Future Islands: Don’t Hold Back

L to R: Gerrit Weimers, William Cashion, Sam Herring. Photo by Tom Hines

There’s a moment in “Road Dawgs,” a short film about Future Islands shot by Jay Buim in 2014, where vocalist Sam Herring tells a terrifying story about the physical toll of being in a touring band. He passed out in an airport before catching a plane to Barcelona for Primavera Sound. Medics revived him, he caught his plane, and the band played the festival. But he still punctuates the story with a sobering thought: “I thought I was gonna die.”

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Future Islands have played more than a thousand shows in their 11 years as a band. That’s a lot of shows. Nearly 100 a year, in fact, in which time they’ve committed fully to seeing each one through, playing through illness, injuries, and what must be a massive pile of sweat-soaked clothes. They’re not a band that holds anything back, particularly Herring, whose animated, spontaneous, chest-beating theatrics have become the stuff of legend. As they add another 100 shows to the tally in 2017, Future Islands are intent on keeping that commitment.

“We’re coming up on 1,100 shows. And in that time, we’ve only canceled five shows, playing through sickness, injury, malaise, devastating sadness, heartbreak,” says Herring in a phone interview from Ireland. “Playing through those things, when you’re in those moments and you think you’re gonna lose your mind, the show is the thing that helps it all. You end up going out on stage and playing and getting a better sense of who you are and what your purpose is. It’s like a marathon runner continuing on through sheer force of will. But then you play and it reminds you of why you do this and what you love.”

The Far Field, Future Islands’ fifth album, mirrors the physical commitment that the band puts into their music with a set of songs that are both energizing and emotionally powerful. Featuring some of their catchiest melodies to date, the album captures the group’s dynamic live sensibility within songs of hope, determination and yearning. Keyboardist J. Gerrit Welmers and bassist William Cashion provide a dreamy backing to “Through The Roses,” wherein Herring reveals an aching vulnerability: “I’m no stronger than you, and I’m scared.” And on the densely layered single “Cave,” Herring expresses an intense emotional duality (“The fear that keeps me going … is the fear that brings me to my knees”).

The deeply emotional expression of Herring’s lyrics are an essential part of Future Islands’ sound and musical presence. But at its core the band is a trio of songwriters and musicians working together.

“The three of us make this band, totally, in our sounds and what we bring to the table,” says Herring. “We wouldn’t be who we are if that was not a part of this band. I think we are very individualistic for each individual part that we play, but it’s very important that we’re all part of the process.”

The title of The Far Field is a reference to a book of poetry by Theodore Roethke, whose title poem mirrors the wanderlust of a band whose life is spent in large part away from home: “I dream of journeys repeatedly: Of flying like a bat into a narrowing tunnel, Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula.” The phrase itself is weighted with meaning, though the meaning is ultimately up to the person who chooses to interpret it. For Herring, it’s “a place that’s just out of reach that you’re always pushing toward,” while for Welmers, it’s the place he goes to in his mind when the band’s on tour and he needs an escape from the drudgery of the highway.

When the band was recording the album, The Far Field was just one of a long list of names that could have ultimately been scrapped. Yet the group’s producer offered some reserved, mysterious feedback that pushed them in the right direction.

“We had a list of 50 to 70 possible titles,” says Cashion. “And our producer, John Congleton, came in one day in the studio when we were on a break when we were tracking the album and was like, ‘What’s this, album titles?’ He looked at it for about 15 seconds and said, ‘I like The Far Field’ and left the room.”

Whether The Far Field is the place where Future Islands go to when they need an escape or some distance ahead of them still yet to be reached, they have many more miles to go. Through their studio albums and live shows, the band is intent on tapping into a deep emotional center that can sometimes be elusive.

“If you’re creating a reaction, then that’s positive,” says Herring. “If you’re giving people emotions they are confused about, it’s just as good as giving them emotions that make them cry, or dance or feel something. It’s just about creating a reaction, and in doing that it’s about putting ourselves out there and putting ourselves on the line to create that reaction. The idea is getting people to be more open to themselves.”

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