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Future Islands - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Feeling It

Sep 23, 2014 Issue #50 - June/July 2014 - Future Islands Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

It’s the night after Future Islands’ network television debut on The Late Show, and David Letterman is trying not to laugh. “Let’s dance!” he declares, after a joke about a candy store falls flat. The shot cuts to footage from the band’s performance, featuring frontman Samuel T. Herring’s theatrical, sidestepping dance moves.

Letterman’s response to the video echoes his enthusiasm from the night before, when after the band emoted through “Seasons (Waiting on You),” the single from their then about to be released new album Singles, he strolled into frame beaming, and declared, “I’ll take all of that you’ve got!”

“Oh man!” Letterman says emphatically in response to the flashback, giving the audience a gleeful gap-toothed smile before cueing up the next in a series of video clips.

At the end of his monologue of topical observations, Letterman replays the snippet again-this time with a split screen allowing three different versions of Herring to dance side-by-side. Mention of Future Islands takes up seconds of Letterman’s four-minute opening, a mere sliver of television real estate. But sandwiched next to jokes about Russia and the rise of artificial intelligence, the band’s presence sends a clear messageafter four albums and eight years, the Baltimore, Maryland-based trio (Herring, keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, and bassist William Cashion) has finally arrived.

They were newly minted late-night heroes: Future Islands’ Letterman performance would go on to garner over a million views on YouTube. (At the time of this writing it was up to over 1.4 million and was the second-most viewed clip ever on Letterman’s YouTube page, second only to his retirement announcement.) The khaki-attired trio doesn’t exactly look the part of viral pop stars. (As Welmers points out, a review of one of their early albums described them as “three middle-aged southern dads making weird music.”) But there was immediacy to the performance, particularly in Herring’s Vincent Price bellow and emotive gesticulations.

“I started to get a lot of calls from people that I deal with,” says Late Show music booker Sheryl Zelikson. “It went viral very quickly. People were so excited that it came from everywhere. Other publicists who just like music were calling. Dave endorsed them with his enthusiasm. The performance really helped propel people to tune into it online.”

The clip is an apt introduction to Future Islands’ sound, which is rooted in both 1980s melancholy romanticism and modern dance pop. Masters of restraint, the band builds textures and beats exclusively around Welmers’ keys and Cashion’s bass. (Only recently did the trio begin bringing a live drummer on tour.) Herring’s vocals bring a fervency to their synth drones and New Wave beats, celebrating both earthshaking love and all-consuming heartache with an emotional verisimilitude that borders on method acting.

“I think that musically there’s an emotional resonance to the harmonies and the textures that the band uses,” muses 4AD A&R rep Ben Gaffin. (Future Islands made the move from respected Chicago-based indie label Thrill Jockey to the legendary British label 4AD for Singles.) “I think that Sam’s themes are very universal. They’re very broad. Good or bad. Love, love lost, life, death. Basic themes that resonate with all of us. Sam is just being himself. They’re all just being themselves. They’re being completely honest, and they’re wide open for people to say, ‘Wait, this isn’t cool.’ But it’s honest, and that’s one of the things that make them so great.”

So far, Future Islands has taken the sudden rise of their profile in stride. Onstage, they’re storytellers, creating the soundtrack for a cinematic melodrama yet to be made. Offstage, they’re self-described “hard-working southern boys,” the kind who still drive their own tour van (that’s Herring’s job) and keep a running list of every gig they’ve done since day one (Cashion’s doing). Welmers casually mentions that they weren’t going to watch their Letterman spot when it aired because they were planning on beginning the drive for their tour (which would include several days in Austin, Texas for SXSW). But when a snowstorm delayed the road trip, preventing them from getting father than the edge of their Baltimore hometown, the band found themselves at a tavern minutes before the start of The Late Show.

“William was like, ‘We’re about to be on the TV, can you please change the TV?’” Welmers recounts. “They changed it and we got a beer and watched the performance that night. It was perfect timing…. I don’t even think I knew anyone who was actually there. But everyone applauded. ‘Great job, guys! So cool!’”

