Photo by Tim Seccenti
Future Islands are having a moment as big as any indie band could hope for. After giving a physically singular performance on Late Show With David Letterman, singer Samuel Herring’s dance moves were reblogged and reGIFed all over the internet, even becoming a part of Letterman’s referential shtick. Now, they’re poised to blow up as one of those bands you’ve just got to see—a long time coming, as the Baltimore band have been a thrilling live act for years.
It wouldn’t have happened without an album like their newest, though. Singles has a cheeky title but a bold sound, smoothing over their previous atonal tendencies into perfectly polished synth pop, with Herring howling over the music like a tortured caveman grappling with emotions he’s only realizing for the first time. It’s gruff, sparkling, and completely distinct, the best record of an already prolific career. Before the Letterman performance, I met with the band in their label’s office to discuss the recording process, remaining a confident band, and playing shows for audiences not yet hip to their vibe.
This is your fourth album, and it’s the most polished sounding of what you’ve done so far. What was different about the recording process?
William Cashion: It cost a lot more. First time we recorded in the studio. Our second and third albums, we did them in houses. The second one was recorded in Baltimore, in a house we used to live in together. And then On The Water was done in our buddy Andrew Sanders’ house in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and our first album was done at the skate shop at Greenville, NC, where we all went to college, upstairs in this room that was actually pretty cool for recording—it had long, kind of gallery space floors all the way down with this crazy reverb. But yeah, it was the first time we’d been in the studio, but it was cool because we recorded in a space called Dreamland and I guess a lot of bands are going there now—it’s right outside of Woodstock, upstate.
Sam Herring: When it came down to pick where we were going to do it, we wanted to just rent a house or just go somewhere and we knew Chris [Coady] was going to do the record, so we asked Chris if he had a portable studio that we could rent a house somewhere and he was like, “Why don’t we do it at Dreamland?” It’s kind of like a house you record in. But it’s kind of like the best of those. He brought us into studio world in a house. It was a great compromise for recording. We could—we were living in the space, it became everywhere. A studio that closes at 11 and you have to be there at set hours—it was very kind of open.
William: At Dreamland, yeah—there was a night where we were recording vocals until like 4:30 in the morning, because you’re just there. You have free reign of it. It’s an old church, like the live room is the sanctuary of a church, with giant stained glass windows and everything. It’s beautiful. Then there’s a little house down the hill where we could set up. So we could work early as we wanted or late at night. It was usually late at night—early mornings didn’t really kick off. But it was beautiful that time of year.
It’s a very confident-sounding record, and you’re a very confident live act. It helps sell these really passionate songs, whereas another band might limp along.
Sam: Thank you.
William: I think for anyone, to any band to leave their rehearsal space and play shows in front of people it takes a certain level of confidence in themselves. It takes courage to do that, for any band. So yeah, I definitely think we’re a confident band. We play a lot of shows—I think we all feel really strong about what we do. We believe in it.
Sam: We believe greatly in what we do, because it’s of us and we do our best to not fall in, and we haven’t really fallen into trends or try to write for what we think people want. Because sometimes I’m like, man, maybe we should write like a dance song and they’re like, no, no, if it’s not coming it’s not coming. These guys write music, I write words and melodies, so there’s that the way it comes together, I feed off of their emotions, what they give me, and we kind of grow organically. And that’s positive—if any of us gets a little antsy, we try to settle it down and let things come.
The video for “Seasons”, in particular, reminds me of the video for Kanye’s “Bound 2”, sharing this kind of earnest, naturalistic vision. Sam, I saw in an interview where you talk about not wanting to give into cynicism. Is that something that the band grapples with?
William: We do, but you can’t worry about that stuff.
Sam: I mean, I think about that stuff all the time. I said that in the interview because that’s something that I think about, what I talked about was falling into a cynicism, period, but with that kind of stuff, I just feel like it’s important as an artist to be self-conscious and check yourself and that goes on both sides, check yourself that you’re pushing yourself but also that you’re making wise decisions, but also check those decisions and be sure it’s coming from—well, for us, it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to play with people’s perceptions then it’s different if your goal is to be earnest. I think our goal has always been to be earnest; that’s something that, especially as, the words, I have to make sure that I'm coming from a place that’s somewhere I believe in, because if not then it’s bullshit.
Have you ever played a show where people were just totally taken aback or confused by what you do?
William: It was this really cool festival we played in France once. Nobody there knew who we were, they didn’t know anything about us, and they just mocked us the whole time. Especially, I was wearing a handlebar mustache at the time and they were just pointing at me and laughing and yelling, MUSTACHE! MUSTACHE! They were all just laughing and pointing at us. That was in 2011.
Sam: I mean, there’s tons of shows that’ve been like that, especially when we do opener gigs. We just toured with Phantogram—we’ve done very few support tours, always done our own thing—but we opened for Phantogram and they were awesome, but there were definitely some shows where they didn’t come to see us. They’re just like, what the fuck is going on. I’m getting into it, we’re jamming, we’re doing our thing—and, in those situations it’s weird because we’ve been on the flip side where we’ve brought our friends on tour, and people are rude to the opening bands because those are our friends. But I also like that—I like that kind of show because it’s a challenge.
William: You feed off it, too.
Sam: Yeah, you do feed off it. Because it’s cool to scare people. (laughs) It’s cool to give everything and see people react. If anything, you want a reaction. It can go either way but you want something to happen. I fell in love with performance art when I was 17 and that was the thing that I found: I just would sit and draw for 20 hours straight and make this thing photorealistic and then put it on a board and then people see it and that’s it, or you can stand on the street and perform for 30 minutes with some weird thing you came up with off the top of your head, act out a play to no one but people are going to walk by and you’re going to get a reaction. They may not get what you’re doing or care about what you’re doing, but there’s something, you sparked something in their heads. And that’s an exciting thing, to look into people’s eyes. There’s no expectation—you can create a memory for people, like I said, good or bad. It can grab people and that’s a cool thing.
The album is called Singles, and I could definitely hear these songs on the radio. What have been some of your favorite singles in the last few years?
Sam: Oh, man. I don’t even know what’s happening in the world of music.
Jeremy Gordon is doing the Future Islands dance in his apartment right now. He's on Twitter — @jeremypgordon