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Seeing into Future Islands

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There was one blowout fight between Sam Herring and William Cashion during their stay in Elizabeth City, N.C., this past spring.

Herring, the guts-on-his-sleeve singer of Future Islands, and bassist Cashion were at Thumpers Downtown Bar & Grill with keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers and producer Chester Endersby Gwazda after a long day of recording. Little did Herring know, Cashion and Gwazda were feeding him drinks with plans to later do "drunk takes," in which Herring would record vocals inebriated. Once the idea was exposed, the fun was over.

"I was like, 'I'm not doing this! My voice is important! It's not an instrument! You can't just play it when you want to,'" Herring says, mocking his anger in between sips of tomato soup at a Charles Village coffee shop. "I was wasted."

Herring is laidback in person but an animated frontman who punctuates many statements with a hearty laugh. And that argument now makes him laugh along with Cashion, a soft-spoken moustached man in knock-off Wayfarers, and the quiet Welmers, who spent the interview staring off, looking generally bored. But the singer had a point. His voice — a stirring, cathartic growl with the ability to impress, sadden and soothe — is important.

Since 2006, the Baltimore-via-Greenville, N.C., trio has cultivated a lush, nuanced sound, and Herring's Jekyll-and-Hyde singing is its centerpiece. The band's prominence has grown at home and outside, thanks to grueling tour schedules and a growing catalog of danceable break-up songs. They've been described as "post-wave," "post-punk" and "new-wave," but labels seem ill-fitting. Future Islands, a band of 27-year-olds who sweat it out on the road more than they are ever home, stick to what the members naturally gravitate to — propulsive backbeats, a sturdy low end, floating-in-mid-air synthesizers and Herring's vocal bloodletting. And anyone paying attention will notice each release is more refined than the last.

The evolution continues with "On the Water," the group's third and most accomplished album. Released on Tuesday, the 10-song album was recorded at a friend's waterfront house the band used as a studio and home.

The band's time in Carolina differed from last year's sessions for its sophomore album, which took place at Cashion and Herring's old home on the edge of Bolton Hill.

"For me and William, recording 'In Evening Air' really hurt our brains a lot," Herring says. "We couldn't escape because we were living there. We'd come downstairs and the house was a wreck with recording equipment."

This time, writing and recording were balanced out with breaks for "Eastbound & Down" DVDs, beers on the beach, baseball catches and cook-outs.

Being by the water triggered nostalgic memories for Herring and Welmers, who grew up as high school best friends on the North Carolina coast. Herring met Cashion in art class at East Carolina University, and the three became friends and bandmates, first in a five-piece called Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. That band shed a couple of members and eventually morphed into Future Islands.

Enter Dan Deacon.

Future Islands shared bills with the Wham City ambassador/electronic-music maestro, and a friendship was born. At the time, the arts movement Deacon headed was a magnet for quirky outliers and high praise, culminating in Rolling Stone naming Baltimore the "best music scene" in 2008. It was enough to draw the trio north, one at a time, that same year. But while the group is often associated with Wham City, they arrived at the party too late.

"We showed up in the wake of it," Cashion says, matter-of-factly. "So we've always gotten asked what it's like being a part of this crazy collective, but by the time we moved here, no one was living together. They got kicked out of the Copycat [Building in Station North]. We were never truly a part of that."

Still, the band is vocal about its pride for Baltimore's independent music scene. Even though Wham City's exposure has cooled, other local bands that "were starting to get recognition a few years ago are now the bigger bands," says Herring.

A member of one of those acts, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, sings on "The Great Fire," a slow-burning "On the Water" highlight of missed connections from guy-and-girl perspectives.

"If you let me be there, again / I'll be still, won't say a word," Herring and Wasner sing, full of longing, as their voices harmonize. Herring doesn't hesitate to say Wasner's contribution sold him on the song.

"I didn't love singing it until Jenn sang it, and then I stole her inflections the best I could," he says with a chuckle. "She has an amazing voice."

At this point, a disarmingly honest Future Islands song is as surprising as an Orioles losing season. It all comes back to Herring, a lyrical masochist. He's the same guy who discovered his girlfriend was sleeping with someone else while he was away on tour, and wrote a song about it. ("Long Flight" from "In Evening Air." I tell Herring the song crushes me whenever I hear it. "Me too, man," he says with a smirk.)

"I'm going to write a song that hurts because that's where the heart comes from," he says. "Me writing a happy song seems absurd to me."

The next move for Future Islands is a familiar one — tour America until December. Europe and Japan are on the itinerary for early next year. Cashion says the band will keep writing, and there could be a couple of 7" releases next year. Just don't expect a new album. Herring fidgets and nervously laughs at the idea. "We worked really hard on this one," he says, more exhausted than astonished.

A relentless tour schedule is nothing new for Future Islands. ("If you're a band these days and you sit on your ass, you're not going to make enough money to support yourself. That's what we understand — you get out on the road and do it," Herring says.) There are no plans to slow down because this is a serious band that operates as though it still has something to prove, not just to themselves but to their adopted home.

"It was important for us to get out of [North Carolina] and to show people that we're not just trying to steal the limelight [of Wham City]," Herring says. "We're a hard-working band."

wesley@bthesite.com
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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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