The map for making it in the music business isn’t what it used to be. There was a time, however unbelievable it might seem, when a band, through good songs, hard work, personality, and constant touring, could take off, get big, become an “it band.” Now, short circuits abound. Through instant press and instant distribution, bands are anointed, get huge for an album (or song or tour), and flame out in an instant. Witness high-profile wrecks like Wavves and the Black Kids.
Or witness a band like Future Islands, a semi-recent import to Baltimore’s hotbed of a music scene, a member of the in-demand Wham City collective, but an act that’s crept up the old-fashioned way, regardless.
“We’ve just worked really hard the last few years to get our music out to people,” says Sam Herring, the trio’s magnetic, Meat Loaf-meets-Jack Black frontman. “That’s what you have to do. We put ourselves out there, try to keep sane, and write as much as possible.”
Bassist William Cashion adds, “We always talked about touring non-stop and making music our day job, but it wasn’t until we all moved to Baltimore that we decided to really do that. The only way that it made sense to us was to quit our day jobs and stay on the road and hope to make enough money to pay our rent.”
And Baltimore is just the sort of music community that could make a band do something like quit their jobs, move into a crummy warehouse space, borrow a crummier van, and just effing do something. When you hit a critical mass of extremely creative, do-it-yourself people in a city, strange things start to happen; motivation seeps into the water table. Amazing grass-roots musical movements like the hip-hop/house mix Baltimore club, the experimental improv all-stars of the High Zero scene and its annual underground festival, and the giddy neon sounds of Wham City happen, producing artists like Dan Deacon, Blaqstarr, and Ponytail.
“There’s just a lot happening—new spaces, new music, new people,” Herring says. “But it still feels small. There’s a great deal of sharing and friendship, in my experience, between artists. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
It would be a mistake to try and place where exactly Future Islands fit into that network, because another defining Baltimore characteristic is that, despite a fair amount of getting lumped together by the national press, most bands and artists in the city are actively trying to sound different from one another—not trying to sound weird, but trying to sound new.
It’s already been two years since Future Islands released its full-length debut, Wave Like Home. The record shares the giddiness and bright colors of a significant part of Baltimore’s scene, synth-pop marked by commanding bass lines, tight programming, radiant synthesizers, and Herring’s distinctive vocals (see above). It’s home to powerful earworms like the triumphantly bouncing “Old Friend”; the fluttering, reflective “Heart Grows Old”; and the charming “Little Dreamer,” reworked this fall by Baltimore beatscaper Jones and Beach House’s Victoria LeGrand.
The record was released initially in Europe on Upset the Rhythm, and the band spread locally through word-of-mouth, buoyed more by a powerful, theatrical live show more than any affiliation with Baltimore’s buzz artists. They did a European tour, and stateside hype started to grow slowly.
“I think America starts taking bands a bit more seriously after they tour on the other side of the pond,” Cashion says.
Last spring, Dan Deacon debuted his “orchestra,” a 15-or-so-person ensemble set to perform the Baltimore scene pied piper’s latest opus Bromst. Cashion and programmer/synth wizard Gerrit Welmers were part of it, and Future Islands joined the tour as an opening band, giving the group their largest shows yet.
“Touring with Dan was really incredible,” Cashion says. “The audience response to Future Islands tended to be really positive. It was a great experience for us. I’ve found its so much easier to play in front of 500 to 1,000 people than it is to play in front of 50 to 100 people. There’s a different energy, and obviously its a more intimate experience with the audience. At those bigger shows, there’s a drastic separateness between performer and audience. We tried to make those shows feel like it was 50 to 100 people. We tried to make it as intimate as possible.”
Particularly after the very well-received release of the “Little Dreamer” reworking, Future Islands are at the height of their popularity.
“I always love playing ‘Little Dreamer,’ says Herring. “There are some older tunes that people request that are a little worn out. You know, it’s my hope that the songs will keep themselves fresh. ‘Little Dreamer’ changes meaning, for me, all the time. So it never feels quite the same. And as long as people want to hear our songs, then we’re doing all right.”