Opening night at Whartscape, and Future Islands was about to play a rare acoustic set. They had only performed their songs acoustic once before, at an art gallery earlier that month.
“We practiced late that night and early this morning,” singer Sam Herring confessed.
Yet the acoustic approach to their music left people talking, and months later, the band released Undressed, an acoustic EP of a few of their songs from In Evening Air. The songs, featuring guitar, cello, and other instrumentation by guest friends, are highly poignant, adding more of a sense of lingering romance and nostalgia to their ballads.
Just back from Europe, Future Islands is setting off another U.S. tour this week, coming to the Black Cat Thursday night with Lonnie Walker and the Romantic States. Bassist William Cashion took a moment to discuss their tour and transitions with us.
All Our Noise: Tell me about the transition from North Carolina to Maryland. How’d you guys decide to venture up to Baltimore?
William Cashion: We met Dan Deacon on his first tour, which I think was back in the summer of 2004. It was a short, six-day tour and he played with us in our hometown of Greenville, N.C. A month later, he wrote us about setting up another show for him, so we played again together in Greenville a little bit later. Then the following month he’d come right back down. He was constantly on the road and made it a point to come to Greenville, because shows there were always rowdy and fun. Each time he would come back, he’d be on tour with a different band from Baltimore … Bands like Height, Videohippos, OCDJ, Santa Dads, Ecstatic Sunshine, Blood Baby, and Ponytail. In this way, we got to know a large portion of the Baltimore music scene while we still lived in North Carolina. During all of this, Dan was constantly urging us to move to Baltimore. In 2007, after I’d graduated college and all three of us were living in different cities, we sorta decided to move to Baltimore. We moved up in waves … starting with me, then Sam, and eventually Gerrit about six months after I moved up. The move up to Baltimore allowed us to really focus on our music, to take ourselves and what we did a bit more seriously.
AON: I get the sense that the video for “Tin Man” shows the transition from your hometown to your new home. It also seems to serve as a poignant tribute, as there seems to be a lot of personal symbolism and psycho-geography (personal connections with landmarks and locations).
WC: Yes. That’s exactly what we were going for when Jay Buim (director) came to us with this idea; we all got pretty excited about it, and we just sorta went around to various old haunts of ours from childhood, college days and up into the present.
AON: There’s beautiful imagery already that gives us an idea in the “Tin Man” video- – jumbles of wires overhead, dust flying off of a ceiling fan, etc. This is all such a stark contrast from the shimmering beauty of the Carolina shores. So, does this imagery represent the places you’ve lived in Baltimore? If so, what was your first place like?
WC: Absolutely. That shot with Sam throwing a microphone cable over the ceiling fan, with dust flying off, that’s actually in the room where we recorded most of “In Evening Air” — it’s also the first house I lived in when I moved to Baltimore and where I was still living when we recorded the record. Sam still lives there. We used to record albums with our first band, Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, by hanging a microphone on the ceiling fan … So that shot, in a way, symbolizes where we came from, as a band.
AON: Do you guys have a favorite Baltimore venue?
WC: Floristree is one of our favorite venues in Baltimore. As far as “legit” clubs go, I always like going to the Ottobar.
AON: Did you ever come upon a moment of doubt when you began to question the direction of being a musician?
WC: Sure, I think most musicians have to deal with that doubt.
AON: Did you wonder about your identity and aesthetics as artists, or did you always feel comfortable with your lifestyle choice?
WC: I think everyone wonders about their identity in one way or another. I quit smoking this year, and I’m very happy about that lifestyle choice!
AON: I remember Sam saying that you guys barely went to shows when you were in high school. How does it feel now to be immersed in the rich and unique culture of Baltimore music?
WC: Oh, I went to a bunch of shows when I was in high school. I was in a band that played around Raleigh, N.C., a bunch, and we’d ocassionally drive to Dunn, N.C., to play the Oasis Bar to like, five to 10 dudes at the bar. I also used to haunt the Cat’s Cradle and Kings Barcade regularly back in those days. These days, it’s really awesome to be on the “other side” of it all. Performing in these clubs in cities all over the country is still really exciting, and I’m grateful that we’re a part of the amazing music scene in Baltimore.
AON: At Whartscape, you guys did an acoustic set aside from your usual performance. What inspired you to do so?
WC: I’ve always been intrigued by the rare acoustic set — like seeing Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, or the Cure play acoustic was always really special for me. The fact that we don’t even really use guitars that much made the idea of doing an acoustic show even more interesting for us. We had been talking about doing an unplugged show for a while now, and my girlfriend invited us to do an acoustic show at this art opening she had curated back in July. So we decided to take that opportunity to go ahead and see if our songs could actually translate to the acoustic format. Our friends Devlin, Denny and Kate did an awesome job playing acoustic guitar, drums and cello respectively, and I think it turned out beautifully! After that initial show at the art opening, there was an open-slot on the first night and Dan asked us if we would do another acoustic set, and we were happy to do it again at Whartscape!
AON: I’ve run through North Carolina while on tour with some friends, and I have to say, I was very impressed with the Night Light (I believe that was Chapel Hill, correct me if I’m wrong). I felt like I was in Future Islands territory: There were fliers on the front doors, on the wall. And the bathroom had fliers with names of EARPWR, Ed Schrader, etc. So, did you guys establish yourself there before or after you relocated to Baltimore?
WC: Yeah, we’re really good friends with the people at the Night Light! That was one of the first venues we used to play in Chapel Hill. We brought Dan Deacon there back on his first U.S. tour with Height. Ed Schrader & Double Dagger have also played the Night Light with us over the past few years. Back in 2003-07, before we moved up to Baltimore, we used to tour around North Carolina like crazy. I booked all the shows and I think, for some reason, it never dawned on me that we should leave the state. There were a few spring breaks where we’d tour up to the northeast, where it was all snowy … But for the most part, we frequented Wilmington, Greenville, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Charlotte and Asheville, N.C., playing house parties and venues all across the state, for years. It was always a big party.
AON: I first caught you guys at the Transmodern Festival at Floristree in 2009. I think that might have been the kick-off event for the Dan Deacon Ensemble. How did it feel to participate in that tour? Didn’t everyone ride together in a school bus fueled by recycled vegetable oil?
WC: Yep, I think there were 19 of us total, on a veggie-oil powered school bus. That tour was just insane. It was really great to be a part of that tour; I think we all learned a lot on that tour. Gerrit and I got to play on some pretty big stages to huge crowds being in the ensemble, and that was really fun. I also crowd-surfed for the first time during that tour — it was in Portland, Ore.
AON: Now you guys are completing international tours as headliners. Would you care to describe your recent tour methods and adventures?
WC: Skype. Call home every chance you get. It’s important to find out jokes from new friends you meet along the road. It’s even more important to make up jokes with the people around you, to keep yourselves sane and laughing. During our first European tour, we maintained by playing the card game Egyptian Rat-screw daily. Also, on our recent trip across the pond, we got to see a building get demolished in Glasgow! We thought there was some sort of market, because there were so many people around, so we walked up and discovered everyone staring at this one building, off in the distance … So we stood there for about 45 minutes until the building finally got demolished. It was awesome.
Future Islands plays the Black Cat tonight with Lonnie Walker and Romantic States.