Future Islands: Dance like everybody’s watching

by Cian Traynor

“We’re all a little insane right now,” says Samuel T. Herring, Future Islands’ gregarious frontman, as he strolls out of a bathroom wearing only a pair of blue jeans. His head is still pounding from winding down a characteristically intense show in Hamburg the previous night with a bottle of tequila. Finding just 50 minutes of sleep before a three-hour drive for an early morning interview has not helped.

As bandmates bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers slink into the dressing room with heads sagging, the energy feels far removed from the roaring synth-pop they’ve been working on together for 11 years.

But the Baltimore-based trio know that today is an important one.
Berlin marks the final date of a European tour and they need to finish with a bang, not just to preview forthcoming fourth album Singles, but to show that their ferocious live reputation warrants playing eight German cities in May. And when you’re a band that can clock up 160 shows in a year, Herring explains, you realise how important it is to conserve every little bit of energy before show time.

In other words, now might not be the ideal opportunity to explore the heartbreak, despair and longing that has shaped their music. Instead I pull out a Future Islands seven-inch — Feathers & Hallways, released in 2009 on the London label Upset the Rhythm — thinking it might make for a straightforward place to start. Inadvertently, however, this cuts straight to one of the most challenging times in their career — prompting Herring’s pale blue eyes to water as he looks it over. “It’s actually making me sad, reading these lyrics,” he says quietly.

“I think that’s a really important record in our history, our growth ,” says Cashion, tactfully easing into the awkward silence. It was their first release as a focused three-piece, he explains, and the band were staggering into the unknown. Herring had been in a writing slump for two years, the band’s drummer had quit and the remaining trio lived in different cities across North Carolina, where they’re from. It seemed like the band were on the verge of breaking up when they decided on one final push: moving to Baltimore, integrating a drum machine and heading out on a four-month tour across the US.

“We were all willing to take a chance, having asked each other: ‘Are you ready to fail, if we fail? Are you ready to fall on your face if this doesn’t work?’” says Cashion. “How naive and inexperienced we were when we made that [seven-inch] is what makes it so special.”

“That was the defining point, I feel, for our band,” says Herring. “Those songs represent what we continually try to do but are only aware of now: showing off light and darkness, writing music that’s honest to us so that it holds a weight. Both of those songs are about someone I loved and was in a relationship with at the time. That’s why it’s kind of heavy for me to read those lyrics and be like, ‘Oh shit…’” He trails off, eyes glistening again. “‘That hurts.’”

The issue of honesty arose during their previous band together, Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. Herring and Welmers have been best friends since they were 14, when they were dropped from their baseball team and bonded on the periphery of school life. At East Carolina University’s art program, they met Cashion and developed a concept for a band: a prodigious German artist retreats from fame by going into hiding in Zurich, only to emerge 20 years later with songs of his hardship. The material turned Greek mythology into Kraftwerk-inspired “synth punk” with the help of costumes, characters and theatricality. “Having that mask,” says Herring, “I could be this whole other person I wished to be: super-confident, not worried about what anybody thinks or says.”

But when Herring started to write about his own emotions, the mask started to slip. It didn’t suit the gimmick, so they decided to scrap the band in 2005 and start over as themselves. Welmers — a tall, detached figure who says little — describes himself as the “maximalist”, more at home with the controlled and programmed side of things, always striving for perfection in his expansive ‘post-wave’ synth arrangements. Cashion — a soft-spoken hulk with a disarming geniality — is the minimalist who likes to defile Welmers’ perfection through frenetic, grinding bass lines that propel the music forward.

Whatever emotion they cook up instrumentally provides a platform for Herring — a chatty, chain-smoking character who often begins sentences with “Dude…” and ends them with a raspy giggle — to turn his own experiences into verse, enunciating the words as if he were conjuring Count Dracula or the Big Bad Wolf.

Though it took Herring time to adjust, both in terms of songwriting and stage presence, the catalyst in Future Islands realising their potential awaited them upon returning from that four-month tour in 2009. Herring’s girlfriend had been unfaithful to him. Devastated that the relationship was over, he channelled his anger into what would become the band’s breakthrough album, 2010’s In Evening Air, where his growled lyrics veered between the graceful (“Tame your thoughts and let me in; break your callous ways and press me to your skin”) and the cutting (“You ruined what was love just ’cause you needed a hand”).

