Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring on doing Letterman: That's not as wild as I get
Photo by Tim Saccenti
On the Baltimore-based synth-rock group's newly released fourth album, Singles, Herring, keyboard programmer Gerrit Welmers, and bassist William Cashion have honed an already polished synthesizer-rich aesthetic further. Paired with Herring's confessional lyrics, these challenging songs are like clouds hanging over the ocean -- some with a silver lining, others with far-darker innards. They made their TV debut with the undeniable "Seasons (Waiting on You)" on Late Show With David Letterman in early March, and Herring's unbridled passion onstage awoke something in the comedian. Afterwards, the host yelled, "I'll take all of that you got!" and so did plenty of other unsuspecting Americans as the clip went viral.
Ahead of Future Islands's sold-out performance at Triple Rock Social Club, Gimme Noise spoke to Herring about that fateful night on TV, and the many people who have informed his performance style.
You recently did eight shows at SXSW, and give so much whenever you're performing. How did you stay passionate when you're just running around and not in the typical setup of an evening show?
Every performance is different. In golf you play a course. It's different rooms, different stages, different crowds, different vibes, especially when you're playing at one in the afternoon and then five in the afternoon and then, you know, one o'clock in the morning. It's probably just important to have a short memory and just go into a performance like it's the last one or the only one. Don't think about the ones later. Just give it everything you've got. When you're on stage and you get those people in front of you, you want to make an impression. It doesn't really matter when or where it is.
Did you meet your own expectations during your time in Austin?
I think we did great down there. Our main goal was smash every show, and I think we did. It was that last 1 a.m. set on Friday night. It was a late show, and I was talking to a buddy like, "Are we going to be able to do it?" I was so tired. "Well, we're seven for seven so far, so if we go seven for eight, that's still pretty damn good." But as soon as I walked onstage and I saw my buddy and he was like, "It was great, man, it was another wild show."
Which performers inspired what you do onstage?
My older brother was probably the first real influence of a front man. He played in bands and stuff, was a writer and a very charismatic singer and MC. I saw a G.G. Allin documentary when I was 10 or 11, as well as early footage of Jane's Addiction through my brother's old VHS collection. When I went off to schoo,l it was my buddies in Valient Thorr. [VT's lead singer Herbie Abernathy] was my first exposure to a real frontman who played many many shows and did it every night. Herbie is really awesome because he is a very big person in real life, and on stage he's even bigger.
One of the important things is seeing how you can be someone on stage and not be that person in real life -- like have a dual personality. You bring something different to a performance, something that's more explosive and hyperbolic than if you were one person. My buddy Nolen Strals from Double Dagger is another one. Nolen is kind of a quiet, shy person, but on stage he's just like one of the most raw, unapologetic singers that I've ever seen. There's the kind of people that get into your head, like Ian Curtis. When I first saw that at 18 or 19, it blew my mind. At the same time, I was also turned onto Kraftwerk, and that's a totally different kind of band. I don't always think that everyone should perform the way I perform. You should perform what's honest to you, you know?
Director Jay Buim's rodeo video for "Seasons (Waiting on You)" is a beautiful juxtaposition of Americana with music that doesn't always breed that association. How did that connection happen?
We basically just let Jay run wild with what he wants to do for us, because we trust his vision and art as a director. His idea was maybe the most -- I don't want to say strange -- but maybe the most interesting. When he heard the song, he felt that it was a very just like a beautiful love song, but he felt like there was a masculinity to it. That was where he went with his idea. To capture this love story, but in this rugged piece of America that some people forget about.
When I first saw that video, I was a little confused. The second time I saw it I was like, "This is really interesting." And the third time I pretty much cried at that last scene. I've heard the song hundreds of times already through writing, recording, mixing, and mastering. Now I'm hearing it with this visual, and it does something completely different to me.
What does it do for you now?
We all come from kind of humble upbringings. We come from different parts of the South, you know, mainly North Carolina. In a way, [the video's characters] are like people that I grew up with, or people that I grew up around. And so it does really speak to our history, but I think it just speaks about people. It just like captures an honest view of people living, and that's really what is the main goal with our music, is to capture a part of the human experience in honest form.
