Future Islands: Meet the band that blew up "Letterman"

Their late-night debut spawned a flurry of memes. Now Future Islands talk to Salon about their new album

Published April 1, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

If you tuned in to "The Late Show With David Letterman" last month you probably caught a glimpse of Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring -- head bobbing, feet tapping. The band made their watershed television debut -- performing their latest single "Seasons (Waiting on You)" -- and they came out swinging. Letterman, clearly charmed by the performance, continued to pepper his monologues with clips of Herring's swinging moves for days after their performance. ("The Late Show" also turned Herring's dance into a Tumblr-circulated GIF.)

But Future Islands, who released their fourth album, "Singles," last week, is much more than just a meme. "Singles" has been called their best effort yet, even earning critical plaudits from Pitchfork. "These songs [...] invite us to participate in Herring’s world," wrote Pitchfork's Jeremy D. Larson, "one shaped by geological heartbreak events and their epochal reflection periods, told with nothing more than the simple truth."

Salon spoke to Herring a day after the release of "Singles," while the band drove along their tour route from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Chicago. The Future Islands frontman talked about touring, making the album and, of course, his now meme-worthy dance movies. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

First, go ahead and tell me how the tour has been.

Well, we just started a new tour. We did two and a half weeks down to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest. Booked it back to Baltimore pretty quick, and Memphis on the way back. And then we had about three or four days off in Baltimore, and then struck out again on this tour. Last night [March 25] we had a sellout in Grand Rapids and it was the official album launch. The crowd was just great. It’s really great to have the new record, just handy with us -- just handing it out there to people, you know. That’s the way we’ve always tried to work, just staying out on the road, meeting people firsthand, creating memories and experiences with people, making new friends and fans. That’s how we get by.

Tell me a little bit about the album. Was there any sort of personal inspiration?

Well, really this is our fourth record as Future Islands. As of March of this year, it will be 11 years of me and [band mates] William [Cashion] and Gerrit [Welmers] writing songs together. There’s a very deep history that people don’t know about.

But really, this is the first time we went into the studio to record an album. William had been talking to [album producer] Chris Coady for a long time. When Chris got involved with the record, he didn’t feel comfortable doing a portable setup in a random rental home on the coast of North Carolina. He’s the one who brought us to a place -- a studio in Upstate New York -- called Dreamland that he’s used many times. It’s an old church off the main road that was refurbished or renovated to become a studio in the '80s. Just having that comfort zone -- because the main reason we’ve always stayed out of a studio proper is because a studio can be very clinical, and has rooms built to control sound. And our feeling is that sound should be blossoming. The way a guitar sounds in a room is different, then, if you just plug a guitar into a board and play.

We realize with every album you need to push yourself to explore something new, or find a new sound, or try something different. At least to see if it works. You have to try things. We’re really happy with the way the record turned out. I think it’s the best-sounding thing that we’ve done. So the next time, we’ll have the new knowledge and the old knowledge, and I think we’re all already thinking about how we can combine these things next time around, pull out more feelings, and I’m ready to start working on the next record already. Now that the record came out yesterday. [Laughter]

I was about to say, it just came out. 

Yeah. I’m ready to start writing again.

Speaking of writing, I was curious how the songwriting process works for you guys. I know that it’s so different for every band.

Yeah, it’s always just kind of been the three of us just jamming in the room, and with Art Lord [a previous incarnation of the band] it was four of us, but yeah, it all just kind of starts with William and Gerrit playing around with sounds. They just bounce off each other. And I kind of sit in the corner and write, and just feel what they’re giving me. They’re putting the sounds, I’m writing words, and finding melodies, finding ways to break through their melodies with a new melody, or ways to play with what’s happening and ways to play against it. I think when they find something, they’re kind of getting a groove, I hear a certain passage I like, I’m just like, “Keep doing that, keep doing that, keep repeating it.”

And I feel like when we’re writing a song it usually only takes an hour, hour and a half. Because the elements just come together. You know, our style, we want it to be uncomplicated because we’re uncomplicated people. We’re not trained musicians. We’re all art-school kids who started making music and fell in love with it. So instead of playing with the musical side of things, we play more with the emotional side of things that drew us to music.

I’m not a trained musician at all. I enjoy music coming from a dancer’s background, for how you can move to music. And obviously, there’s been a lot of talk about your stage presence, and your movement -- you’re a meme now with your dance moves. Is that something that arises from the feeling of the song?

Well, yeah, I mean, movement has always been really important to the way that I perform, from the early beginning, playing in house parties or bars, trying to grab people’s attention. People are out at the bar with their friends and you just have to be that band that’s annoying them, playing in the corner, trying to entertain. Part of it is realizing that. I take great pride in the work that I write and the stories, and emotional investment in the stories. And when you’re playing in a noisy bar in a packed room, people can’t always hear what you’re saying and so, I’ve been saying this since 2004, 2005: I have to show them what I’m saying, I have to show them the feeling I’m trying to convey.

