases and sounds within a vocal range spanning gruff growl to melodramatic wail. He twists and contorts his face to broadcast pain and anguish. And he bounces around the stage making the grand theatrical gestures of an actor, sometimes going so far as to hit himself. It’s all meant to put him in a certain mind-set.
“I want to relive those things for the sake of my audience,” he says in an interview a week after the in-store show. “For me, it hurts, but that’s, like, the point. I want it to be as real as possible. I want them to really feel what I feel, just for the sake of communicating an emotion.”
The short checklist of little memories and small details in the lyrics of “Where I Found You” is something of a recall mechanism, and with each one he brings out, he puts himself through the emotional wringer, fully realizing once again what he has lost.
In the smile, the smell, the walk, he says of the lyrics, “This is what I have of you now. I used to have you here, and this is what I have now, and this is pretty much all I have. And that’s sad. That’s heartbreaking.”
Last year’s In Evening Air, the album that landed the band on the radar of the national indiesphere, combined all of the above attributes in a fiery, emotionally raw breakup album featuring dance-floor-ready synthesizer and drum-machine beats from Welmers punctuated by the uptempo bass playing of William Cashion.
With On the Water, all of these aspects of Future Islands’ sound have been stripped down. Cashion’s bass playing is more melodic and is used more to accentuate feeling rather than rhythmically push songs along. Welmers’ beats are a little looser and airy, allowing for songs that still have that new-wave style but intone greater mood. Everything is given more room to breathe, and the band has used the open spaces to push the emotional depth of its sound. In doing so, the arrangements they have created are probably the best emotional complement to Herring’s personal bloodletting.
It marks a new chapter for musical collaborators whose first band was something of a gimmick and who eventually made their mark with party-ready electro-pop tunes perfectly suited for sweat-soaked dancing.
For Herring, it’s another benchmark in his journey from performing as a joke to performing as catharsis, from lost love to moving beyond.
Welmers and Herring became friends around 1998, when neither survived final cuts from the 8th-grade baseball team at their middle school in Newport, N.C. They began hanging out more in high school, when Welmers’ mom drove the carpool.
In 2002, both enrolled at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., where Herring ended up meeting Cashion after the two had art classes together.
Around the time of final exams, Herring and Cashion discussed putting together a band, resulting in a concept group called Art Lord and the Self-Portraits. The Art Lord character was, in so many words, a pompous asshole artist from Germany, Ohio, who emerged in Greenville with three self-portraits he brought to life because they were the only people good enough to play with him.
Played by Herring, the Art Lord would sing supposedly high-brow art criticism missives backed by a four-piece band (fellow students Adam Beeby and Kymia Nawabi played keys) with painted faces and black turtlenecks playing weirdo synth pop. In between songs, the Art Lord would drop self-congratulatory stage banter such as, “It’s good to see you all tonight. We drove a long way to see ourselves.”
It was supposed to be a social commentary about pretentiousness, Cashion says, but it backfired because people just ended up liking it.
On May 26, 2004, Art Lord met up with Baltimore electronic musician Dan Deacon at Backdoor Skateshop in Greenville—Deacon was on his first tour—beginning a steady stream of Baltimore artists who played in Greenville and befriended Art Lord and the Self-Portraits, including Videohippos, Nuclear Power Pants, Height, Santa Dads, and Blood Baby, to name a few.
Art Lord and the Self-Portraits continued playing shows for several years before deciding to call it quits in September 2005—only to remember later they had already committed to a 2006 tour with a friend’s outsider alt-country band, the Texas Governor.
Erick Murillo, a friend of the band who also happened to be in possession of an electronic drum kit, suggested he, Herring, Welmers, and Cashion form a band and fulfill the commitment. They wrote about six songs under the name Future Islands, with fast dance-punk beats crafted by Welmers and Murillo, for which Herring later wrote lyrics.
A positive reaction from their first gig—an anti-Valentine’s Day show on Feb. 12, 2006, opening for about a dozen bands at a house in Greenville—offered the chance to get past the restrictions of the Art Lord gimmick. Future Islands continued to play shows in North Carolina and ventured to places such as Richmond, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
“We wanted people to take us seriously as Future Islands,” Cashion says. “I think people saw Art Lord as a joke. The songs were starting to get—to us, they were more serious. They meant a lot to us, and we wanted people to respect the songs and to respect us as artists.”
For Herring, that also meant finding his own stage presence.
“The [Art Lord] character was almost like a point of strength for me,” he says. “I could be however I wanted to be on stage. I could be this strange person, or I could have a very opinionated self, which wasn’t myself. I’m a pretty humble person, and to be able to be kind of a jerk or say what I wanted to say or even just have a good laugh, it was nice to have that facade. It was difficult to strip myself of that and be like, Now I have to do this by myself, and how do I do that?”
Around May 2006, Herring began dating a girl he first met in the summer of 2005 at an Art Lord show. She had recently lost her lifelong best friend, and he had wrestled with what he calls “substance problems.” The two began to take care of each other.
