To record On the Water, Future Islands took refuge in a large 19th century Southern home in Elizabeth City, N.C., on the banks of the Pasquotank River. The secluded environment removed the band from distraction and allowed lead singer Samuel T. Herring room to clear his mind, focus his energy and absorb the comforting ambience of the immense river. The result is an earnest synth-pop record full of passion and tenderness.
"Recording there allowed us to really relax and enter a different zone and kind of create our own world," said Herring. "It kind of solidified what the album meant to us, just by experiencing something outside of ourselves. I'd like to think that, ideally, these actual emotions are transferred through our instruments and the way they're played. That's a really beautiful idea."
Future Islands formed in 2006 in Greenville, N.C., while the members were attending art classes at East Carolina University. They intended to start a casual art project and perform at friends' parties--that didn't last long. The act's audience grew rapidly, and members felt they needed to relocate to pursue their art with intensified vigor.
In 2007, the band moved to Baltimore, where the local art scene provided ample support to the budding artists. The band chiseled out its aesthetic on stage, playing various art galleries and restaurants throughout the city.
"You don't get anywhere hanging around in your garage just playing and perfecting songs; you have to go out and play for people," said Herring. "When we write a song, we'll almost immediately take it to the stage, even if it's still in parts, just to see how people respond to it. That's where you find out what the song is about, and where the melody lies, when you're in front of people, when the crowd is feeling you."
Herring is the focal point of Future Islands. His voice is both gruff and grandiose--a cross between Meatloaf and David Bowie--and he's known for his wild, on-stage theatrics: sweat drips profusely from his head as he performs abrasive dance moves with intense facial expressions.
"I do my best to grab everybody's heart and take it for myself and give them my heart back," he said.
But no man is an island. Keyboardist Gerrit Welmers sculpts the trio's sound with his post-wave synth lines and animated soundscapes. Bassist William Cashion lays down fierce, drilling rhythms with his massive plucks and strums, giving the songs direction and cohesiveness.
On the Water is Future Islands' second album in the past 18 months--2010's In Evening Air put the band on the indie map with its high-charged synth punk. Songs like "Tin Man," and "Vireo's Eye," with their gleaming synthesizers, thundering bass and brokenhearted lyrics garnered the band a modest national following.
On the Water is a less gloomy affair, although hints of sadness still linger in Herring's husky, theatrical vocal performance, with lyrics that reflect on bygone memories and making peace with the past. But on this album, the band gives the music extra room to expand, weaving in more detail and atmosphere into its sonic palette.
"In Evening Air was definitely a break-up album," Herring said. "It dealt with questions I had, anger that I had, fear I had. With On the Water, the concepts emerged once all of the songs were done and we looked at what we had and how it worked. It's me growing more mature through actual life and being able to look at that relationship that I was so temperamental about and how I relate to it now. I'm not mad still. In Evening Air was me reacting, and On the Water was me thinking about it. A lot of writing for me is about just trying to figure out what the hell is going on with me."
Whatever is going on, it appears to be working. The new album has been met with much critical acclaim: Paste Magazine's Carey Hodges called it "not only the most accessible Future Islands release to date--it's their best," and Pitchfork gave it a 7.7 and dubbed it "surprisingly moving."
"Our primary aim with this record was we didn't want to redo In Evening Air," said Herring. "Five songs in, we realized that we were creating something that's entirely its own. Then there was a fear about 'would people understand this?' Everybody has different ears and everybody wants different things and people listen to music for different reasons. So all you can really do is make something honest to yourself and hope that there's an audience for it."
And while the band's studio output is no doubt impressive, Future Islands really cuts its teeth in front of audiences. The band's concerts are raw and emotive, loud and cathartic. The musicians aren't afraid to take their songs in different directions on a whim, or add colors and textures depending on the atmosphere.
"I think there's something to be said for the way a live show can change or be different than a recording," said Herring. "We like to get up on stage with our songs and have fun with them--you have to let the song live and breathe. The release of passion and energy is kind of an awesome thing for me, and the hope is that people can get something from it. But it's really up to them how they want to accept or deny that energy."[ Video is no longer available. ]