In art school as a college student, Sam Herring, front man for the Baltimore-based post-wave band, Future Islands, studied sculpture and stage performance. He was a conceptual and performance artist. But – maybe it was laziness, he says, maybe it was the Mary Jane – his work wasn’t taking him where he wanted to go. His sculptures weren’t of Michelangelo’s caliber. But he had a revelation. Herring combined the two subjects. He began to, in a philosophical manner, consider himself to be his clay. The body was the sculpture. He adopted a bombastic stage persona, “Art Lord,” striking Shakespearean poses (or jokingly doing the “Robot” dance). He started a band with good friends. He gesticulated wildly. It worked. The local bars – and then the world – noticed. Now, his group is set to release its highly anticipated sixth LP, As Long As You Are, on October 9th.
“It became about how to tell stories with your body,” Herring says. “We were playing in smoky bars on stage. People weren’t hearing the words really, not hearing what the songs were about. So, I was trying to show them what the songs were about through movement of the body. To pantomime so as to translate the stories to the audience, who is listening but not catching what you’re saying.”
Herring says he’s always been comfortable on stage. He enjoys the energy, the power it lends, imbues. The charge that he gets from the stage propels him toward creativity buoyed by positive energy. The audience has always played an important role with Future Islands. Herring says the band would often half-write songs and bring them to the stage, to the audience, to road test the material. Almost like a comedian trying to hone the timing, beats and rhythm of a new set.
“We’d write a group of songs the day before we had to play them and we’d practice them and sure hope we didn’t screw it up too bad,” Herring says. “The shows helped form the songs. Rather than tinker with them away from the audience, we thought that the songs aren’t written until they’re performed on stage, until we get the audience’s own emotional take on them. The audience tells you when something needs to have fire.”
The genesis of Future Islands, which had its first big break on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2014 (more on this later), began in 2006. Really, though, the roots go deeper than that. Herring grew up with the band’s keyboardist, Gerrit Welmers, in rural North Carolina. At the time, herring loved the storytelling of hip-hop and Welmers, secretly and shyly, played guitar. In college, Herring met guitarist-turned-bassist, William Cashion, and began collaborating. Welmers joined up soon after. The three started a performance art band, Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, in 2003, which, in 2006, morphed into Future Islands. Drummer Michael Lowry now provides the backbeat.
“There was an immediate chemistry,” Cashion says. “The way me and Gerrit and Sam could write, it just came naturally.”
With his hip-hop background, Herring would work out songs in real time, free-styling lyrics and ideas mid-performance. The band congealed, coagulated. They got better. Cashion traded his guitar for bass. Welmers traded his guitar for synths. They dropped the performance art for a more serious music project. Future Islands grew, blossomed and then, one day, they found themselves on their first network TV gig – with David Letterman. The band played its song, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” and blew the roof off the place. Letterman, himself, was practically stunned at the powerful showing. The clip became the show’s most-watched musical performance and has since garnered millions of views on YouTube. The band’s star shone bright.
After the performance, the band was on a high but had to get back to their on-going tour. Future Islands had cancelled a gig in Charlottesville, VA to do Letterman. But they had to get to Asheville the next day night for a show. So, as soon as they finished taping in New York around 6 pm, they drove to Baltimore as a first stop before several more. But, as luck would have it, their van blew a tire and, as the frustrated Welmers changed it, the other members popped into a bar to watch their earlier-taped performance.
“There were less than five people in the bar,” Cashion says. “They sort of watched us, looked at the TV, looked back at us, like, ‘Was that you?’”
Future Islands’ newest record is only their second release since that fateful, future-changing Letterman performance. And it’s quite an achievement. The album is laced with sonically dripping synths, heavy guitars and never-ending snare hits. Standouts include the ominous, “Born In A War,” driving, “Plastic Beach,” and beseeching, “Moonlight.” But the high watermark has to be “Hit The Coast,” which is as sticky as a carnival lollipop.
“’Hit The Coast’ came out of a jam almost fully formed,” says Lowry. “It was the first thing we played one day. Sam came up with the chorus. We separated it out from the other stuff we did that day, shaped it, gave it a little bit of structure. It came together pretty quickly.”
Throughout the new album, Herring touches on bits of hard-earned wisdom, sometimes growling them into the mic with his worked-over vocal cords. He offers noticings, thoughts, hopes and ideas in big, often personal ways. But underlying everything is Herrings appetite for and acceptance of change. Change is a constant and, as a result, it’s a regular topic for the malleable front man’s writing.
“The hope is that we’re always open to change,” Herring says. “Always open to learn. Always trying to be better, ourselves. It’s something I think about in my lyrics because I’m also trying to tell myself that these things are important at all times.”
Order the latest from Future Islands at their website.