Interview Future Islands: ‘We Want To Move People’s Feet And Their Hearts’

Hard-working, prolific to the extreme, eleven years to the good - heads are finally turning for one of the world’s most daring bands, Future Islands.

If there’s a word or phrase that usually reverberates around Austin, Texas during SXSW festival, it’s “Queue”. Or “Taco”. Sometimes “Sleep” but that one’s more of a rarity. In 2014, however, something stirs on the makeshift stages and in the stuffy tents. Talk turns not to habits or alcohol brands, but to a group lifting their equipment from venue to venue, as they always do. Future Islands. A band that’s existed for eleven years. They’ve made four records including their latest, ‘Singles’. Cult fandom’s come their way. But nothing on this level. They’re without a doubt the most talked about act at the festival. They probably didn’t even need to show up for this to happen, either.

Two weeks before they hitch up to Texas, everything shifts for the Baltimore trio. Making their televised debut on David Letterman, they run through a rendition of ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’. As they always do. Nothing’s different in the way frontman Samuel T. Herring pounces and prowls on stage, going from bellowed chant to guttural growl. The chest-pumping, passionate defiance of it all isn’t anything new for the band themselves. But it is to most people.

Casual viewers might think they’re watching a drunk and disorderly Jack Nicholson stumbling on stage looking for his keys. Or a modern day David Brent giving his own Saturday Night Fever dance routine. For the vast majority this is like nothing they’ve seen before. It’s brave, distinctly uncool, bordering on hilarious. Above anything else it’s a brilliant spectacle.

Overnight it makes Future Islands a mini-phenomenon. They don’t become superstars, so to speak. But let’s not play it down. This is a game-changing moment for a band who’ve worked day-in, day-out for the past decade.

The timing isn’t a complete coincidence, either. This fourth album marks the band’s first on 4AD. It was finished before they signed their biggest ever deal. Called ‘Singles’, it’s the sound of a group aware that they’re “getting better at what we do,” in the words of bassist/guitarist William Cashion. They’re writing their Greatest Hits all in one go. Always a modest band, finally Future Islands are letting a little bit of arrogance into their system.

“It was definitely us being arrogant,” admits Herring, “maybe for the first time. We’ve worked really hard and let the work prove who we are. But this is a great album, each of these songs is strong. And I believe that each song stands in its own world.”

One televised ‘We’re telling songs about love and loss, very universal ideas.’
slot did all the work that a thousand gigs managed, and more. Future Islands are one of the most hard-working bands on the planet. The break in touring that led to ‘Singles’ was their first in seven years. Three months they went without seeing each other. Herring left the house he shared with the other members, Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers. “I was in a weird zone, dealing with some things,” he says, reflecting on the time. A trip to the West Coast had him working with another songwriter, one-on-one, for the first time. Things didn’t click, but it was a beneficial experience. “That was an interesting time for me. It opened me up to my own voice in a different way. Even that’s reflected in the album.”

When the band returned as a trio, they got to work without hesitation. The itch was back. Of the break, Herring talks about all three of the group needing a “well of ideas, inspiration to be flowing again” by the time they went back into the studio. Things clicked back into gear. Trying to work with other people “doesn’t really work the same,” Herring admits. ‘Singles’, then, was the output of a group realising the extent of their strength, understanding that there was something special within the trio’s chemistry.

“They’re not saying a lot, they’re just playing,” Herring says of his bandmates. Indeed, the frontman speaks almost every sentence on behalf of the others in conversation. He makes the eyes, he growls the growl - he’s the focus. But behind the persona is the glue to the group. They all rely on each other. Herring’s job is to “bring out the emotional bodies of the music - I see where the melody takes me, what words pop out and continue on with the idea.” As for the remaining two, “Garet feels the emotion of the keys and William feels the emotion of the bass.” It’s a formula that’s stayed resolute from 2008 debut ‘Wave Like Home’ onwards. Live, they benefit from working with a new drummer, Mike Lowry. But overall this is the same band playing the same way they always have. A break gave them this extra stride in their step. Still, for the most part it’s a cliched but resolutely true case of hard work paying off. The current situation, the sudden momentum - this is Future Islands’ pay raise.

