Romantic Post-Wave and the Tom Waits School of Voice: A Chat with Future Islands
"I really unabashedly am a bad singer," says Sam Herring of Baltimore's once rough-and-ragged—and now disarmingly introspective and motivic—Future Islands. He quickly qualifies the statement: "I don’t think I’m a bad singer, but I don’t consider myself a singer. I consider myself a performer who can sing a bit and does sing."
On the trio's upcoming record, In Evening Air, Herring's voice—an inflected, erudite growl, half Troggs and half armchair thespian—is a rewarding counterpoint to his lyrics, heartbroken and impressionistic, and Future Island's self-described "post-wave," a sometimes svelte, romantic take on synth-punk that feels spacious but not overloaded. The group plays tonight at the Black Cat.
"I’ll tell you, I sound 10 times better eight weeks into a tour because I’ve hit my stride," Herring says. "My voice is weaker but it’s somehow stronger. It’s been scarred over enough times."
A weakness for cigarettes and whiskey has been, well, helpful, if not always obviously so to Herring's friends. "I would tell them I was in the Tom Waits school of voice," he says.
"I try to completely let go of my voice, as much as I can," he says. "It’s funny that I get criticism—this guy is overly dramatic, he’s so soulful but it’s over this dance music. It’s the culture of pop music and electronic music that’s taken that soul out."
In other words: Expect more abandon than usually comes with drum machines and synths. Herring says he's used to being jumped on, rushed, and dogpiled during shows—most of the time, he manages to hold onto his mic despite the bruising. He wasn't so lucky last summer, though, when he toured as part of the Dan Deacon Ensemble in support of the junkyard-electronica musician's mammoth Bromst record. At a Paris gig, Herring was tackled by "this really drunk French kid." Six months later, he found out he'd torn his ACL, for which he had surgery this February.
Often on In Evening Air, Herring reaches those emotive highs. But on many songs—including some of the dancier ones—he sings in a softer, almost narrative voice. "We weren’t trying to make a party album," he says. That's never been the intention, ever since Future Islands formed from the ashes of its members' old band, Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. But the results—Future Island's scrappy and infectious 2008 album Wave Like Home, its entropic live shows—suggest otherwise. "I guess our music always came from the party atmosphere, but there’s always been that juxtaposition between what the music does and what I do."
The album, Herring says, chronicles a breakup he went through in 2008 while he was on tour, and the theme seeps into every lyric. Take the last song Herring wrote for In Evening Air, "Vireo's Eye," a ratchety anthem with a soaring chorus. "It would be so easy to just put nothing over it, and it would still be a great song," he says. "It was a challenge to me to write a final goodbye." Ultimately Herring concocted a sort of meta-pop coda: "Our own love has died through the medium of our music, and through our music I have chronicled the events of our love dying," he says. "The recurring line is, 'You are not my clementine and I am not your diamond's eye.'"
But as close as he is to his lyrics, Herring says he often reacts most strongly to the band's solely instrumental moments, the work of his bandmates J. Gerritt Welmers and William Cashion. Of one noisy fadeout on the record, he says: "It breaks my heart, and makes me so happy."
Future Islands perform with Double Dagger and Ed Schrader tonight at 9 p.m. at the Black Cat.