Indie Matt Carney
Baltimore, Md. is so very rich with quality music right now. Bands like
Beach House, Wye Oak and Animal Collective (AC relocated to NYC, but
some of their first media coverage came from Baltimore City Paper) have established themselves as national-caliber indie acts with large-scale sounds to boot.
The indie-lit popsters’ singer talks songwriting, Wye Oak and pent-up aggression.
In case it isn’t clear from Future Islands singer Sam Herring’s unabashedly outward and dramatic performances, he recently underlined the fact that his band is all about applying their art-school convictions to infectious music over the phone.
“We’re a synth-pop band,” he said. “And yet we’re trying to add our own voice to the conversation. What do we as artists have to put into this?”
While there’s nothing in contemporary pop music that can claim similarity to Herring’s guttural, direct register, Gerrit Welmer’s keyboard melodies float high and clear above the guitars and drum machine sounds, just the way you’d expect from a great New Wave band that pours emotive, literary lyrics over pulsing, Joy Division rhythms (see “Vireo’s Eye”).
They’re playing at Opolis tonight, but OKSee caught up with Herring last week to discuss fellow Baltimoreans Wye Oak, songwriting and just why they sound so aggressive.
OKS: Where are you guys on the road right now?
Herring: We’re just leaving Pittsburgh right now on our way to Cleveland. It’s a short drive, so we got an amazing breakfast and we just actually got out of the Warhol Museum.
OKS: Tell me about the music scene in Baltimore right now, because it seems to be teeming with experimentation in a whole lot of different styles, not just one or two. There are guys like you, Wye Oak and band I happened across a couple of months ago called Small Sur that are all just wonderful and fearless and different.
Herring: One of the things that’s beautiful about the scene there is the variation in the music people are making. In our group of friends, it’s not like people are making music that’s comparable to us necessarily. The thing that unifies everybody the most is the want to play and support each other, to see what others are doing, and to get inspired off of that. We’ve been told that by a lot of musicians and friends.
That’s the beauty of the community. There’s a lot of genuine curiosity. In some scenes they’re known for a certain sound, but in Baltimore ... if you look at the band’s coming out of there, it’s all very different and I think what runs common through them is their hard work.
I don’t know if it’s because it’s a small enough city that there’s a collective consciousness-type thing — like in New York where you’ve got 10 bands doing this sound, 10 bands doing that sound, and 10 bands doing another sound — maybe there is a bit of that art-school mentality where people are adding to the conversation instead of canning things. It’s a healthy competition. Everybody’s very supportive. It makes us a stronger scene.
OKS: I saw Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak contributed vocals to your album. She’s played here in the OKC area like three times in the last five or six months, and I still wish I could see them more. Herring: They’re amazing. They play real hard.
OKS: Agreed. What’d she bring to “The Great Fire” that you can’t hear on the track?
Herring: The song was written and then, after playing it live a few times, we decided that it might be nice to bring in a female vocal as a new dynamic. I got the guys’ blessing to ask Jenn if she was up for it. She was really excited.
I sent her the song and said, “I want you to sing the second verse and then follow me on the choruses. Do you want to rewrite the second verse? What works for you?” and she said, “No, I like the verse, I like the words.” It was her idea to intertwine the vocals so it’d sound like they were shadowing each other, which I think was beautiful. She brings a softer side to what I think people imagine we’re like. I toned down my vocals to let her be the strong character.
She lifted that song with her vocals. We went into the studio, she sang it a couple times and I asked if she could do a sonic scale at the end and she just blew it away. I think she did five or six takes and me and Chester, our producer, were sitting in the other room just jumping up and down, high-fiving each other like “This is gonna be awesome!”
Now I kinda sing the lines the way she sings them, ’cause I like the way she does it better. It was a lot of fun.
OKS: It doesn’t sound too much to me like you guys write lyrics while strumming a guitar or playing a piano. Walk me through your process.
Herring: Some songs come along easier than others. Right now, we’re working on a new song and I’m workshopping it and playing with melodies, but that’s only one out of three songs where I take a couple days on it to try to figure out what I’m trying to say.
Oftentimes, it is pretty much just us sitting in a room, with Gerrit playing keyboard or piano or organ, and William plucking a bass, with me just sitting back and seeing if anything happens, seeing what words pop up. Sometimes Gerrit will come up with a really strong song structure and then William and I will work on our respective parts to go with it.
I enjoy writing like that because I feel like it’s a really solid process. It’s however they pop up, and they yield different results. I think it’s good to have variations in writing styles and seeing what happens.
Usually, I’ll feel out the music for myself, see where it takes me and freely write fine melodies that speak to me. And like I said, sometimes they come really easy — I’m like, “How did I write that?” — and then there’s other songs where I’m like, “I know exactly how I wrote that: I fought over those two lines for days and days and days trying to decide if it was bullshit or not. Or if it was worth it, or if I was taking a chance, or if I was taking too much of a chance, those kinds of things.”
You have to be a critic as well as an artist. You have to trust it when you’re right on point, questioning if you’re doing something new, or if you’re using a cliché for yourself or against yourself. I think there’s a lot to be said for talking about clichés. I love to flip a cliché. Like, “I’m going to make this mine.”
OKS: All these songs on “In Evening Air” sound really tense in that all the aggression and drama seems subterranean. It’s not always easily evident, and it’s not angry either. Why is that?
Herring: In telling a good story and allowing a buildup of tension, then breaking that ... the punk aesthetic’s a big part of us, from way back. We’ve always made music with whatever means were possible, and we’ve done it hard, done it sweaty and done it dirty.
There is that force, but I’d chalk it up to building tension within a song, because it’s gripping. I really want to grab people onstage. Not physically, but I want the performance to be gripping and to affect. We want to move people physically and emotionally. If we can get one of those it’s great, and if we can get both, it’s amazing. Having that catharsis is the goal.
“Long Flight” is the perfect example of that, where it’s just kinda smooth, there’s this repetition, then the second verse which is a little bit heavier, some repetition, then the third verse and the last chorus just breaks everything — it’s all out. While it builds to this climax of force and anger, we’re also letting go of it all. That’s what it’s like in writing — especially for me — writing a song so you can understand certain aspects of myself, so I can put it out, I can perform that song and build to that release.
Or I don’t know, maybe Gerrit and William have a lot of rage inside of them that I don’t know about.
Future Islands play Opolis Friday, supported by fellow Baltimoreites Ed Schrader’s Music Beat and Mike and Mike. Their third full-length album, "In Evening Air," is out now.