The biggest thing that we’re trying to do is just to make people move or move people. And that’s what creating art is all about, is creating a response. A relationship with an audience is very important. And I think the dance has become something that I’ve been working on more over the last two years, although I’ve always been dancing, but I’ve been getting better. [Laughter] But it’s definitely something that’s always been in there. We’ve always made dance music, since we were freshmen in college starting our first band, we were kind of a dance band, we wanted to be Kraftwerk, that was kind of our thing.

And as a performer I don’t have a guitar, and there’s nothing worse than a lazy front person, that’s just no fun, it’s just like, “What are you doing up there?” It all has to do with what you’re creating and if it’s sincere and honest, then people will see that. It may take them a bit, but they will see that it’s real and that’s a beautiful thing.

That’s a really great way to put it.  Sometimes the lyrics can be really sad but it’s still to an upbeat, synthy tempo, and you guys do that well without making it be like, “Here are these sad lyrics and … you wanna dance to it!”

That’s something we’ve done a long time without thinking about. But I think we realize now that that interplay of light and dark, creating a balance. You know, if the music is upbeat and the lyrics are a little heavier that creates a certain tension. And as we realize it, it’s something we’ve been able to harness. And it’s helped me realize some things too. Life’s not always up and it’s not always down, we move in between emotions on a minute to minute basis sometimes, hour to hour, day to day, month to month; we’re kind of ebbing and flowing. We’re not always writing sugar, happy-go-lucky songs, or always writing the really dark stuff, that the music is dark and the words have to be dark.

There’s a really great Danny Brown interview where he said, when my dog was sick when I was kid, we had to give him his pills, but he wouldn’t take them so we would put the pill in a piece of cheese, and feed it to the dog. And he’s like that’s the way I do it with music. The lyrics, they may be funny, that’s what’s going to get people to listen, but then I can put a message inside of that, and convey something to them in a secret way. Put a message inside. And if we’re able to do that, then we’re doing our job. And that’s the hope, that you can move people’s hearts as well as their feet, and if you can do both, then, at least in what we do, that’s success for us, connecting with an audience.

Performing on "David Letterman" was sort of a transformative moment. Was there any sense from the band beforehand that there would be GIFs and reactions to your being on the show? You've been doing this for 11 years ...

No, we didn’t expect anything from that. We were just excited to get the opportunity. We were excited to get to share that with our friends and with our family, and with our fans, the people that supported us for years. We’re professionals at what we do, and we’ve been doing this for many years. It’s very rare that we get nervous about these things, but all of a sudden all our friends and all our family is calling us pre-show, to be like, “This is so crazy!” And we’d get a million emails. And it’s exciting. I think once we got there, and were able to do rehearsal in the space where we were going to be, and do camera blocking, run the song four or five times, then it felt good. It was like, OK cool, I can handle this -- this is going to be great. And we did what we do every night.

And there are a lot of bands who perform with a similar level of passion and are doing great things, but they rarely get their chance. We were lucky to have our chance, and show what we’re able to do. But it is kind of wild. And hopefully it is a good turning point. The fear is people will take the meme or the GIF and won’t listen to the song, or won’t realize that this isn’t a joke, this is a real thing.

I think that’s all we can really ask as artists or musicians is that people just give us a chance. It turned out that [Letterman] was a way that we could get a song by us out to a lot of people. And a lot of people are seeing it. And they’re making up their minds, and that’s what we want. I think the majority are like, “I love this,” but there are still the people that are like, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. Is this a joke?”

So we’re basically doing exactly what we wanted to: creating a very strong reaction. We field a ton of emails from people whose lives our music has touched. That’s like the greatest compliment, receiving something like that and realizing that you have essentially become a part of someone’s life, you helped them through a hard time in their lives, or were a part of a celebration in their lives.

We’re not letting any of it go to our heads or anything. So, for us now, it’s just, keep our heads down, work, stay humble and come out winners in 20, 30, 40 years. That’s the big hope. We wanna be one of those bands that’s around forever. We’ve already got 11 years under our belt as songwriters together, so I hope there’s another 11, and another 11, and we just keep going. But we’ll see. I know our shows will get bigger, there’ll be bigger offers, that helps us along the way so that we can continue to afford to do this, and make time to write, and afford to move forward. That’s what this is all about, is sustaining a way of life where we can continue to be artists, and do this thing that makes us and other people happy.

Well, that seems like a pretty good place to wrap it up. Good end note!

Boom. I nailed it. Put that shit on "Letterman." [Laughter]

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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