Sat at the top of a flight of stairs, with the winter night air blowing in through the backstage fire exit, Samuel T. Herring is taking a long, distracting drag on a cigarette. It’s five minutes after Future Islands have completed their first European show in 18 months, and for the band’s charismatic frontman, it wasn’t quite what he’d planned. A couple of hours before showtime at Copenhagan’s Jazz House, he came down with food poisoning – “a dodgy piece of sandwich meat” – which meant he’d spent the gig concentrating, not on the new songs they were debuting, but on not throwing up on stage. Not that the 300 people at the intimate show would’ve known. Herring lunged, growled and stalked his way through a performance with the same spectacular moves that caught so many people’s attention after their appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman three years ago. It was a triumph. “I’ll be okay,” he says afterwards, looking pale, “I just need a minute.”
It was supposed to be a celebration of fresh material, but the trio are used to waiting their moment. After their performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ on Letterman went viral in 2014, they say many people thought they were a new band. In fact, 14 years ago, they starting out as the ludicrously named Art Lord And The Self Portraits. Then they formed Future Islands, moved to Baltimore and released three excellent, but admittedly underground, albums. By the time that moment came along, they’d slept on countless mate’s floors, played 800 shows and made their breakthrough LP ‘Singles’ without a record label.
But Letterman changed everything. “That’s still a surreal moment,” says Herring, in London, a few days before his encounter with the salami. “It’s crazy to us that people are still talking about it.”
Sat with his bandmates William Cashion (bass) and Gerrit Welmers (keyboards) at a hotel table, Herring is in a reflective mood, “The biggest challenge is hoping that doesn’t become a defining moment. You want to push past that, but at the same time, it’s undeniable what that’s done for us, and we’re proud of it. At 30 years old, we finally got our spotlight moment, because we’d been working for so long.”
“Those 800 shows made that performance what it was,” says Cashion. “In our hearts, we still feel like a punk band.” If Future Islands were always the classic underdogs, the chance to perform on national TV was their cup final moment. “We always felt turned down by an industry that wouldn’t have us,” recalls Herring. “The bitter feeling of rejection, instead of discouraging us, pushed us harder.”
Relishing their new-found audience, they didn’t so much as grab the opportunity, but pint it to the floor. They were used to touring, but the success ‘Singles’ brought was another level. People kept wanting to see them, so they kept booking shows. And shows. And shows. They toured relentlessly for 22 months, playing more than 250 gigs, picking up famous fans like Noel Gallagher and Blondie along the way. The brutal schedule took its toll, though, particularly on Herring, who collapsed from exhaustion at least once out on the road. The band took their first break in almost ten years.
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Returning home was an odd experience. There was some normality for Cashion and Welmers, both in long-term relationships, but Herring found himself back at his apartment “alone in my room”. He’d been gone for two years, and life was different. His own relationship had not worked out. “Not having that, I was like, why am I here?” he says, “I could be anywhere in world. Being on the road feels more like home, because I know on the road I mean something to people. On the road, I have purpose.”
If that sounds devastatingly honest, it’s because it is. That’s the kind of guy Herring is. When it comes to discussing his feelings openly “the filter came off” years ago. Like in his lyrics, in person, Herring is confessional, compassionate and disarmingly trusting. He admits he’s sensitive, too, taking to heart the band’s press (“I’m not usually amused that I’m like ‘Barry from Eastenders’ or things like this. I’m like, ‘awww man’.) But Herring’s willingness to be vulnerable, is his greatest strength. On the band’s second album ‘In Evening Air’ and on tracks like ‘Light House’ on ‘Singles’, he’s written about depression and his own suicidal contemplations. People have “gravitated towards” his honesty, he says.
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There’s hardship to be found in new ‘The Far Field’ – like on lead-track ‘Ran’ and standout moment ‘Through The Roses’, a song written on a lone car journey (“trying to cool off, get away from my own mind”). A driving anthem with a message about the strength found in friends and family, pointedly recorded on the day America woke up to the realisation of President Trump. There’s joy to be found in it, too. Not least in ‘Shadows’, their collaboration with Debbie Harry.
‘The Far Field’ is a melancholy record you can dance to. But perhaps, more heart-warming than the album, is the story of the band themselves. For the first time in their long career, they’ve made music knowing there was a large audience waiting to hear it.
“‘Singles’ taught me that a record could bring so much more than you expected,” says Herring. “With most things in life, I try to keep my expectations low so I’m not disappointed. But I really do believe in this record. Hopefully, it’s a home for a lot of people.”