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.
Watch meek-voiced Idahoan Trevor Powers (aka Youth Lagoon) give a powerful in-studio performance.
Pitchfork’s often criticized for its enormous sway on consumers, which — from time to time, whether intentionally or without intention — it wields to blow bands up (see: Broken Social Scene) or completely and viciously implode them.
Having nabbed Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” accolade on its recent debut, “The Year of Hibernation,” barely legal Youth Lagoon most definitely qualifies as the latter, and deservedly so. Watch this beautifully lit video for the song “July,” where Powers draws you in with his airy mumbles and plinky piano playing before ratcheting up the drama into a kick-drum-powered funeral march.
I’ve been listening to this guy’s album for a few weeks now and can verify that several songs on it go from frail to triumphant in mere, wonderful moments. “Posters” and “Afternoon” both get capped by welcome dance beats, the production all fuzzed out and swirling around them. It’s a great record about growing up, and I’m excited to say I’ll be seeing him in Denton, Texas, next week. Watch “July” over at Pitchfork.
OKG7 things to do Gazette staff
Compared to Rancid and Green Day, up-and-coming punk band JuiceheaD
performs Friday at Big Papa’s Pour House, 3034 N. Portland, so you can
ask them, “What’s up with that capital D on the end?”
I later caught up with synth player Ryan Engleberger and multi-instrumentalist Graham Ulicny to talk about the band’s hometown, extroversion and why its debut EP is named “Oblange Fizz Y’all.”
OKSee: What’s the music scene in Athens like right now?
Engleberger: Athens is really interesting, because there’s this constant tension between people like Graham and I, who are townies who moved there because there’s a lot to offer that isn’t related to the University of Georgia. Then there’s the U of Georgia side that’s Andrew and William. We actually represent a pretty good merger of townies and school kids.
Sometimes people who write for publications take sides and create divisions when there aren’t really any. But we all play with each other. It’s hard not to be influenced by one side, if you’re the other.
OKS: What’s each side specifically known for?
Engleberger: I think the stereotype is that the townies are a little weirder. Then the UGA side is frattier.
OKS: Explain the title of your EP. Because I don’t know how to pronounce or what the hell it means.
Engleberger: The title is actually a combination of a couple of ancient, now-defunct languages. And also English. You can find “fizz” in the Oxford English Dictionary. To fizz. To have fizzed. Having been fizzed.
Graham Ulicny: Desperately want to fizz. To fizz oblangley.
Engleberger: Right. “Oblangle” is a combination of words from ancient languages. There’s a symbol from a Mayan word, a Latin word and not Czech, but a precursor to Czech. There’s a combination of that, the deep linguistic studies we all do. I think mostly, it’s just from the sonic, train-of-thought conversations we have that don’t always make sense, but have to do with us making sounds and reciting things that we maybe have half-learned before. It just kinda came up.
OKS: Did you guys study linguistics in school?
Engleberger: I totally made that up. I studied Latin for a bit, I guess.
OKS: Why do you guys go full steam ahead into synthesizer-driven melodies?
Engleberger: I think the melody-heavy part is because of pop songs. Pop songs are all about melody. We wanted experimental elements, but mostly we want to record songs that people will listen to and enjoy, you know? We want to mess with them and take them out of their comfort zone, but in order for them to get into it, there has to be a good melody. Graham studied jazz, and it’s all about melody. A lot of really complicated stuff spins out of that, but that’s the basis.
Ulicny: It’s about a communal experience. There’s a lot of ways to enjoy music in a crowd, but we’re always looking to encourage people to be extroverted. And the best way to do that is to have something relatable, like a melody. And energy onstage.
OKS: And you guys are nothing if not extroverted, onstage.
Watch Milagres put on a mobile show before their date with Opolis last month.
Probably the single thing I regret most from the month of October was going home for the night instead of sticking around Opolis to hear Milagres’ harmonic indie goodness. So far, this month’s biggest regret is virtually the same: I ditched out on the Future Islands show, again, to catch up on my Zs.
As much as I love hearing live music, not being a zombie is also very important to me.
Getting to reprise my role as a sound guy and ride around in Jonathan Fowler’s “VDub Sessions” Vanagon with Milagres and the namesake of Peter Wolf Crier was a more-than-nice consolation prize, however, and the song “Halfway” even managed to latch its irresistible hooks into my brain, which has since been unable to dislodge them.
As always, Nathan Poppe’s “VDub Sessions” work is terrific. We even managed not to crash the van, although some poor freshman — admit it, you did it the first month you lived in Norman, too — drove the wrong way down Gray Street mid-performance. Almost everybody in the band noticed, including the singer for Milagres, which earns them all bonus points for performing under duress. Watch:
Metro rock’s Theatre Breaks Loose may do that with its new album, which tosses out all those annoying ‘bells and whistles.’
Music Joshua Boydston Theatre Breaks Loose with Defining Times, Command The Clouds, Wings Of The Wave and Greater Estates 6 p.m. Saturday The Conservatory 8911 N. Western conservatoryokc.com 607-4805 $10 advance, $12 door
Watch shirtless, sweaty rockers WU LYF bring the noise two times inside an underground club in Paris.
One of the Internet’s consistently best things is La Blogothéque’s Concerts à emporter, or Takeaway Shows if you’re an unsophisticated American. Video producer Vincent Moon regularly captures the finest storytelling details of the planet’s best bands, whether performing in actual concert (as WU LYF does, below) or in some out-of-context staging that spontaneously spotlights the band’s strongest music sensibility (see Local Natives’ soaring vocal harmonies in a spacious shopping mall, for instance).
In WU LYF’s case, the sepia tones here really match that lush organ that haunts every one of their songs, hanging over the aggressive, soaring sonic mess they create with each performance. Also, it’s just nice to actually have some video of their performance; proof that they’re actually a real thing. Their relative anonymity is one of the reasons I liked the mysterious Englishmen’s debut album so much, and these two tracks, “Summas Bliss” and “Heavy Pop” just made me really sad that they’re busy bouncing between Europe and the American coasts.
Also, massive respect for the Clarence Clemons shoutout in between songs. May the Big Man rest in peace.
Also, turns out the band just put out a video for the song “We Bros.” It’s below.