Future Islands finds its place in the EDM sea

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Future Islands flies in fresh from its European tour to push electronic dance music forward
at the Southern on Monday. Future Islands flies in fresh from its European tour to push electronic dance music forward at the Southern on Monday.

Throw the word “post” before the name of a music genre, and it can pretty much mean whatever you want it to. The members of Future Islands, an act caught somewhere in the limbo between indie rock and electronic dance music, once called themselves a “post-post” band.

Fortunately, the three-piece outfit is willing to get a little more specific these days.

“We describe it as post-wave dance music,” guitar player Will Cashion said in a recent C-VILLE Weekly interview. “It’s new wave and post-punk.”

O.K., so specificity may not be the band’s strong suit. What is its strong suit is bringing a passionate, theatrical spin to what can, at its worst, be a sterile genre. Mostly, the effect comes from the strained, dramatic vocals of Sam Herring, an otherwise unassuming, moonfaced boy-next-door who manages to hold audiences in the palm of his hand.

Herring said there’s more to Future Islands’ passion than his singing voice, though. “Will has a certain way he plays the bass, and then there are some soulful and R&B vibes that have been creeping in over the years,” Herring said. “Also, for a band that has electronic drums and keyboards, we have a very soulful way of finding sounds.”

That means programmer and keys player Gerrit Welmers doesn’t rely on the effects you might find on the Yamaha keyboard you got for Christmas in 1986. Herring said it also means trying to craft songs that have some measure of humanity in them and avoiding the “cold, monotone sound” of a lot of dance music and techno.

It’s not entirely unlike the efforts of EDM’s pied piper Daft Punk, who Cashion says dominated the 2014 Grammy Awards by “taking the electronica out of it” and relying on retro disco sounds to tap into the mainstream.

According to Cashion, both Daft Punk and Future Islands are part of a move toward a sort of musical homogeneity that will undoubtedly introduce a whole lot more “posts” into the vernacular of genre.

“I don’t know if it’s even considered electronica anymore,” he said. “There are country bands that are incorporating keyboards and drum machines. It’s creeping into everything.”

Likewise, Future Islands’ sound has crept into a variety of different areas as the years have floated by. Where the band started more as a punk outfit that just happened to use keyboards and electronic elements, the five-piece has trimmed down to a trio, focused its sound, and polished its songwriting to produce a more accessible, poppier catalog. Herring said he’s changed as a singer, as well. He once employed a gravelly growl along with his theatrical croon more readily than he does these days.

“There’s less angst in me. I think that’s just something that comes with growing old and maturing,” Herring said. “Even on [2011’s] On the Water, things were starting to cool.”

Herring’s growl still comes out occasionally, but the overall effect on Singles, the Future Islands album due out in late March, is a collection of more radio-ready tracks. Herring said he and the band reengaged with songwriting for the album, and he’s said in the past that the name references the fact that each song is intended to be able to stand on its own as a single.

Does that mean Future Islands has lost something in the way of cohesion from song to song on its latest LP? My advanced copy didn’t indicate it, and Herring himself believes the decision to get away from “complete albums that ebb and flow and chase their tails” has turned out to be a good one.

“The thing that unifies the album to me is that each song really has its own world,” he said.

Charlottesville will get a chance to hear some of the new tracks for the first time on the heels of Future Islands’ European tour, with the band flying in to play its March 23 date at the Southern. It’ll be an appropriate homecoming, according to Herring, as the band’s traveled down to this hamlet many times over the years from its hometown of Baltimore.

The Southern will be a larger venue than Future Islands has played here in the past—and had “some crazy nights”—but Herring said the contrast between an American and a European crowd will be all too familiar.

“European audiences aren’t quite as rowdy. They are more captive and pay more attention to what you’re doing,” he said. “At a sold out show in America, you have people going ape. They’re just having a good time with their friends.”

The audience at the Southern might be advised to keep an eye on the stage, though. Future Islands is a band that’s best understood in a live context. Where Herring can come off sounding like he’s doing a mediocre Phantom of the Opera rendition in some of the band’s studio work, it all makes sense when put together with his stage presence.

“A lot of bands worry more about the record,” Cashion said. “We’ve always wanted to get out of the garage and play shows. That’s the most pure form of making music.”

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