It seems almost cruel that Baltimore’s iconic post-wave outfit Future Islands are confined to three small digital rectangles to talk about As Long As You Are – their most panoramic and sonically expansive record yet.
The band were catapulted to fame in 2014 after their performance of single ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ on The Late Show with David Letterman went viral.
Mike Lowry’s pounding drums, Gerrit Welmer’s soaring synths, Will Cashion’s driving bass, and the growling croon of frontman Samuel T. Herring, oozing charisma and violent passion, stopped people in their proverbial – and literal – tracks. At parties, cafes and gatherings friends would sit friends down, tell everyone to shut up, and force them to watch this magnetic new band.
By the end of the year the video was the most watched on The Late Show’s YouTube channel.
The worldwide reception was summed up perfectly by an ecstatic Letterman himself, grinning from ear to ear: “Wow!” he yelled over the roaring audience, shaking hands with the band. “I’ll take all of that you got!”
After that moment they went from Baltimore’s best kept secret to a global flash phenomenon. All the major festivals across the world came calling. They sold out some of the biggest venues in New York and London. And the likes of Bono, Debbie Harry, Gwyneth Paltrow and Haruki Murakami joined Letterman’s club of famous fans.
They toured non-stop in the years after that performance, only taking breaks to write and record 2017’s follow up The Far Field. And their new album, As Long As You Are, builds on the band’s familiar themes of love and loss, old ghosts and new hope – but it also brings the attention back to the idea of home and where that is, physically and emotionally, for the band.
With COVID-19 forcing them to take this idea a little too literally, Future Islands have had to take a prolonged break— the longest since they started in 2006. This is the first album they have released that they have not been able to tour or promote properly. They even had to mix the entire album over Zoom.
“Which wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” says bassist Will Cashion from his study in Baltimore. “Although recently I realised that normally we’re sitting around a room and looking at the sound desk, but with this record we were starring at each others faces the entire time,” he laughs.
Usually by this time in the album cycle they would be flying all around the country, having played most of the summer festivals, touring the singles and playing their fair share of the late night spots. But, like everything, it all keeps getting pushed back.
“We have had to be more still,” says Will. “It’s probably good for us. Tour isn’t really the healthiest, and it’s good for our bodies to have a break from constant travel. But, that being said, we are constantly figuring out new ways to get our music out there. As soon as we’re allowed to tour, no doubt we will be out there.”
Will is a disarmingly calm guy with a deep fascination for sound. He is particularly interested in field recording and atmospheres – much of his own has featured on multiple Future Islands releases, but none more so than on As Long As You Are. He relishes in the idea of pushing the sound of the band to where he knows, or doesn’t know, it could possibly go.
“I’ve been reading this book called Ocean of Sound by David Toop,” he says. “It’s from 1995. It’s a history of ambient music. It goes all the way back to Javanese music and goes through different parts of the world.”
Together, Will and keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers are responsible for inventing Future Islands’ emotionally charged, new wave inspired synth-scape.
Gerrit has the cool aloofness of an older brother who introduces you to all your favourite bands. He’s as a quiet genius. He also sports a look that feels like someone pulled him directly from the audience of a Kraftwerk show in 1975.
And if Gerrit is the cool older brother, drummer Mike Lowry seems like the cool older brother’s best friend. He has a considerably tranquil demeanour for such an incredible drummer – he always brings a human and, at times, animalistic stomp to the band’s notoriously electronic sound. He’s so laid back that you get the feeling he’s one of those musicians who gets whatever it is inside of him out on stage.
Sitting quietly in the corner of the screen with a truckers cap on, Mike only really gets animated when you ask him about what he’s been reading.
“I just finished this book called I Got A Monster by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg, ” he says, eyes lighting up. “It’s about this very corrupt police task force in Baltimore. It was insane. I read it and had to keep going back and rereading stuff. The level of criminality by the Baltimore police department in the last five years against the citizens is mind-blowing. We had no idea.”
It’s a strange to think that through the small Zoom screens, on the other side of the walls behind them, the country they call home is going through one of the most turbulent times in its modern history – and stranger still that they are forbidden to go out and ease the turmoil, at least in part, with their music.
Mike, now on a book recommending spree, jumps up, “Oh!” he says. “And I just started reading a book called Goin’ Off! about the Juice Crew and Cold Chillin’ Records by Ben Merlis. The Juice Crew was the Queensbridge hip hop collective in the early ‘80s. Like Roxanne Shante, KRS-One, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane…”
It’s easy to see how Mike slotted right into the band in 2014 as the touring and session drummer. Singer Samuel T. Herring has – as Will puts it – an ‘encyclopaedic knowledge of underground hip hop’, having also rapped under the moniker Hemlock Ernst since 2009.
“Actually,” Will says. “The first day we went into the studio to start recording As Long As You Are, Mike brought a copy of the The Tao of Wu by RZA as an inspiration point for the record. That’s something we discussed early on in the process.”
It’s not surprising that Future Islands take so much inspiration from the hip hop world. The blurb of The Tao of Wu could act as a how-to for Sam’s lyrical process: RZA’s path towards enlightenment through hip hop lyrics, anecdotes and parables, and an exploration of the seven key turning points in his life.