Photo by Tim Saccenti
The way that you describe your progression with multiple viewings of the "Seasons" video is similar to how a lot of people seem to get into Future Islands.
I hope so. We don't expect people to all like what we do. When you're trying to do something that's honest, it's going to be lost on a lot of people. You can't sell honesty. Bands that are trying to be true to something don't always get the chance to be on a larger stage. We fought for this for a long time, and we've never changed what we've done. We've continued to work, you know, keyboards and bass guitar and vocals. Every time we record an album, we find new ways to write, we discover new things, but it's not like your average, run-of-the-mill songs. I'm not your average kind of singer either.
No kidding. Another song from Singles, "Fall From Grace," is at times delicate and then your growl hits metal territory in the middle of it. You're not just attracting soft hipster kids. Some really metal-oriented fans are getting into your stuff. What has it been like seeing different people respond to the material?
I've always been pretty proud that we have a pretty diverse fan base as far as age, from 16 to 65. I've seen all different kinds of people from different backgrounds, and I think that's a reflection of just what we put into our music. You strike chords with people. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people who are just like, "I used to hate your band, and then I actually sat down and listened a couple times, and now I can't stop listening." Even recent stuff with the whole [Late Show With David Letterman] performance, you'll find people online who were just like, "I hated this," and then two weeks later they come back and they're like, "I can't stop watching this now."
I think it takes a while for it to sink in. This isn't a joke. This isn't ironic. This is just us being as honest as possible in our music. Sometimes people can't accept that at first. They want the sheen, they want the glimmer, they want the catch, hook, or the nice light voice, and when they don't get those things at first, not everyone understands. Some people get it right off, but sometimes it takes some time for people. Those are the people that you really want to get to -- people like me. I can be very closed off to music sometimes. Especially when it's surrounded by fans who are very adamant about something. When you can change someone's mind towards an idea or an ideal, then you're really doing something with your art. We're not the only ones doing this. That's just what we try to do.
What were you feeling during the Letterman performance? Did it feel like you were ripping something open right there, culturally?
The thing that I was worried about ripping open was my pants. I'm never nervous for shows. I was nervous for like a whole week leading up to that performance, and just kind of scared that I was going to slip and fall or split my pants on national TV or something like that. The whole time I'm just like "Don't rip your pants, don't rip your pants, don't fall, don't fall, don't run into Gerrit." It just kind of like washed by. That's what we do every night. We go up on stage, we give everything we have for however many songs we're playing -- 15 to 18 songs a night. That was just all of it boiled down in a very focused form in three and a half minutes. That wasn't even me losing it. That's not as wild as I get. For the people that think it was crazy it's like, "No, it gets crazier."
You didn't even rip your heart out of your mouth during that one, so...
I didn't punch myself in the face or anything. The positive thing is that it did turn more people onto our live band. It's not just music. This is about performance and connecting, you know, it's much more than just a song. But the song is still really really important. That's the one thing that bothers me about [the memes]. There's no music. It's me dancing, and it's supposed to be kind of a joke. Whether or not people enjoy it, or think it's the awesomest thing ever, or the weirdest funniest thing ever, we hope that people will give it a chance and just like listen to what we do. That's all we want, is just a chance to perform for people and get a reaction. They have the decision whether or not this is something they want in their music collection.
You obviously have to maintain your fitness to do your type of performance. Are you a gym rat?
No. I've never been to the gym in my life. When I'm back in Baltimore I just walk four or five miles a day and that's pretty much my exercise. I just walk and try to eat healthy when I'm back home. Well, by healthy I mean good meats and lots of vegetables. But no, I don't do the gym thing, which is funny because I see people that are like, "He must be going to the gym," and it's just from getting down on stage every night. If you're out on the road 30 days and you do an hour of aerobics a night, then you just start to lose a little weight and get real strong. My muscles, I get really strong just from punching the air. It's really funny.
Future Islands. SOLD OUT. 8 p.m., Friday, March 28 at Triple Rock Social Club.
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