About an hour east of Raleigh, in a cabin in rural Johnston County, Baltimore dance-rock instigators Future Islands are reconnecting with their roots.
The band formed in Eastern North Carolina in 2006, emerging in Greenville from the still-warm ashes of its predecessor, the similarly electric and enthralling Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. On Valentine's Day, Art Lord will commemorate the 10th anniversary of its first show with its last gig of the foreseeable future and the release of The Definitive Collection, an archival set that preserves remastered live and studio selections from Art Lord's reign.
In the interim, they're holed up in this backwoods hunting lodge, relearning songs they haven't played in seven years and revisiting memories of the college-scene crucible that jumpstarted their career as Future Islands.
"We're out in the middle of nowhere, this nice plot of land by a lake. We've taken over the downstairs," explains vocalist Samuel Herring. Though the parcel is owned by the family of bassist William Cashion, with whom Herring has been in bands for more than a decade, this is the first time Herring's been to the property. "Seeing that we're career musicians now, they trust us with it."
Also at this hideaway are Herring's Future Islands cohorts, keyboardist Gerrit Welmers and Cashion. The trio has been playing together consistently and professionally ever since Art Lord split, with Future Islands signing a record deal with large indie label Thrill Jockey and becoming a headlining act on sweaty stages across the country. But the exes of Art Lord—Adam Beeby and Kymia Nawabi—are here, too. They haven't seen the same stage time in the last seven years, but the idea is to spend a solid week working out the Art Lord reunion set before playing Thursday night and, once again, going their separate ways.
"We're in this crazy hunting cabin with deer heads and antlers and crazy stuff everywhere, sort of rehashing these old memories," says Welmers. "It's been really fun."
But they're making the space their own (Cashion is using a gun rack to store guitars) and are taking the retreat seriously: During the day, Future Islands works on material for its next record, while Beeby runs the comic book store he owns in nearby Goldsboro. After he closes the shop, he drives out for nightly Art Lord practices.
The quintet was initially concerned about how easily they could remember the old material, but the weeklong stint has seen a strong start. Beeby says that, as Future Islands, Cashion, Herring and Welmers have developed professionalism in the seven years since Art Lord's end, a quality that has helped with the oft-methodical task of relearning old songs. Unlike his bandmates, Beeby hasn't touched a keyboard in years. But the memories make sense.
"The songs are like riding a bike," explains Cashion. "It's been pretty painless."
When Art Lord played its first show in 2003, Jeff Blinder had just moved to Greenville. He missed the band's first show, but he thinks he caught the second or third set.
"I had just gotten into town and started to know people right when they were hitting their stride and starting to be a really cool band to see in Greenville," he remembers.
Soon, inspired by the strength of the local underground, Blinder booked shows at area party houses and the Spazzatorium Galleria—an impressively programmed, albeit illegal, show space. Though Blinder now lives in Philadelphia, he remains active in Greenville music—in March, the fourth Spazz Fest, his multi-venue spectacular, will bring Future Islands back to their hometown.
So far, it's the only date the band has on the books for what they hope will be a year of limited touring. Future Islands have become a live marvel, with critic Jeremy D. Larson calling Herring's showmanship "one of the most fascinating things to watch on stage." That all started in Greenville with the old band.
"When I go to a Future Islands show in Philadelphia, to see a sold-out show, I move to the front and I see that same thing I saw when they were Art Lord," marvels Blinder, a 31-year-old who finds that the same energy which fueled his beloved Greenville underground still compels teenage fans to dance stageside at Future Islands shows. "They have that look on their faces like we did, when we were in Greenville in a house, like we were inside our own special joke."
Greenville's longstanding house scene, Blinder posits, stemmed from frustration with the college town's dance club-flooded downtown. Venue options were spotty to nonexistent, so the city's art school bands such as Art Lord threw their own parties. These outfits formed a hub for others touring on the underground circuit in the Southeast. This is how Art Lord, and later Future Islands, became close friends with electronic composer Dan Deacon, whose Baltimore scene helped propel the band to notoriety. The model also proved foundational to the success of Valient Thorr and an early Avett Brothers predecessor, Nemo.
Beeby lived in Greenville from 1999 until 2005, so he remembers the punk and indie scenes that helped produce those bands. But by 2003, the town had hit a bit of a lull, as many of these musicians had moved away. ("You can't stay in Greenville. That's the rule," Blinder explains, laughing.) In this landscape, the consciously ridiculous Art Lord formed with the premise of making tongue-in-cheek, pretentious art rock. In their scheme, Herring's German character, Locke Ernstfrost, or the Art Lord, needed people to play his music. Because no one was good enough to perform the task, he brought his self-portraits to life, commanding them to learn the tunes.
But Beeby says they were too nice to maintain even faux-pretension, so they recruited Welmers and started writing proper songs.
"The first couple of shows, before I got to know them, they were almost Bowie-esque," says Blinder. "It seemed novelty-ish, but there was a very, very big heart beating beneath that weird, pseudo-German lead singer."
The band played near-constant house parties, sometimes two in a single weekend. The members self-promoted relentlessly, too, even clipping hundreds of handbills to attendance sheets as they circulated through East Carolina University lecture halls.
Come show time, says Cashion, they'd simply let loose: "Sam would plug in his vocals through an amp, and we'd run the drums through an amp and turn everything up as loud as we could. We'd cover the walls with aluminum foil and try to make ordinary things seem bigger and more special."
Live recordings of these early shows are preserved on the first side of The Definitive Collection, spotlighting the raw infancy Cashion describes. Before these musicians learned to work a stage or maintain energy in a studio session, which they soon did as Future Islands, they felt right at home playing houses. And audiences responded.
"If I had a stressful month, I knew I could look forward to the Art Lord show and really let it loose," says Blinder. They were able to get people to drop their inhibitions and dance.
These days, Future Islands do the same thing on a larger scale, but Art Lord lives on as the foundation of that band's success. And Thursday's show, as Beeby puts it, will be like a class reunion. It'll be fun, but bittersweet and over far too soon.
"It's probably going to be really sad when it all comes down to it," Herring adds. "It'll be like we're breaking up all over again. But that's probably what the Art Lord would have wanted."
This article appeared in print with the headline "My sweaty valentine."