Future Islands is something like a postpunk band that plays keyboards instead of guitars, bassist William Cashion says. Someone once described them as "Joe Cocker singing for New Order. It's kind of an easy description," he says.
But in the early spring of 2011, the Baltimore-based band recorded On the Water, a record Cashion describes as a "little more focused" than the group's previous two albums. The new disc, recorded mostly in the seaside town of Elizabeth City, N.C., is full of watery synthesizers and flowing melodies. Inevitably, the music was influenced by the band's surroundings—Cashion said he even recorded the "clattering of the masts in the boatyard... directly across the street from us" with a field recorder. Cashion says he isn't surprised by the influence the water had on the record—he and his bandmates Gerrit Welmers and Samuel Herring all grew up near the North Carolina coast and attended college on the east side of the state.
"Maybe [the beach] brought some more of it out, but I think there's always been some of it in our music," Cashion says.
The beach-inspired album joined those of a growing number of artists whose muse is the sea. Bands like Best Coast, Surfer Blood, and Beach House (another Baltimore band) really hit their strides right around the same time On the Water was recorded. Artists associated with the chillwave movement, like Neon Indian, Panda Bear, and Ariel Pink, who base their sound on layers of '80s synth and simple pop melodies, also took off when Future Islands started recording. Future Islands somehow combines the two ideas in On the Water, especially on the track "Tybee Island," which was initially recorded on the beach.
The band wasn't planning to make a beachy record last year. An old friend and former roommate was living alone in a historic family house in Elizabeth City, and invited Cashion, Welmers, and Herring to live and record there. For 10 days, the band worked from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. recording On the Water.
Now, more than a year after recording On the Water, and with another tour under their belt, the band is releasing a 7-inch vinyl split single with former tourmates Ed Schrader's Music Beat. (The two bands played Pilot Light in January.) The record is being released by the New York label Famous Class as part of a series of records featuring previously unreleased songs from bands chosen by the label on the A-side. That band then chooses who will record the B-side song.
Cashion says choosing Music Beat was an obvious choice, as they've been touring together for the better part of a year. The song they chose to record for the record, though, took a little more time to come together.
"Cotton Flower" was written right after the band finished recording On the Water. Cashion says they played the song for a few months at the beginning of the tour for the album, but singer Samuel Herring was still working out the lyrics, and the song wasn't quite working.
"After a few months of not playing it, we kinda came back to it and took it back to the studio," Cashion says.
The release party was July 11 in New York, and kicked off Future Islands' summer tour. For four of the shows, including their stop in Knoxville on July 17, they'll be opening for Passion Pit.
"We've never met those dudes, and we have no idea what to expect," Cashion says. "We're not really sure what their audience will be like."
After Knoxville, Future Islands will continue to tour until the end of September, including stops in Europe, Canada, and Australia.
"Every time I look at our schedule coming up, it's like the calm before the storm," Cashion says. "We're super-stoked to go to Australia for the first time."
Their final show of the tour will be in Hawaii, which Cashion says he's also looking forward to. "I think we're going to take some time off and try to see Hawaii because we've never been there and always wanted to," he says.
During their stop here, the band will play the Valarium, though in previous stops in Knoxville they have played at the much smaller Pilot Light. "It's always fun to be on a big stage," Cashion says. But, he adds, Pilot Light is one of their favorite venues: "Maybe we'll pop over there and have a beer."
Despite a jam-packed tour schedule ahead of them, Cashion says the band wouldn't choose a different route to success.
"We definitely toured a lot over the years and we definitely plan on continuing. We've never really had anything handed to us, and i think that's a good thing," he says. "It'll pay off. There's something to be shown for hard work."