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Exclusive Q&A: Future Islands Gaze Out 'On the Water'

OurStage Exclusive InterviewsFuture Islands is one of those few bands whose bizarre name is actually very indicative of the kind of music they create. The group has become known for their unique post-wave synthpop sound, centralized around the haunting vocals of Samuel T. Herring, that makes you feel as though you’re stuck on a cold and deserted island filled with alien technology. Getting their start in North Carolina as fellow art majors at East Carolina University, Future Islands ultimately moved to Baltimore to become regulars of the indie community there. However, for their recently-released album On the Water, the band made a pilgrimage back to their roots both physically and musically. To tell us about this voyage back in time, vocalist Samuel T. Herring and guitarist/bassist William Cashion took some time to take us inside their creative process and how they were able to incorporate outside elements into their latest work.

Future Islands

OS: You’ve described On the Water to be a concept album about “two parallel journeys”one physical and one psychological”. Does this tie into your own experience as a band or as writers?

SH: Well the concept came secondary to the writing and recording of the songs, a definite afterthought in finding the common thread that tied the songs together to form the album. I do believe in those parallel journeys, however, in that this album moves us through a landscape while also on a journey for something internal from that external change. It definitely ties into my personal experience. Those songs are of my life, and my own questions and hopeful answers. I think it’s pretty indicative of our writing process too, creating first and finding the meanings later. Instead of over-thinking, and putting process before inspiration. The journey is inherent.

OS: The opening track starts off with ambient sounds”is this intended to set the mood for the entire album? Where did those sounds come from?

WC:  I have a fancy little hand-held digital recorder, and one night Chester and I went “sound hunting” around Elizabeth City.  The sounds at the beginning of the record were recorded across the street on the docks.

SH: We all had those recordings in mind and set aside for that purpose. It may seem redundant for some, but for anyone that grew up near the water or had a dock close to home that they would walk down to, it’s an essential form of nostalgia that sets the tone for the album.

Future IslandsOS: How did having a specific concept for the album affect the actual recording process? Did it make things easier when putting together the songs for the album? Did the theme inform what sounds you used?

SH: As I said before, the concept was secondary to the completion of the songs. In the completion of the album, the concept was wholly important, and became the binding element, creating the flow that we wanted to establish with this group of songs. It’s important, to us, that we create complete “albums”, so finding a sequence of songs that informed movement and discovery within the framework of these vignettes helped us to communicate something greater. At least, that is our hope.

OS: Future Islands was originally formed in North Carolina but is now based in Balitmore. Was deciding to go back to North Carolina to record this album important towards the creative process or was it a more practical/logistical decision?

WC: Being secluded and free from distractions was the most important aspect of our going to North Carolina. Our friend Abe pretty much let us take over his house for ten days, and that gave us a lot of freedom to focus on writing and recording.

SH: Yeah, Abe had just moved back home and invited us down to hang or record or whatever. It was a perfect bit of chance.

OS: You had a few NC locals like Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Double Dagger’s Denny Bowen contribute to the recording. Was it a challenge to get them on the same page as the band? How did having them there affect the dynamic of the group?

WC: Well, their parts were all tracked separately, but their contributions are very important to the album.  Since we’ve toured with Double Dagger & Wye Oak, I feel like we’re already on the same page, and recording with them seemed natural. Jenn really gave new life to “The Great Fire” and Denny’s drumming added more depth and feeling to the otherwise electronic drums.

OS: Future Islands always has really striking cover art. When you got together with Elena Johnston for this album, did you give her direction as to the album’s content?

WC: Thank you. We decided that we wanted the album art to be loose and abstract for this album…We wanted washes of color. The cover is actually an excerpt of a painting that Elena had already created. We looked through a lot of her work and eventually decided on the piece that’s on the cover.

Find out where you can pick up On the Water and catch the band at a show at Future Island’s official Web site. And feel free to check out the music video for “Before the Bridge” below!