“Making music that feels natural,” smile London four-piece ISLAND as one. “That’s the most important thing in the world to us.”
No surprise then that this is a band whose history is characterised by old friendships, close bonds and almost telepathic mutual understanding; their music a combination of influences ranging from trad-folk to high-octane punk rock and encompassing everything in-between; their rapid rise through the underground of the organic, fan-led sort that most bands can only look over at with envious eyes.
Forming as teenagers when frontman Rollo Doherty’s acoustic bedroom project was treated to the boisterous backing of guitarist Jack Raeder, bassist James Wolfe and drummer Toby Richards in a dingy windowless practice room where they began to painstakingly shape a sound which combined darkly twisting instrumental with a sweetly melodic song-writing nous that belied their age.
“Back then it was properly folky” explains Doherty. “But we also wanted to sound like Grizzly Bear and Kings of Leon,” laughs Raeder. “It was putting those streams together that began the start of what would, eventually, become ISLAND.”
It would take some time for that nucleus to come to full fruition though, with the fledgling band splitting to take time exploring other projects and Raeder even earning a place to study Philosophy at Jesus College Oxford.
But there was an undeniable sense of unfinished business within the group and when Richards contacted the rest of band to say, “I’m quitting my job, we’re all going to move to Oxford and make a proper go of it”. University courses were jacked in and ISLAND was born in earnest. From there, the band hit a purple patch of creativity – with Doherty’s voice evolving, they had found the fulcrum around which to cohesively build their sound.
With a clutch of songs and powerfully renewed sense of purpose, the band returned to London just a few months later and embarked on what would prove to be a rise of swift but spontaneous growth. Debut EP Girl was recorded and mixed by Wolfe in night-time slots over a period of fourmonths (“It took so long because I was still working out what I was doing!” admits the bass player) and eventually released in late 2015. Its shimmering refrains turned heads almost immediately, with first single “Stargazer” exploding onto Spotify’s much-coveted New Music Friday playlist and drawing attention for fans both domestically and internationally – to date the song has over 2 million plays on Spotify alone.
At the same time, through years of playing together week in, week out since their youth, the band’s live show grew into one that was fearsomely tight and effervescently energetic. Over the course of little more than a year, they began to sell-out shows across the UK, not to mention slots at The Great Escape, London Calling and Reeperbahn. All this achieved while unsigned and maintaining a fastidiously DIY ethic.
“We like to be involved in every aspect of what the band does, to the point where people get surprised by how involved we want to be,” nods Richards. “For example, there was one photo shoot where I didn’t like the colour tone of the floor,” laughs Doherty, “so I went on Photoshop, cut round the floor and changed it. I mean, probably no one would even notice it – but we would!”
It was that sense of attention to detail that eventually led the band, after offers from other suitors, to sign a deal with Les Savy Fav bassist Syd Butler‘s New York based label Frenchkiss.
“We wanted a label who would really facilitate us doing what we do and who would allow us to be involved at every level,” surmises Richards. “Everything about Frenchkiss we love,” adds Doherty, “they’ve been hands on when we’ve asked for help and just get it.”
The band’s first release on Frenchkiss is Feels Like Air. It is resolutely a record which encapsulates everything the quartet have perfected thus far, whilst extending their dynamic range and reach further than ever.
“I admit that when it came time to write the album, we hit a bit of a roadblock,” confesses Doherty. “We weren’t sure where we wanted to go – a first album is a big thing. Then I hit on this idea of ‘driving’ as an overarching theme for the record. It’s a loose concept but we’d been in the van touring a lot and I think that idea of being able to listen to a record and have it take you from point A to point C via point B is very powerful. There’s something cinematic and wide-screen about driving records, and that’s what we’ve tried to capture.”
And Feels Like Air‘s rolling melancholy expertly nails that stated aim, it’s an album which also ably bottles the lightening of ISLAND‘s imperious live shows – recorded all in one room in just two weeks with sparing use of overdubs and no click track, it’s a sonic document that’s all about feel, all about capturing four musicians at their most unprocessed and uninhibited.
“We’re incredibly proud of the album,” beams Wolfe “and we already can’t wait to get out and play it for as many people as we can.” “We’re a very outward looking band,” nods Richards, “and the aim is to keep pushing the horizons to be as broad as we can make them.”
And having already made such a stellar impact, and with their singular creative vision at the centre of it all, ISLAND look set to be stars not just of the next couple of years, but for a very long time to come.
All of it, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.