When Future Islands first visited New Orleans five years ago, in July 2005, it wasn't as Future Islands. The band then went by Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, an East Carolina University post-punk project with the three Future Islanders already in their current roles — William Cashion on bass, J. Gerrit Welmers on keys and Sam Herring on the mic — and joined by two art-school friends. Sharing the bill that night was a knob-twiddling, party-throwing spaz from Baltimore named Dan Deacon.
"It was a two-week tour, the biggest tour Art Lord ever did, and Dan booked it all," Cashion recalls. Three things about the trip stayed with him. "We played at a house party. I remember there was a girl there with a goat. We went out and got wasted."
Their last show here, at Tulane's Freeman Auditorium in April 2009, featured the same pairing but under different circumstances. Deacon had sharpened his skills as a conductor of supersonic, electro-orchestral pop, and Future Islands had followed him to Baltimore, pared down its membership and found its sound in the process. "When we first started off, we had a drummer, and we were more punk — I think more punk than we really wanted to be," Cashion says. "When we lost the drummer, we went to a three-piece and started using programmed beats. We found ourselves at a similar songwriting point as when we were doing Art Lord. It's kind of full circle."
A year later, the band returns with a compelling record of its progress. In Evening Air, issued May 4 by the Chicago-based label Thrill Jockey, is the platter on which everything comes together: the spiky, bass-propelled attitude of the Art Lord material and the layered synth loops of 2008 debut Wave Like Home, both thickened by a developed sense of atmosphere that feels murky and heavy in the best possible way. It's dance music with a dark muse, New Wave with new weight.
"We went to great lengths (in the studio)," Cashion says. "All the loops, we ran all of them separate to (producer) Chester (Gwazda). From there, oftentimes we would re-record them through an amp. Record everything individually, then re-amp it to make it sound live in a room."
On top of that foundation lies Herring, whose low-register, vamped-up voice has become Future Islands' defining characteristic. An emoting champion on par with Patrick Wolf, Antony Hegarty, Baby Dee or Joanna Newsom, Herring is part frontman, part showman; his entrances and exits are bit off by a snarling Tom Waits growl, and his line readings are delivered with the stylized flourish of a British stage veteran. Like those divisive vocalists, he seems practically engineered to polarize.
"Yeah, he just sort of sings in an accent sometimes," Cashion says, laughing. "It's the way he words things. I've made fun of him for it. ... One thing a lot of people don't know about Sam is, he's originally a freestyler — he's a rapper. He loves hip-hop music. That's where he comes from. Writing, he can freestyle with his singing."
If there's an internal struggle, Cashion notes with another chuckle, it's actually between himself and Welmers: "I feel like I have a simple pop sense that I bring to the band, where Gerrit is kind of maximum, everything at once. I try and bring it back and Gerrit's trying to make me do more. Sam's the middle ground."
Future Islands with Lower Dens
10 p.m. Friday, May 14
The Saint, 961 St. Mary St., 523-0050; www.thesaintneworleans.com