For Herring, the television slot was immensely satisfying. But it was a byproduct of what he and his bandmates have been chipping away at for the last decade-pulling all-nighters to drive between gigs, playing basements and living rooms, and meeting as many fans as possible along the way.

“Our goal is to create something,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s one of the things that’s driven us. This is what we want. And you’ve got to work for what you want. Whatever you want in this world, in this life, you have to work your ass off for it.”

Opening Up and Moving Out

A natural frontman, Herring spent the majority of his childhood in Morehead City, North Carolina trying to decide exactly what kind of performer he was-although he admits that it didn’t occur to him that music was a viable career. Born into a family that encouraged musical expression, Herring recalls car trips soundtracked by the local oldies station. Those listening sessions would inform his earliest ambitions.

“When I was 10 or 11, I had this dream that I was born in a different time, because I really wanted to be a doo-wop singer in the 1950s,” he remembers, breaking into a dimpled-cheek grin. “I really wished that I had been born in the ‘40s, because in the ‘50s I would have been a teen singer. I couldn’t change that, so that was a dead dream.”

Encouraged by his older brother Joel, Herring discovered hip-hop and freestyle in his early teens. By the time he was 15, he was pouring most of his time into perfecting his technique.

“It’s about opening up a subconscious part of yourself,” Herring says of the process, which still informs his writing style. “It was less about writing a poem about feelings and more about macaronic, how many syllable words can I fit in a flow. I’m going to use every word in my SAT prep! I swear I had a better vocabulary then than I do now. That’s what the dictionary was about. I’d create a word and then look it up…. When you’re writing off the top of your head, it might not mean anything to you. But when you go back, if you dig into the writing, it can go really deep.”

Herring and Welmers lived near each other, but it wasn’t until eighth grade when they struck up a friendship. As Herring recalls, their first meeting, a session of one-on-one basketball, didn’t exactly bode well for a future friendship.

“Gerrit’s going to hate me, but I totally beat him from behind on a no-hook shot,” he cackles gleefully. “Gerrit got really pissed off. I was all, ‘In your face! You suck! In your face!’ Gerrit just walked off and said, ‘Okay, I’m leaving,’ and walked into this house. We didn’t hang out for another six months. Gerrit was really pissed off! But I was a sore winner. I was kind of a dickhead.”

It’s a statement that’s very Herring. Conversationally vociferous, the singer often couples detailed recollections with a hilarious and self-deprecating analysis. Conversely, Welmers is stoic, carefully weighing his words and summing up entire events in a thoughtfully phrased sentence or two.

The pair’s initial musical predilections likewise initially sat at opposite ends of the spectrum. But while Herring contends that he used to drive Welmers crazy with his freestyle (“Basically because I would never shut up”), Welmers cheerfully dismisses the accusation, noting that they shared a love of Dr. Octagon.

Although a skater with a taste for old school punk and metal, Welmers focused his attention early on guitar rock. He recalls his teenage years spent hunched over his $100 guitar and practice amp for hours, puzzling out songs by heroes Jimi Hendrix, Slayer, and Black Sabbath. Despite sharing rides to school and afternoon video game sessions, Herring says that he didn’t realize the extent of Welmers’ musical parlance until he barged in on him practicing in his room one day. Even now, he describes the encounter with a tone of illicit shock.

“It was very quiet, beautiful guitar,” Herring recalls. “The door was cracked a few inches, and I peeked in. Gerrit had his back to me and was playing. I’m standing there watching for a minute or two, and he stops, and turns around and sees me in the doorway, with this horrified look on his face, because I caught him playing guitar. He was embarrassed. I’m like, ‘What the hell, dude? That was amazing?’ He said, ‘Oh, you thought that was good?’ ‘Oh, you’re so fucking good!’”

As tight as the two friends became, there was never talk of merging their music talents. Both Herring and Welmers say that it simply didn’t occur to them. The only member of Future Islands with youthful professional musical aspirations was Cashion.

Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, Cashion describes his teenage bands as a combination of ambition and a desire to be weird in public. Inroads were made: when Future Islands did an interview last year at the city’s local station WKNC, Cashion discovered one of his CDs in the stacks. A local booker at a small venue named Kings made a habit of scheduling high school bands, and would eventually go on to book Future Islands in their early years. Still, none of his early projects ignited. By Cashion’s account, they all lacked a charismatic frontman.

Cloak, Dagger, and Leisure Suits

Herring and Welmers met Cashion at East Carolina University, Cashion and Herring first encountering each other in an introductory art class. They bonded over appearances (Cashion notes a particular appreciation for Herring’s mutton chops, while Herring recalls Cashion’s outlandish sunglasses), before moving on to swapping self-recorded CD-Rs. Both wanted to start a band. Splitting the difference between Cashion’s glitchy, Aphex Twin-style computer electronica and Herring’s desire to rap, they laid the foundation for Art Lord & the Self-Portraits.

The band’s conceit was elaborate. Herring was the narcissistic, all-powerful “Art Lord” who brought his “Self-Portraits” (the other members of the band) to life to help him perform songs of woe. Fellow art student Kymia Nawabi and local record shop personality Adam Beeby (who claimed he had toured in Belgium with his previous band) rounded out the initial lineup. However, Cashion was the only member of the group with any musical training. As a result, the band’s early sound was not unlike an avant-garde B-52smoments of outlandish word play cut with walls of rudimentary noise pop.

After a chaotic debut on Valentine’s Day 2003, Nawabi bowed out and was replaced by Welmers. One disastrous first practice later (“We sounded terrible!” Welmers says emphatically), he was reassigned a role as the band’s keyboardist, despite having no previous experience with the instrument. Art Lord & the Self-Portraits quickly gained a reputation for wild shows. Clad in his Art Lord costume (a 1970s-inspired white suit and slicked-back hair) Herring was suddenly given permission to say or do just about anything in character. He used that liberty freely, stirring up crowds with pronouncements in a heavily put-upon German accent. Welmers recalls a house party where the crowd jumping was so hard they broke several of the building’s struts, turning the floor into a giant trampoline. Another time, an intoxicated woman attempted to use Herring and his microphone stand as a stripper polea move that ended after she tore open his shirt, popping every button along the way. On one of their tours, they shared a bill with Dan Deacon, a young producer who was performing one of his first shows.

“The first time we met him I asked, ‘Are you going to dance?’” Cashion recalls. “He was like, ‘I don’t know, I might dance if I feel like dancing!’ ‘If you can, you should dance. It would be cool if you danced.’ Then we played and the whole room was dancing, and he thought I was crazy for asking him if he was going to dance.”

Herring began blossoming as a writer. A self-declared hopeless romantic, he soon found himself incorporating personal stories of love and loss that fell outside of the Art Lord’s jurisdiction. Still, he took comfort in the protection of his outlandish public persona.

“I honestly really enjoyed the safety net of the character,” says Herring. “By playing the character I could talk about my own life in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. I would be honest to myself, but I could tell people that was just the character, dealing with the isolation of being this famous character…. There was never really a time where I really wished that I could completely ditch the character, because I was fearful of it. The character gave me a certain power and he gave me a certain mystique. He was funny.”

The band would release four albums of material before coming to a close in September of 2005. Beeby abruptly left town, and Herring, Cashion, and Welmers admitted that their ambitions were outstripping the band’s one-note theme. After a break they reconvened in January of 2006 with pal Erick Murillo on drums to write new material for a tour they had booked under the Art Lord name. (Murillo would stay with the band until October of 2007.) Within a month and a half, they had 10 songs and a new name.

Some of those tracks would eventually find their way onto Future Islands’ 2008 debut Wave Like Home. They shared DNA with Art Lord’s material, full of dime store synths and Herring’s deep voice, suspended somewhere between speaking and singing. The big difference was, for the first time, the band was unafraid of getting personal.

