ABOVE: FUTURE ISLANDS
When we catch up with Future Islands to discuss their looming fourth album release, it’s evident things are looking up. Less than a week off their late night TV debut (and its subsequent viral takeover), Samuel T. Herring, William Cashion, and Gerrit Welmers are rolling into Austin, Texas for their first South by Southwest appearance. By the end of the two-week-long live music deluge, the Baltimore band would be named the festival’s Best Developing U.S. Act. In more ways than one, it feels like Future Islands is on the brink of a career breakthrough. And yet, even as they pile up, the milestones seem wholly organic.
Since forming in 2007 on the heels of their prior act, Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, Future Islands has made music that expertly toes the line between post-punk and art pop. Synths and drum machines factor in heavily, and dancing is highly encouraged despite—or, perhaps more accurately, in spite of—lyrics that tend towards tales of heartbreak, loss, and redemption. As a frontman, Herring is an enigmatic force to be reckoned with. His romantic lyrical musings manifest themselves as purrs and growls, and onstage he stalks his audience like a caged animal, punctuating his words with bold dance moves and theatrical gesticulations. Were it not for his genuineness, the whole thing would look like a farce.
On Singles, Future Islands’ latest and first for 4AD, the band’s longstanding confidence seems to bubble to the surface of each song. The melodies are subtly brighter, the deliveries just a little more immediate, and yet the overall impact is greater than anything they’ve created to date. We caught up with Herring, Cashion, and Welmers in a Texas parking lot to talk about the album, the praise, and the stories behind Singles.
ALY COMINGORE: You guys have had quite the week.
SAMUEL T. HERRING: [laughs] Yeah.
COMINGORE: How did the day leading up to Letterman shake down?
WILLIAM CASHION: It was really surreal. We had gone through the song on the set a bunch of times, so by the time we actually did the taping we weren’t as nervous as we thought we’d be. It was cool. My sisters came up, and we had a bunch of friends in the audience. It was over really fast, though.
COMINGORE: Did you watch it when it aired?
HERRING: Yeah, we did. The funny thing was, Gerrit didn’t want to watch it, William really wanted to watch it, and I was kind of ambivalent about it. But I was happy we did. I think we all were. When you’re performing it’s kind of a blur; you’re just trying to make sure you don’t mess up. But now it’s kind of crazy just because that video has been cycling and people seem to be really excited about it. It’s funny for us, though, because that’s what we do every night. People [on the Internet] are like, “Who are these people? Where did this come from?” And I’m thinking, “Oh, we’ve been doing it. But I’m glad you guys know about us now.”
COMINGORE: You all took a pretty big chunk of time off to work on the new record. What prompted the break?
HERRING: At least for me, I was really strung out on touring, and a big part of that was a relationship I was in, which was really up and down just because of the fact that I was gone all the time. The whole basis of our relationship was me being gone. I knew her for three weeks and then I was went away for six and then I came back for two and then I was away for five, and it kind of continued like that for two and a half years. I spent three months telling this girl to stick it out with me ’til the end of the year, and then the week before I got home, we split up over the phone while I was in a Guitar Center parking lot in Cleveland.
COMNIGORE: I imagine that made for a bittersweet homecoming.
HERRING: Yeah. I was really torn. I got home and I didn’t want to be there. Living in the same city with someone that I was in a relationship with was something I had never done. I had all that time to bury it or not deal with it or not think about it because I was constantly on the road. In a weird way, I had to deal with this breakup head-on in a way I never had to before, and I think it’s reflected on the album in a big way. A lot of the record’s calmness was those first three months of me trying to deal with my emotions. I spent a lot of time at my house, cooking for myself and taking care of things. It was weird. It was really weird.
COMINGORE: As far as process goes, how did Singles compare to the last two albums?
CASHION: We wrote a lot more songs that just didn’t make the cut, whereas in the past we’ve pretty much released everything we’ve written.
