It’s the day after Future Islands’ recent appearance on Conan. By bassist William Cashion’s estimate, he and bandmates Samuel Herring and Gerrit Welmers are pretty comfortable on TV. After all, burning through “Cave” was the 10th time they’ve done a late-night appearance. But for all their casual bravado, there’s something coloring the television experience that the band can’t forget.
“The whole Letterman thing!” Cashion says, recalling their 2014 appearance on the show, where their rousing version of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” went on to become the show’s most watched online clip. “The way that it caught on. That performance is still making the rounds out there on the internet. People are still finding out about us because of that song and that performance. That whole thing is really surreal to us. I think we’re all still realizing how many people have seen that. It’s really crazy. It’s hard to grasp…I think because the way that video took off, it has made TV a lot more nerve-wracking every time we do it. We know what could happen with the video. I don’t think lightening is going to strike twice in that way. We’ll never do another performance like that. It won’t be the first time people find out about us the next time we play on TV. The planets just aligned in a way that performance. There was something really magic about it.”
Welmers delivers the summation in a polite Southern twang. Future Islands have held it together through 10 years of self-booked DIY tours, a supposed “overnight” success and 22 months on the road behind their previous album, Singles. They’ve graced the stage at the Hollywood Bowl (opening for Grace Jones, no less), found favor with French musician Christophe (who once made his appearance on a talk show dependent upon including Future Islands in the lineup), and have played (and slayed) at festivals across the world that previously turned them down. But at the end of the day, they’re still the same trio of best friends who were so unprepared for popularity they watched their now-iconic Letterman performance in a bar with strangers.
“I’ve always said even early on that it’s important to be optimistic. I think Sam and Gerrit would disagree with me, but I think it’s important to have unrealistic goals. If you push yourself toward something that’s seemingly unobtainable, you up your chances of at least getting closer to that unrealistic goal.”
“We’re still normal dudes back home in Baltimore,” Cashion confirms. “We didn’t move to a big city. We’re staying where we’ve been for almost the last 10 years…We have the same practice space in downtown Baltimore that we’ve had for years now. The city is currently replacing all their sewer lines. It looks like Super Mario Brothers. They’ve got huge black tubes throughout the city. It’s impossible to get to our practice space right now.”
To record The Far Field, which came out April 7 on 4AD, the trio decamped to Los Angeles to work with producer John Congleton. Like the band’s previous releases, the album leans hard on a daydream blend of synths, deep basslines and of course, Herring’s bleeding-heart bellow—one of the few voices in modern pop that can sell lines like “Time on Her Side” kicker, “She’s a garden rose and blossoms head to toe/And even when she leaves her golden shadow stings.”
“I think we all can get behind what Sam is saying in his songs,” Cashion says, confirming a certain strand of hopeless romanticism that runs through all three members of the band. “We’re all huge fans of The Cure.”
The band are also fans of Blondie—although as Cashion reveals, Debbie Harry singing with Herring on The Far Field’s penultimate track “Shadows” was a get they had never imagined. Written during the Singles sessions, the up-tempo duet went through several different versions while they tried to find the perfect female accompaniment—at one point with Herring sang both parts himself (an idea the frontman finally vetoed as too strange). Harry finally came into the mix thanks to their producer’s insistent matchmaking.
“The connection was made through John Congleton,” Cashion recalls. “Within 30 minutes she had written back and said that she loved the song but that she was really busy and she would think about it. A few days later she wrote back and said ‘I really want to make this work, let’s do this.’”
Just don’t add Blondie to Future Islands’ list of BFF bands. Well, not yet anyway.
“The thing is that we haven’t met her,” Cashion continues, dispelling the idea that the intimacy the two singers bring to the song was a result of proximity. “She recorded her parts in New York and we were in LA when we did the record. We tried to make it feel like the same room as much as we could. It sounds like people can’t tell that it’s in different studios, which is great.”
Ultimately, Cashion reveals, they didn’t even hear Harry’s contributions until the first mix of “Shadows.” It’s a statement that only enforces the band’s perennially sunny worldview. Why worry when you’ve hired an icon to appear on a single? Life is big and full of emotions (an obvious conclusion anyone can make after a cursory read of Future Islands’ lyrics), but it’s ultimately all going to be okay as long as we all keep going.
“That’s the reason we stayed on the road so long,” Cashion says, confirming the diagnosis of chronic optimism, “through the tough early years of losing money on the road and no one really caring about our band. For years we were doing it ourselves. I’ve always said even early on that it’s important to be optimistic. I think Sam and Gerrit would disagree with me, but I think it’s important to have unrealistic goals. If you push yourself toward something that’s seemingly unobtainable, you up your chances of at least getting closer to that unrealistic goal. You have to have an optimistic attitude to go after that and to be able to do that.”