“We’ve always talked about the really, not necessarily sad, but longing quality for the music, while also having a dancey upbeat quality or vibe,” explains Cashion. “The Cure is a great example. It’s really intense, personal lyrics, but at the same time it’s great pop music that you can dance to. I think that’s something that we’ve always talked about, that happy and sad balance. Being able to dance while crying at the same time. You can listen to the song and really cry and get it out. Or you can totally dance and freak out to it.”

Advanced Art Theory

Persuaded by Deacon’s glowing descriptions of the city’s art and music scene, the trio relocated to Baltimore, Maryland and were immediately folded into Deacon’s Wham City, a loose collective of artists, musicians, writers, designers, and other creative people. Deacon fondly looks back at that time, noting, with a hint of satisfaction, that he knew Future Islands were bound for success.

“To be honest, it’s insane that it’s taken this long,” he says. “They have such an amazing grasp on pop music and of their performance. I’ve never not seen them crush it; every show over the past 10 years has killed. But I also think it’s awesome that they grew this large following prior to the media latching on.”

The media’s response to Wave Like Home, released shortly after the band’s relocation, was mixed. Herring recalls feeling put out by the lack of attention it got in the U.S. (due to being on British label Upset the Rhythm), but Cashion recalls large crowds on their first European tour, particularly in Berlin, where the band played four encores. When they were mentioned by American press, the coverage was often confusing, given their background as a party band.

“The first article that we got was a review of the album that said that in a scene full of class clowns, we were the serious guys in the back of the class,” says Cashion, still clearly bemused. “I thought that was really interesting, a total flip-flop of the press.”

Encouraged by their first taste of band life on an international scale, Future Islands took a gamble and quit their jobs in 2008 to embark on a two-month tour. Ultimately, they lost money on the bet, but still managed to undertake a second tour mere weeks after returning home. They describe road life in glowing terms. Among their discoveries: even when left to their own devices, it is possible to book a national tour. When their van broke down in western Montana, they found that their fan base was big enough that they could crowdsource the funds to fix it. Making $40 selling eight CD-Rs could make their night, but then again, so could high-fiving a new fan.

“Even at that point we didn’t feel like we were a new band because we’d already done the Art Lord thing,” says Cashion, good-naturedly. “In 2008, we were like, ‘We’ve been doing this since 2003, man!’ We’ve always been like, ‘Oh, we’re cool. We’ll get it right one day.’”

With each lap across the country, the crowds steadily grew, promoting the band from house shows and dive bars to larger venues. Future Islands’ ambitions likewise expanded. They signed to Thrill Jockey for their 2010 album, In Evening Air. The band’s third album On the Water came a year later.

By now, the punk-like scrappiness of Art Lord was fully sanded away, the eight-millimeter lens of their earlier sound replaced with something closer to CinemaScope. On record, Herring had progressed from a gruff sing-speaker to full-throated bellower. Live, his full-body, chest-thumping performances took on the air of a charismatic big-tent preacher.

“For a lot of people, it’s hard to put on a great live show,” says Herring. “That’s never been a problem for us, because we’re confident in that side of our craft. But the hope is to be able to conquer both of those things, and for them to be separate things. You want someone to say, ‘I love these guys’ records. But have you ever seen them live? It’s crazy!’.... I remember even in the Art Lord days, people crying at shows. People telling me about a girlfriend. Or people saying things like, ‘I lost my virginity after one of your shows!’ Not all of it is really heavy.”

It isn’t just pageantry, Herring explains. His expressive stage movement is a way to connect with the audience-to broadcast his words and stories in a way that can reach the back of even the largest venue. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a way to keep the material fresh for himself, a physical reminder of Future Islands’ ability to emotionally impact an audience.

“People have found solace in our music,” he says softly. “A girl lost her friend in the accident,” Herring continues, referring to the tragic drunk driving incident at this year’s SXSW that killed four people and wounded many others. “And both of their favorite bands were Future Islands. I’m getting kind of choked up right now just thinking of one of the girls that passed at SXSW. One of her friends asked if we could share some links to the donation sites and told us how her friend was a big fan and how they were planning on coming to the show the next night. It hit me in such a hard way. How can you help? You do whatever you can. These are the tragedies of life. This is life. I think that’s the whole focus of the music. Sharing tragedy doesn’t have to be overwrought or melodramatic. It’s just life. Life is filled with beautiful moments and really sad moments. That’s what it is. Sad moments are just more interesting.”

