North Carolina natives and local favorites Future Islands made their national breakthrough with 2010’s In Evening Air, an album at once lushly textured and heartbreaking. The band are famous for their signature brand of post-wave – a combination of new wave, synth pop, and post-punk – as well as for their dramatic live shows led by charismatic front man, Sam Herring. Sam and I recently spoke about recording the band’s upcoming album, On The Water, at a friend’s century-old house in Elizabeth City and how he was looking forward to eating as much barbeque as possible during Hopscotch.
Future Islands will play at Lincoln Theatre Saturday, September 10th, at 11:30pm as part of Hopscotch Music Festival. Sam Herring will also speak at "The Bubble: The Limits of Pop Music" as part of Hopscotch’s Artists & Authors series on Saturday, September 10th, at Raleigh City Museum from 3 to 5pm.
New Raleigh: I know that y’all recorded On The Water at a friend’s house in Elizabeth City. What was that experience like?
Sam Herring: Yeah, it was a good friend of ours, Abram Sanders, his old family house. We went to college with Abe and he grew up in Elizabeth City, we went to school at ECU together, and then we moved to Baltimore at the beginning of 2008. At the end of 2008 there was a tour happening called the Baltimore Round Robin with 22 bands going on tour together. Our friend Jana Hunter needed a drummer, and we told her that our good friend Abe played the drums. So Abe ended up coming up to Baltimore playing with Jana for a few years, and was part of Lower Dens and everything. But Abe left the band and moved back down to Elizabeth City to this old house that was in the family, it was his great-uncle’s house, right there on the Pasquotank River, just about five or six blocks from downtown.
It was very secluded because the house is on this old main road, and the bridge that connects that road to the downtown was blocked because of construction work. So they were redoing the bridge or whatever. And it was kind of interesting because with the song “Before the Bridge” – when we wrote that song the working title was “Town” — and Abe immediately fell in love with that song and he asked if he could do that video, and in the end when we were trying to figure out what to name that song we just asked Abe and he said, “Before The Bridge,” and it was kind of fitting because of that house and that busted bridge we would walk over every night, around all of the construction equipment, to get to the downtown to walk around.
But the house is just this beautiful three-story home that has a finished attic room. It’s a beautiful old house. You walk in the front door from the front porch and you’ve got a hallway and the stairway up to the second floor, and to your left there's a dining room type area that has two entrances with pane glass doors on two sides, and then a living room as you walk through the hallway that is connected to that room. So that was basically our control room and our studio room right there. The control room was the sectioned off room with the doors and the living room kind of acted as our studio and our sleeping space. It’s kind of funny, we would wake up in the morning from being asleep in the living room and roll up our sleeping bags and put the mattresses up against the wall or put the mattresses in the control room to adjust to the proper acoustics that we needed, and then pull out our gear and move our stuff into place. Somebody would go and cook breakfast and somebody would start working on music. So it was all very self-contained within the house.
The house was so cool because it was built in 1905, I think, so it was before central heating and air, so when you go into those old houses every room is connected. So in the summertime you can open all the doors to all the rooms so you can kind of create this nice breeze through the whole house. We really utilized that with recording by putting microphones upstairs when I was doing vocals to try and capture the natural sound of the house.
I think, even with In Evening Air, a lot of folks talk about the reverb on my vocals, and it’s not actually reverb it’s the natural blooming of the vocals within a space – there was the way it was with In Evening Air in my old house and then with On The Water in Abe’s old house.
NR: How did being back home in North Carolina and being at the beach influence this record?
SH: Well, it was almost a conscious decision. We wanted to get away to record the album. We needed some isolation away from our normal lives, anything that would kind of take us away, girlfriends, or friends that just wanted to go out and have a beer or something that might be in the back of our minds. We wanted to just get away so it was kind of perfect that Abe extended the offer for us to come down and record at his house. That worked out so we didn’t have to worry about finding a place.
Going into the studio we had five songs, and three that we wrote completely from scratch in the studio, and then a fourth was also worked out in the studio, and then there was another piece that was floating in between the two zones. The very first song that was written for the album was “On The Water." That wasn’t a title we were planning on [for the album] but it was all boiling down and we were trying to figure out what the album was and what it was about, and it made sense to call it that. I guess that was the first title we came up with when we knew this was what we wanted the album to be about and where we wanted to go, and then it all kind of came full circle in the end. Wave Like Home and In Evening Air are both named after songs on the album, and at first we didn’t want to do that this time but we ended up doing it anyways, and that’s okay.
“On The Water” deals with my home, and my many homes. The first verse is speaking to me and my ex-girlfriend of In Evening Air and talking about these memories, mainly about Asheville and Florida. And then the second verse deals with being with somebody new back at Morehead City, and being out at the shore during a rainstorm and just watching it all kind of happen around us. One way or another, we are always pulling from home. That’s what home is to me – the shore a couple of blocks from my house. That’s such a big part of my childhood and still the first place I go to when I come home.