This was the first time all three members went into the studio with an album already written in full. Each song was perfected. Sudden jolts of inspiration might have entered the process, but for the most part it was a rigid routine. Herring actually admits his slight regret at not allowing for the “interesting moments” and “experimentation” of previous albums. “It’s still a learning process,” he says. But there’s no doubting the pride behind ‘Singles’. “With this record, our biggest ambition was just to write the strongest songs that we could. And I think we accomplished that.”

On record there’s a significant difference between 2010’s muffled, beautiful ‘In Evening Air’ and the sharp, succinct pop of ‘Singles’. 2011 LP ‘On The Water’ acts as a bridge between the two extremes. Throughout all three albums, there’s the same feel, the same heart-stopping emotion that’s become such a constant. Despite this, ‘Singles’ is exactly that - a collection of astute, chart-ready giants that just so happen to be performed by oddballs.

“We’ve always seen ourselves as a pop band,” says Cashion. The three of them met in art school, which might explain their ability to make the simple sound grossly adventurous, sometimes too much. “We’re always trying to write a pop record and a pop song.”

Herring backs this up. “We might not be radio pop but I feel like we are pop in the sense of the subject matter and the natural feeling of the songs. We try to write simplistic, catchy songs, because that’s what appeals to us. We’re telling songs about love and loss, very universal ideas.” The group’s ultimate mission is “to entertain”, he says. “We want to move people’s feet and their hearts.” The Letterman performance saw these big, abstract mission statements come into fruition.

Opening with ‘This is a great album, each of these songs is strong.’
the deal-breaking ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’, new album ‘Singles’ is by a thousand miles their sharpest-sounding work. There isn’t a song that edges over the five minute mark. With all-encompassing truths being dished out on the regular, it’s put to the band that they’ve written their most romantic record to date, sealed with a kiss. “I’m not so sure,” is their response. “I have romantic ideals in my head so that’s what really comes from. ‘Singles’ is definitely not the only record that deals with those. ‘In Evening Air’ deals with it but more on the side of loss ‘On The Water’ deals with it but more on the side of retrospection and introspection on. I think this one is much more outward… There’s an optimistic view in these songs but I think that has to do with our confidence as songwriters and musicians. We’ve been doing this for many years.”

On previous records the frontman’s grizzly, hardcore punk roar was ever present. Here it shows its face on special occasions. ‘Spirit’ hints at it. ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’ - the album’s passionate family tale; a centerpiece - goes one step further. ‘Fall From Grace’ reclaims the scream alongside equally hysterical instrumentation. Herring says his customary style of singing simply comes from not being able to reach some notes. Perhaps he’s just become a better vocalist, not a tamed beast.

The only one screaming on that now-famed March late night edition was Letterman, himself. “Buddy, come on! Hey, thanks very much. Nice going! How about that?! I’ll take all of that you got! Future Islands! That was wonderful!’ It’s impossible to imagine any of this hysteria matching up with a different guy fronting the band. Herring’s unique style is a persona, there’s no doubting that. He admits to seeing Joy Division’s Ian Curtis perform and having his mind blown. For a band sporting music that’s often ambiguous and playful, the singer is something tangible to latch onto.

Even though there’s always been someone at the front, pouring his heart out, Future Islands are well and truly standing up to be noticed this time. The cocky, swaggering album title is there for a reason. “It was meant to have a strength to it. It was meant to have an air of confidence, in our craft and what we do.” Since finishing the album, this newfound belief has manifested into something even more formidable. All of a sudden these humble musicians are riding their own wave of momentum. Don’t expect it to stop anytime soon. With thousands diving into their back catalogue by the day, finally we’re witnessing a brilliant band reach a whole new level.

Future Islands’ new album ‘Singles’ is out now on 4AD.

Taken from the new, free DIY Weekly, available to read online, download on Android via Google Play, or download on iPad now.

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