But it isn’t about simply illuminating sorrow. Herring reiterates that he wants to provide fans with a sense of solidarity. He points to a time in his college years when he returned home for a month to forcibly remove himself from his escalating drug use. He declines to give specifics about that period in his life out of respect for his friends and family, but makes it clear that the event, and reaching out for help, profoundly impacted him. Without a support system, he might not have survived. (Herring has remained clean ever since.)

“I want to be that for other people,” Herring says. “Even if we can help people through music, that’s a beautiful thing. But I try to talk to people at shows if they want to chat, or if they want to talk about something. I answer emails people write me and tell me heavy stories. Sometimes we don’t even need a response. We just need to say what we need to say. By us doing it, the hope is that we can enact that in other people. By showing you can still be strong and still cry, and have a smile on your face afterwards, we hope that we can show other people that they can do that too. It is an experience, and we’re trying to share that cathartic moment when everything breaks. Then the song is over and we can smile about it. We can celebrate the pain too.”

That tension between joy and pain ties together the songs of Singles. Named for the tracks’ ability to stand alone as potential singles (“Bangers,” says Herring. “That was really the only goal.”), each song contains a distinct emotional journey. The double-edged sword that he’s experienced in the past of being in a serious relationship as a touring musician is encapsulated in the “Sun in the Morning” line, “She loves to watch me go/She hates to watch me go.” In “Fall From Grace,” Herring offers up both some of the most delicate poetry and harshest vocals of his career, wondering against a whisper-thin instrumental backing how real his experiences and emotions were before concluding with a tormented, nu-metal scream that it was “all inside of me.” The press release for the album’s first single, “Seasons (Waiting on You),” made the seemingly grandiose promise that the track was “simply a song about the human experience.” Herring laughs at the statement, but affirms that is exactly what he’s trying to do.

“I want to say something that’s honest and true,” he says. “Otherwise, what’s the point if I’m not saying something?... It makes you feel like you have purpose in this world. I think that’s what I strive for. To find purpose. To find meaning in this life. And try to do something with it. To learn from it, to teach from it.”

It’s that conviction that all three members believe is protecting them from burnout. At 29 (Herring and Welmers) and 30 years old (Cashion), they’ve been at it for over a decade. (Herring jokes about hanging his rock PhD on the wall.) Sometimes they play as many as 200 shows a year. With the sudden rise in sold-out tour dates, it appears that the pace won’t be slowing any time soon.

“There were a couple times in my life a few years back where I didn’t know if I could do it,” Herring notes. “Sometimes you just want to sit down and mow your grass or go to sleep with someone, or have a hand to hold on a regular basis. Those are the things that you miss sometimes when you’re on the road. But getting it back from an audience and finding fans and seeing that you’ve become a part of people’s lives is definitely the reason I really can’t stop. Even more so, being honest with myself, I really can’t stop because this is what I love, this is who I am. When you’re like, ‘I just want to stop! No, I can’t, I love it too much!’ It hurts to love this! It hurts to love this thing sometimes. You have to keep going.”

He picks up speed as he speaks, clearly relishing the opportunity to walk down memory lane.

“I never imagined that we’d be in a band those four years that we were best buds in high school,” he continues. “Then we were in a band. Flash forward another five years later, and we’re in Europe for the first time. I’m looking at Gerrit, like, ‘This is crazy!’ We’ve been hanging out forever, now we’re here. It’s really awesome to be able to share some of my life with two of my oldest friends. It’s really crazy. I’ve known Gerrit for 17 years. I’ve known Will for 12 years. They’re my best friends in the world, and we’re still able to continue to do this thing. It’s pretty wild.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s June/July print issue (Issue 50).]


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Sandy Bell
August 1st 2015

Nice job on this piece. Thank you very much. I would like to know Sam’s email as he says he receives letters. Would anyone happen to know how I can receive this? Any help would be greatly appreciated.