Although Baltimore’s Future Islands have been given the indie label, their velvety, emotive, uniquely danceable, synth-heavy style resembles the dark and stylish New Wave and post-punk from the U.K. more than it does typical East Coast indie-rock, and anchoring the music is the bass guitar of founding member William Cashion.
The band formed in 2006 in Greenville, N.C. when the musicians were college classmates at East Carolina University. They performed as a quartet with a live drummer up until last year. Now, as a three-piece, Cashion carries a heavier burden as the rhythm section of the band. Fortunately, his bass tones and rhythmic patterns simultaneously drive the music and push the main melodies with ease.
"I was always a big fan of the way the Pixies' Kim Deal handled the bass lines," Cashion says, speaking last week on the eve of the band's three-week East Cost tour. "Obviously, Peter Hook from Joy Division and New Order was another big influence, but I don't mimic his wide stance and his stage antics, though. And I really admire the way the Strokes' Nikolai Fraiture plays his bass parts, especially on their first two albums. Maybe I'll get or lose cool points for saying that. I just think the bass is the centerpiece on those songs a lot of the time."
If Cashion's bass is the fulcrum, singer Sam Herring's oddly guttural style and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers wide array of keyboard sounds and effects are the spokes jutting off the music.
"Gerrit was programming things for the band before we ever got a drummer," Cashion says. "First, one drummer quit, and then another drummer quit, so now we're back to programming drum sounds. Gerrit's been doing it for years, so it works well."
During the sessions for their new studio album, On the Water (Thrill Jockey), Cashion added additional strings and guitar parts to songs in the studio as well. "I'll play them live in the studio, and we'll use samples of them on the stage," he says. "We all have a hand in the way the programming turns out."
A follow-up to their 2010 breakthrough In Evening Air, On the Water was produced by Chester Endersby Gwazda, perhaps best known for producing electronic musician Dan Deacon. Musical guests on the album include Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, who provides vocals on "The Great Fire," and Double Dagger's Denny Bowen on drums and percussion.
Overall, On the Water is a dynamic and intense album. Cashion's clever eighth-note bass lines often linger as the most memorable melodies. Lyrically, Herring explores themes of love and rejection and feelings of loss and nostalgia. Each tune can be an emotional roller-coaster, veering from pain and agony to ecstatic euphoria.
Musically, Future Islands serves up an art-show dance party with plenty of catchy minor key hooks. Suffice to say, On the Water is a tricky collection to define by genre.
Cashion says, "I guess we're a contemporary alternative band. We started calling ourselves 'post-Wave' a few years ago. A translated German review of our last album actually turned that into 'post office wave,' which made us laugh. People call us revivalist, like we're trying to do this throwback sound. While some of it is reminiscent of some of the music of the '80s, I think it relates to a lot of programmed pop music of today as well."
While Future Islands have earned critical praise and made fans along the way, some people don't get what they're doing at all, and that's fine with Cashion and his bandmates. "We don't even get it some of the time," Cashion says. "I saw one blog post that called us 'the new fake.' Some people think we're putting on, like it's all made up. We'll figure it all out eventually. We're very serious about this."