Sam is not present in the interview – he’s currently residing in Sweden with his partner of three years — but he’s the final piece of the puzzle to the bands magnetism. He takes Will and Gerrit’s rich compositions and infuses it with his silky velvet screech, pouring his heart and sweat into every corner of every moment— an emotional alchemist, grabbing his pain by the ankles, dragging it out of the depths and rigorously sculpting it into something beautiful for all the world to see.
And it’s this gift that sets the band apart from the rest. It sucks anyone who sees Future Islands in to being an either an instant fan or, at the very least, an admirer of the work.
Had they not landed that Late Show slot, Future Islands would have just kept doing what they were doing: writing, recording, touring, collecting new fans in every city or country they visited. They would have probably broken through in some other way, but The Late Show performance and reception made it look like their success was instant and overnight.
“But it took a really long time,” Will says. “It took years.”
Will had been playing guitar in bands since he was 13. He met Sam in the art programme in the first year of college in Greenville, North Carolina and almost immediately started talking about music.
“I was very eager to collaborate with him early on,” Will says.
Because the college didn’t have a performance art program, Sam would spend most of his days doing live installations on the street, playing with the theme of ‘body-as-sculpture’.
“He would set up and be this living statue and people could come up and talk to him,” Will says, smiling. “But we overlapped musically on Kraftwerk. That was the jumping off point.”
Sam invited his childhood friend, Gerrit – who at the time only played guitar – to come and jam with them. At the practice, Will picked up the bass and Gerrit swapped to the keyboard. And Sam, who up until that point had been a rapper, started singing.
They invited friends Kymia Nawabi and Adam Beeby (Will makes a point of spelling out Beeby’s name in the Zoom chat) to join as well. Nawabi, now a Brooklyn based artist, is still working with the band to this day, having painted the artwork used on the covers for In Evening Air and The Far Field.
“None of us had ever played our instruments before,” Will says. “So we gelled together as we learned together.”
They called themselves Art Lord and the Self Portraits and became an outrageous performance art party band that spent most of 2003-2005 doing the rounds on the keg and house party circuits throughout their hometown of Greenville, North Carolina.
“We’d just move the furniture out of the living room and just go for it. It was a lot of fun,” Will says. “But I had always wanted to pursue music. I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew that I loved making up songs and throwing shows. I knew that was part of it at least – we kinda came in through the back door.”
After Nawabi and Beeby graduated in 2006, they left Art Lord to pursue other things, and the remaining three decided to start a new band.
By the end of 2007, having played as Future Islands for a year, and dismayed by being the weird synth-pop outcasts in Greenville against the backdrop of countless rock bands, they moved to Baltimore on the recommendation of friend and musician Dan Deacon.
Shortly after the move their second drummer quit the band, and, while they were focussing on how to make Future Islands work as a three-piece, Will initiated a conversation about the direction they wanted the music and their lives to take.
“I was basically like, ‘I want to do this. I want to go for it. Do you want go for it?’” he says. “And we all agreed in that conversation that ‘going for it’ meant quitting our jobs and just going out on the road and staying out there with no guarantee that we were going to succeed.”
The first few years were rough. They were jobless, but the rent in Baltimore was astoundingly cheap – $100 a month.
“We could afford to be broke all the time,” he laughs. “And it allowed us to tour a lot.”
Given that Baltimore is only a four hour drive away from New York City, and relatively close to Philadelphia and Washington D.C, it meant the band could play shows in major cultural hotspots without having to exhaust themselves at their day jobs just to pay the rent.
They played New York City 22 times in their first year in Baltimore, jumping on every show they were offered, and they soon started to make a bit of money.
“When I was able to pay rent without having to work 14 hours a day, it became a little more of a reality,” says Gerrit. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute – we can play music and also live off of it?’ It’s an incredible feeling.”
Day job or not, the not-so-glamorous reality of being in a touring indie band still weighed on them.
“There were definitely moments where the shit hit the fan and we thought we should throw in the towel,” Gerrit says.
For the first two albums and subsequent tours, the band managed themselves. They booked every show, they were their own drivers, their own roadies, their own caterers, and then they’d go onstage, give it all they had, pack up and do it all again the next day.
Gerrit fishes for fragments of memories from the early years: waking up on disgusting floors with broken glass strewn around their heads; mysterious rashes; only just making enough money on the door to get gas to the next show and spend $5 on McDonalds.
“It’s moments like that where we just thought, ‘Why in the world are we doing this? This is insane,’” he says, shaking his head.
And then, almost out of nowhere, he remembers: “We were travelling in a dog grooming van!”
Both Gerrit and Will jolt back, laughing in fond disbelief.
“But, you know, there were definitely moments when I put pressure on myself,” Gerrit continues. “I’d ask myself, ‘Is this realistic?’ But I think we had this numbness that allowed us to persevere and things started to work out. The audiences got larger. I don’t think I ever wanted to turn back, either. We just had so much fun.”