“Everything was fresh and new, and it was just good,” he says. “I was just happy at that time. I didn’t really want to be around anybody—like, she was the only person I wanted to be around, the only thing that made me happy.”
Every other week he would drive eight hours to St. Augustine, Fla., from his construction job in Wilmington, N.C., to visit her. She eventually moved up to North Carolina in November 2006 and they lived together. They moved around the state for two months before settling in Asheville in 2007.
Future Islands, all the while, still toured steadily, and in 2007, the members began completing material for what would eventually become their first album, Wave Like Home. The lifestyle of weeks away on tour began to put a strain on Herring’s relationship.
“Being a musician, you’re never home, and she wanted somebody there,” he says. “She wanted that, and I wanted that, but we wanted it on different terms. She wanted me at home in a nice little house with her, with a nice little dog, working a normal job and being happy and growing old together. Which is what I wanted, but I don’t want to work a normal little job. That’s not what I want with my life.”
It was that same year, after years of prompting from Deacon and fellow North Carolina native Benny Boeldt of Baltimore band Adventure, that Cashion seriously considered moving to Baltimore. Following a mid-tour show at the Depot, both Herring and Cashion realized they wanted to head north. Cashion moved in November, followed by Herring and then Welmers over the course of the next eight months. (Murillo had already quit the band after a falling out with Herring.)
On a break following a four-month tour, Herring went to visit his girlfriend in North Carolina and found her nonresponsive.
“We just laid beside each other and didn’t say anything for two days,” he says, “and I hadn’t seen this girl, this was the girl I love.”
It wasn’t until he left for Baltimore that he found out she had been seeing someone else. Near the end of 2008, after a two-and-a-half year-relationship, they parted ways.
His reaction to the affair is in the song “Long Flight” off In Evening Air. Herring says the song, with its slow-building first half and noise-filled full-throated second half, attempts to offer both perspectives on the split. The line “just ’cause you needed a hand” is used as both a kiss-off and an expression of understanding, depending on the way he sings it. It’s meant to say either, as Herring explains, “You just wanted to fuck somebody else or you just needed somebody else then and there, which is not like her at all. It’s me being an asshole. And the other side is, You needed a hand—I wasn’t there. Everybody needs somebody. I was pushing away, and I was going away, and I wasn’t here.”
“Long Flight” ended up on a four-song demo that Double Dagger bassist Bruce Willen (an occasional City Paper contributor) sent to venerable indie label Thrill Jockey in Chicago, a label that had begun scooping up Baltimore talent.
It signed Future Islands, and the band began writing the rest of the album after Whartscape 2009. It was released in May of last year.
In Evening Air offered Future Islands’ strongest batch of songs to date, getting the band positive reviews from the likes of the BBC, Pitchfork, and Tiny Mix Tapes. With the success came extensive touring, including a spot opening for Titus Andronicus and Okkervil River.
Earlier this year, the band traveled to Elizabeth City, N.C., to write and record On the Water in the house of Abram Sanders, former drummer of Baltimore band Lower Dens. For the first time, only about half of the material was written and road-tested, and they wanted to challenge themselves to put an album out in one push, in the same calendar year, Cashion says.
The 10 songs are much more reflective, the sound of a band examining its place in the world and looking at a life that involves being away from home for long stretches of time.
“You get used to that and then you come home and, ‘Oh, I have a girlfriend, I have a cat, I have a house, I have these friends,’” Welmers says, “and you get back into this zone and it’s kind of confusing, and then you leave again. It’s just back and forth, which is very confusing. It’s kind of difficult to juggle and balance out.”
For On the Water, Herring challenged himself to write more songs that weren’t just about himself. In Evening Air was mostly “pen to page, just flowing right out of me,” Herring says. “In looking back also at my own life and at those last songs, where my life was, and saying, ‘Well, where am I now?’ was another thing. ‘How do I move forward?’ Because I didn’t have that same anger, so I don’t write about it.”
Still, the observations and self-analysis in the songs are just as personal, and the band’s rise to indie fame has also brought about more criticism.
Sitting outside of Turp’s in Mount Vernon on a windy October day, Herring and Cashion cite instances when people have called Future Islands “the new fake” or referred to Herring’s voice as that of a “drunken Muppet” or Captain McCallister, the gravely voiced sea captain on The Simpsons.
Criticism of art that is so personal can be taken, well, personally. Herring recalls a conversation in which a friend of his was talking about having two distinct selves: your everyday self and a distinct, separate artistic self.
“And that’s when I said, ‘Oh man, I really fucked up,’” Herring says with a laugh. “And she’s like, ‘Why?’ ‘Because that is me. That is me in those songs. It’s so personal that it is almost like, well, if you insult that, then you are insulting me, because this is in my life.’
“In truth,” he continues, “this is all of our lives as musicians, and people that care about what we do. And, you know, this is our livelihood. But I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, I do need find that separation for myself.’”
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