Music can do a lot of amazing things, but one of its most magical qualities is that it can completely knock down our shields and let us feel emotion we usually don’t connect with in the mundane shuffle of daily life. This is what Future Islands goes for with every performance. Their music lives on that elevated plane, and their display of raw emotion invites you to unshackle yourself and really let it hit you. Listening to the glow of nostalgic synthesizers from Gerrit Welmers and the pulse of the picked J-bass of William Cashion melt behind captivating frontman Sam Herring singing from deep inside while jutting around the stage, don’t be surprised to find yourself having a moment. In our interview, Sam Herring opened up about reliving moments on stage and connecting with the audience on an emotional level, which is what Future Islands is all about.
When Future Islands first graced the airwaves of network television in March 2014, they put on a performance that impressed David Letterman and Paul Shaffer as much as it did the millions watching at home, and those who watched and shared as the performance went viral online. The band had recorded their most ambitious LP yet, Singles, independently on their own dime, and it paid off when they got picked up by indie powerhouse 4AD and the band gained their widest audience ever. The humble synthpop band that had spent nearly a decade steadily grinding on the DIY circuit was suddenly on everyone’s tongues, and their hit song “Seasons (Waiting on You)” was in everyone’s ear. The melancholy song about life’s changes struck a chord with people because of its real depiction of looking back at lost love. It’s sadness and hope and memories beautifully interwoven. It is the complicated feeling of remembering the good times from a life you’ve moved on from, or are trying to.
That emotional experience is Future Islands’ trademark, probably more so than their New Wave and Post-Punk inspired sound, or even Herring’s memeable dance moves. “Trying to open my emotional vulnerability on stage, it’s not about creating a performance as much as allowing people to feel like, ‘Hey this guy can cry on stage in front of a thousand people,’ so I can be open. If not in my life, at least just in this moment.” Herring’s quirky dance moves, guttural yelps, intense stares, chest pounding, and the rest of his idiosyncratic stage maneuvers could put him in a category with some of rock and roll’s great eccentrics, but Herring is no golden god – he’s more like the guy next door. “We’re all small town boys,” he explains, “If I see you on the street, I’m going to say hi, and I hope that you’ll say hi too.” The two sides are seamlessly meshed together by sheer earnestness. “I go into a place when we’re performing, but between songs I’m just a guy… We do go through things in life, and we have the intense dramatic moments. As the songs go, as we play the songs, those are those dramatic moments captured in time.”
The band’s sound was formed at the inception of their first band in college, Art Lords & The Self-Portraits. Welmers and Herring were best friends in high school, but hadn’t yet made music together, and they met William in their first semester at art school. They wanted to make a performance art piece and decided music was the best medium for their message. “Our early influences were Kraftwerk and Joy Division and New Order, so it all kind of came from those sounds… We were just using what we had at our disposal to create, and that were old Casio and Yamaha keyboards and a borrowed bass guitar, borrowed amps. We scraped together what we could to make music with, weird shakers and sound makers and stuff, and that just kind of lead us down a road. These kinds of things defined us early on and we kept with that sound, kept painting with that palette.”
After their LP Singles and the success of the song “Seasons” took them to tour longer and harder than ever before through 2014 and 2015, this year has been a big break, having played just five shows this summer, and only a few announced for this fall. When asked about what the band did over the year, Herring said, “Working on new material and relaxing a lot. Gerrit got hitched. For the guys, definitely spending a lot of time with loved ones and settling in and enjoying that. For me, I’ve been traveling a lot. Writing music on my own and for other people and just getting ready.”
All three members have released music with their side projects this year as well. Cashion and Herring are part of The Snails, a “party rock and roll band with elements of surf music, elements of reggae, [and] elements of punk and post punk,” comprised of members from several different Baltimore bands. They released their debut LP in February, titled Songs From the Shoebox. Keyboardist Welmers is in control of sound design and the programming and production side of the band’s music. (Sam calls him the “backbone structure of Future Islands.”) He released his 7th album as Moss of Aura, called We’ll All Collide. He brings his synth sensibilities present in Future Islands’ music to a lo-fi electronic chillwave territory that Herring describes as “the perfect beach music”. William’s side project, Peals, is a rhythmic ambient band, crafting gorgeous soundscapes made with guitars, loops, and experimental textures. Their new album, Honey, just dropped last Friday. Herring himself released a hip hop album last September with legendary producer Madlib, Trouble Knows Me, and has had a steady flow of features on other artists tracks releasing throughout the year under his hip hop moniker Hemlock Ernst. “It’s been a busy year without being a busy year.”
The hip hop side career may seem a bit surprising for a small town southern boy turned indie synth pop lead singer, but hip hop was Herring’s first musical love. His older brother introduced him to hip hop as a kid, and he became obsessed. His knowledge of underground regional hip hop from the 1990’s is very extensive. When he was fourteen he began freestyling in cyphers with his friends and writing a few songs, but never actively pursued recording and releasing music at the time. Years later he found himself inspired by Milo, the Milwaukee based producer and rapper who he met while touring with Future Islands, and he got back into writing rap and started releasing music as Hemlock Ernst. Future Islands manager introduced him to Egon, the longtime General Manager and A&R of legendary Stones Throw Records who now runs his own label Now-Again Records. Egon was shocked and maybe a bit flattered that Herring was familiar with Egon’s own short foray as an artist. Sam had a copy of his only album, Curse of the Evil Badger, since high school. Egon asked to hear him rap and was blown away, and linked him up with Madlib. He’s been able to work with and meet his heroes like Busdriver, Baswan, A-Plus from Souls of Mischief, and at least a dozen other underground hip hop artists he was excited to share. “It’s basically like my 16-year-old self’s tape collection coming to life – just kicking it with these guys. It’s been really cool to have that outlet. Hip hop was my original artform. It’s what made me first write. It’s why I fell in love with writing, and that’s continued through what Art Lords became and what Future Islands became, and it’s come full circle now.”
The down time for Future Islands has them itching to put out new music and hit the road hard. Specifics are unavailable yet, but Sam tells me they are in the process of making their new album and are planning to hit the road hard again next year. “We’re trying to go completely collaborative right now, and it’s proved pretty fruitful.” He explains that on the past three albums some of the songs were composed individually by Gerrit and then brought to the band at rehearsal, and some were written collaboratively. “This time we’re trying to go back to the old roots of just the three guys in a room… Something about Gerrit and William’s connection as musicians has always pulled something out of me.” The few shows that Future Islands is playing this fall are the first rumblings of the waking giant, as they get ready to follow up their breakthrough album. “Every day we’re getting buzzed on social media like ‘When’s it going to come out?’ We’re ready. I’m not saying we’re ready to drop something, but we want to feed people.”
Future Islands are playing the Pygmalion Festival tomorrow, September 24th, at The Accord Outdoor Stage 1, from 8:15-9:15 p.m. Visit the website for more information and to purchase tickets.