So it was important for us to reflect on that in a deeper sense, and to get into that. Going down to Elizabeth City was the perfect thing to do in the end along the lines of trying to capture speaking to our homeland – speaking to the water and to the shore where me and Garret grew up in Eastern North Carolina, where all three of us grew up – and trying to feel some of that and maybe even feel some of the isolation of being a child and growing up – definitely for me and Garret – kind of in the middle of nowhere, away from everything, and how that affected us.
It was really wonderful to just be there and not have to worry about anything – to just have everything right there. We could just kind of freely create, and not push ourselves. When we went into the studio it wasn’t really our intention to make an album, it was just our intention to record these songs and see if anything else popped up. We were hoping that we could create an album within that framework and that time. We kind of expected to write a song while we were there – one good song – and we were hoping that we could pull two. To pull three out of that and to piece together something from that experience is really perfect. It was always our intention to create a full album and so allowing ourselves that time where it all came together, working on inspiration – not just writing a song two or three months down the road to finish out the album – everything was down within that period. Then all the little bits and pieces were put back together in Baltimore. I guess that speaks to the Future Islands experience – we are greatly a part of North Carolina and then we are putting the bits and pieces together in Baltimore while still speaking to our home and pulling from that completely.
NR: Your work definitely uses multiple places and experiences as sort of a mosaic, but would you say that On The Water is even more reflective than In Evening Air?
SH: That is probably the main difference between the albums. The music is reflective, but then again, “On The Water” is kind of our middle ground. I guess we wrote two or three songs in between the end of In Evening Air, and then “On The Water” came along. And it’s kind of a big deal. It’s a real slow burner. It was one of those songs that we wrote and were like, “Well this is really going to challenge our audience,” to get into this song, and we want to do that, and then it [has] some of my favorite words that I had written. The first verse speaks to my old relationship and then the second verse speaks to the new relationship that I was starting into, and those ideas. So in a way, “On The Water” acting as the opener for the album kind of closes and takes away some of that intensity from In Evening Air, but it also kind of closes it off and begins this new journey and this new thing. That’s not something that happened on purpose, that’s just what it is and the way songs are written. They are a timeline of our lives. They are a timeline of especially my life as I’m writing the words.
Looking at “Apology,” which was the first song written right after my break up from In Evening Air, “Apology” and “On The Water” actually have some similarities, but they come from very different places. All of In Evening Air is very temperamental and there isn’t that [sense of] understanding in all of the songs. Understanding grows through some of the songs, like by the time we wrote “Inch Of Dust” there’s an understanding and a letting go, but there is still anger within that. I feel that within this album, unintentionally, there is a great deal of acceptance of love lost, and that’s just because of the time that has passed. That’s us growing older. That’s just maturity of life. And I think that’s good.
I don’t think that’s the last time I’ll write a fiery song or something that just burns me, but it was kind of nice for me to feel through my words that I was growing a certain understanding and finding an acceptance within life, and allowing that to be something that I could share with other people. Like instead of saying [to my audience], “This is how I feel and I know you’ve felt that way,” it is saying, “This is how I’ve felt and you’ll feel this way too, but it’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid of that. This is life and that’s just what it is,” and that’s a big difference. But I really think that that’s just a factor of growing older and going through these things and understanding them. That’s why I try to share the truth of my life, and these things are kind of truths of life.
So I do feel like On The Water sits back a bit. But only in its tone. I feel like there’s still so much there, and even a greater honesty and understanding behind it, where maybe In Evening Air was a bit too cutting and aggressive at times. That’s just a person being put to judgment because they don’t quite understand. Because there is an understanding [behind On The Water], I feel like it is a more honest album. Although I feel like In Evening Air was a very honest album. I feel like I’m just now hitting on certain things here.
NR: Any plans to do anything different with the live performances for this album tour?
SH: We’re toying with some ideas, but I don’t imagine anything will come to fruition before 2012 with additional musicians. Honestly it’s just really a matter of what we can do now as far as monetarily just getting by. We’ve always considered ourselves to be punk regardless of the music we make, just because we’ve always made music with the means we had at our disposal, and we just can’t do it yet. But I’m excited to see what’s going to happen. There’s a possibility of William [Cashion] maybe playing some guitar on stage, but these are all things that are up in the air and we’re just going to figure them out as they come along. We’ve just starting working on playing the songs from the album that we haven’t played live – the three songs that we wrote when we were down in Elizabeth City. So, that’s going to be our aim. As we learn those songs we’ll see how things work.
