Future Islands: Catharsis Goes Viral

Music Features Future Islands
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“Honestly, it’s kind of weird,” says Samuel Herring, with a deep belly laugh. “I don’t want to be a meme.”

Four days earlier, his band, synth-pop explorers Future Islands, made its national TV debut on The Late Show With David Letterman, with a vivid performance that spread like viral wildfire across the music-blog click-scape. The Baltimore trio played its latest single, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” a silky new-wave groove decorated by Herring’s reliably malleable vocals (which sweep from a guttural, borderline death-metal growl to a theatrical croon) and his weirdly endearing dance moves—which resemble both Peter Gabriel performing Hamlet and a grandfather’s drunken twist at a family reunion barbecue.

Punching imaginary holes in the air, beating his chest like Tarzan, gazing deeply into the rafters as if searching for his lost lover, Herring delivered every note with a level of desperation and intimacy rare for a late-night TV promotional pimp-out. It was uncomfortable and odd and confusing and completely riveting—and, as Herring notes, it was just another Future Islands show. That “emotionally charged atmosphere” is the norm for these guys, the entire reason they started making music to begin with—as 18-year-old art students throwing a college kegger in Greenville, N.C.

“We’ve always pushed the live factor, and a lot of that is in the way we came into playing music,” he says, reflecting on his band’s early days as Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. “We threw a party one night—got a buddy to buy a keg who was of-age. That house-party atmosphere—it’s always something we’ve tried to kindle in our shows.”

And that’s exactly what they’ve done in the decade (and three studio albums) since, turning heads one sweaty, strange little show at a time. Herring may not want to be a “meme” (and who can blame him?), but their moment of Letterman glory feels like a pivotal turning point in Future Islands’ career—exponentially expanding their audience on the heels of their fourth studio album, the polished and provocative Singles.

While they haven’t abandoned the idiosyncratic charm of their early work, Herring and company (bassist William Cashion, keyboardist-programmer Gerrit Welmers) have broadened their stylistic palette on Singles—utilizing the hi-fi sheen of go-to indie-rock producer Chris Coady (Beach House, TV on the Radio), ornamenting their synth hooks with occasional brass and strings.

It’s their most colorful and expansive work to date—and while they weren’t necessarily aiming to make a more “accessible” album, the result is fitting when you consider the process.

“We took a year off to write a record, and that’s the first time we’ve ever done that,” Herring says. “We’ve been on the road for five years straight, and we said, ‘We can afford to take a break. Financially, we can afford to take a break.’ But that was the only difference—the only thing we set out with for this album was to write as many songs as possible in a set amount of time.”

“Me and Gerrit both vocalized that we wanted to do ‘an album of bangers,’ but we didn’t force that,” he continues. ”’Bangers’ takes on different ideas, too. I feel like [the slow-burning ballad] ‘Fall From Grace’ is a banger, but ‘Spirit’ is a banger too, probably the most upbeat. We wrote about 24, 25 songs for the album and just scooped the cream off the top, and that’s what we used. In the end, it was kind of our song selection—what we chose to share with people was maybe where some of the more poppy sense came in. But the thing is: we’ve always considered ourselves a pop band, above all. Our genre that we call ourselves is ‘post-wave,’ which is something we came up with when we were 18-year-old kids. But overall, we’re a pop band.”

Call it “post-wave,” call it “pop.” Terminology aside, Future Islands have clearly tapped into something more universal with Singles. And while that process was fruitful, it wasn’t without its painful moments: Herring and Coady sparred on occasion over various aspects of the recording process, particularly Herring’s vocal style (and even more specifically, his aggression and attack on tracks like sparkly closer “A Dream of You and Me”).

Ultimately, though, Herring is intrigued by the more subtle shades Coady brought out of his unique timbre—even if he doesn’t consider himself a proper singer.

“Chris brought this natural element to my vocals that I haven’t had on previous albums,” he says. “The way Chris mixed it was right on top, and I was kinda like, ‘I don’t know if I like this.’ It was like, ‘I can hear my voice, man—it’s weird!’ In the end, I think I have a better appreciation for my voice now, through the recording process. Just as a live band, I give everything, and I want to capture that on the recordings, but I’m kind of realizing that, ‘Hey, you can sing a little bit!’ I’ve always considered myself a singer third on the list—I’m a writer, I’m a performer and I’m a singer. I don’t really think of myself as a musician. Those are the things that are most important to me—that I perform well and write something that will stand some test of time and be there for people.”

And as transportive as Singles may be, Herring’s heart still beats onstage. No matter how big the crowds may get (and they’re getting bigger), he’s at his strange and captivating best in the flesh—shimmying and growling and convulsing in a room full of strangers who leave feeling a little less alone.

“Early on, we really wanted to give people a physical catharsis through dance and movement,” he says. “And as we’ve gone on, we’ve realized even that is linked so deeply to emotion—the greatest thing we could accomplish is to give people a physical and emotional release and actually break into people. I want to reach people with my words in particular, and that’s something I’ve always wanted in my life.

I went to school for visual arts—that’s what I wanted to do. My goal was, ‘How do I create an image that the whole world seems the same?’ It’s kind of like when you’re looking at the clouds with your best friend, and he says, ‘That looks like that,’ and you say, ‘No, that looks like that.’ And you say, ‘Why don’t we see the same thing?’ ‘How can we create something that the whole world, even minus language, sees in a particular way?’”

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