“I was younger, so I dealt with my feelings in a very quick-tempered way, writing everything down on the page. I wanted to be acerbic because I wanted her to hear it. I feel bad about that now.” Though his ex initially disliked Future Islands, she felt this represented the most beautiful thing they’d done and the best poetry Herring had written.

“But it crushed her too,” he says. “On the Water [2011] is almost an attempt to say, ‘I’m sorry I did that because I know better now’. I lost that person as a friend in my life because of that record and it really hurts. Dealing with that kind of personal struggle made for a very emotional, raw record.” Wasn’t it satisfying, though, to illustrate those feelings so well? “Mmm, yeah,” he says hesitantly. “I mean, I guess it worked but now… what’s left? Now it still hurts a bit.”

Herring takes emotional expression seriously. After most shows, he can be found rolling cigarettes among fans outside, listening to their stories of connecting with the music. But last night, something unsettled him. A German interviewer described his performances as ‘intimidating’. At first he thought she meant ‘intense’ and perhaps this got lost in translation, but she was adamant: his explosive theatrics — drenched in sweat, teeth gritted, punching the air — can be uncomfortable for those unaccustomed to public displays of emotion. And after all, she suggested, wasn’t it just a put-on?

Given what Herring invests in the performances, physically and emotionally, it was a difficult notion to digest. He always believed that if he tells an honest story, it will come across as sincere; that if he shows people it’s okay to be vulnerable and weak, they’ll realise that you can be stronger for it. There’s a catharsis in shedding tears on stage and seeing it move people, he adds, which he feels is important to share.

Yet ‘Tin Man’, a frustrated song of unrequited love from In Evening Air, became so difficult for the singer to revisit that he swore off playing it ever again in 2012. It has only returned to the setlist, Herring says, because he knows how much fans want to hear it.

“I will say, on the record, that I don’t go all the way in on that song anymore. I perform it, I put my whole body into it, but I don’t put my heart into it because I don’t feel the same way. When we do ‘Walking Through That Door’ from the same record, about the same person, there’s a moment where I motion for someone [in the crowd] to come forward. I hold their hand, pull them to the front of the stage and we walk forward together.

…And I see her. I see her right there in front of me. I can do that because it is a song of hope and I still want that. I still want to hold her hand and walk with her again… Aw, man.” He stops himself, choking up but holding it off with a laugh. “Gettin’ a little heavy.”

The impact of that experience lingers on in the songwriting. Herring has found and lost love again since the last album, but his way of conveying the experience has changed. He remembers how his father joked to his last girlfriend that she needed to break up with him so he could write another good album.

“Which she did,” he says with a laugh. “I was hurt but I didn’t treat it any bit the same. I’ve remained friends with that person because of what I’d already been through and I think that comes out in the songs. ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ and ‘A Dream of You and Me’ address that person but it’s in a very different light, speaking about it in a more worldly manner.”

The band began writing Singles in a hunting cabin in rural North Carolina while rehearsing for an Art Lord & the Self-Portraits reunion commemorating the 10-year anniversary of their first show. Reflecting on that time crept into the new material — it’s an ambitious album with dramatic choruses and an ’80s gloss — and though recording it themselves with producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Grizzly Bear, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) proved costly, it signalled a juncture in their career.

Various labels subsequently courted the band, Cashion says, but they were impressed by an A&R from 4AD who would travel to the likes of West Virginia just to see them perform.

“They were impressed with what we’d done on our own up to that point,” explains Cashion, who also booked the band’s shows for seven years. “The hard work was done. Any band that builds it from the ground up, no one can really fuck with.”

Singles marks the first of a three-album deal with 4AD and soon Future Islands will make their Coachella debut and their first TV appearance — opportunities they feel ready to prove themselves with. (Shortly after this interview, the band’s performance on Late Show with David Letterman will swiftly go viral, increasing their fan-base exponentially within days.)

“We’ve been waiting for our chance,” says Herring. “Because we never had this hype that just exploded one day, it felt like we’ve built this ourselves. But we didn’t grow this thing so we could give it away. It’s our baby. We’re very hands-on with everything, right down to the smallest details. But the hope is that is just the beginning of more of those opportunities. We wanna be able to make music until we just can’t move anymore.”