But we’re going to be doing a few things. It’s all technical stuff like separating drums and keys and bringing additional amplification on stage, just to get a cleaner sound, so that we can allow for an engineer to maybe mix us a bit better. It’s kind of simple things at this point but we’ll see how it goes in the future. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll just have an orchestra around us [laughs] but we’re not quite there yet. For me, I almost do it a little different live just to make it different – to be a bit rawer, to be a little more stripped down. Of course people want to hear what they hear on the album, but I honestly kind of enjoy when it’s a little bit different. People can listen to the album all they want but when you go to a show you want to challenge people a bit and give them something more. I don’t think of it as less by not having certain parts there, I think of it as more. So we’ll see.
We’ve been playing with the idea of bringing a drummer back into the set up for a while, but once again that’s still something that’s up in the air and unresolved. I really want to just start writing again, and as we start writing with the new set up we can start figuring out these other things and start separating certain things and seeing what we can do with other sounds and brining in other sounds on our own, we’ll figure out how we can expand that or if we need to expand that.
But first we just have to get a bigger van so we can fit somebody else in it. That’s the first step.
NR: Would you ever do a Future Islands “Unplugged”?
SH: We have. We did three of four performances, a lot of them at the beginning of this year. We put out that acoustic record at the end of last year in September, we put out Future Islands Undressed, which was four of our songs: “Tin Man;" “Long Flight;" “Little Dreamer;" and “In The Fall." We did this acoustic album and we did a few acoustic shows. It was kind of something we just did and then Thrill Jockey fell in love with these recordings, and it worked out that we put this recording on a record. It was never the intention to put in on a record but that’s just what happened.
It was a lot of fun to do it. For me especially, I really like the stripped down version of – well, I guess it’s not so stripped down when you’ve got six of us on stage instead of three – you’ve got more instruments but it’s not as dense. It’s beautiful. For me, it really allowed me to show the tenderness of the songs. A sound doesn’t need to be loud, and I don’t need to be jumping around and pulling at my heart to show you that the song is going to make you jump around and you pull at your heart. These are songs that – past the keyboards and drums and bass – if you take away those elements, these are simple, beautiful songs.
I really enjoy sharing that with people in a different light, but we don’t really plan on doing that in the future. Maybe it’s because so many people liked it too much and we didn’t want to go all the way down that road, but we’ll see if something happens in the future and we could allow ourselves to do something more like that again. Maybe if Joanna Newsom calls, and she wants the “Future Islands Unplugged” set to open for her on tour, then I’d totally be down. Let’s do this.
NR: What are you most looking forward to about Hopscotch?
SH: I guess I’m most excited about just being there and enjoying the festival with good friends – our North Carolina friends are going to be there, but also our friends from the road. We are kind of still new to the festival culture and we’ve only done a few festivals before. We’ve actually spent some time overseas in Europe at festivals, and that’s a little different, just because we don’t necessarily know the bands. But the few festivals we’ve done in the states are kind of fun, just to feel that camaraderie within a larger scale of music where you’re bumping into people that you get to play little shows in Brooklyn with, and all the sudden you are in a city or out in a field with thousands of people, and you’re getting to hang out with your good friends who you don’t get to see too often.
So that’s what I’m most looking forward to – just being there and experiencing it. Last year we were only there for one day for our show, and we got to see some good buddies but then we were off the next day and flying to Europe. But this time around we made sure that we had all three days off in time for when we got back, so that could go down there, enjoy ourselves, see friends, see music, and then do our thing and play our show and get home safe the next day. So that’s all really exciting.
Of course I’m really excited to see The Flaming Lips! I’ve never seen them perform before. That’s going to be the big one for me. But there are a lot of bands like Xiu Xiu, The Swans, our buddies Liturgy – who are amazing – and PC Worship. I can’t even remember because there are so many bands playing. We get to hang with our buddies Lonnie Walker, which is always a pleasure and it’s been a little while since I’ve seen them play. I actually pulled this list up a little bit ago so I could stare at it and then I think I’ve lost it, but yeah, there’s going to be all kinds of good stuff going on.
Plus, I’m going to be over at Poole’s [Diner] and I’m going to probably check out Beasley’s [Chicken & Honey] and eat some food. I’m going to eat so much barbeque! I can’t wait! I can’t wait!
NR: You’re also going to be speaking about songwriting at the Artists & Authors series. Can you give us a preview of what you’re going to be talking about?
SH: Yeah, I’m really, really excited about that! I’m really glad you told me what I’m going to be a speaker about, though, so now I can come up with some stuff. I actually had no idea what it was about. I was just going to roll in there and assume that nobody was going to ask me any questions because of all these other luminaries on stage. I have no idea. I think it’s best to shoot from the cuff though and just figure it out on the spot. I’m really honored to be a part of that and really happy that Grayson [Currin] asked me. I was really surprised. Like I said, it’s an honor just to be with those people on the stage.
I can talk about songwriting all day. So I might just take over the whole thing for myself. And that will be fine with me.
Photo by Monique Crabb.