Synthpop trio Future Islands have released three almost perfect albums in fairly short order: Wave Like Home (2008), In Evening Air (2010) and On the Water (2011). But their musical history is much longer, deeper, weirder than that. The former art students - Samuel T. Herring, William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers met at East Carolina University and formed Art Lord & The Self-Portraits in 2003 with Adam Beeby, and Kymia Nawabi. After a few albums and a few tours, Nawabi and Beeby dropped off, the group moved to Baltimore, and Future Islands was born.
Their adopted town of Baltimore and adopted collective Wham City helped the former Art Lords find their sound. Wham City a rollicking art and music collective including circus conductor/composer/producer Dan Deacon and 20ish other comedians, authors, musicians and innovaters overflowed out of Charm City with their oddball antics. Those antics were executed by sincerely talented performers, though. And Future Islands is perhaps the most sincerely talented group of the bunch.
I spoke with bassist William Cashion, whose basslines careen in and out of tracks, grounding their soaring sound, before their Bloomington date.
NUVO: Are you still in the pattern of playing basement shows when you go back to Baltimore secret shows? Or is it just the official venue scheduled shows now?
Cashion: We do some secret stuff. We'll play like a warehouse space or an art gallery with an outdoor space. There's a really great art gallery downtown called Current Gallery and they have an outdoor space that they set up in the summertime. We did a show there this past summer and we announced it the week of, as sort of a secret show. We love playing those kind of spaces, for sure.
NUVO: So, I have to tell you, In Evening Air was a really good breakup album for me. What are some of your favorite breakup songs?
Cashion: Uh, wow. That's a tough question, like listing your favorite songs. There's all kind of those old 1950s pop songs that are about breakups, I can't think of any off the top of my head right now. Like "Teardrops on My Pillow" [by Sunny Gale]; it's from like a compilation of forgotten songs of the fifties. That's a really good one. That general style, I think, kind of captures that. Love has always been a theme for rock and pop music back in the day.
NUVO: Tell me about the connection between the album art and your two recent full-lengths.
Cashion: Kymia Nawabi did the art for our first two albums. She was in Art Lord originally. She played keyboards and tambourines. She was a senior when we were all freshman, [then] she graduated and went to grad school in Florida. ...
Once Future Islands had a proper album, we just approached her about it and sent her the music. The Wave Like Home album cover was painted while she was listening to the record and inspired by the music. For In Evening Air, the cover was a piece that she had finished before listening to the record and she sent it over thinking it might fit. We loved it a lot. And the artwork for On the Water was done by my girlfriend Elena Johnson. I'm actually in her van right now, we're driving around Baltimore right now.
NUVO: What is your intended destination?
Cashion: We're dropping a friend off at the airport right now.
NUVO: : Ah, going to the airport is terrible, I think.
Cashion: It's not too bad. (Editor's note: This was said in a way to make me think certainly that driving someone to the airport IS that bad.)
NUVO: So you've been on a pretty extended tour for a bit now; what have been some of your most memorable shows on this tour?
Cashion: Like I was talking about earlier, the summertime show at Current Gallery, the outdoor show, that was a lot of fun. A bunch of our friends, "Chester Gwazdawho's our producer, and our friend Bamboo. they were doing their first like two-week tour with two new projects from Baltimore. It was actually their homecoming show.
We approached them because we wanted to play that space and they were like "Definitely! Let's do that, that'd be awesome." That show was special. We slowly started writing songs for the next record and debuted like two or three brand new songs that night. It was great to play those brand new fresh songs for a hometown crowd and test them out and see what they think.
The West Coast is always really great; we just got back from a West Coast tour. We played Honolulu about a month ago and that was actually a really amazing. A couple hundred people came out; we were shocked that people out there knew who we were. Some of those people like knew the words and I think other people were just curious to check it out. It was a really good turn out. We spent a whole week there and got a beach house and stayed for a week. That was the last show before our month off.
NUVO: I heard Honolulu has a pretty interesting punk scene, actually.
Cashion: Yeah, there's a really cool band called Tank Mist [there]. They're pretty sweet guys.
NUVO: What is the future of synthpop? There's been a 21st century revival: where do you think it's going and where would you like to see it go? Is Future Islands going with it?
Cashion: I feel like our music is becoming more and more organic. We're moving away from the synth pop vibe but were still using some of the same instrumentation. I think there'll be more synthpop for years to come. The technology is getting better for this kind of stuff and I think there's some really classic stuff from the late '70s and '80s and even the '90s. I think that will still continue to inspire young people to try and make that kind of music.
That was definitely the vibe we were feeling early on, when we were first making music. A lot of people just have keyboards laying around these days. It's easy to get a keyboard with some beats on it and figure out some chords and just do it. I think it's a lot easier to make that kind of music now than it was with sequenced drum machines and all that fancy stuff in the early '80s. It's always been a mainstream thing and I think the mainstream will continue to use elements of synthpop in the future.
NUVO: What do you remember from times you've played in Bloomington before?
Cashion:We played at The Bishop back when In Evening Air came out. We played as Art Lord and Self-Portraits with Dan Deacon in a park in 2005. We were supposed to play in this DIY punk basement but the cops shut the venue down the night before so we showed up and they had decided to move it to this park in the city. We plugged in our stuff under this picnic pavilion. It was kind of funny because I would be standing in the grass getting shocked while playing my bass, because the grass was wet.
NUVO: I read [in another interview] that you were listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac on this tour.
Cashion: Yeah, I've been listening to them a lot on this break. Me and Sam both kind of frequent the record stores here. When we're on tour, we try to check everything out. I'm addicted to buying records. I've been listening to a lot of Robin Guthrie, from the Cocteau Twins. I always listen to a lot of the Flaming Lips in the fall. I think this fits this time of year.
NUVO: Have you been to a Flaming Lips show? They get weird really, really weird.
Cashion: Yeah, I saw them for the headphone concert for the Soft Bulletin in like 1999. It was in a pretty small intimate venue; the capacity was like 400. It was really great, getting covered in confetti and stuff.
NUVO: Did [Wayne Coyne] roll on top of you in the hamster ball?
Cashion: It was a little bit before the ball. They had just started doing the whole thing with confetti. I remember they had somebody with a bunny suit come out during "She Don't Use Jelly" and dance among the crowd.