HERRING: There’s a whole other album of really sick jams is what William is trying to say. [laughs] We wrote somewhere between 23 and 25 demos for this album. In the past there’s maybe been a song or a couple of songs that one of us didn’t really like that made the album. With this album, if one of us had any problem with a song, it just didn’t make the cut, no matter how much someone liked it.
COMINGORE: How did you settle on calling it Singles?
HERRING: Through the whole recording process, I was writing things down, William wrote some things down. Instead of thinking of a phrase that encapsulated a feel, I was trying to think of titles that would say that there’s no concept behind this album, that these are just songs and each song is its own thing. And I liked the way it sounded. When you take it out of the context of music, “singles” is such a strange word. It has a lyricality in the way it comes off the tongue, but it’s also a little flirty. I think it spoke well to what we set out to do, which was just to write as many songs as we could and then put out the best ones.
COMINGORE: Is that not always the goal?
HERRING: Well, yes, but we’d never done that before. We’d never had the time to write a record like that. We only ever crammed in writing in between tours and worked out songs on the road in front of audiences. I think that’s a really important thing for a band to do too, but we’d also done it for 10 years. We kind of wanted to try something new.
COMINGORE: Were you surprised by the results?
HERRING: I was excited. The music that Gerrit and William were coming up with was really getting under my skin and inspiring and pushing me in new ways.
COMINGORE: There’s one song on the album that I wanted to ask you about. What’s the story behind “A Song for Our Grandfathers”?
HERRING: “A Song for Our Grandfathers” we wrote at William’s family’s hunting cabin in North Carolina. I was listening to the demo and looking out at the land, which is about half a mile back off this dirt road and surrounded by burnt-out farms and old fields and tall walls of pine trees. I was thinking about this place and the heavy weight of it, but also the beauty in it, because there were all these pictures of William’s family on the walls. I started thinking about my grandparents and the way they lived, the way they came up, and what that land was like then.
COMINGORE: Does environment tend to impact your writing?
HERRING: Yeah. I feel like North Carolina is a big part of our songwriting. Even though it’s not something we reference by name, it’s so much a part of who we are. The South has a certain poetry and romance to it, lots of old ghosts. That’s kind of what “A Song for Our Grandfathers” was about—just thinking that my grandparents are watching over me, and how things come together and connect to make us who we are.
COMINGORE: Do you feel like your definition of “home” has changed over the years?
GERRIT WELMERS: Maybe. I feel like home is just where we are. We make the van our home, we make our homes our home; we make anywhere our home at this point.
COMINGORE: What about your definition of love?
HERRING: I think my concept of love has changed greatly, especially when it comes to what people need in their lives, or what we require and what we deserve. I don’t know. I still have a very high ideal for love. I am still very much an idealist, but it’s not easy to be with someone who isn’t there, and I deal with that a lot.
COMINGORE: How do you think that manifested on Singles?
HERRING: Songs like “Seasons (Waiting On You)”—that’s a song about someone who I was in a relationship with and how I changed a lot of things in my life to try to appease that person and make them want me more, but in the end that wasn’t going to help anything because the love just wasn’t strong enough.
COMINGORE: So the message goes both ways?
HERRING: Yeah. I was waiting on her, and she was waiting on me because I wasn’t there. And now, when I’m singing it to an audience, I realize that I’m saying it to them. In a lot of ways, we as a band have been waiting on these people to come into our world and come out to our shows. I felt that way when we were performing on TV, too. Every story has different sides, and that’s something I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. I used to believe very deeply that there was only one person that you would find love in, and I realize now that we can find love in all kinds of people.
COMINGORE: So you’re not jaded yet.
HERRING: No no no. You can’t be jaded, because then life just gets boring and you become a crotchety old bastard who’s no fun to be around. I don’t want to be that. I’ve got a mantra that I say to myself. I tell myself, “Don’t become the person you hate.” I apply that to my daily life a lot. They’re just words to think about and ponder so that you can try and be a better person, but sometimes you need those little things.