It was only in 2010, after the release of their second album In Evening Air, having played together as friends for almost ten years, and as Future Islands for almost five, that they finally started to feel like things were working for them.
“But even then, my mom would be like, ‘When are you going to stop this and get a real job’”, Will says. “The band had conversations like that. But we also had this stubborn, undying belief that things would work out if we were consistent – if we kept putting in the work, it would eventually pay off. But there were a lot of points along the way where it would have been very easy to stop.”
After the success of Singles, the grinding, slogging, forced momentum of a self sustaining indie band turned into the ferocious, in-demand momentum of a famous one.
They toured so much over those next two years that, when they came home, the time they usually took to write and record the next album needed to be used to rest. They had tried for years to write on the road to no avail. But while touring 2017’s The Far Field, Future Islands, now a fully established act on the world stage – with the days of the dog grooming van well and truly behind them – had a whole hour and a half for soundcheck.
“And it would only take us thirty minutes,” Will says. “So we had some free time on our hands. And we decided to use that time to play and jam and see if new ideas would pop up.”
Their front of house sound engineer would record them as they jammed and at the end of the tour they sifted through the recordings, taking little nuggets and chord progressions they liked and used the fragments as the basis for the songs that would eventually end up on As Long As You Are.
Album opener ‘Glada’, as well as ‘I Knew You’ and ‘Waking’, were all taken from soundcheck jams. It’s in part what makes this album feels like a more naturally collaborative record than any of the previous Future Islands albums – made more so by the addition of Mike Lowry as a fully fledged band member.
“It was a very fluid and organic process,” Mike says, cooly. “Everybody just came to the studio and jammed.”
Writing with a drummer changed things for Gerrit and Will as songwriters too.
“My favourite song from the record – ‘Hit the Coast’ – is a great example of how playing with a live drummer created this awesome, driving strut jam,” says Gerrit. “For so long we just had this weird four-on-the-floor beat – and that’s just how we wrote songs, and it’s really easy to get stuck in that – but having a live human with the ability to play every type of drum beat known to man is really cool.”
As Long As You Are moves differently to the previous two records. Its peaks and troughs are more considered. The moody moments and driven moments are more deliberate. Will tells me that this was a return to their earlier songwriting process – the one they employed before labels and success came into the mix.
Feeling the rush of newfound fame, and in an attempt to prolong it, Will says that with The Far Field the band put pressure on themselves to write a record of ‘road-ready’ songs that catered more to festivals and to getting the crowd moving.
“After we’d been on tour for so long with Singles, we had this idea that every song had to be ready for the stage – like, you gotta be able to get on stage and just play it,” he says, slapping his fist into the palm of his hand.
“But when we went to make As Long As You Are we kinda threw that idea out. We tried to throw away any preconceived notions of what the band is. We were really open to just approaching the songs in whatever way would help the song the most. The songs didn’t have to be awesome, upbeat songs for the stage. We wanted to make a record that showed the different kinds of songs that we can write.
“We have always had slow-burning ballads on our older albums that are really special moments in our live shows, and The Far Field didn’t really have any moments like that. So we wanted to bring that mixed bag approach back. It’s more varied.
“We wanted ‘Thrill’ and ‘Moonlight’ to come out before the record to showcase that other side of us. But our first single, ‘For Sure’–,” he stops himself for a second, carefully considering what he says next.
“I think it’s a strong song,” he says stiffly. “But that was chosen by the label.”
Gerrit and Mike both laugh.
The band will celebrate the release, and their 1,235th show, with a global livestream event called ‘A Stream of You and Me’ on October 10th which will feature a light show created by artist Pierre Claude (The Strokes, Phoenix) and will be directed by Michael Garber (Phoenix, Bon Iver).
“It’s going to be a different kind show for us,” says Will. “We’re talking about playing in the round, either facing out away, or facing in towards each other. We have a mirrored floor. So we’re going to be standing on a mirror with mirrors above and below.
“As far as the performance goes, we’re just going to approach it as we would any other show – we just want to get out there and not mess up, or mess up as little as possible.”
When I point out that it’s almost impossible to imagine one of the best live acts on the planet messing up, Will throws up his hands. “Well, there’s no way of knowing,” he says. “We haven’t rehearsed for months! On tour at least we feel like we’re getting better as we go along. So the trick is going to be trying to feel familiar with the songs so it comes across as if we’ve been on tour for a month or two. That’s the goal.”
For a band that has spent their entire career on the road – always travelling away from something and never fully arriving, in a constant state of creative flux, churning the machine of professional music that supports their families, pays their rents, giving meaning to their lives and the lives of the listeners – the obstacles of 2020 are just something else to move through.
When asked about what’s next for them, the question turns immediately to dream collaborations. Will gives quick, definitive answers, as if he had been thinking about this question for years, just incase he was ever asked. They come out quick, like soft gunshots:
“Brian Eno. Apex Twin. And Rihanna.”
Bang. Bang. And bang.
“I don’t know if Apex Twin produces bands,” he says. “But it would be pretty wicked if he did. And recently we’ve talked about working with Rihanna.”
‘Future Islands feat. Rihanna’ looks good. Can’t wait to hear how it sounds.