Future Islands Singer Recalls When He Sang His Breakup Album to His Ex
Future Islands leave it all on the table.
Some musicians' greatest fears are rooted in the sophomore slump, stolen gear, public ridicule, or an overarching sense of failure. Of all, one of the most challenging and frightening times for an artist is having to play their music for the muse that inspired it, especially if its connotations are less than positive. It can rattle a songwriter to their core.
Samuel T. Herring knows this scenario well, having lived through it in the most exposing and voyeuristic of fashions in a small Philadelphia show in March of 2010. It happened just as his band, Future Islands, began to experience success with In Evening Air, a record he penned around a failed relationship that fractured due to constraints out of the couple's control.
"It's a small DIY venue, maybe 150 people smashed into this room, sold-out, and she is directly in front of me just staring at me, crying while I'm singing to her, staring at her, crying for a hour, just the whole set," he says, his voice dropping low, a stark contrast from his typically talkative and upbeat demeanor. "It was so painful, because we already felt it fall apart, and then we felt it fall apart again, and now I'm singing her these songs and she knows that they're for her, and she's there and I'm there. It was the most intense feeling that I've ever felt onstage."
Few bands, much less few frontmen, are as cavalier in their display of emotion as Future Islands. Such displays are commonplace for the Baltimore synth-pop band and its crooning vocalist: Herring will often pound at his chest, yank at his collar, utter demonic growls in lieu of lyrics and will dance in that inimitable style best showcased on the David Letterman show last year. There is an inevitable intrigue to Future Islands because behind the showmanship there's a pared-down rawness to Herring's lyrics that becomes more apparent with each passing listen. Following the release of last year's 4AD release Singles, droves of new fans have been drawn to the band in an exponential way. The rate of growth took some time for Herring to accept.
"I think we all expected and hoped to grow last year, to kind of double what we were doing and by the end of the year step up a level, and by the end of the year we realized we had stepped up two levels," he explains. "At that point, it's all about adaptation, to a new way, a new understanding of not only how things work and how things are going to be from this point to whenever people stop giving a shit [laughs], but how the idea of what you do changes."
However the field may shift for Future Islands, Herring is insistent that their do-it-yourself background is responsible for both their tireless work ethic and an impending, if not slightly baseless, fear of remanding control of his creative powers to a major label machine. Having cut their teeth in eastern North Carolina and "honing our craft in living rooms," Herring tells newer bands to eschew the rigamarole of the booking process and to "just play wherever you can." It's this ethos that got Future Islands noticed in the first place and has now elevated the band to such heights that Herring worries about their place on a legendary label.
"That is the fear: They do a great job, they know the business, they know how to sell a record, they know how to push a record," he says. "But at the same time, there's that fear of losing the thing that made it special in the first place. For us, it's hard for us to let go of that, as our baby. There's that fear of it just growing to that point where there's so many people looking out for our interests in a way that our interests are completely lost."
The personal support system that currently surrounds them seems antithetical to Herring's out-of-control notion though. Whether it's in Greenville, the small North Carolinian town where the band formed, or their home base of Baltimore, the band is beloved. Taking a bit of home out on the road, even in memory, keeps Future Islands grounded.
"I think it's an important thing to take with you, a place that you come from," he says. "A big part of our upbringing in general, as Southerners, is to be mindful of the history that you come from, being proud of the heritage. It's like having a good teacher in school that gives you positive affirmation that what you're doing is right or worth a damn. It gives you that feeling like 'Hey, maybe I can take that to the next level.'"
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