Baltimore-based Future Islands performs lush, swollen new-wave with minimal equipment and time. The three members gained momentum coming out of Dan Deacon’s Wham City collective in 2008, claiming ‘post-wave’ (post punk + new wave) as their own sound and releasing three albums, each more like a snowballing opera than a new-wave record. The most reductive consensus description of the band seems to be "Tom Waits fronting New Order." (Tom Waits + New Order < Future Islands.) You can catch the band tonight (Thursday, Nov. 3) at the Jackpot in Lawrence.
Home from a European tour and on the road to Cleveland, Samuel T. Herring, Future Islands’ growling tenor, spoke to The Pitch about staying weird, being scared of David Byrne, and showing weakness as strength.
The Pitch: You went to art school and formed a band, like a lot of great bands have. What is it about art school that makes you want to form bands and drop out instead of do other projects?
Herring: I went off to school with this idea that I was going to be the next great conceptual artist, but that fell through. [Laughs.] I was also really into performance, but I didn’t play any instruments. The thing about Greenville [East Carolina University] is that it’s a big public school that has a great fine-arts school and a great music school, and the funny thing is that all of the bands came out of the art school weren’t people that went through the school of music. I think they thought about it too much when they were writing, you know, worrying so much about the sound. For us weirdos, we were just like, “We got two keyboards, man, let’s do this! We can play a show.” [Laughs.] It’s something to be said about that spirit of being able to do with whatever you have. Like, “Let’s fix this drum or get this block of wood.” We would say, “Let’s make this a piece of art, a performance.” So it’s not so much about worry about writing these great songs or anything, more like, “Let’s just have a good time.” I guess at school you’re surrounded by young kids with lots of ideas and energy, and you don’t know any better. [Laughs.]
Sounds like the right place and time to start a band.
“Yeah, when you’re 17 or 18 and you’re going off to school and studying art, you’re — well, we were from North Carolina — you’re going to be with all the other kids that were the weirdos at their school. I hate to keep using to the word weirdo, but those people always seemed to be out of place because what they loved to do was create and think about these things, or just smoke dope and have a good time, mon. [Laughs.] But you know, you get them all together, and then things start to happen. There are plenty of movements in American music that came out of art schools.
I was going to say.
Yeah, you know, RISD, Akron. I guess David Byrne went to MICA for a bit. That definitely speaks to us, and I’m sure plenty other people. We had friends in school who are still making music and didn’t graduate. I mean, I didn’t graduate because I fell in love with making music.
So is that how you keep that spirit of art alive? David Byrne keeps doing art by himself, so do bands lose that spirit if they continue as a band?
Well, I mean some bands are lucky enough and smart enough to do it even harder. I’d probably say that David Byrne is definitely someone who’s definitely taken his money and invested in making larger projects and allowed himself to make straight visual art, probably because he’s got the time and money to invest in things that are their own or things that can only be created through new technologies. That’s definitely something that he’s done.
Is he a big inspiration on you guys?
William (bass) is a big Talking Heads fan. I really enjoy his writing on Fear of Music, but I’m not a huge Talking Heads fan. I do think David Byrne’s a genius, but that kind of stuff scares me, too. I know William’s got some really big ideas for things that we can do in the future, when we can invest in certain things, just to make a larger live show. For me, I’m really just into that stripped-down aesthetic of performer and audience, and how that’s like breaking this certain wall in our culture, like if you can step out to the audience or reach the audience using this power of the stage. Like I said before, when I was going off to school I was really into performance, and I wanted to be this great performer, sharing myself and ideas with people directly. To me, that was the only way to make art anymore, because everything had been done. I guess that’s probably been done, too, but personal experience is really all we have to do, and that’s what I’m doing now. Just trying to do it as raw as possible.
So how does that come through in the live show, with all of your ideas on what the performance should be like?
I mean, we’re not really like a rock-star band. That’s a big part of us. We’re very much like, “It’s kind of just us right here.” [Laughs.] There’s not really much of a facade of trying to be a particular thing or sound. All we really want is to be our own. We want to share with the audience, talk to them before the show and after the show. We’re fans of music, not just musicians. For me, that’s the important thing, like baring myself to the audience, showing weakness as strength.
You’re going to be playing at the Jackpot, and there’s an intimacy to it that will be great for your show.
Yeah, we’ve never had big shows in Lawrence or Kansas City. The last time we were in Lawrence was like two and a half years ago. We played a basement show at a house. It was a really tiny basement, but it was like a finished basement where there was, like, a computer desk. It was weird, but that was a really long time ago, and nobody came. [Laughs.] We did also play with Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk at the Jackpot, and that was a weird experience. Are they still around?
A few started new projects in New York, but one here called CVLTS — with a Latin 'V' — was approached by a French label.
Wow, I'll check them out.